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Tortoise Vivarium Reviews and Tests

Part One: Jon Coote Tortoise Starter Kit
Part Two: Geko Vivarium
Part Three: Tortoise Table habitat

We have reported concerns about this type of tortoise accommodation before, for example in our comprehensive indoor housing article, but recently we undertook a very detailed series of measurements and conducted the most comprehensive tests  and reviews ever carried out on the different types of indoor habitat available for tortoises.

The full series of reports are now available. The first examined a popular glass tank style vivarium sold for tortoises, the JON COOTE TORTOISE STARTER KIT.

Jon Coote Tortoise Starter Kit

The promotional material for this product reads:

"This kit has been endorsed by reptile expert Jon Coote, with the first time owner in my mind. They contain everything required to provide the correct environment for the intended animal.

Consisting of a custom made glass tank, heating, substrate, décor, feeding bowl, thermometer and full instructions - the primary aim with these kits is the inhabitant’s welfare.

This kit has earned praise from some of the trade’s hardest critics. "

Our findings were very different.



  • The supplied basking lamp is under powered and is incapable of producing an adequate basking temperature (an absolute minimum of 30 ˚C) at the basking site unaided at average ambient room temperatures.  The fact that the height of the lamp cannot be adjusted, and that the fine mesh grill also blocks and dissipates both light and heat contributes to this very serious failure.

  • The ambient room (background) temperature needed to be elevated to 26 C before a temperature of 30 ˚C at the basking site could be achieved. This is unrealistically high and is far above the level maintained in an average house (21 ˚C or 70 ˚F). Extended trials with this vivarium suggest to us that as supplied, it is capable of producing a basking temperature of approximately 5 ˚C above ambient at best.

  • The supplied basking lamp emits zero UV-B. The tortoise is entirely dependent upon sufficiently regular use of the oral calcium and D3 supplement included. If a lamp that does emit UV-B is substituted (as supplied the Jon Coote Advanced Tortoise Kit) much of the benefit will be wasted as the fine mesh screen blocks most of the UV-B generated. In our opinion this is a serious design defect.

  • The supplied heat pad is under powered (12 watts), and is too small, to provide adequate levels of background heat within the vivarium. In tests conducted overnight, average air temperatures within the unit fell to ambient with the heater in both rear wall and under floor modes. It is, however, capable of producing a very localised extreme ‘hot spot’ when used in under-tank mode with a thin substrate covering, of such a level as to cause severe thermal burns (up to 53 ˚C). No thermostat is provided. When used in under-tank mode without a thermostat heat mats are intrinsically dangerous. The practice of relying upon ventral heat with chelonia is questioned by leading veterinary experts.

  • The two small plastic thermometers supplied are inadequate to gauge the actual conditions within the vivarium. They are of very poor accuracy and when used as directed produce grossly misleading results. They do not, for example, measure the actual basking site or substrate temperatures. When a  potentially fatal substrate temperature of 53 ˚C was recorded in these tests, the supplied thermometers indicated that the basking site end of the tank was only 30 ˚C. This could easily mislead a novice user. All vivaria should be checked regularly using at least a reliable contact thermometer to establish the gradients obtained and minimum-maximum temperatures at all basking positions and retreat sites. We recommend that if possible, a non-contact Infra-Red thermometer should be used in addition, together with a reliable hygrometer to establish the levels of humidity within the environment.  Such routine checking will quickly reveal problems and will help to prevent injury and death.

  • The lack of space and poor ventilation of the unit prevents an adequate thermal gradient forming. In our tests, differentials between the “hot” and “cool” ends of the tank as low as 1.5 C˚ were recorded. This is completely unacceptable. It is, however, characteristic and typical of all small glass tank type vivarium enclosures. They are simply not large enough to allow a useful gradient to form.

  • The unit is said to be suitable for Mediterranean tortoises, African Spurred tortoises (Geochelone sulcata) and Horsfield’s tortoises (Testudo horsfieldii) up to a straight line carapace of 150 mm (7”). The instructions supplied fail to even mention the requirement for adequate outdoor housing for any of these species, and instead suggest that “room sized accommodation may subsequently be required for African Spurred tortoises for example”. In our opinion, the impression is clearly given that exclusively indoor accommodation is acceptable for all of these species. This is not the case and is seriously misleading. Further, we feel that given the units very restricted floor area (0.36 sq. m. or 3.87 sq. feet) the claim that it is suitable full-time living accommodation for a tortoise of up 150 mm or 7” carapace length is  not only incorrect but is positively inhumane and to keep a tortoise so confined is quite probably unlawful under the Animal Welfare Act (2006) which makes it a duty to provide “suitable”  accommodation. The many environmental failings noted here also, in our opinion, are so serious that any tortoise confined within it is not adequately protected from injury (the excessive substrate temperatures recorded) and that the incorrect temperatures ranges, poor gradients and humidity problems recorded here also place this product in probable breach of the requirements relating to a “suitable environment”  and “need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns” (e.g., thermoregulation) as specified by the Act.

  • The substrate supplied is, in our opinion, entirely unfit for purpose. The problems with securing a satisfactory and safe level of humidity are obvious. The recommendation that this very small quantity of substrate should be changed only “every six months”, even in the case of a 150 mm or 7” tortoise, is also completely unacceptable and will invariably lead to severe problems with bacterial and fungal contamination and consequently to high levels of disease.

  • Contaminated substrates are regularly implicated in skin and shell disease in chelonia, and also in respiratory diseases of both fungal and bacterial origins  (Gardner and Oberdorster, 2005). A small volume of substrate like this would, in our opinion, need to be changed at least once a week.

Although this report examined the product of one particular manufacturer, it is our opinion that all “glass tank” vivaria of a similar size and design will invariably produce a very similar performance. The problems noted are largely an unavoidable result of this small, enclosed design.

We would urge all responsible retailers to cease recommending units of this general size and design (enclosed glass vivarium tanks) for use with terrestrial tortoises.  Our recommendation is for units with substantially more floor space, with much increased airflow and with improved temperature gradients, and which provide safe and effective basking facilities. It should be stressed to all purchasers that indoor vivaria are only a partial solution to the accommodation needs of tortoises, and that  additional spacious outdoor housing is also essential on both environmental and welfare grounds.

In the light of this, we now recommend that YOU SHOULD NOT PURCHASE OR USE ANY HABITAT OF THIS DESIGN (fish-tank style unit, with or without sliding doors).


(c) August 2009 Tortoise Trust