Tortoise shells consist of hard scales or scutes that look like segmented sections, and their function is to protect the bones inside the shell. You may also hear scutes referred to as plates, scales, or shields.
In healthy tortoises, the scutes have a smooth appearance, and the shells grow outward as the tortoise grows. However, sometimes the scutes may begin to grow upward in a stacking manner.
Pyramiding, also known as pyramidal growth syndrome (PGS), is a disease that occurs due to too much protein, insufficient calcium, low humidity, and dehydration.
It’s not a reversible condition, but it can be stopped from worsening by addressing the underlying cause(s). Certain warning signs of pyramiding can alert you sufficiently early.
Is Pyramiding Bad for Tortoises?
Pyramiding is a type of shell deformity. According to the British Chelonia Group, pyramiding can cause skeletal deformities and kidney failure in tortoises.
Other problems tortoises can experience due to pyramiding include:
- Lung function impairment
- Weak legs
- Overgrown toenails
- Difficulty laying eggs
- Bone diseases
Pyramiding usually develops due to improper diet (excessive protein or insufficient calcium), inadequate exposure to UVB light, dehydration, and low humidity.
Also, pyramiding occurs in tortoises living in captivity but rarely in wild tortoises. The African Journal of Herpetology stated that pyramiding usually occurs within the first few years of development.
What Does Pyramiding Look Like on a Tortoise?
You’d notice immediately if you’re looking at a tortoise with pyramiding on its shell. The individual scutes will be raised in pyramid shapes, giving the shell a bumpy appearance.
The scutes on normal tortoise shells are flatter and smoother, and the whole shell has a dome shape. The normal growth of a tortoise shell occurs outward, and as the tortoise grows, its shell grows with it.
However, the shell stops growing outward with pyramiding, and each scute grows upward instead.
If the causes of the pyramiding aren’t addressed, the scutes can grow quite high. Sometimes the scutes will grow at different rates, so the pyramid height level will vary.
Early Signs of Pyramiding
If you’re concerned about your tortoise’s shell pyramiding, there are some early signs you can look for that will alert you that it’s starting to happen:
1/ Raised Scutes
You’ll notice the individual scutes raising, but they may not all raise at the same time. Pyramiding doesn’t always happen evenly; some scutes may be taller or shorter than others.
2/ Lumpy Shell
Due to the scutes beginning to rise, a tortoise’s shell may have a lumpy appearance.
When looking at a tortoise’s shell from a particular angle, you may not notice the lumpy appearance if the pyramiding is at an early stage.
Looking at the shell from a side view allows you to see any changes starting.
3/ Shell Deformities
When pyramiding is starting to develop, you may notice other deformities along the edges and the base of the shell. These deformities can happen before or after the scutes begin rising.
4/ Stacked Plates
If you look at a normal tortoise shell, you’ll notice that the scutes are made up of layers. You can see the edges of the different layers, but they’re flat or flush across the shell. The layers grow as your tortoise grows.
During pyramiding, those layers begin to take on an obvious stacked appearance, resembling plates of different sizes stacked on top of each other.
5/ Pitted Cracks
The lines between the scutes that divide each may begin to deepen or take on a pitted appearance.
6/ Poor Appearance of Limbs
When pyramiding begins, you may see noticeable changes in your tortoise’s limbs. The limbs may start to swell, twist, or appear deformed.
You may also notice bruises along the tortoise’s jawline where the shell touches it.
What Does Pyramiding Mean for Tortoises?
If changes aren’t made to stop pyramiding from continuing to develop, your tortoise’s life could be in danger. This condition can lead to other health issues and complications with a tortoise’s way of life.
Pay close attention to your tortoise and check for the early signs of pyramiding. While pyramiding isn’t reversible, it can be stopped from progressing.
Pyramiding in Captive vs. Wild Tortoises
The University of Exeter stated that pyramiding is often difficult to avoid when raising tortoises in captivity because it’s hard to replicate a natural environment and diet.
Wild tortoises rarely develop pyramiding, so it’s apparent that pyramiding results from tortoises in captivity getting too much or too little of things they’d otherwise be getting in the wild.
Wild tortoises live in environments with just the right level of humidity. In captivity, getting that humidity level just right can be challenging.
Captive tortoises kept in enclosures indoors are deprived of the UVB light that wild tortoises get daily. Using artificial UVB lights can help, but there’s always the chance the tortoises are still getting too little or maybe even too much.
Ensuring that tortoises in captivity receive the right balance of fiber, fat, and proteins isn’t easy. If you feed tortoises too much protein when they’re still juveniles, it can lead to pyramiding.
How To Stop Pyramiding in Tortoises
Even if you haven’t been able to prevent pyramiding from starting, it may not be too late to stop it from progressing and becoming life-inhibiting.
As soon as you see the early signs of pyramiding, look at the environment your tortoise is living in and the diet you have it eating. Take note of what might be lacking and make the necessary changes.
Tortoises need plenty of sunlight, so an outdoor enclosure is the best place for a tortoise to live. If you keep your tortoise indoors, ensure it gets natural sunlight and supplement it with UVB lights.
Variety of Feed
Provide a wide variety of grasses, weeds, and flowers in the enclosure to ensure your tortoise gets its required nutrients. Tortoises need a high-fiber, low-protein diet.
Tortoises need a wading pool to soak in and drink from so they don’t get dehydrated. Keep the wading pool filled with fresh, clean water.
Tortoises need a humidity level of at least 50-60%. Using a substrate like Cypress mulch or grass in an outdoor enclosure is ideal because they hold onto humidity.
You’ll need to use a humidity gauge for an indoor enclosure to monitor the humidity level.
Room to Roam
Tortoises need a large enclosure that allows them to roam around and get some exercise. A lack of exercise can be a contributor to pyramiding.
Providing these things to a tortoise showing signs of pyramiding will stop its progression. However, providing these requirements from the outset is advisable to prevent pyramiding.