Very good question. It is a very reasonable question given the current state of sulcata knowledge. Let me tell you how I got to this point and also where I am.
In the late 80's and early 90's I worked in pet shops down by the beach in L.A. It was pretty common for people to bring in sick CDTs that were living in their backyards. The cold, clammy, beach air would cause these guys to get URTIs. We'd ship them inland to dryer, hotter areas and they'd usually get all better. So when CB sulcatas and leopards started hitting the scene around this time, the common knowledge was that since they were from the African desert, you better keep them hot and dry or they would get a URTI, just like the CDTs kept near the beach. So all of my early sulcatas went into "beef jerky maker" style set-ups. Dry substrate, hot bulb AND CHE. No water bowl, to cut down on humidity. I would soak them periodically, but then dry them off with a towel before putting them back in their hot box.
This system produced copious quantities of seemingly healthy, yet pyramided tortoises. For nearly 20 years I banged my head against the wall unable to figure out why they were pyramiding, even though I was doing everything "right". Since my job takes me all over the world, I was always checking out the local tortoises. I saw leopards in South Africa in 1999 and again in 2005. I saw smooth sulcatas that seemed to be doing fine in FL and Louisiana with no sign of any URTI. Early on, I assumed they were wild caught because they were so smooth. The people didn't know anything about proper tortoise care, so I (incorrectly) assumed that their smooth tortoises were really wild caught and they just didn't know any better.
Fast forward to 2007. I get hold of a copy of "Leopard Tortoises" by Richard and Jerry Fife. I've read tons of reptile and tortoise books, but none had ever mentioned humidity for baby sulcatas and leopards before. 15 lightbulbs went off in my head. DING! Everything, all the puzzle pieces, started coming together in my head. I had seen thousands of tortoises in South Africa, but not one single baby anywhere. DING! Maybe those people in FL and Louisiana weren't as ignorant as I had ignorantly assumed. DING! The beach tortoises were sick because it was cold AND damp. DING! Babies stay hidden in humid places, like root balls and burrows. DING! Etc... MYSTERY SOLVED!!!
I was quite upset with my self for not putting it all together sooner, but nobody else had either. Even the Fife's discovered it quite by accident. If anybody knew about it before them, they weren't telling anybody and they certainly weren't publishing it in any books. Thanks, again, to the Fife's for changing the tortoise world.
So its 2007, I've just had a 20 year mystery solved for me, what do I do now? Go get a new baby and try it out, of course! Enter Daisy:
This is Daisy, the day after I got her at 3 months old. You can see that she already had significant pyramiding. I stuck her in her enclosure on sani-chips (my usual tortoise substrate at that time) and gave her a nice humid hide box with some bed-a-beast. After a few months the pyramiding showed no sign of slowing down. I was very frustrated. I started talking to people and decided that I needed to make the whole enclosure more humid. Went to Lowes and got the orchid bark mix. Still did nothing. Next I covered the top, made the substrate much more damp and humidified the room. After a year of gradually making it more and more humid and wet, I realized two things. She was not going to get a respiratory infection or shell rot AND the pyramiding wasn't stopping. This where where I realized the next piece of the puzzle. Humidity will PREVENT pyramiding in a hatchling, NOT STOP pyramiding once it starts. Daisy's new growth does seem to be coming in smoother. Over the course of 2009 I made it wetter and wetter in Daisy's enclosure just to see what, if anything it would do. It has been SWAMPY in there for a year and a half now. There has been absolutely no ill effect and the new growth does appear to be smoothing out.
So in Jan 2010, I discover TFO at the reptile show. I met Littlefoot and talked to a pretty TFO girl. Finding this forum was like breaking open the Hoover Dam for me. The information flow was suddenly gushing after 20 years of a tiny, slow trickle. I learned that the humidity thing was already circulating out in the tortoise world. I learned about Terry K. and TerryO spraying the redfoot shells and growing them as smooth as any wild caught. I learned about dehydration being a problem in babies of desert species (Thanks Danny). I immediately began hitting Daisy with the shotgun approach. All wet all the time. Soaks, sprays, humidifiers, food spraying, substrate wetting, etc... Now understand, I've been keeping sulcatas for 20 years. I got my first turtle 30 years ago. I know what to watch for as far as health problems AND what to do about it should any surface. None did. Still haven't. Not in any way. I've actually considered making Daisy's tub into an aquatic habitat with a few haul outs just to see what would happen. That's really the only way it could be any wetter.
After two years of all wet all the time, I knew that water ain't gonna hurt a sulcata. Now with my hatchlings coming, I had to make a plan. Not too long ago Danny did a post suggesting that pyramiding was due to major internal organ damage caused by chronic dehydration in hatchlings. Danny's post explained that they could dehydrate even over night in a typical dry tortoise set up. Breathing humid air helps to prevent this dehydration.
I was determined to grow these babies smooth, so if dehydration is a factor in pyramiding, it won't be for mine. I knew that lots of water won't hurt a sulcata as long as the temps are kept up in the 80's, sooooooo here we are.
I have not ever seen any evidence that too much hydration is bad for a tortoise. If they aren't getting URTIs or any kind of shell rot, what is your concern about all the water? Another thing to consider is that I live in a very hot, dry area. What works for me might be too much for someone in the San Francisco Bay area or South Florida.
If you soak twice a day and spray 5 times a day and your tortoise still pyramids, something will have to be terribly wrong. But remember: Humidity, moisture and hydration will PREVENT pyramiding. It will not necessarily STOP pyramiding that is already underway.
How is it replicating natural conditions? I don't know if it is or isn't. I honestly don't know what natural conditions for a wild sulcata hatchling are. Do you? I've never even seen one in the wild. I do know they stay underground in humid burrows. Mine come out whenever it rains and drink and soak in puddles, even at night. I don't know how wild hatchlings find enough food underground, so they must come up some of the time, some how. I can look up the weather in those areas and see the above ground temps and humidity, but I don't think that has much to do with a baby. I don't think replicating the wild is always a good thing. I think replicating whatever is best for them in captivity is best.
What is my justification for all this? Glad you asked. Here it is:
Lovely shell. Is diet still a contribution towards pyramiding? and what did you have inside the humid hide was it cocoir?
I'm currently keeping my tortoise at 80% humidity and I am seeing some improvements on the shell.Diet really has little to do with pyramiding, except that diet controls growth rate to a degree. Pyramiding is caused by growth in conditions that are too dry. If conditions are too dry, it doesn't matter what you do or don't feed. The tortoise will pyramid. Conversely, if conditions are warm and humid and the tortoise is well hydrated, they will grow perfectly smooth even if you feed a sulcata cat food every day. Not suggesting anyone do this, but I have seen it and the tortoises were smooth, but very large for their age.
I have finally read this whole thread. Thank you for all this information. I have learned a lot. Between this thread and a site called star tortoises. net.
Nice to know my findings on humidity are correct. I usually go overboard carring, but now I know not with the humidity. I was pretty anxious about my new little Indian Star Tortoise. Thinking I was never going to be able to get him nice and healty growing like a Star should. All the Star I see over here are pyramid. So I was really looking into humidity and doing everything I can. But was affraid I was over doing it, like I tend to do things. And then I found this thread. So glad I did!!
Oh, and loved the pictures!! Thank you Tom!! I really hope I will grow a nice smooth shell on my Sterretje like you did your Sulcata's.
Hey Tom I'm a new owner of a lepoard tortiose do you see signs of eakry pyramiding I read you typed once it starts it can't be stopped? Now you have me extremely worried I ruined my babyInteresting that you should say this. I had a conversation with Richard Fife a couple of weeks ago and one of the things he told me about, was spraying the carapace. He felt like that alone would prevent pyramiding, but was not ready to go public with it, until he had done some more research on it.
Yours looks very young in the first pic. Do you know the source? Did the breeder keep it humid? It looks so perfectly smooth, that I'd expect it to be from Richard Fife. Do you know the age? I can only hope mine grow up that smooth.
Another thing that I've been trying to figure out is when, exactly, does pyramiding start. It seems to me that whatever pattern is established in the first few weeks will continue. Several breeders and experienced keepers have told me that if you can get them smooth to 4-6" they won't pyramid no matter what you do after that. By contrast, if they've already started pyramiding at a young age you pretty much can't stop it.
I'd love to know more about your set-up and climate conditions there. What substrate did you use for that fellow? Soaking routine? Water dish, or not? What size and type of enclosure? Sunshine, or not? UV bulbs, or not? Supplements, or not?
Sorry for all the questions, its just so rare to see a year old sulcata so smooth like that. He's got a pretty high dome too.
This has just given me a thought... We all refer to pyramiding as a raised scute. What if its not a raised scute, but a sunken valley between the scutes. If I looked at Daisy from the side and mentally brought all the valley's between her raised scutes up to the level of the tops of her pyramids she'd have a high dome just like that. Maybe pyramiding isn't the overgrowth of the center of the scute, but the UNDERGROWTH of the edges.
This has been one of my major obstacles in eradicating the scourge of pyramiding. No one, including me, seems to be able to really explain the exact mechanism behind it. Is it malformation of the underlying bone? Is it merely the upper keratinous layers? Both, in some combination? I'm left with trying to see what causes or prevents it. ALL the evidence (both scientific and anecdotal) I've seen points to humidity/moisture/hydration or the significant lack thereof.
All the pictures from 10 years ago are now gone... I’m thinking that from now on, I need to post the pictures in the thread as well as to make them as attachments.
good to know. Thanks!Im not sure the forum allowed direct uploads of images back then. All those images that dont load are links to external image hosts. As long as you upload the images directly to the TFO servers then as long as they decide to host the data it will remain viewable.