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In the wild, tortoises tend to be browsers. They wander over quite a wide area and in the process take small quantities of a very wide variety of seasonally available food. Some species are known to consume up to 200 different kinds of plants during the year. The exact combination of plants, and their status, young, fresh and succulent or old and dry, varies seasonally. Even some true tropical species experience major seasonal (rainy/dry) variations in food availability. Redfoot and Yellowfoot tortoises from South America, for example, will eat a diet comprised almost exclusively of leaves and flowers for part of the year, changing to a diet heavily biased in favour of fallen fruits later in the year. Even the best captive diets tend to be very restricted when compared to these natural feeding patterns.
Tortoises tend to be found in regions where the soils are relatively rich in calcium and other essential trace elements. Tortoises have quite a high demand for calcium in their diets, especially when undergoing rapid growth (a juvenile, for example) or in the case of egg-laying females. Such animals tend to actively seek out extra calcium to meet these needs. If it is not available, they can rapidly suffer deficiencies. . The regular use of a cuttlefish bone or calcium block left in the enclosures allows tortoises to regulate the amount of calcium in the diet. Some tortoises like this very much, while others will refuse to eat it.
What should I feed my Tortoise?
Tortoises live in a variety of habitats, from deserts to wet tropical forests. Most tortoises are vegetarians and eat foliage, flowers, and fruits; some tortoise species from moist forest habitats are more opportunistic and consume animal matter.
Almost no topic is as confused and difficult for a beginner to understand than feeding tortoises in captivity. It is also true that no other subject is as riddled with misinformation and myths. The proliferation of inaccurate and often lethal advice on this subject in books, in magazine articles and on the Internet is astonishing. It is no wonder that many new keepers find themselves totally confused, and often end up making basic, but serious mistakes
During episodes of rainfall tortoises will drink from the puddles which form, and they may also approach streams or ponds. They frequently pass urine at this time as well, and will simultaneously dispose of the chalky white uric acid residues which form in the bladder. It is categorically not true that wild tortoises rarely drink. During the dry season, and in the more arid parts of their range, tortoises rely mainly upon the water content of their food in order to supply their moisture requirements. In captivity, we suggest soaking the tortoise for 10 minutes twice each week in fresh, shallow water to ensure an adequate state of hydration.
Care & Feeding of Tortoises
Food and Water Dishes
The food and water dishes you put in your tortoise enclosure should be shallow, heavy, and tip-proof. Tortoises tend to soak in their water dishes in addition to drinking out of them, so base the size and depth of your water dish on the size of your tortoise. Make sure it isn’t too deep or it could turn into a drowning hazard – especially for hatchlings and juveniles. Instead of a deep dish or bowl, use a suitably sized plastic plant pot saucer. Placing your Tortoise’s food on a rough surface like an outdoor paving tile will help keep its beak trimmed.
In the wild, most tortoises browse for food – moving around a large area, eating small amounts of food as they go. Some tortoises are herbivores, and eat only plants. Others are omnivores, meaning they will eat anything available including plants, fruit, live prey and carrion.
Tortoises need calcium to build their bones in the same way that humans do. Those that live in warmer climates bask in the sun. The rays produce vitamins in the tortoise’s body, which work with the plants they eat to produce calcium. Colder climate tortoises get less sunshine, so they eat more protein and foods that contain calcium.
It is vital to choose a tortoise species well - based on housing and environmental needs, and diet requirements. Different species have markedly different adult sizes, temperature and light needs, diets, and some need to hibernate and some do not. Most species of tortoise, but not all, hibernate during the colder winter months particularly those species of tortoise in the Northern Hemisphere. Tortoises must have an empty stomach before they hibernate and therefore tend to go through a period of starvation beforehand. Tortoises come out of hibernation when the weather begins to get warmer again.
Commercial tortoise diets
It is worth commenting upon the canned (usually dried) 'complete tortoise diets' that are available in pet stores. These are advertized as complete, or almost complete, solutions to all of your tortoise nutrition concerns. Words such as 'scientifically formulated' and 'quality ingredients' are used to describe them. You may think you are safe relying upon such products. Many of these products are usually extremely high in protein, and many contain high sugar levels in addition. The only product we would feel comfortable recommending is the Mazuri Tortoise Diet. It is a commercially available tortoise diet in a pellet form that is used as a supplemental diet for tortoises. It can be used either mixed in with their staple food(s), or served plain. It was created for the forest type tortoises (redfoots, Aldabrans, yellowfoots, Galops, etc) which require slightly higher amounts of protein in their diets.
Tortoises less than 10" in straight length should be offered Mazuri that has been moistened to make eating easier. We typically soak the pellets in water for 60 seconds, drain it, and serve. The food will soften up over the next few minutes after this. Tortoises larger than 10" in size can typically eat the pellets dry without a problem, but will eat moistened ones also.
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