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What kind of turtle looks like an elephant?

What kind of turtle looks like an elephant?

When people think of turtles, they usually picture small, slow-moving reptiles with green shells. However, there is one particular species of turtle that looks nothing like the typical turtle – and actually bears a striking resemblance to elephants! This unique turtle is called the African spurred tortoise, also known as the sulcata tortoise. In this article, we’ll explore why the African spurred tortoise has been nicknamed the “elephant turtle” and look at its similarities to elephants in appearance, behavior, habitat, and more. We’ll also overview some key facts about sulcata tortoises so you can learn more about these fascinating creatures.

Appearance and Anatomy

At first glance, the African spurred tortoise looks nothing like a regular turtle or tortoise. Instead of a rounded, flat shell, it has a high-domed carapace (top shell) that gives it a very elephant-like silhouette. Their shells can reach 18-30 inches in length, making them one of the largest tortoise species. Sulcata tortoises weigh around 40-80 pounds on average when fully grown, with some specimens topping 100 pounds! Just like elephants, the African spurred tortoise has stocky, pillar-like legs to support its massive body. Its forelegs resemble short elephant tusks. Another elephant-like feature is its large, flat feet that allow it to walk long distances while distributing its heavy weight. The neck, legs, and tail are also covered in thick, elephantine skin unlike the softer skin of many tortoises. Finally, sulcata tortoises come in earthy shades of brown, black, and tan – similar to the colors of elephant hides.

When it comes to anatomy, African spurred tortoises share a few similarities with elephants on the inside too. They have a large bladder to store water, as well as expansive lungs and a slow respiratory rate – adaptations for tolerating hot, arid climates. Their digestive system is designed to process large amounts of fibrous plant material efficiently, much like an elephant’s. However, unlike elephants, sulcata tortoises have a hard shell rather than soft skin and thick hides. They also have smaller brains than elephants and cannot vocalize loudly like trumpeting elephants can. Nonetheless, their overall body structure is remarkably elephant-esque for a turtle.


In terms of behavior, African spurred tortoises display some elephant-like qualities as well. Sulcata tortoises are intelligent reptiles with excellent memories. They can learn to recognize pathways and visual cues, much like elephants remember migration routes. Sulcatas are also social creatures that communicate with each other using touch, sight, and vibrations. They form communal nests and nurse their hatchlings cooperatively – behaviors reminiscent of elephants’ tight-knit family groups. Despite their size, sulcata tortoises can move pretty swiftly, walking up to a mile a day while foraging. Comparably, elephants may travel many miles to find food and water sources. Finally, male African spurred tortoises are known to combat each other by ramming and flipping over their rivals – similar to the sparring matches male elephants engage in.


Another parallel between the African spurred tortoise and the elephant is their shared native habitat. Sulcata tortoises come from the savannas and scrublands of the Sahara desert in Northern Africa. Similarly, elephants are natives of sub-Saharan Africa in areas like the Sahel. Both species are adapted to survive in hot, arid environments where food and water can be scarce. Sulcata tortoises construct burrows in dirt or sand for shelter and protection, while elephants rely on their large bodies and small ears to handle the intense heat. Since water is limited, the African spurred tortoise can go months without drinking by absorbing water from the food it eats – just like camels. Elephants employ a similar strategy, needing to drink only once every few days. By sharing the same harsh ecosystem, these unlikely creatures have evolved comparable tools for survival.

African Spurred Tortoise Elephant
High-domed, elongated shell Large body on thick pillars of legs
Thick, elephant-like skin Thick, wrinkled hide
Slow respiratory rate Slow respiratory rate
Large bladder Large bladder
Communal nesting Tight family groups
Walks miles while foraging Migrates miles for food
Males ram each other Males spar by clashing
Adapted to hot, arid habitat Adapted to hot, arid habitat
Constructs underground burrows Seeks shade to stay cool
Can go months without drinking Only drinks every few days

Key Facts

To wrap up, here are some key facts to know about the unique African spurred tortoise:

– Scientific name: Centrochelys sulcata
– Also known as the sulcata tortoise or African spurred tortoise
– Found in the Sahara desert and Sahel region of Africa
– One of the largest tortoise species in the world
– Average size is 18-30 inches long and 40-80 pounds
– Lifespan around 50-150 years!
– Herbivorous; eats grasses, leaves, hay, vegetables
– Requires large enclosure with deep substrate
– Legal to own as a pet in some states; permit often required
– Critically endangered; threatened by poaching and habitat loss
– Unique elephant-like appearance and behavior
– Well-adapted to survive in hot, dry African climates

So in summary, the massive yet graceful African spurred tortoise exhibits many physical and behavioral similarities to the equally colossal elephant. From its prominent shell to its thunderous gait, this humble reptile has earned its pachyderm-esque nickname as the elephant turtle. Hopefully this overview has shed some light on why the sulcata tortoise stands out not just as a unique turtle, but as one of Africa’s most fascinating creatures.


The African spurred tortoise’s distinct elephantine characteristics set it apart in the reptile world. From its domed shell and stout legs to its social habits and desert-ready adaptations, this turtle is a surprisingly apt impersonator of nature’s largest land mammal. While not a perfect mimic, the sulcata tortoise shares enough similarities with elephants in terms of anatomy, behavior, and habitat that “elephant turtle” is certainly an fitting nickname. The African spurred tortoise has evolved an elephant-like physique and lifestyle that enables it to thrive in the challenging African scrublands – proving that sometimes, nature does find parallels between the greatest beasts and the smallest creatures.