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Tortoise Vivarium Reviews and Tests

Part Three - Tortoise Table

Part Two - Geko vivarium
Part One - Jon Coote Tortoise Starter Kit

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 third part of this report is now available, and it discusses our findings on a typical 'Tortoise Table' type open-topped terrarium. See links above for earlier reports on other types of vivarium.

Tortoise Table habitat

The primary concept behind this type of design is that they offer improved airflow and convection possibilities, and allow for the use of deep substrates. Although they can be purchased ready made from various suppliers, they are very easy to make at home for minimal cost and without requiring advanced woodworking skills. The general advice is to make them as large as possible. Large vivaria, of all designs, whether enclosed types or open types will typically give the best performance while smaller enclosures tend to produce the least satisfactory results. However, in order to allow for a fairer and more direct comparison with the two vivaria tested previously, we elected to use a relatively small unit in this test, such as might be employed for a single small tortoise, or for hatchlings. The unit tested offers internal dimensions of 114 cm (45”) long X 57 cm (22.5”) wide, resulting in a floor area of 0.64 sq. m. or 6.8 sq. feet. The sides are 14 cm (5.5”) high.  This would be suitable for a typical juvenile tortoise.

A 50 mm deep mixed topsoil and sand substrate was added.

A wooden gantry arrangement to permit the fixture of heating and lighting is all that is required to complete the unit. The total cost of the unit we made for this test was £24.00 (approximately 27 Euros or $38.00), excluding electrical parts which can be selected as required. We chose to install a 160 watt Mega Ray lamp in a ceramic holder for this test as it would be typical of a set-up intended for Mediterranean, Russian or Leopard tortoises.

The overhead lighting support beam offers a high degree of flexibility to install alternate forms of light and heat, however. For example, ceramic heaters can be installed where some overnight heat is required, or a fluorescent tube could be used, or multiple lower wattage lamps fitted, or a combination of various types. Whichever form of heat and light is used, it is important that it is selected to match the requirements of the species being maintained.

This was also the simplest unit to test as there was only one heat source involved and because the overall design and construction of this type of habitat is so basic.


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  • The basking temperatures and temperature gradient available within this type of unit when fitted with a suitable lamp is excellent, and is well within tolerances for all Mediterranean species.
  • The range of temperatures available also suit many semi-arid tropical zone species such as Leopard tortoises (Geochelone pardalis), African Spurred tortoises (Geochelone sulcata) and Indian Star tortoises (Geochelone elegans). Some sensitive species may require supplementary overhead heating at the far end of the unit, however, if the unit is located in an otherwise unheated, cool position.
  • Careful attention does need to be paid to positioning of open-topped units as they are much more sensitive to room fluctuations than enclosed designs in terms of both temperature and humidity.
  • Use of a suitable depth and type of substrate provides a wide range of microclimate choices and contributes to achieving natural behaviour patterns (use of scrapes, partially burying, etc.) This also has important implications for health.
  • Provided a high quality lamp is used, excellent UV-B levels can be achieved.
  • Self-ballasted mercury vapour lamps of all brands appear to be very prone to temporarily cutting out due to overheating when used in certain reflector-holders. Solutions are to dispense with the reflector or to use externally ballasted models which do not seem to suffer from this problem.

On the basis of these tests, provided they are installed and operated correctly, the open-topped ‘Table’ type design offers a very acceptable and low cost method of housing a wide range of semi-arid habitat tortoises indoors. They are less suitable for high humidity tropical species unless special measures are taken. Suitable models of ‘Tortoise Table’ can be purchased ready made, or home construction from readily available materials is also possible. Of the three designs tested, only the open-topped design produced a safe and satisfactory range of basking temperatures combined with an adequate temperature gradient. Both enclosed designs failed completely. The ‘Tortoise Table’ design was also the only unit to produce the necessary combination of UV-B and radiant heat levels necessary for self-synthesis of vitamin D3 in tortoises.

(c) October 2009 Tortoise Trust