Desert Tortoise vs Sulcata Tortoise: What are the Differences?

Written by Jeremiah Wright
Published: September 28, 2022
Image Credit A-Z-Animals.com
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Tortoises are among the longest-living animals in the world. Some of these land turtles can live up to 150 years! Alipore Zoological Garden reported an Aldabra giant tortoise named Adwaita that lived for 255 years! 

Tortoises vary between continents. According to studies, there are approximately 357 species of turtles and tortoises, and more than half are threatened. Some tortoises may look similar at first glance, but several distinctive features differentiate them.

Desert tortoises and sulcata tortoises belong to the Testudinidae family of tortoises. They live in dry habitats, but their sizes, color variations, and skins differ. Read on if you want to learn how to tell the difference between the two.

Comparing Desert Tortoise vs. Sulcata Tortoise

Desert TortoiseSulcata Tortoise
SizeWeight: 8 lbs to 15 lbs (4 kg to 7 kg)
Length: 10 to 14 inches (25 cm to 36 cm)
Weight: 79 to 200 lbs (36 to 91 kg)
Length: up to 30 inches (76 cm)
Color variationsBrown, yellow, black, tanBrown, yellow
Skin TypeScalesLarge scales
DietHerbivoreHerbivore
HabitatSandy desert plains and rocky hillsDesert, dry savanna
OriginCentral-AmericaNorth-AmericaAfrica
Hatchling sizeAbout 1.5 inches long 1.57 to 2.36 inches long
Lifespan25 – 60 yearsMore than 70 years

The Key Differences Between Desert Tortoise vs. Sulcata Tortoise

Desert tortoises and sulcata tortoises can both survive in dry and hot climates. However, their habitats and lifespans differ. That’s why certain distinctive features, such as their size, color variations, and even their shells, are noticeable. Here are the key differences between desert tortoises and sulcata tortoises.

Desert Tortoise vs. Sulcata Tortoise: Distribution

Sulcata tortoise walking on grass (Centrochelys sulcata
Sulcata tortoises are distributed throughout the African continent.

Sutthiphong Chandaeng/Shutterstock.com

Desert tortoises are distributed throughout North America and Central America. African spurred, or sulcata tortoises, are distributed throughout the African continent. They are most prevalent in the southern part of the Sahara. Tortoises play a major role in African culture. Some tribes even believe they connect humans with gods by being their intermediary.

Desert Tortoise vs. Sulcata Tortoise: Size

Desert tortoises and sulcata tortoises differ in terms of average size. Desert tortoises, also called Gopherus agassizii, can grow 10 to 14 inches (25 cm to 36 cm) long and weigh  8 lbs to 15 lbs (4 kg to 7 kg). Sulcata tortoises, also called Centrochelys sulcata, can grow up to 30 inches (76 cm) long and weigh 79 to 200 lbs (36 to 91 kg).

Desert Tortoise vs. Sulcata Tortoise: Color variations

Unlike other turtles with colorful shells, the colors of desert tortoises vary between brown, yellow, black, and tan. Sulcata tortoises only have brown and yellow color variations. They can have lighter or darker shades.

Desert Tortoise vs. Sulcata Tortoise: Shells

Slowest Animals In North America
Desert tortoises do not have colorful markings.

Darren J. Bradley/Shutterstock.com

Desert tortoises do not have colorful markings, but their shells have embossed scutes that are slightly flattened and light colored on the top. The darker line patterns make the divisions on their shells more visible. The shells of sulcata tortoises are almost oval and have well-defined grooves. Sulcata tortoises with a normal healthy shell will have visible embossed divisions called scutes with attractive annular rings, and pyramiding might happen when they grow.

Habitat loss and their late sexual maturity are only some of the reasons for the declining tortoise population. These animals are also hunted for their shells. Over the years, people have learned to appreciate tortoise shells. They use them as ornamental gems for jewelry, combs, or even eyeglass frames.  Tortoise shells are part of their skeleton and the extension of their ribcage, so they can not be replaced or switched. 

Desert Tortoise vs. Sulcata Tortoise: Skin 

Tortoises are reptiles, and their skins and shells undergo shedding for growth. Studies show that tortoises can withstand months without water because their thick skins reduce water loss. However, they will overheat inside their shells if they stay in the hot summer sun for too long. Desert tortoises have thick, small scales on the skin of their limbs. Sulcata tortoises have large, pointed scales on the skin of their front legs.

Desert Tortoise vs. Sulcata Tortoise: Habitat

Closeup of Sulcata Tortoise (African Spurred Tortoise) seen face to face and walking on sand.
Sulcata tortoises live in savannas, which are tropical grasslands with widely scattered trees.

Christian Musat/Shutterstock.com

Another way tortoises survive long periods without moisture is by digging and living in burrows to help regulate their body temperature. Desert tortoises burrow in desert plains and rocky hills. Vegetation and plant growth are limited because these habitats are dry and consist primarily of sand. Fortunately, they can survive long periods without water. Desert tortoises may burrow in the same spot for several weeks before transferring to another location. On the other hand, they may also use several burrows within their ‘home’ range. Desert tortoises’ burrows have a distinctive crescent shape and a slightly angled downward slant.

Sulcata tortoises live in savannas, which are tropical grasslands with widely scattered trees. According to biologists, savannas are transitional biomes – a combination of forests and deserts. Sulcata tortoises can dig up to 49 feet deep. 

Desert Tortoise vs. Sulcata Tortoise: Brumation (Hibernation)

Like some mammals, some reptiles undergo a dormancy period. The technical term for it is brumation. Desert tortoises brumate on a burrow during winter. Sulcatas do not brumate. To learn more about the difference between brumation and hibernation, check out ‘Brumation vs. Hibernation: What Are the Differences?

Desert Tortoise vs. Sulcata Tortoise: Hatchling size

Tortoise hatchling sex doesn’t depend on chromosomes, but on the temperature the egg was exposed to. Desert tortoise hatchlings measure about 1.5 inches (3.81 cm) long and weigh less than a pound. Sulcata tortoise hatchlings measure 1.57 to 2.36 inches (3.9 to 5.9 cm) long and weigh less than half an ounce.

Desert Tortoise vs. Sulcata Tortoise: Lifespan

animals that estivate: desert-tortoise
Desert tortoises live for about 25 to 60 years.

iStock.com/GoDogPhoto

Some studies show that tortoises can live more than 150 years. The average desert tortoise’s lifespan is about 25 to 60 years. Sulcata tortoises have an average lifespan of more than 70 years.

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Desert Tortoise vs Sulcata Tortoise

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About the Author

I hold seven years of professional experience in the content world, focusing on real estate, nature, and wildlife. Asides from writing, I enjoy surfing the internet and listening to music.

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Sources
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  2. Google Books, Available here: https://books.google.com.ph/books?hl=en&lr=&id=c9rhHw3PWo8C&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=largest+Desert+Tortoise&ots=wX0do8DtAX&sig=QcCeKqicP6vaGIFO4QeEuScCMxU&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=largest%20Desert%20Tortoise&f=false
  3. IUCN/SSC, Available here: http://doi.org/10.3854/crm.5.000.checklist.v7.2014