Pancake Tortoise

Pancake Tortoise

Crevice tortoise, Softshell tortoise, Tornier's tortoise, African pancake tortoise

Malacochersus tornieri
Population size
Life Span
25-35 yrs
8 km/h
453 g
15-18 cm

The Pancake tortoise is the oddest and the most interesting of the chelonians. These small tortoises with flat shells inhabit regions of eastern Africa, particularly Kenya and Tanzania. The name comes from the animal’s thin, flat shell. These tortoises are excellent climbers and do not withdraw into their shells when threatened by predators, unlike other tortoises. Instead they run away to their rocky home, usually in a narrow rock crevice. This species is the last living member of the genus Malacochersus.


Pancake tortoises are endemic to southern Kenya and northern and eastern Tanzania. They also occur in Zambia and Zimbabwe, having been introduced to Zimbabwe. They are usually found in the rocky outcrops and hills of arid scrub areas, in the flat grasslands or dry savannahs of sub-tropical and tropical areas, and are also found in semi-arid deserts that have scarce vegetation.



Climate zones

Habits and Lifestyle

The Pancake tortoise is an excellent climber. Its shell is extremely flexible and light, enabling it to crawl quickly into rock crevices when danger threatens. It is always found near it rocky home and so can easily flee to safety. They are active mainly in the morning, coming out to bask and feed. They usually only emerge from their shelter for around an hour at one time, when they are quite mobile and active. Pancake tortoises like to live in colonies that are typically isolated from one another. A number of them might share the same crevice or rocky outcrop. These tortoises do not hibernate but during hot summer months they will aestivate or sleep beneath flattened rocks.

Diet and Nutrition

Pancake tortoises are herbivores, they eat dried grasses as well as other vegetation. However, as pets they are fed greens, vegetables and fresh-cut grass. They do not eat fruit.

Mating Habits

January-February in the wild, year-round in a zoo
4-6 months
at birth
1 egg

Little is known about the mating system of the pancake tortoise. However, this species may exhibit either polygynous (one male to many females) or polygynandrous (promiscuous) (both males and females have multiple mates) mating behavior. There is strong competition between males to access a particular female as a mate, and often the larger ones are more successful. In the wild, the breeding season runs from January - February. In zoos, this varies, and the tortoises may breed year-round. From July until August is when nesting occurs. The females lay eggs of about 2 inches in length, in a nest cavity she has built in loose sandy soil. She will lay one egg, and then after 4 - 8 weeks she may lay another one, and then perhaps another. The incubation temperature is 30 degrees Celsius. With captive tortoises, incubation is for four to six months. Hatchlings are just 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5 centimeters) in length and are independent on hatching. Their parents do not look after them.


Population threats

The biggest threats to Pancake tortoises are habitat destruction and being caught for the illegal pet trade. In Kenya, wild populations are losing their habitat as a result of agricultural development. Overgrazing of domestic goats and cattle in Tanzania is having an impact on this species. Their unique physical attributes make them targets for the pet trade, and as it is juveniles that are taken, this isolates populations in the wild.

Population number

The IUCN Red List and other sources do not provide the Pancake tortoise total population size. Currently this species is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List.

Fun Facts for Kids

  • Long before the name “pancake tortoise” was popular, these animals were called the “soft-shell” tortoise, due to their pliable plastron. Although this feature allows the “inflation” by these tortoises to increase their thickness, previous claims that they could inflate themselves and wedge their bodies into rocky cracks “chuckwalla style” now are thought to be untrue.
  • On hatching, these tortoises have a domed shell, as do all other tortoises. As they grow, the shell flattens - in keeping with the species' name.
  • Unlike other tortoises, the Pancake tortoise runs when it is scared. They are thus called 'sprinters and hiders'.
  • Due to their shells being so lightweight, these tortoises are faster than those with thicker shells, and can flip upright quickly if they fall on their backs.
  • When it burrows into a rocky crevice, a Pancake tortoise plants its spiky legs solidly in the space, and is almost impossible to dislodge.


1. Pancake Tortoise Wikipedia article -
2. Pancake Tortoise on The IUCN Red List site -

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