The Indian star tortoise is a 6-12” long species of tortoise native to India, southeastern Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Their preferred habitat is semiarid grassland, dry forest, and semidesert. Although they can be found in a variety of habitats, one consistency is that the habitat features an extended period of drought during the year.
Indian star tortoises have a distinctive, highly domed shell that is often pyramided rather than smooth even in healthy individuals. However, they are known best for their unique pattern: pale yellow “stars” on dark scutes, with the same pattern in reverse on their plastron.
Indian star tortoises are aggressively sought after for their beauty and supposed medicinal properties, so thousands are illegally taken from the wild every year by poachers. Unfortunately, wild-caught Indian star tortoises generally do very poorly in captivity. If you are considering a pet Indian star tortoise, double-check to make sure the tortoise you’re buying is captive-bred rather than wild-caught!
Minimum terrarium size for Indian star tortoises
As with most tortoises, it’s best to keep them outdoors whenever possible. The pen should be at least 4’ x 4’, although much larger is preferred. Although they are poor climbers and diggers, the wall of the pen should be opaque and at least 8” high to discourage pacing. Part of the enclosure should be shaded at all times. You will also need anti-predator measures in place to prevent your pet from getting taken by local wildlife, dogs, children, and robbers.
If your local climate is too cool to keep your tortoise outdoors year-round, or you don’t have a yard available for a pen, then you will need an indoor enclosure. Baby Indian star tortoises should be kept in an enclosed terrarium to maintain the humidity they need for proper development. Older individuals can be safely kept in a tortoise table setup (again, at least 16 sq ft with 8” tall walls) as long as they have access to a humid hideout.
This minimum size should be at least doubled if you wish to keep a group of Indian star tortoises, which usually get along well with each other. However, Indian star tortoises should NEVER be kept together with other species, as they are prone to picking up diseases.
Do Indian star tortoises need UVB?
Yes, Indian star tortoises require exposure to UVB in order to maintain good health. Tortoises housed outdoors do not need artificial UVB lighting, as they get all the UVB they need from exposure to sunlight. However, tortoises housed indoors do need artificial UVB lighting.
The best UVB bulbs for Indian star tortoises are:
- Arcadia T5 HO 12%
- Zoo Med T5 HO Reptisun 10.0
When the bulb is mounted in a Zoo Med Reptisun T5 HO Terrarium Hood fixture without mesh obstruction, it should be placed 6-8” above the top of the tortoise’s shell in the basking area. Bulbs mounted in the Arcadia ProT5 fixture can be placed further away: 17-18” above the tortoise’s shell. Your UVB bulb and fixture should be roughly half the length of the tortoise’s enclosure.
If you are keeping your tortoise indoors, you will need more than just heat and UVB lamps. You will also need a 6500K LED or T5 HO fluorescent grow light for additional illumination to better simulate sunlight.
Lights should be on for 12 hours/day to create a natural day/night cycle.
Best temperature for Indian star tortoises
Like other reptiles, Indian star tortoises are cold-blooded, which means that they rely on external temperatures to manage their own body temperature and metabolism. A reptile’s enclosure should offer a range of temperatures to allow them to thermoregulate effectively.
Indian star tortoises will do well outdoors as long as nighttime temperatures are no lower than 50°F, preferably warmer. If you live in an area where the weather gets cooler than this for prolonged periods of time, you will need to move your tortoise indoors until the weather warms up again. However, occasional cool nights are not a problem as long as you provide a tortoise “barn” warmed to ~60°F at night.
Indian star tortoises housed indoors will need at least one halogen flood heat bulb to create a basking temperature of 95-105°F. Ambient temperatures should be between 75-80°F. These temperatures should be measured with a digital probe thermometer.
Heat lamps should be at least 8” away from the top of your tortoise’s shell. Do not use ceramic heat emitters (CHEs), red bulbs, or blue bulbs, as these are not as effective.
Best humidity levels for Indian star tortoises
Indian star tortoises do best between 40-75% humidity as adults, but as juveniles, they need higher levels of humidity for good health and proper development: 70-80%. This is why they generally do best in an indoor terrarium for their first couple years of life. For adults housed indoors, just make sure to provide a humid hide on the cool side, lined with moistened substrate or sphagnum moss. Humidity should be monitored via digital probe hygrometer, with the probe placed in the middle of the enclosure.
Humidity isn’t something to worry about too much if your Indian star tortoise will be housed outdoors unless you live in a particularly dry area. Occasionally spraying down the cool half of the enclosure with a hose is a good way to compensate for dry weather. However, if you live in an area with frequent rainfall, then outdoor housing probably isn’t a good option for you.
Best substrate for Indian star tortoises
Indian star tortoises need a substrate/bedding that replicates their natural habitat and provides something for them to dig in as desired. Plain topsoil mixed 60/40 with play sand works well indoors and outdoors. It should be at least 6” deep and completely replaced every 6 months. Remove poop and urine daily, along with all contaminated substrate.
Alternatively, you can use a thick layer of clean timothy, Bermuda, orchard grass, or similar hay for indoor substrate. This must be completely replaced daily for hygiene.
How to decorate an Indian star tortoise enclosure
An empty terrarium makes for a bored tortoise, reducing its quality of life. Keep your pet entertained and engaged with its environment with the strategic use of décor items that encourage it to exercise natural behaviors!
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- additional hiding places/burrows
- hollow logs
- live, edible plants
- large, flat stones
The more stuff you add, the more functional your enclosure is likely to become! As an additional feature, you can shape the substrate into hills to create more environmental variety for your pet.
For outdoor enclosures, experts recommend planting a variety of drought-tolerant, edible weeds and grasses for the tortoise to graze on. The Tortoise Table is a helpful resource for figuring out which ones are safe to use.
What to feed to an Indian star tortoise
Indian star tortoises are herbivores, which means that they need a high-fiber, plant-based diet to stay healthy. Variety is key to good nutrition, but your tortoise’s diet should still be about 90% grasses and weeds, and about 10% “salad” greens and vegetables. Flowers can be used as treats, but fruit should be avoided.
Safe grasses/leaves for Indian star tortoises: lawn grass (chemical-free), mulberry leaves, grape leaves, hibiscus leaves, meadow hay, oat hay, orchard hay, timothy, Bermuda, rye, clover, dandelion, nasturtium, geranium, thistle
Safe greens and vegetables for Indian star tortoises: cactus pads, kale, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, romaine lettuce, red leaf lettuce, chicory, endive, escarole, radicchio, carrot, bell pepper, squash
Edible flowers like nasturtium, dandelions, geranium, roses, and hibiscus are great to add for variety and extra vitamins.
Offer food every day on a plate or tray to prevent substrate ingestion.
You will also need calcium and vitamin supplements to prevent your tortoise from developing a potential deficiency. We recommend Repashy Superveggie, lightly dusted on each meal. A little bit of Mazuri tortoise diet or Zoo Med Natural Grassland Tortoise Food also makes a nutritious addition.
Your tortoise should always have access to a cuttlebone for calcium, as well as an easy way to keep its beak filed down.
Of course, don’t forget a water dish! For drinking water, offer a shallow dish too shallow for babies to soak in, although a large dish is fine for adults. Babies should be soaked, supervised, 3x/week for 15-30 minutes per session.
Change the drinking water daily and scrub the dish weekly with a reptile-safe disinfectant, or whenever it becomes soiled.
How to handle your Indian star tortoise
Tortoises in general don’t like being handled — they’re very much terrestrial animals, and leaving the ground is incredibly stressful for them, so this should be avoided whenever possible. If you want to interact with your tortoise, try hand-feeding or giving it light rubs on the head or shell.
*This care sheet contains only very basic information. Although it’s a good introduction, please further your research with high-quality sources. The more you know, the better you will be able to care for your pet!
"File:Star Tortoise (Geochelone Elegans) 01.jpg" by M Kooragamage is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0