The following articles pertain specifically to the care of the Indian star tortoise (Geochlene elegans) and its 3 local variations (northern star, southern star, Sri Lankan star), but with minor alterations could also be applied to the Burmese star tortoise. The information here could also be useful to people looking to keep other tropical grassland/woodland species such as leopard tortoise, sulcata tortoises or some of the Madagascan species, however further research should be undertaken. The articles below should under no circumstances be used to in conjunction with any of the 'Mediterranean' tortoise species.
Introduction to Star Tortoises
The Indian star tortoise belongs to a group of tortoises that bear a distinguishing radiating pattern on their carapaces. Variations of this pattern are quite common among African and to some extent Asian tortoises, and are - despite the eye-catching appearance in unnatural surroundings - a very efficient means of camouflage. Among the 'starred' group of tortoises are the Radiated, spider and flat-shelled tortoises of Madagascar, the geometric and tent tortoises of southern most Africa as well as the Indian and Burmese stars from southern Asia. All the starred beauties have since the early days of herpetoculture been much sought after among tortoise enthusiasts and commercial trade, legal as well as illegal has together with the ever present habitat destruction led to all these species becoming locally or regionally threatened. The starred species that traditionally has been the most common in captivity is the Indian star tortoise, much due to a historical extensive trade in wild caught specimens, mainly from Sri Lanka.
Indian Star Tortoises (Geochelone elegans) can be split into several unofficial sub-species or local population variants, the northern star (larger and duller), the southern star (smallest and brightest) and the Sri Lankan star (large with most complex and wide markings).
The base colour of the shell is a light cream to dark yellowish brown, and a number of wedge-shaped black fields on each scute form the characteristic star pattern. As star tortoises age they become increasingly yellow as the black sections are worn away.
The star tortoises can possess a shell with naturally raised scutes (usually referred to as pyramiding). This feature is highly variable among star tortoises - both smooth and bumpy individuals have been documented in the same wild populations.
The anterior part of the front legs are covered by large scales, while the hind legs lack this protection. The soft parts of this species are cream-yellow to yellow, with varying amounts of dark brown or black spots, often creating a speckled head. The star tortoise has 5 claws on each foot. The females claws are noticeably longer and more curved than the males.
The Indian Star is a medium sized tortoise. Females are much larger than males and have a shorter tail. They are much more rounded. Males have a longer tail and a concave plastron. This is possibly one of the tortoise species with the most striking sexual dimorphism. The largest known specimen measures 380mm but most are considerably smaller averaging about 280mm, while males seldom exceed 200mm.
As the name suggests these tortoises come from the Indian subcontinent, it ranges over large parts of Indian, south-eastern Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It is found in a number of different habitat types from semi-deserts in the north to the moist deciduous forests of the south, however most of it's range consists mainly in dry grassland habitats and sparse (brush like) forests.
The most distinguishing common feature of all star tortoise habitats is its dryness - it may be dry for 3 months or 10, but part of the year is always dry. The species also needs some sort of protection from the burning rays of the midday sun - this can consist of vegetation, rocks or hedges. In contrast to the dryness, star habitat often falls under the influence of the monsoons, creating warm, heavy rainfall and high humidity areas which generally stimulates breeding in the wild. Temperatures rarely drop below 18oC at any point of the year or area of the animals' range, therefore this species does not hibernate.
Research shows these animals have a 100% herbivorous diet naturally, although there are reports of them consuming carrion and insects this appears to be out of the norm and very rare. It would be safe to assume that the vast majority of these tortoises would go their entire life without consuming any animal matter.
The bulk of the diet is made up of grasses, the tortoise will spend much of its time grazing, they will also eat smaller quantities of leafy weeds and flowers. They do not appear to often eat fruit or other high moisture content foods.
In drier habitats types of fresh grass are only available during the short monsoon period. During the long periods of drought and relatively cool weather the tortoises will graze on dried grasses and be rather inactive, they can go without food for long periods of time.
Reproduction in the Wild
The mating season for the star tortoise correlates with the monsoon, which is around June to September. Unlike most species males seldom engage in combat or butting towards the female, (in fact it is often reported to find star tortoises in small 'herds' although how much of a social group this is remains to be studied). Around 60-90 days after mating the female is ready to lay the first of several clutches of eggs.
A female ready to lay is restless and aggressive towards companions, stars can be particularly choosy when finding a nesting site. She will lay 1-6 eggs in an excavated nest. Incubation times vary from as littler as 4-7 days to as long as 223.
Hatchlings are around 35-45 mms long and either completely yellow or yellow with black 'butterflies'. Hatchlings grow rapidly for a few months and then settle down to a slow rate of growth. Males tend to mature at around 6-8 years while females take 8-12, stars continue to grow in size slowly until around 30 years. The average life expectancy in the wild is around 30-40 years.
Although not one of the most endangered tortoises of the world the Indian star tortoise is placed on CITES appendix II (regulating international trade, but not trade within this country). No paperwork is currently required to own or purchase an Indian star tortoise but one should be careful to obtained captive bred individuals.
This is caused by the increasing Indian population demanding more land, more exhaustive uses of forests and other natural resources as well as farm land. Tortoises are also used as food in some parts of India, but as the people become wealthier other food is preferred.
The commercial trade of the star tortoise also has had a big impact on wild populations, often illegally young animals are taken from the wild and transported in poor, cramped conditions to be sold on the pet or food market throughout the world. It is estimated that 10,000 to 20,000 juveniles find their way onto the Asian pet market each year and 70% of those die in their first year.
There has been no legal large scale exportation of this species for many years, and it looks unlikely that this will change, hopefully protecting this species in the wild. However while animals are taken in such large numbers illegally the future of the star tortoise appears uncertain.