The pancake tortoise is quite an unusual animal. Unlike other tortoises, it is flat and pancake-like, which is how it got its name. It also has the habit of running away from predators and is rather quick and agile. This makes it an oddity in the tortoise world.
The pancake tortoise is scientifically known as Malacochersus tomieri. It is native to Kenya and Tanzania, but it can also be found in Zimbabwe (an introduced population), and some have been reported in Zambia, Zimbabwe's neighbouring country. It has an unusually thin, flat, and flexible shell which makes it the fastest species in the tortoise family. The shell grows up to 17.8cm long.
Most other tortoise species have heavy solid structural shells, but the pancake tortoise has many holes in its shell making it lightweight and agile. While other tortoises stay safe from danger by hiding in their shells, the pancake tortoise stays safe by quickly fleeing from said danger.
Additionally, the flexibility of the shell of the pancake tortoise enables it to crawl under rocks and crevices which allows them to take shelter in places where other tortoises wouldn't. They also hide under rocks when fleeing from danger. Their brown shells with yellow markings help them blend in with their surroundings.
The pancake tortoise feeds on dry grass and other vegetation in the wild. It can also feed on fruits and succulents. The species is most active in the morning and early evening. This is the time they go out to find food and bask in the sun. They never move too far away from their shelters and they only come out from under rocks for an hour at a time to stay safe from danger - which includes humans, wild dogs and mongooses.
In the wild, they breed in January and February. Females lay one to two eggs every six weeks throughout the breeding season. The eggs take four to six months to hatch.
Due to the oddity of the pancake tortoise, the animal is captured for the illegal pet trade where it has a high demand. That, combined with its low reproductive capacity, has led to a drop in its numbers in the wild. The tortoise also faces the threat of decline from habitat loss. In Kenya, they are threatened by clearance of thorny shrubs for conversion to agriculture. In Tanzania, they are threatened by over-grazing of goats and cattle. These factors make the pancake tortoise vulnerable to extinction.
There have been efforts to protect the species from the illegal pet trade. Kenya, in collaboration with the US, recently proposed to have the pancake tortoise listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendix I. This would make the pancake tortoise one of the protected species.
Header Image Credit: Pinterest