Tortoises are susceptible to shell problems, especially during their formative years.
Shell pyramiding occurs due to dietary, sunlight, substrate, or humidity oversights. Unfortunately, pyramiding can’t be reversed, but you can stop it from worsening.
Pyramiding is a form of metabolic bone disease (MBD) characterized by raised scutes on the shell. Shell pyramiding can negatively impact how a tortoise walks, functions, and breeds.
To prevent shell pyramiding in tortoises, offer a diet rich in fiber and calcium while keeping protein and fat content low. Monitor the humidity level and allow the tortoise to soak in water. Also, get a UVB lamp so the tortoise can get more vitamin D or provide access to sunlight.
What Is Pyramiding In Tortoises?
Pyramiding refers to the abnormal, upward growth of scutes in tortoises.
The scutes are individual segments found on top of a tortoise’s shell. When growth continues unchecked, it creates a pyramid-like shape in the shell.
As a young tortoise grows, each scute increases in size horizontally, leading to an increase in the size of the tortoise. During periods of normal growth, the scutes develop in a smooth, even manner.
During intermittent periods of slow growth (such as brumation), growth rings form around each scute to give the shell its characteristically patchy appearance.
Pyramiding may occur during the tortoise’s formative years of growth, but this isn’t always problematic. However, pyramiding may become a health issue if deficiencies in the diet cause the condition.
Scutes that have already started pyramiding can’t be reversed. However, providing the tortoise with a proper diet and care allows new growth to happen horizontally.
Since pyramiding usually happens in the first 2-3 years of a tortoise’s life, owners must provide the right environment for a growing tortoise. This will ensure the shell grows healthily and doesn’t experience irreversible damage.
Certain species are more vulnerable to shell pyramiding than others, including:
- Leopard tortoise
- Hermann’s tortoise
- Greek tortoise
- Indian star tortoise
- Red-footed tortoise
- Sulcata tortoise
- Marginated tortoise
If you keep any of these species, you should check for early signs and symptoms of shell pyramiding.
How To Stop Pyramiding in Tortoises
As mentioned, scutes that have already started to pyramid can’t be reversed. Therefore, taking precautions is the best line of defense against this condition.
Here’s some advice to prevent shell pyramiding:
1/ Humidity Regulation
According to the Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition, low humidity causes pyramiding in several tortoise species. To prevent shell pyramiding, ensure optimal humidity in the enclosure.
Depending on their species, young tortoises in their early stages of development require a humidity level between 65% and 95%.
To optimize the humidity level, provide access to clean water in a shallow basin for your tortoise to drink and soak in when it chooses.
This water basin should be cleaned and disinfected regularly to prevent the accumulation of dirt and bacteria. Alternatively, you can do the following:
- Spray-mist the enclosure daily
- Run a humidifier for a few hours each day
- Build a humidity chamber in the enclosure
The latter requires you to make a small plastic container with a hole cut into its side.
Attach a sponge on top of the container and soak it in water. The sun’s heat will vaporize the water during the daytime and create a humid atmosphere in your tortoise’s enclosure.
2/ Well-Optimized Diet
Tortoises require a diet rich in fiber and calcium while low in fat and protein. A high-protein diet can lead to rapid growth in the tortoise’s body and cause the shell scutes to become pyramided.
A diet of hay and fresh grasses should suffice if you’re keeping desert tortoises, leopard tortoises, or sulcata tortoises.
Other species, such as Afghan or horsefield tortoises, require a diet of fresh vegetables such as turnips, cabbage, carrots, rose petals, and sunflowers.
These are low in fat and protein but rich in essential vitamins and minerals that aid healthy shell development. If necessary, you can pair this with nutritional supplements.
3/ Lighting Conditions
A tortoise requires ample UVB light to absorb Vitamin D3 and form a healthy shell. If you’re housing a tortoise indoors, ensure the tank is fitted with light bulbs that emit UVB light.
If you have an outdoor enclosure, take advantage of the natural light by setting up the enclosure where the sun can reach it. Ensure that half the pen is shaded, so the tortoise can cool down when necessary.
4/ Optimal Temperature
The temperature of a tortoise’s enclosure can impact how its body absorbs and metabolizes what it eats. If the temperature is too low, it’ll cause a slower metabolism and a reduced rate of nutrient uptake.
To create the right environment for shell growth, ensure the tortoise tank has the right temperature gradient. To prevent pyramiding, one end should be 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit.
You can regulate a tortoise’s enclosure temperature by installing an overhead heating lamp in the tank.
Ensure that you understand the capacity of the heating bulb before you fit it into the enclosure, as some bulbs have a very high wattage and can harm the tortoise’s health.
According to the Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine, extreme heat exposure can cause pyramiding in species like the African leopard tortoise.
5/ Exercise and Activity
Exercise is fundamental to the healthy growth and development of a tortoise’s skeleton and shell structure. So, set up an enclosure that promotes exercise and activity.
If you have room to spare, set up a large enclosure that gives your tortoise space for roaming. You can also keep it active by placing objects like rocks or balls in the tank, allowing it to knock them around.
Live plants in the tank will offer a chance to forage, hide, and tear at interesting textures.
Most species like to dig and burrow for fun. If you keep one of these tortoises, ensure that the substrate in its tank is deep enough to allow digging.
6/ Regular Bathing
Bathing the tortoise 2-3 times a week promotes healthy shell development, as it keeps the tortoise hydrated and allows it to shed properly.
When bathing a tortoise, soak it in a shallow basin of warm water and clean its shell while it soaks. The water level should be below neck level, and supervise the tortoise the entire time.
7/ Moisture-Retaining Bedding
When creating an enclosure for your tortoise, use bedding with good moisture retention properties, such as grass and mulch, as this will lead to a higher humidity level.
Is Pyramiding Bad for Tortoises?
Most of the time, pyramiding isn’t a serious problem for tortoises unless deficiencies in the diet bring about the condition. However, extreme cases of pyramiding can be detrimental.
Chronic shell pyramiding in an otherwise healthy tortoise can weaken its legs, interfering with its mobility and impacting its quality of life.
In addition, extreme pyramiding in male tortoises can impede their ability to mount females, thus hampering reproduction. In females, severe shell pyramiding can result in difficulty laying eggs.
In extreme cases, the spinal cord of the tortoise can become deformed, eventually leaving it paralyzed. If not detected and prevented from worsening, shell pyramiding can lead to premature death.
What Causes Pyramiding In Tortoises?
For most tortoises, shell pyramiding happens due to an oversight in care and treatment. If you’re careful about these factors, you can ensure that your tortoise never develops this issue:
Excess Protein in Diet
Tortoises usually require a grass-based diet, which is rich in fiber and low in fat and proteins.
Excess protein in a tortoise’s diet causes a build-up of keratin in the shell, resulting in raised scutes. This can cause the tortoise to develop a bumpy, pyramided shell.
Tortoises housed in dry enclosures manifest signs of pyramiding more quickly. That’s even more true compared to tortoises kept in humid enclosures, even if their diet is the same.
Lack of Sunlight (UVB)
UVB light is crucial for the absorption and uptake of Vitamin D. The same applies to minerals, like calcium, which is essential to the healthy growth and development of the shell.
Lack of Exercise
A lack of exercise can weaken a tortoise’s skeletal structure, making it vulnerable to anomalies like shell pyramiding. Tortoises bred in captivity with little room for exercise are at most risk.
Wild tortoises have room to explore and more climbing obstacles, so their vulnerability is lower.
Tortoises don’t have a strong thirst drive but still need water to stay hydrated and support metabolic processes. Tortoises that don’t get enough water are more susceptible to digestive problems, which can interfere with the uptake of nutrients necessary for healthy shell formation.
How To Tell If Your Tortoise’s Shell Is Pyramiding
The early signs of shell pyramiding in tortoises are easy to detect due to the abnormal appearance of a tortoise’s shell. Occasionally, check the appearance of the scutes on your tortoise’s carapace.
A tortoise with shell pyramiding has scutes that are raised and bumpy-looking. By contrast, a healthy tortoise will brandish a smooth and even shell.
Can Pyramiding On A Tortoise be Reversed?
Once pyramiding has occurred, it can’t be reversed, but you can stop it from worsening.
Once the conditions that created the problem are resolved, future shell growth will occur healthily, preventing further or severe pyramiding.
Does Pyramiding Hurt Tortoises?
Severe cases of pyramiding affect the tortoise’s mobility, health, and reproduction ability. That’s why the condition must be diagnosed and addressed in the early stages of development.
How To Treat Pyramiding in Tortoises
As stated, once pyramiding has taken place, it can’t be treated.
However, certain measures can be taken to mitigate future pyramiding of the shell, including:
- Feeding the tortoise a fiber-rich diet
- Cutting out proteins from the diet
- Keeping the tortoise well hydrated
- Ensuring its tank is properly humidified
- Giving the tortoise room to graze
- Offering ample sunlight
Shell pyramiding is irreversible, so prevention is the best course of action. This can be achieved by ensuring that the tortoise receives proper care, especially during its formative years.