Star Tortoise

By Jan O.

Pic courtesy of Jan O.



Geochelone elegans


7-12 inches


Star tortoises are herbivores that graze primarily on a variety of low quality, mixed grasses.  They also eat opuntia (prickly pear) cactus, succulents, flowers, and weeds.  Their natural diet is very high in fiber, high in calcium, and low in sugar and protein.  The protein they do eat is all from plants; none is from animal sources.  A Star tortoise’s natural diet does not include fruit, which contains high amounts of sugar that can cause bloating and parasite blooms.


Daytime Air Temperature:  75-90°

Nighttime Air Temperature:  Mid-to-low 70s

Basking Temperature:  95°

Humidity:  Less than 40%


Star tortoises inhabit a semi-arid scrub forests, grasslands, and deserts.  The star pattern on the shell blends especially well with tufts of grass, serving as a form of camouflage


India and Sri Lanka.




During warm weather, an outdoor habitat supplying plenty of graze is best.  The habitat should be secure from predators, including raccoons, cats, dogs, possums, and humans.  The most important forms of graze are grasses, weeds, and Opuntia cacti.  A variety of shrubs and wildflowers are good for shelter and food.  Water should be available at all times for soaking and drinking if the tortoise chooses to do so.  When maintained indoors, every effort should be made to supply a high fiber diet.  Dandelion greens, mulberry leaves, grape leaves, Bermuda grass hay, and cactus pads are better choices than grocery store greens. 

Star tortoises do not hibernate so winter accommodations are necessary.  Depending on your climate, this can be outdoors or indoors, although in most locations outside their natural range outdoor pens may require some sort of artificial heating.


Outdoors:  An outdoor enclosure is best during the warm months as long as daytime temperatures are in the range specified above.  If nighttime temperatures are below about 70 degrees, you will probably have to bring your Star tortoise inside or provide a heated outdoor house.  Minimum pen size for an adult is approximately 4 ft. by 4 ft.  When it’s summer and warm, Star tortoises can be fairly active, and because they are grazers, they are genetically “programmed” to wander (forage) for food.  Although Star tortoises are not climbers and diggers like some tortoises, it’s a good idea to extend the base of the pen several inches below ground surface using wood, heavy-duty chicken wire or hardware cloth, or cinder blocks.  At the least, this will help discourage unwanted animals from burrowing into the pen.  The walls of the pen should be at least 12 inches high and can be made of wood, cinder blocks, or decorative rocks.  It also doesn’t hurt to add a wooden lip that faces inward along the entire top edge of the pen to discourage rare escape attempts.  Better to be safe than sorry!  If you suspect that predators, including humans, could be a problem, make a locking screen top for the pen.  If your pen is large, the top can be made in sections to make it easier to open and close.

It is important to choose a location offering a combination of sunny and shady areas throughout the day.  The soil in the pen should have good drainage.  Dirt mounds, rocks, logs, plants, and other “furniture” make the pen more interesting and also break up the line-of-sight, which makes a pen seem larger to the tortoise.  Rocks, logs, and terracotta plant pots also provide hiding places and shelter from sun, rain, and other elements. 

The pen should be planted with a variety of grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs.  Using pesticide-free, edible plants provides a more natural setting for the tortoise and also provides a more suitable diet during those months when it’s possible to grow plants outdoors.  Depending on where you live, there are many plants to choose from.  They need to have grass to graze on; appropriate grasses include Bermuda, buffalo, bluegrass, and fescue.  Suitable non-grasses include hibiscus leaves and flowers, dandelion leaves and flowers, sedum, mallow, hosta, fruitless mulberry leaves, prickly pear cactus, California poppy, roses, petunia, pansies, ice plant, and plantago (plantain—the weed not the banana-type plant).

Star tortoises are from an arid climate and ambient humidity is quite low; however, they experience warm monsoon rains during part of the year.  While they can tolerate short-term, warm dampness, a combination of cold and damp is not good and will lead to respiratory infections.  Always provide a water dish with fresh water in the outdoor pen so your Star can drink and soak if necessary.

Indoors:  If your Star tortoise must live indoors for all or part of the year, the enclosure should be as large as possible.  A hatchling or juvenile tortoise needs 4-5 square feet.  An adult requires at least 12 square feet.  One good type of indoor enclosure is a wooden tortoise table (like an upside down bookcase) that is sealed with waterproof polyurethane.  Another habitat to consider is a reptarium, which is a fully enclosed mesh and PVC structure.  At first glance, a reptarium does not look entirely suitable for a tortoise because they can see out, which can cause stress.  Often, if they can see out, they want to get out.  I use reptariums for several tortoises including Stars and they work very well for my tortoises.  They’re large, airy, and very light weight.  You can buy a plastic liner for the bottom to hold the substrate.

There are a variety of substrates you can use indoors.  The substrate should be several inches deep and should not be something that will trap moisture and remain muddy, damp, or get moldy.  My preference is a mix of approximately 60% top soil and 40% play sand.  You can also use bed-a-beast instead of top soil with the play sand.  Some keepers prefer cypress or orchid bark mulches.  Piles of Bermuda, orchard, or timothy hays on top of the substrate provide additional burrowing areas and many tortoises will eat it (it’s good for them!).  Alfalfa pellets are not recommended because they are high in protein (tortoises will eat the pellets), hold water, and mold easily.  Substrates made with pine or cedar are not recommended either because the fumes are an irritant that can cause serious respiratory difficulties.

You'll need to supply lighting and heat indoors.  Tortoises need UVA and UVB light.  Fluorescent tubes such as the Reptisun 5.0 provide UVA & B; ceramic heat emitters provide heat; mercury vapor bulbs supply both UVA/B and heat.  The basking end of the pen should be about 95 degrees, while the cooler end should be 75 to 80 degrees.  At night, the temperature should not fall below 70 to 75 degrees.  Provide the same types of hides, water dish, and interesting “furniture” indoors that you do outdoors.  With the smaller space and intensity of the basking light, there is a greater danger of dehydration indoors so in addition to fresh water being available at all times, it is a good idea to soak your tortoise in lukewarm water twice a week for about 20 minutes.


Star tortoises are primarily grazers with a preference for various high fiber grasses.  They also eat various weeds and flowers.  Outdoors during warm weather, you should try to grow plants such as dandelion, bindweed, opuntia cactus, sedum, plantain (the weed, not the banana-like fruit known as plantain), coreopsis, hibiscus, hosta, pansy, petunia, grape vines (feed the leaves, not the fruit), mulberry (the leaves, not the fruit), California poppy, mallow, some vetches, some clovers, and Bermuda grass.  It is also possible to grow many wildflowers and weeds indoors and in greenhouses so that your tortoise does not have to rely on grocery store greens, especially in winter.  Anything the tortoise might graze on must be pesticide free. 

If fed grocery store produce, it should be mixed into a salad and may include endive, escarole, dandelion greens, watercress, frisee, red-leaf lettuce, radicchio, shredded carrot (small amounts), turnip greens (small amounts), collards (small amounts), opuntia, romaine (small amounts), and occasional pumpkin or butternut squash.  The mixed salad diet is low in fiber.  One way to increase the fiber content is to grind hay (Bermuda, Timothy, and Orchard) into a powder (a coffee grinder works well) and mix that into the greens at every feeding.  Dust the food with calcium daily, and if the tortoise isn't kept outdoors in natural sunlight, also use a combination calcium-D3 product a couple of times a week.  It is also helpful to keep a cuttlebone (with the back removed) in the enclosure so your tortoise can nibble on it if she or he feels the need for more calcium. 

Some veggies fall into a category called anti-nutrients.  Oxalic acid and phytic acid bind with minerals, including calcium, preventing the availability of a significant percentage of calcium to the body.  Goitrogens affect the absorption of iodine.  Purines can increase the amount of uric acid, a particularly serious problem for arid species.  Tannins, in high amounts, bind with protein and interfere with digestion.  Foods falling into one or more of these categories include beans, beet greens, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, cauliflower, cabbage, collard greens, corn, mustard greens, peas, spinach, tofu (and other soy products), and turnip greens. Some of these foods, such as collards, mustard greens, and turnip greens can be part of a varied diet, but keep the amounts relatively low.  Fruit should be avoided or given infrequently in very small quantities because the Star tortoise's digestive system does not process it very well.  The sugar in fruit can cause parasite blooms as well as other problems.  Other foods to avoid are cat or dog food, meat, and grains.


It is possible to keep several Star tortoises together in a large enclosure.  Although individual personalities will differ, this is one species in which the males usually are not aggressive towards each other during the breeding season, and they are less aggressive towards females than other tortoise species.  Star tortoises are very sensitive to environmental and social conditions.  They are prone to respiratory infections when keep in non-optimal habitats, and they are extremely susceptible to foreign organisms carried by other species.  Stars should never be mixed with another species.


Stars are beautiful and delicate tortoises.  Some people describe them as having the “personality of a rock.”  This isn’t always true.  While they may always be shier than a Russian, Hermanns, or Redfoot, their low-key approach to life is very endearing.  As always, soon after you buy your new tortoise, a visit to a vet experienced in treating tortoises is a very good idea for a fecal exam and overall “physical.”