Pancake Tortoise

(Malacochersus tornieri)


Pancake Tortoise IUCN VULNERABLE (VU)


Facts about this animal

The carapace, which may reach a length of up to 18 cm, is distinctly flattened, depressed in shape. Due to large fenestrae in the bones the shell is extremely thin and soft and moves in and out when the animals breathe. This thin and flat shell does not offer any protection against predators as the hard and high-domed shells of other tortoise species do. Indeed, when a disturbed, pancake tortoises retracts its head only briefly in the shell before it flees into a rocky crevice to hide. They can reach relatively high speeds, at least for a tortoise species. One animal was clocked at a speed of 18 m / min. In the crevices they wedge themselves tightly between the rocks by inflating their lungs and by extending and bracing the hind limbs. The crevices they choose usually consist of a rocky floor and a rocky ceiling and can be as deep as two meters and at least partly as narrow as 5 cm. The colour is highly variable; sometimes with a light starred pattern on a light yellow to brown or even dark brown carapace, sometimes also a very bright creamy ground colour with a dark striped pattern.

The animals live in rocky outcrops, so-called kopjes, and rocky hills in the savannah and thornbush areas of the Somali-Masai floristic regions. The altitudinal range is limited to 1800 m NN. In general this species has a very secretive life and spends most of the time inside the crevices. The German name “Spaltenschildkröte”, which was created at Leipzig Zoo in the 1930ies, refers to this habit. Usually a single animal or a pair inhabit one crevice, sometimes more than two specimens are found, in very rare occasions up to eleven. Especially large females seem to have a very high crevice fidelity and use the same crevice for several years. It seems that Malacochersus tornieri remain inactive in their crevice during the relatively cool and very dry season, that takes place from June to September. Active animals have been reported during the rainy season in November through to February. But even during this season the species has a secretive life style and has not been observed outside of a crevice for longer than 46 minutes.

Mating has been observed in the rainy season, gravid females have been observed in April and June. The clutches usually consist of one large, rarely two eggs. In human care some females have produced five clutches in one season. Whereas some females bury the eggs in the soil, some females obviously deposit them in crevices.

Malacochersus tornieri is a herbivorous species and feeds upon leaves and stems but also on seeds and nuts of several plant species.

Did you know?
that collection for the pet trade is probably the major threat to the pancake tortoise's continued survival in the wild? Their curiosity value, combined with their small size, has fueled large scale collection of these tortoises for the pet trade and they are commonly seen for sale in local pet stores.


Name (Scientific) Malacochersus tornieri
Name (English) Pancake Tortoise
Name (French) Tortue à carapace souple
Name (German) Spaltenschildkröte
Name (Spanish) Tortuga de cuña
Local names kiSwahili: Kobe
CITES Status Appendix II
CMS Status Not listed



Photo Copyright by
Nevit Dilmen



Range Kenya, Tanzania
Habitat Rocky hills, outcrops in arid scrub and savanna
Wild population Unknown
Zoo population 365 reported to ISIS

In the Zoo

Pancake Tortoise


How this animal should be transported

For air transport, Container Note 43 of the IATA Live Animals Regulations should be followed.


Find this animal on ZooLex


Photo Copyright by
Dave Pape

Why do zoos keep this animal

Due to commercial collecting of the species for international pet trade and disruption and elimination of indigenous vegetation for agricultural use in the habitat this species is threatened in the wild and listed as vulnerable. The very low reproduction rate and the patchy distribution make it very difficult for the species to repopulate emptied habitats. Therefore it is of vital importance to keep an ex-situ breeding population of this species in the zoos.

Although this species has a secretive life style and spends most of the time hidden inside crevices, it can be recommended without any restrictions for keeping in zoos also for educational purposes as their morphological features represent a perfect adaptation to a special environment for education of zoo visitors. These morphological peculiarities and its biology are absolutely unique for a chelonian species. This astonishing appearance is so unusual for a tortoise species that it lead the famous Austrian zoologist Siebenrock to believe that the holotype, which he described in 1903, was either a sickly rachitic specimen or preserved in a faulty way.