Tortoise husbandry is a crucial aspect of raising a tortoise that is quite easy to get wrong, especially so if you are new to tortoise keeping. What makes husbandry mistakes so problematic is that you usually wouldn’t notice the adverse effects of it straight away. In most cases it’ll take you months, or even years to notice such issues. By then, it’s usually too late to reverse the problem, and whatever damage is done to your tortoise becomes permanent.
Bumpy shell, otherwise known as pyramiding is a common issue, but it’s not the end of the world. It can be caused by a variety of health and husbandry issues including improper diet, lack of vitamin D, poor housing and lack of exercise. that we’ll be taking a look at. Including what causes it, and how you can prevent it from happening or getting worse. Of course if you are concerned about the health of your tortoise you should always take your tortoise to a qualified vet for a consultation.
What is Pyramiding?
If you look closely at a tortoise’s shell, you’ll notice separate segments or plates all over its structure. These individual plates are called scutes. Without going too far into detail of tortoise anatomy, scutes are pretty much the individual bones of a tortoise’s spine and rib bones that have fused together to form the overall structure of the shell itself.
Normally, when a tortoise grows, these scutes will increase in size horizontally. The scutes will grow in size but will remain flat, giving a tortoise’s shell a smooth and domed appearance. There are times, however, when these segments upwards instead of outwards, and they become raised or form bumps, which end up looking like pyramids, hence the term pyramiding. In worse-case scenarios, pyramiding can cause the tortoise’s shell to warp and can lead to mobility issues.
Now, although pyramiding itself can be a bad thing for many tortoises, there are certain species that naturally have bumpy shells. These species include the Indian Star Tortoise, the Geometric Tortoise, the Radiated Tortoise and the Leopard Tortoise. These tortoise species have evolved to have bumpy shells as a way to help right themselves if they ever flip over in the wild, which can be a death sentence. If you notice pyramiding in any of these species, you shouldn’t worry. It’s normal.
Pyramiding is common amongst tortoises in captivity but is not unheard of in the wild. The reason why pyramiding is not as well-documented is because tortoises in the wild have ways to smooth out their shells naturally. Digging through the dirt or rubbing their shells against objects help wear down the bumps over time.
Generally, the younger a tortoise is, the easier it is to reverse or minimize the effects of pyramiding on an animal’s future growth.
What Causes Pyramiding?
Feeding Too Much Protein
One of the biggest culprits for pyramiding amongst tortoises is an improper diet. Just like how people who don’t get the right nutrients don’t develop normally, too little or too much of any given item in a tortoise’s diet will have a huge effect on their overall growth.
Feeding your tortoise too much protein, whether plant or animal protein, is one of the most documented cause for pyramiding. Generally, tortoises that live in more tropical climates, or in forest biomes do require protein in their diets but feeding them too much will cause them to bulk up, forcing a stacked look on their scutes. Tortoises that live in desert biomes should avoid high-protein food completely. Giving your tortoise too much protein is also stressful for their kidneys.
Healthy tortoises generally have huge appetites, and if presented with enough food, will normally eat even after they are full. This makes them very susceptible to overfeeding, even when their owners don’t mean to. Tortoises also grow fairly quickly when being overfed.
This has led to many unscrupulous keepers to power-feed their tortoises in order to force them to grow quicker than natural. Also, because tortoise sexual maturity is more closely linked to their size rather than their age, power-feeding has become a popular habit amongst many crooked breeders.
Tortoises live very long lives and sometimes they may even outlive their human owners. This means their growth should be at a slow and steady pace. Forcing your tortoise to grow quickly will result in deformations on their shell, which includes severe pyramiding.
Too Little Calcium or Vitamin D
Tortoise shells are made from calcium, and most of the calcium any tortoise consumes is stored there. The lack of calcium in a tortoise’s diet not only causes porous protrusions to form on their individual scutes, it can also collapse the tortoise’s shell. And if you remember what we’ve said about a tortoise’s shell, then you know that their spine is fused to it. A deformed shell leads to a deformed spine, and a misshapen spine will lead to mobility problems.
Now the problem usually lies with low calcium on a tortoise’s diet. But sometimes, the lack of vitamin D is just as big of a culprit. Vitamin D helps your tortoise properly metabolize calcium, so even if your tortoise is consuming a lot of calcium, if they don’t receive enough vitamin D, whether through their diet or through being exposed to UVB light, they will still develop tortoise bumpy shell.
Lack of Exercise
In order to have a healthy skeletal and shell structure, your tortoise will need to move around. Regular physical activities will help your tortoise metabolize calcium and protein properly. Regular exercise helps deposit calcium into bones, both along the tortoise’s skeleton as well as their shells. This is why many wild tortoises, or tortoises that are raised outdoors, both of which are able to move freely, generally have smoother shells.
Lack of Humidity and Hydration
Improper hydration is also believed to cause pyramiding, especially so if a tortoise wasn’t able to receive proper humidity or water during their earlier years. Not many people know why this is, but the availability of water, whether too much or too little of it does have an effect on how bumpy or smooth a tortoise’s shell is. Hydration could be linked to the proper metabolizing of protein and other nutrients required for a healthy shell. We have a great article on tortoise enclosure humidity below.
How to Deal with Pyramiding
Pyramiding is pretty much impossible to reverse, but you can help minimize it as your tortoise grows. The trick is to correct any issues with your husbandry as soon as you notice any signs of pyramiding, like a tortoise bumpy shell. Unfortunately, once your tortoise reaches adulthood with severe pyramiding, there’s very little you can do to help.
Here are some of the things you can do to help minimize pyramiding.
Adjust Your Tortoise’s Diet
Making sure that your tortoise is getting the right amount and types of food is the first step to prevent pyramiding. If you plan on feeding your tortoise produce, go for high-fiber, leafy greens. Do remember though that produce is meant for human consumption, so they’re packed with nutrients meant for people. For a tortoise, however, this can be too much. Try not to overfeed your tortoise. Give them greens a small bit at a time until they’ve stopped foraging.
If you’re feeding your tortoise pellets exclusively, feed them only once every 2-3 days. Pellets are full of nutrients and can be harmful to your tortoise if you feed them too often.
Improve the Humidity and Accessibility of Water
Making sure your tortoise is well-hydrated is very important if you don’t want your tortoise to get a tortoise bumpy shell. Having an easily-accessible water source is a good step in the right direction. Keeping your tortoise enclosure at the right humidity levels is also very important. Spraying your tortoise’s habitat daily should help keep the humidity up. Soaking your tortoise twice a week is also a good way to hydrate them when needed.
Changing the bedding to something that can retain humidity well, like Exo Terra Coco Husk or Zoo Med’s Eco Earth, can help too. If you still have some questions about bedding we have a full and in depth article on the best bedding for your tortoise here.
Make Sure Your Tortoise Gets Vitamin D
Making sure your tortoise gets the right amount of vitamin D is an important part of preventing not only pyramiding, but also metabolic bone disease. Unfortunately, this aspect is also one of the trickiest to provide. If you’re able to keep your tortoise outdoors, then they should be able to get their daily dose of vitamin D from the sun.
If not, you’ll need to use a UV bulb, when it comes to heating and lighting systems for your tortoise we have two great articles for you to check out, firstly our recommendations for the best lamps for your tortoise secondly, how long should you keep the heat lamp on.
Giving your tortoise space where they can walk around is very important for their metabolism, which can help greatly reduce pyramiding. Putting in items that they can climb over, like wooden hides or rocks can go a long way. Just make sure that your tortoise doesn’t flip over when they try to climb over them. Of course, you can always just take them outdoors from time to time, if the weather or the local wildlife allows.
Pyramiding is a problem linked to a tortoise’s growth. Unfortunately, previous growth can’t be corrected, but if you manage to correct any issues your husbandry has, any new growth will start to flatten out. Like many other issues concerning a tortoise’s health, good husbandry is the key to a healthy and active tortoise.