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African pancake tortoise

Scientific name: Malacochersus tornieri

Country: Kenya, Tanzania

Continent: Africa

Diet: Grasses and succulent plants. In the Zoo they are given grasses, dandelions, plantains, dead nettles, goose grass and other seasonally available leafy greens

Food & feeding: Herbivore

Habitats: Tropical grassland

Conservation status: Vulnerable

Relatives: Giant tortoise, Egyptian tortoise

Description: The pancake tortoise is quite a different shape from other tortoises. The adult's shell is about 15 cm long and only about 3 cm high, presenting a very flattened appearance, hence its name. The underside of the shell, known as the plastron, is very soft and flexible so that it yields under pressure, enabling it to squeeze into crevices in times of danger.

Lifestyle: Pancake tortoises inhabit rocky granite outcrops called 'kopjes' and they are agile climbers. When disturbed, the tortoise runs and hides in crevices in the rock, where it anchors itself with its front legs and wedges its soft flexible plastron against the sides of the hiding place so tightly that it is very difficult to remove. They are most active in the cool morning.

Family & friends: Pancake tortoises are sometimes found in quite large numbers on a single kopje. Large males get the most chances to mate in the breeding season. Small males will not even approach females in the presence of larger males.

Growing up: The female tortoise will lay one egg at a time, and up to four in a year at different times. Incubation is very variable and takes up to six months. There is a period of delayed development at the beginning, possibly so that all the eggs hatch together to coincide with the period of greatest food availability. The baby tortoises are independent as soon as they hatch.

Conservation news: This species is designated as 'Vulnerable in the wild' and is now the subject of a co-ordinated breeding programme within UK and European Zoos, managed by Bristol Zoo Gardens. Collecting for the pet trade is an ever-present threat.

Several young pancake tortoises have been hatched successfully in the Zoo's incubators.

The rocky outcrops that these tortoises live on have other interesting inhabitants too. The rock hyrax is a small animal, a little like a rabbit, that is in fact closely related to elephants.