The leopard tortoise is classified under the family Testudinidae, of which 45 species of terrestrial tortoises are represented, occurring on all continents except Australia and Antarctica. In southern Africa it is possible to find 14 different species of tortoise.
The leopard tortoise is one of the largest tortoises found in southern Africa, with an average weight of 8-12kg, but have been recorded around 40kg in some cases.
Their shells are comprised of bony plates which are fused “ribs” and bones, and are covered with horny shields and scutes. Leopard tortoises can easily be identified by having raised dorsal scutes, and have distinct colouration and patterning.
The shell serves to protect the body from any potential predators. The general shape of their shells can be described as being domed on top (carapace), and flattened at the bottom (plastron).
Tortoises draw their heads straight back into the shell, as opposed to the sideways motion used by terrapins. Southern African species of tortoise, are able to withdraw their heads completely under the protection of the shell, so that their forelimbs are able to cover the head.
Male tortoise shells are concaved on the underside, in order to assist with balancing themselves, when mounting female tortoises. Mating season extends from September to April, and egg laying season will be from October to May, when the female will lay several clutches of hard-shelled eggs. The female will select the nesting site, and will urinate in order to soften the soil before digging a hole for a clutch size of around 6-18 eggs. The incubation period can exceed a period of 12 months, with 35g hatchlings emerging around March-April.
Hatchlings are born with soft shells, as fusion of the shell is still incomplete at a young age. The sex of the hatchling is determined by temperature. Female development takes place between 31-34◦C and a range of 26-30◦C for the males.
Leopard tortoises have a varied diet of grass shoots, succulents, fruit and even fungi. They will also consume bones and carnivore droppings, which is believed to be a source of calcium.