Tortoises are some of the most long-lived species in the world, but exactly how long do they live for and why do they live this long? Unlike other common pets like dogs, cats, and birds, a pet tortoise will often outlive their owners. If you want to buy or adopt a tortoise, be prepared for a life-long commitment. So how long do tortoises live and what does it mean to own a tortoise that can live decades or even centuries? Here’s everything you need to know about having one of the longest living pets you can find.
What’s the Average Lifespan of a Tortoise?
The average lifespan of a tortoise differs greatly depending on many different factors but you can pretty much guarantee they are going to live longer than any other pet you may consider buying.
As tortoises can live longer than many humans, it can be difficult to track and monitor their exact ages. With giant tortoises, it could take the work of several generations to keep track of the age of one of these ancient creatures.
Common Pet Tortoises
Although different species have different known lifespans, most tortoises generally live for several decades. Common pet tortoises such as the leopard tortoise, Russian tortoise, Horsefield tortoise, Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise, or the Hermann’s tortoise can all be expected to live over 50 years old.
Larger pet tortoises such as the sulcata tortoise are known to live even longer, with some even exceeding 100 years of age.
If you are considering adopting or buying a baby tortoise, then you are looking at a life-long commitment; even an adult tortoise could still outlive you depending on your (and their) age when they join your family!
As with most animals, it’s a common rule that the larger the animal, the longer they live. This is the same with tortoises, with a giant tortoise often living much longer than smaller species. This is why the Galapagos tortoise and Seychelles giant tortoise have been known to live well over 100 years of age, with some even living for nearly two centuries! The longest living tortoise is actually an Aldabra giant tortoise and is yet to be outlived.
Although less commonly kept as pets, you can see these giant species of tortoises in many zoological collections around the world, as well as in the wild, albeit many being threatened by extinction.
Compared to Other Animals
Although there are some animals that can live for many centuries, such as the Bowhead whale, the immortal jellyfish, and the greenhead shark, for an animal to live over 100 is very rare.
Some more common animals that have considerably longer lifespans include the macaw which can live up to 80 years old, as well as the African elephant which are known to live between 60 and 70 years of age.
For a closer comparison, other long-lived reptiles such as crocodiles and alligators can also live up to 100 years of age but are more commonly killed for their skin and meat therefore do not often survive for more than a few decades in the wild. A similarly-sized reptile to the tortoise, such as an iguana may only live to 12 years old, however a python can live up to 30.
Why Do Tortoises Live So Long?
So why do tortoise species have such long lifespans? Although there are many scientific theories that are thought to play a role in their extended life expectancy, there is no definitive answer as to why they can live so long. Here are a few ideas:
Delayed and Prolonged Reproduction
If you consider animals like rabbits who can begin reproducing at 4 months of age, they have many threats in the wild which mean that they have a lower chance of living to adulthood. Therefore, it is beneficial for them to become sexually mature at a young age so that they improve their chances of being able to pass on their genetics and maintain population numbers.
Many different species of tortoise, on the other hand, do not become sexually mature until they are around 20 years of age! Their large shells mean that they make for a difficult meal for many predators, therefore they can grow slowly and surely, knowing that they will make it to a ripe old age of 50 or more. With this in mind, they don’t need to begin reproducing within a few months of hatching, but can reproduce even when they are 100 years old, meaning they can spread out their clutches of eggs over several years. Thus, creating many generations of healthy baby tortoises!
The location is thought to be a main factor in why tortoises can live for as long as they do and can be further linked to their delayed reproduction. As we mentioned, their shells mean that they are well protected from predators, however their location also greatly impacts the number of predators they are likely to have, too!
Giant tortoises, such as the Seychelles giant tortoise and the Galápagos tortoise live in very isolated habitats where they rarely come across another tortoise, and have fewer predators, too! This means that they have no fear and are able to live their lives knowing that they can reproduce whenever they are ready, and thus living to hundreds of years old.
Another factor to consider would be those tortoises that live in harsh environments that must purposefully wait for optimum conditions to be able to lay their eggs. Although their conditions may be more difficult to survive in, their forced delayed reproduction is thought to extend their life longer than those living in more favourable conditions. For example, the Egyptian tortoise that lives in the harsh deserts of Libya have a longer life expectancy than the red-footed tortoise that lives in the lush, green jungles of south and central America.
It is thought that having a slow metabolic rate improves the chances of an animal living longer, and a tortoise’s metabolic rate seems to be as slow as they come giving them quite the evolutionary advantage! Having low metabolism means that you burn off energy slower and meaning that they consume less energy and their organs don’t have to work as hard. This, in turn, means that animals with a low metabolic rate will not destroy cells as fast as other animals which means they can live for longer! Animals such as mice and hummingbirds have a very high metabolism and thus a much shorter life expectancy.
With tortoises living for so long, it makes it even more impressive when those select few outlive the rest. Here we celebrate some of the longest living tortoises in the world!
This Galapagos giant tortoise was said to have lived to around 250 years of age however his exact age could not be confirmed. It was estimated that he was born in 1750 and was taken to India by British sailors from the Seychelles as a gift for a Lord. He lived his final days in Alipore zoological gardens where his shell became damaged and he sadly died from an infection. It is thought that Adwaita was the world’s oldest tortoise.
Living to 188 years old, this beautiful radiated tortoise was gifted to the Tongan royal family who cared for him for his entire life. He was even met by Queen Elizabeth II when she visited the Royal Palace in 1953 however his body is now displayed in the Tongan National Center on Tongatapu. Tu’i Malila currently holds the Guinness world record of the world’s oldest tortoise.
Jonathan the aldabra tortoise is currently the oldest living tortoise in the world, and turned 188 in 2021. He is cared for on the island of Saint Helene where he arrived back in 1882. He is fed a nutritional diet of fruits and vegetables to maintain his health for (hopefully) many decades to come.
It is thought that Harriet was originally collected by Charles Darwin from the Galapagos islands however this could never be confirmed. She supposedly has moved around quite a lot in her lifetime but she was eventually taken in by Steve Irwin in 1987 and lived in the Australia Zoo, where she was known as a national icon, until she died in 2006.
Despite her name, Timothy was a female after being incorrectly sexed in the 19th century. This Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise lived happily with the Earls of Devon at Powderham Castle in England until she sadly passed away in 2004. Timothy was known for being the last survivor of the Crimean War and served as a mascot for the Royal Navy until 1892.
How To Help Your Pet Tortoise Live Longer
We want our pets to live for as long as possible, which means hoping our pet tortoises live for more than a century and providing them with everything they need to be able to do so. Tortoises can be sensitive creatures and require the correct environment to be able to thrive.
Not only should your tortoise enclosure be the correct size for your specific tortoise breed, but you also need to invest in the right setup. Small species of tortoises can do well in a tortoise table that are a few square feet in size however a giant tortoise may need a portion of your garden or a whole room of your house, depending on the climate. Tortoises love to explore therefore they need a large enough space with lots of furnishings for them to interact with to make sure that they do not get bored.
You will also need to provide sufficient UVB light and keep their enclosure to a suitable temperature. Each tortoise species has a different requirement so be sure to do your research when investing in new lamps. The same goes for the substrate which can also impact the levels of humidity within their enclosure. Not only do you need the correct substrate but you also need to ensure it remains clean and you remove any infected bedding and maintain a hygienic environment.
Bacteria and mould can cause serious health issues, as can incorrect humidity, temperature, or insufficient levels of UV light.
Different tortoise breeds can eat different foods, depending on what they would naturally eat in the wild. You will need to provide a careful balance of calcium and phosphorus to ensure that your tortoise grows at a healthy rate, as well as the correct levels of protein to avoid kidney stones.
Most tortoise species do well eating leafy greens, weeds, and a small amount of fruit and vegetables however you can also buy a specially formulated pellet diet that should contain everything that they need.
Most pet tortoises are used to being around humans and will tolerate minimal handling however they are known to get stressed quite easily and, as with any other animal or even humans, some individuals are more sensitive than others. A stressed tortoise can quickly develop a myriad of health problems that can be difficult to diagnose and treat.
Make sure you do not handle your tortoise too much, don’t make any loud or sudden movements, and monitor their behaviour to know if they are comfortable and happy.
Even the most stressed tortoise can get used to their human’s presence but it will take time and patience.
Do regular health checks, monitor their food intake and activity levels, and check their faeces and urates on a regular basis for signs of stress or illness.
Before buying a tortoise, you should always find your closest specialist vet who will be able to help you should you have any problems. Ask them questions if you ever have any cause for concern when it comes to your tortoise’s health.
A non-specialised vet may not be able to give the same care and expertise so it’s important you always consult with an exotic vet to receive the best advice.
All of this comes down to being properly educated and doing your research before buying a tortoise. Make sure you buy from a reputable breeder or rehome an adult tortoise if you can. Look into what each tortoise needs and consider what you can offer before making any decisions. The information available on animal care changes on a regular basis and new research is being done all the time therefore it is important to keep up to date on best practises to ensure you are always doing what is best for your beloved pet.
Keeping a Pet That Could Live Longer Than You
Of course, if you buy a tortoise then you should be prepared for the fact that they could possibly outlive you. Organise any arrangements for your tortoise in the event of you passing away, whether that means letting your family know how to care for them, or organising for an adoption through a third party.
You can even write them into your will to make it perfectly clear what should happen to your pet tortoise in the event of your death, in some circumstances, this could be the only way to ensure they continue to receive the proper care.
These beautiful animals can live for decades, sometimes even centuries, and that in itself is something that should be enough to amaze even the gloomiest of people. These incredible creatures have evolved to live slow, happy lives, with very little interference from other species. With their main threat being the destruction of humans, it is our duty to maintain these species and ensure they continue to live over 100 years old both in the wild and in captivity.