Natural History and Care of Bell's Hinged Tortoise
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Natural History and Care of Bell's Hinged Tortoise
(Kinixys belliana and related subspecies)
by Terry Gampper
email PHFrog


Taxonomy (Classification)

According to most sources, there are three subspecies in the Kinixys belliana family:

K. b. belliana (Gray)
K. b. nogueyi (Lataste)
K. b. zombensis (Hewitt)

Some scientists include K. b. spekii as a valid subspecies. However, Dr. Donald G. Broadly, a leading authority on the genus Kinixys from the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe, has elevated "spekii" to a species level. (Source: The Conservation Biology of Tortoises, Occasional Papers of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, No. 5, pg. 49)


There is considerable geographic variation among Kinixys belliana. Their range includes a large portion of Africa south of the Sahara. The eastern subspecies, K. b. belliana and K. b. zombensis, occurs from Somalia southward through the Great African Rift and into South Africa. The western subspecies, K. b. nogueyi, range includes Cameroon west to Senegal. All members of the species have a distinct hinged carapace (top shell). The hinge is located towards the rear portion of the carapace, and will lower itself over the hindquarters to protect the tortoise from attack.

K. b. belliana usually has five claws on each forefoot. The carapace has a pattern of yellow or reddish brown areolae (small open space) surrounded by dark pigment.

K. b. nogueyi has only four claws on each forefoot and the carapace pattern has uniformly brown or yellow areolae bordered with dark pigment.

K. b. zombensis always has a broad black radial pattern on the carapace.

Habitat and Behavior

Kinixys belliana is a savanna, thicket, or grassland species preferring a climate that has distinct dry and wet seasons. There are two major threats to its survival: it is used as a food source throughout its range and one of its most formidable enemies is the ground hornbill. The bird uses its powerful bill to smash through the tortoise's shell. The species is protected in many national parks and game preserves and its exportation is severely limited. However, due to its small size and cryptic patterns, it often escapes observation, and much of its lifestyle in the wild remains a mystery. K. belliana is omnivorous, feeding on a variety of fallen fruits, such as bananas and mangos, sugar cane, fungi, grasses, insects, millipedes and snails. These tortoises often feed in the early morning and evening hours. They will take cover during the hot, midday hours. When alarmed, it will withdraw its head, hiss and the forelimbs are retracted. The hind legs and tail will be withdrawn and the hinged carapace will be lowered. If picked up, like most turtles and tortoises, it will react by defecating profusely.


Special Note

Most people who keep Bell's hinged tortoises often agree that this species is not recommended for beginners. They are secretive and not as responsive or personable as other species. They are demanding and should only be kept by persons with considerable experience.

Make your tortoise house a home...Terrarium Set-Up

When setting up a terrarium or outdoor enclosure, several factors must be considered. These animals require constant warmth, high levels of humidity, and access to water for drinking and bathing. Failure to meet these conditions will quickly degrade the health of the animal. I keep my tortoise in a large indoor enclosure. For lighting, a full spectrum daylight bulb that provides a basking spot. The enclosure temperature averages about 80 degrees (F). After dark, I use a 60-watt "moonlight" bulb that provides warmth during the nighttime hours. There are plenty of places in the enclosure where the tortoise can hide or cool down if it gets too warm. My tortoise loves to be sprayed down daily with a fine mist of water. For substrate, clean, chemical free, organic potting soil covered with a layer of sphagnum moss works well. The moss is kept moist, but not dripping wet, by daily spraying. Of course, the substrate should be changed regularly. Tortoises love to explore their surroundings. I take my tortoise out every day and let it roam my apartment. Don't let your animal out without supervision. On very nice, warm days, I let her outside so she can soak up real sunlight and get some fresh air. Remember, although tortoises may be slow, they can sneak away quietly and easily lost. Always watch your tortoises!

It's Dinnertime! What to feed your tortoise...

African hinged tortoises are omnivores and insectivores. Their diet is quite different from most land tortoises, which are vegetarian. Feed your tortoise a variety of fruits, vegetables and meat. The "meat" is usually live slugs, worms, snails and crickets. Occasionally, a low fat dog food may be offered, but not too much as excessive amounts may result in poor health of the animal. A vitamin/calcium supplement should be added to the food. My tortoise especially enjoys melons (of all kinds), mushrooms (only the expensive ones will do!), tomatoes, romaine lettuce, carrots, squash, bell peppers, cucumber, and big, juicy night crawlers. I feed her every day. Every week, I will add new foods and maintain a list of what she likes and dislikes. Unfortunately, she is a picky eater. A food processor comes in handy if you have a difficult eater. I lightly blend in her favorite foods with new items, that way she has a difficult time identifying each food item and usually will eat it all. There is more than one way to fool a tortoise! Cuttlefish bone, used by bird keepers, helps wear down the tortoise's beak.

Health Care

For the most part, these tortoises are hardy in captivity. Most problems occur when the keeper fails to provide the proper diet or husbandry. Have your tortoise checked by a veterinarian regularly. Some common health problems include - eye infections, runny nose, abscesses, and bacterial infections. Do not hibernate these tortoises; keep them warm and active all year around. Hinged tortoises are unique animals.

Hinged tortoises are fascinating creatures. Each one has a unique character and there is no doubt that they will become quite tame and make good companions over time. Use common sense when caring for your animal. Proper diet and a clean environment are necessary in ensuring your success in keeping these wonderful tortoises.


The contents of this page is provided as a source of education and entertainment only. Readers rely on any information found here at their own risk. The information you find here is not under warranty.

Please consult your veterinarian immediately if your pet is ill or injured. If you have questions or problems about the general care of exotic or even domestic animals, please direct them to the members of the appropriate pet community on the message boards or chat rooms. (registration is free!)

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