Psychology of shelter

Every animal wants to be comfortable and safe from bad weather and predation when it’s resting. Since tortoises may rest 50% of the time or more, it is important to offer good shelters.

Types of shelters chosen by wild Red-foot Tortoises include

  • Animal burrows, such as those of the armadillo and agouti.
  • Debris piles: clumps of fallen branches and leaves.
  • Treefalls:  the space and loose soil made by an uprooted tree.
  • Dense vegetation: under thick leaves, vines, branches, etc.
  • “Open shelters”, where the tortoise is wedged into or nestled down in the vegetation or debris, but still rather exposed, especially at its back.

Most selected shelters are slightly cooler than the air temps, often 12C/10F cooler, snug, and humid. Interestingly, Red-foots are often found in flooded shelters with their bodies immersed and just their heads above the water.This is a handy skill in the high rainfall habitats they prefer.

Red-foots often enter a sheltered location and push forward until they are securely wedged, making it hard for predators to pull them out. Younger Red-foots seem to like snuggling down in the soil as well. [Moscovitz 1985]

Basic design issues

Based on the above issues, shelters or hides we offer should be…

  • Snug:
    The shelters should be designed to let the tortoise wedge itself in by jamming itself in between items, snuggling up under a low roof, or nestling into softer material.
  • Cooler:
    While the average habitat temp should be about 30C/85F, the shelter temps can be 27C/80F or even a little cooler. Note: all things being equal, lowering temps will boost humidity.
  • Large:
    The tortoise should be able to feel like nothing can see it where it is. The further it can get out of sight, the better.
  • Dark:
    Many shelter choices allow lots of light during the day, but there is little light in the wild at night. Allow your tortoises a true dark night for the best rest. Since they can see colors, using black, blue, or red lights at night may not be the best choice.
  • Safe:
    Some shelter designs or materials may be risky. Overly damp or contaminated substrate or nesting material may cause shell rot. Some designs may inadvertently trap the tortoise inside, etc. Shelters should above all be safe for the tortoise.

Traditional hides used for other reptiles – basically boxes with holes in the sides – may not be the best hides for tortoises. The large open space in the traditional hide does not offer the opportunities to wedge in. Most keepers find that when offered a choice, their Red-foots will usually select a shelter that meets the above criteria.

A simple but effective hide can be made by simply propping a long, wide piece of wood up on one end against a habitat wall, and piling substrate to cover most of the open area. Some fluffy material can be loosely packed in  to allow the tortoises to snuggle in.

Hides like this allow the tortoises to climb on top of them, adding exercise and interest. The action of the tortoises often shifts the bark or the substrate so it may need to be rebuilt occasionally or secured. Also, by simply not heating it directly, it will be cooler, thus meeting the last of the main criteria.

The “bark lean-to” hide is an improvement over the “box with a hole” hide, but it can be made even better in many ways:

  • Using bark instead of plywood or lumber offers a more natural look and feel, and the back side of the bark naturally holds more moisture, as well as having a “rough but soft” texture that aids in offering the feeling of snugness.
  • Using a filler that is light and fluffy, but not acidic (moss, for example, is acidic) allows snuggling as well, and can help with humidity when it is damp but not dripping wet. Shredded bark, leaf litter, paper toweling, etc. can be used.
  • Humidity can be improved by adding sheets of moss or toweling on the bark or over the back or upright wall and keeping it moist. It also adds to the snugness, and darkness.
  • We want to aim for a slightly cool hide, but it should never be chilly or clammy. If it is necessary to heat the hide, cables, tapes, mats or pads under the substrate or habitat would be the best options as long as they do not overheat the smallish space.
  • Offering multiple hides offers the tortoises choices.
  • Smaller tortoises often seem to like hides made of several chunks of wood loosely piled up so they can select the openings and snugness.

Moist Root Shelter

Editha Kruger made a great hide by growing a layer of grasses and forage plants over an engineered “cave”. The end result is a cool, moist, dark, snug hide that also provides a place to explore, foods to graze on, and more. She also felt that the combination of snugness with moistness helped produce smooth, solid shells for her Mediterranean
tortoises. The basic plan is simple:

  1. Make or find a tray a few inches (about 10cm) deep the size you need the shelter to be. Usually, it would be  longer than the width of the habitat, and about twice as wide as the tortoise is long. Make the opening taller than you need now so it will fit for a while. The tray can be a simple cardboard tray lined with plastic. Make sure there are drain holes.
  2. Put about 3cm (1 in) of good potting soil in the tray.
  3. Cover the soil with a piece of galvanized mesh hardware cloth cut to the right size with the sharp bits cut or filed off, or bent over.
  4. Optional but helpful: use nylon ties to secure waterproof soil warming cable to the hardware mesh. Be sure to leave enough cord to reach out of the habitat and follow manufacturer’s instructions.
  5. Add another 3cm (1 in) of soil.
  6. Sprinkle heavily with grass, forage plants, ground cover plants, etc. Seeds, sprouts, small rooted plants, or even sod or a preplanted “seed blanket” may be used for this.
  7. Provide appropriate water and light and let grow for 4-6 weeks.You can use a little safe fertilizer to help.
  8. Carefully lift the plant and soil slab out of the tray, flex into a gentle arch, and set in place. Sculpt the substrate so the tortoise can easily get onto the new shelter to explore and graze.
  9. Water and fertilize (lightly) as needed.

Combine the Moise Root Hide with the Bioactive Substrate for an incredibly naturalistic indoor habitat!

Other Shelter Ideas

Debris Piles
When my herd of tortoises was in the outdoor pen one year, I decided to try a “debris pile” hide: I made a pile of branches, then covered it with leaves, vines, and other natural “debris” I found around the yard.

The tortoises loved it and quickly abandoned the box they had been using! I also saw many new behaviors in them. The youngest tortoises immediately went to the bottom layer and dug themselves into the softer leaf litter until they were almost invisible. The 3-4 year old tortoises began to climb within the structure! I often found them resting on branches several inches off the ground. 

The biggest tortoises would enter the pile by ducking the front of the shell down and bulldozing in. This kept the small branches out of their eyes and let them get in deeper than they otherwise would. 

I ended up driving a few stakes to help keep the big tortoises from spreading the pile out too much, and adding a chunk of old tarp to protect it more from heavy rains. It also took some work to keep the pile well heaped and full of leafy debris, but it was well worth it.

Heavy Plantings
Tortoises often seek shelter, for example, under thick vegetation or wedged between woody stems. Putting several plants in one area offers a nice shelter. Ferns, bromiliads, and other broadleaf plants work well for this. A tangle of branches or roots can also be added to help young tortoises feel more “wedged in”.

Leaf Piles
Make a loose pile of  real or simulated leaves (chunks of dampened brown paper for example) for small tortoises to hide in. If you are using a soil-based substrate, this would also be a natural place for worms and bugs to gather, offering treats for the hiding tortoises. Wide tropical plant leaves are especially good for this, but even things like an old woven palm strips mat can be re-purposed for this.

Edited 8-15-2012 (C) Mark Adkins