Feeding Your Tortoise – Why Is It So Hard?
We probably spend more time talking about your tortoise’s diet than on any other subject. Which might seem a little odd; after all, they eat greens, don’t they? What’s so hard about that?
Quite a lot, as it turns out!
Consider the Mediterranean, if you will. Sandwiched between Europe at the top and North Africa at the bottom, it is an area of land with a warm, dry climate, and sparse vegetation. Southern enough for very hot summers, and Northern enough to have distinct seasons. Not quite a desert, it is nevertheless really quite arid. Anyone who has been on holiday there in the summer will know exactly what I mean!
This what your tortoise evolved to survive.
Now look at your garden. See the difference? Whilst on occasion our summers can have blisteringly hot periods, even at their brightest the vegetation is still much, much richer than anything your Mediterranean tortoise would ever encounter in the wild. And this is vitally important when we consider what to feed our pet.
Summers there can be quite extreme, and any animal that survives in an extreme climate can be considered a specialist. Animals that are specialists can have a very particular diet; think of pandas. Now, your tortoise isn’t that much of a dietary specialist, but they do have very particular needs.
They are an animal with a heavy shell, and thick strong bones. To maintain this, they need to extract a lot of calcium from their diet. The plants there can be very mineral rich, but how to get this essential nutrient from the food? This is where heat and sunshine play their part!
We can provide the heat and the UV content with specialist bulbs. That bit is relatively easy.
The next bit is slightly harder. Think back to that Mediterranean hillside. If you’ve ever been hiking in Greece (or any other place within the Mediterranean basin), you will no doubt have some fairly clear memories of exceedingly thorny vegetation that grabs at you with prickly bits as you walk past! Sturdy stems, small leaves, fierce defences.
Your tortoise wanders through this spiky jungle taking a beakful here, and a nibble there. All the plants they encounter are high in fibre, high in calcium – and other minerals – low in phosphorous, low in protein, low in fat. They have a digestive system designed to turn all this hard to eat greenery into bone and muscle and shell, which is no mean feat when you think about how tough and indigestible it all is.
We don’t like to eat that sort of vegetation. It doesn’t taste very nice. So the greenery that we grow for our own consumption is a lot less fibrous, and is very low in the components that tortoises have evolved, over millions of years, to rely on. Expecting a tortoise to thrive on the sort of greenery we like to eat is like trying to live on a diet of sweeties for us – it tastes great, but is going to have some pretty serious consequences in the long run.
There is so little to eat in their native lands that they are hard wired to eat as much as possible as quickly as they can; if they don’t nibble on that tempting green shoot today, it may be all dried up and dead by tomorrow. So if we give them a great big bowl of food they will set to with a will, because they have no idea that there will be just as much food tomorrow.
They’re a lot like us, really. They like rich food, and the more the merrier.
But it is hugely bad for them. We’re generalists; we evolved to eat whatever was about, whether it be meat, vegetation, roots, seafood – anything! So we can get away with a diet that’s less than perfect with very little consequence. (Well. Sort of.)
They are specialists. It’s not a case of forcing them to eat foods they’re not keen on just because it’s more ‘natural’; they need this tough, hard to digest food in order to thrive.
But nature has a way of coming to the rescue, and it is possible to provide your pet tortoise with a diet that – whilst a lot richer than anything their wild cousins will encounter – will give them everything they need to live a long and healthy life, with none of the terrible consequences of the wrong food. And it can be terrible – it can be fatal.
You don’t need a huge amount of space, just a patch of the garden you can grow a few weeds in. Seed packs are available with a great range of species, and some of them are really very pretty; your tortoise food patch doesn’t have to just be a weedy tangle!
But if you’re wondering why on earth you’re putting all this effort in, then just fix one image firmly in your mind – that Mediterranean hillside in the summer, and a healthy wild tortoise snoozing in the shade of a clump of plants, ready to emerge for a hard afternoon’s foraging. That happy, healthy tortoise is the end result of our efforts, and that hot, dry hillside will help us to achieve it.
(For lists of food plants and where to find them, visit The Tortoise Table – they have lots of pictures, and are an immensely helpful group of very knowledgeable tortoise experts.)