The Difference Between Male & Female Sulcata Tortoises

Updated April 17, 2017

Native to northern Africa, the Sulcata tortoise is the largest African land tortoise and the third largest land tortoise in the world, topping out at up to 90.7kg. when fully grown. Commonly called African spurred tortoises, they reach their full growth potential within 20 years and typically grow shells between 24 and 30 inches long. Determining whether you have a male or female Sulcata tortoise is not always easy, but recognising a few differences between the two can help.


Sulcata tortoises have few visible differences between genders. Males may grow larger than females while breeding, and males have a slightly longer tail than females. On the underside of the tortoise is the plastron, which is the flat belly area, and at the hind end is the cloaca, which is the opening that serves as the exit for urine, faeces and reproductive organs. On female Sulcata tortoises, the cloaca is positioned very close to the plastron; on males, it is further away.

Both the male and female Sulcata tortoises have brownish-yellow carapaces, or shells. Growth rings appear as the tortoise ages. While both genders have relatively flat carapaces, the males have slightly concave carapaces compared to the females. In addition, due to the mating process, female Sulcata tortoises' carapaces may appear polished on the hind end.


Both male and female Sulcata tortoises display aggressive behaviour from a very young age; however, once they reach sexual maturity the females end the behaviour. Males, on the other hand, become even more aggressive and often ram into other males in an attempt to show dominance, with the intent of flipping the other tortoise over. Being flipped onto its back can be fatal for a Sulcata tortoise; fortunately, because of their size it's difficult for even very aggressive males to actually flip another over. Most often, any injury is inflicted upon heads and limbs.


During mating season, occurring any time between June and March but typically between September and November, male Sulcata tortoises aggressively chase the females, eventually forcing them into submission. While chasing and mating, the males become very vocal, making loud grunting noises.

Once impregnated, female Sulcata tortoises dig holes in the ground in preparation for laying their eggs. They sometimes dig several test holes before digging the one they will eventually use. The holes, up to 2 feet deep, may hold anywhere from 15 to 30 eggs, with one laid approximately every three minutes. When she is finished, the female completely covers the hole and the eggs incubate for about eight months.

Dietary Needs

Male and female Sulcata tortoises both require a diet very high in fibre and rich in vitamins and minerals, comprised mainly of grasses such as buffalo grass, bluegrass, fescue, Bermuda grass or western wheat grass. Flowers and weeds such as dandelions, clover, hibiscus flowers and leaves, petunias, thistle and chickweed also provide much needed fibre. Foods that are high in fats, protein or oils should be avoided.

While both genders need calcium, female Sulcata tortoises need extra calcium, especially while breeding. Providing a calcium supplement may be necessary for tortoises in captivity.

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About the Author

Maelin McCartney began writing professionally in 2010. She holds undergraduate degrees from Hastings College in health and developmental psychology, family studies psychology, personality and social psychology and sociology with an emphasis in criminal justice. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in counseling at Doane University.