5 Fascinating Tortoise Species

Read on to learn about 5 extraordinary tortoises that exist today.

Aug 17, 2023byMichael C.
fascinating tortoise species

The humble tortoise is perhaps one of the most iconic reptiles in existence. Known for their slow pace and herbivorous diet, you’d think these animals are rather straightforward. However, tortoises come in a variety of shapes and forms, and some species even break the norms. Read on to learn about a few fascinating tortoise species!

1. Pancake Tortoise

pancake tortoise on rocks
Image credit: Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia Commons

You’re probably wondering: did this tortoise get squished by something? Nope, that is the natural shape of the pancake tortoise! Unlike most other species, which sport characteristically domed-shaped shells, pancake tortoises are flat in appearance.

There is a reason for the pancake tortoise’s unusual shape. This reptile is found in arid, rocky hillsides known as kopjes in Kenya and Tanzania, though it may also occur in Zimbabwe and Zambia. The flattened shape of its shell is an adaptation to their rugged environments, as they’re able to fit into tight, crevices between rocks when threatened. Pancake tortoises are also great climbers, being able to traverse through rocky terrain. They’re also very agile, as they sport a lighter build than their cousins. Their shells also sport hollow openings inside, so they must flee by running from any dangers that await.

Unfortunately, due to their distinctive appearance, pancake tortoises are highly sought after for the pet trade and are being over-collected in the wild. Due to this, along with ongoing habitat loss, they are considered critically endangered. If you plan on keeping a pancake tortoise, it is very important to ensure that your pet has been responsibly bred in captivity. Purchasing a wild-caught tortoise or one from unknown origins can place further pressure on the wild population.

2. Homes’s Hingeback Tortoise

hingeback tortoise on forest floor
Image credit: Sharp Photography/Wikimedia Commons

The Homes’s hingeback tortoise is another oddly-shaped tortoise named for its unusually shaped shell, which sports a jagged slope towards the back. Within the rear, there is a hinge that allows the tortoise to completely cover its back legs and tail when hiding inside their shells.

The Homes’s hingeback tortoise can be found in humid lowland rainforests and swamps in Western Africa. Another unusual trait about hingeback tortoises is their dietary habits. While most tortoises stick with an herbivorous diet (some species may occasionally scavenge on carrion), these reptiles are primarily omnivorous in nature. While hingeback tortoises will feast on vegetation such as leafy greens, fruits, and grasses, they’ll also snack on insects, snails, carrion, and other animal matter. Hingeback tortoises are perhaps the most carnivorous of all known tortoise species.

The Homes’s hingeback tortoise is unfortunately listed as critically endangered, much more endangered than any other hingeback tortoise species (yes, other hingeback tortoises do indeed exist!) living today. Habitat destruction is the largest threat to this species, followed by poaching for the bushmeat and live pet trade.

3. Speckled Padloper

speckled tortoise in desert
Image credit: Victor Loehr/Flickr

The Speckled padloper, also known as the Speckled cape tortoise (or simply the Speckled tortoise), is a very tiny tortoise; in fact, it holds the record for being the world’s smallest tortoise species! Its carapace typically averages only 2-4 inches in length, and females are typically larger than males. This little reptile can fit comfortably in the palm of your hand!

Native to Southern Namibia and South Africa, this padloper species is found in an arid region known as Namaqualand. Their name, padloper, translates to “path-walker” in Afrikaans, as this species has a habit of creating trackways through the vegetation. Unfortunately, the speckled padloper is an endangered species, with habitat destruction and overcollection by the pet trade being the largest threats to this petite tortoise’s survival.

4. Radiated Tortoise

radiated tortoise on ground
Image credit: Garden State Tortoise

Madagascar is home to a variety of stunning tortoise species, and the Radiated tortoise is no exception. Making its home in dry thorn forests and woodlands throughout Southern Madagascar, this species is named after the striking patterning and coloration of its shell. Though it seemingly stands out from the rest, this pattern arrangement serves as camouflage when the tortoise frolics around shrubs and bushes.

Like many other tortoise species, the radiated tortoise is mainly a grazer, and it is also very long-lived: one individual was reported to be around 188 years old when it died! Unfortunately, the radiated tortoise is a critically endangered species. These tortoises are losing their habitats at an alarming rate from deforestation, and they’re also being poached for their meat and the illegal pet trade. Collectors highly prize their ornate shells, contributing to their decline.

5. Gopher Tortoise

gopher tortoise on sandy soil
Image credit: Alabama Cooperative Expansion System

At first, the Gopher tortoise may seem like an ordinary turtle; however, there are plenty of fascinating attributes that this species boasts. For starters, the gopher tortoise is the only living tortoise species that can be found east of the Mississippi River in North America. It also belongs to one of the oldest living lineages of tortoises living today.

Gopher tortoises are found in scrubby areas throughout the Southeastern United States, ranging from Louisiana to South Carolina. It is even considered the state reptile of Georgia. Gopher tortoises are named after their ability to dig deep, large burrows with their shovel-like front limbs and powerful hindlimbs. These tunnels can reach around 40 feet in length and up to 10 feet wide. Gopher tortoises spend most of their lives sheltered in burrows, as temperatures and humidity both remain stable even during the hottest and driest times of the year.

Such burrows are also utilized by at least 350 other animal species, including snakes, frogs, rodents, and insects. These animals seek refuge in them from predators, heat, and even wildfires (which are naturally occurring in the gopher tortoise’s environment). Because of this, gopher tortoises are considered a keystone species.

Gopher tortoises are currently listed as a vulnerable species; however, as of the time this article was written, this species hasn’t been formally assessed since 1996 by the IUCN Red List.

Michael C.
byMichael C.

Michael holds a BS degree in Fisheries and Wildlife from Michigan State University. He formerly worked at a pet store as an animal care associate and is the former president of the MSU Herpetological Society. Michael currently owns three snakes (a corn snake, a Kenyan sand boa, and a checkered garter snake) and a leopard gecko. Interests include almost anything animal-related. Michael enjoys drawing, gaming, and having fun in his free time.