By Chris Leone
Burmese Star Tortoise (Geochelone platynota)
An attractive species, the Burmese star tortoise features an oblong and moderatly domed carapace that is dark in color (black to deep brown). Each scute or plate is stamped with a beautiful star or flower petal pattern which is different than that of the Indian star tortoise (G. elegans). This pattern is yellow or cream colored and may cover a larger portion of the scute depending on the individual. "Wide banding" of the pattern, as it is sometimes referred to as in more aesthetically pleasing specimens, is highly sought after by collectors. However, all Burmese stars are something to see regardless of the abundance or "width" of the star/petal pattern on the shell. On each of the five vertebral scutes that span the spinal length of the carapace, platynota feature no more than six lines or points that sprout from the center marking of each scute. The first vertebral scute usually exhibits five lines which then increases to six on the second, third and so on. These lines, rays or points will span the entire scute and meet the ends of others to form a noticeable "net-like" pattern when viewing the tortoise from above. On the plastron, dark, triangular or trapezoidal shapes are found on a cream colored base. This is not found on the Indian star which typically sports continued "star-like" markings here. The head of the Burmese star is yellow-ish or light colored with fewer dark areas than the head of the Indian star. Long, powerful legs with thick scales enable the tortoise to walk "tall and proud". Large, dark eyes on either side of the head protrude and give this species a rather wise yet comical look. Geochelone platynota can attain considerable dimensions with females surpassing 12 inches.
This species is in serious trouble in its native Myanmar and is considered by some to be virtually extinct in nature. The IUCN lists the tortoise as critically endangered. Their future is highly uncertain and in 2013, they were elevated to CITES Appendix l.
This species of tortoise has never been at a high abundance level such as Indian star, Sulcata, Red Foot and Russian tortoises but in recent years, dedicated keepers are having success. Yearly, captive bred hatchling and juvenile Burmese star tortoises can be found for sale from experienced breeders and occasionally but still quite rarely, adults will be offered. Regardless of age, these tortoises fetch a high price and are considered to be very valuable. Their extinction-like situation in the wild only adds to their value making them irresistable to the serious tortoise enthusiast. Not to mention their gorgeous apppearance. At Garden State Tortoise, we occasionally offer hatchlings for sale from absolutely stunning adults.
Geochelone platynota are like most tortoise species, considered to be long lived. There is very little information concerning this matter and this may be partly due to the species' lack of experience in human care. With its adaptive nature, the Burmese star should reveal more about its longevity in at least captivity in years to come.
Depending on your location, this species can be housed either indoors or out. Several keepers swear by housing them inside in artificial, controlled conditions and while this method clearly has proven to be successfull, natural sunlight is always beneficial. In Myanmar, they inhabit dry, deciduous forests but adapt well in captive situations. Outside, a strong-walled enclosure (14x14ft for up to a trio of adults) in a sunny area on well-drained substrate works well. Grass lawns are always a bad idea, so removing the grass where the pen will be is advised. A 50/50 mix of top soil and play sand mixed with oyster shell makes for an excellent substrate for G. platynota. Low growing bushes and shrubs offer cover and so do large logs. Fresh water should always be available via large, shallow stainless steel dishes, sunken into the ground. Rabbit hutches with the legs sawed off so they are at ground level, or chicken coops work well as shelters for these tortoises or you can construct your own out of pressure treated wood. Burmese stars tolerate a decent temperature range handling heat into the 100s and colder nights thhat drop into the 40s. Still, shelter should always be made available to them.
Inside, we have success housing several different species of tortoises including G. platynota in large, wooden "tortoise table" type units. Here, space of course can be an issue but a pair of adults should be provided with at least an 8x4ft enclosure.
Lighting, Temperature and Humidity
As stated above, Burmese star tortoises can tolerate temperature fluctuation but are of course most active and do best when it's warm. Ambient room temperature should remain in the 80s with a basking spot of 100F or more. It is not necessary to add an additional heat source at night and the room can be allowed to drop significantly. It is always wise to keep an eye on these temperature drops though, to be sure they don't bottom out at a dangerous degree. Outside, the tortoises can be left to enjoy the sun and the elements during the spring, summer and part of the fall depending on your geographical location. When the nights start to consistently fall into the mid 40s, it's time to move them back inside into their winter quarters. Mercury vapor bulbs of 150 watts provide an excellent basking situation for platynota and they emit both UVA and UVB rays. These bulbs do tend to lose the intensity of the UV faster then the companies who manufacture them say they do, so replace them every six months or so. Using them in combination with 10.0 UVB fluorescent tube doesn't hurt. These bulbs work for both hatchlings, juveniles and adults but be careful with hatchlings. The powerful Mercury vapor bulbs can dry them out quickly. Keeping a relative humidty level of between 75 and 85% helps the tortoises stay well hydrated and aids in preventing excessive pyramiding of the shell. All ages of Burmese stars should have constant access to fresh water via shallow dishes or poultry waterers (which I have found to be easier to clean and even keep clean because the tortoises can drink from them, but not usually defecate in them). Burmese star tortoises are particularly fond of rain showers and react quickly to them by relieving themselves and tromping around during them. They will extend their necks into the falling rain and drink from puddles. Spraying them down with the garden hose on hot days does not go unnoticed. Indoors, spray bottles can be used or you can install a misting system. I have found the ExoTerra monsoon system to be very effective for platynota and all other tortoise species, especially neonates.
Indoors, I have the most success using cypress mulch. It holds humidity well and offers good traction. The tortoises can burrow in it if they feel the need and I use clay dishes when offering food to avoid ingestion of it. The 50/50 mix of top soil and play sand mentioned earlier works indoors as well but is of course messier.
Burmese star tortoises will accept a wide variety of foood items and ours are offered the following: Mazuri tortoise diets, fresh organic weeds (dandelion, clover, cat's ear, wild strawberry, plantain, hawksbit and thistle) and the occasional produce (collards, mustards, turnip greens and squashes), fruits very sparingly (papaya, banana, tomato, strawberries) and herbs. I also practice a method of mixing Mazuri tortoise chow with various organic, dried herbs that I buy in bulk online. It's an excellent way to feed our platynota and all other tortoise species especially during the winter when more natural items are not easily accessible. Watch the video I put together about this: Tortoise Feeding Tip (Using Organic Dried Herbs)
Of all the tortoises in captivity, the Burmese star quite possibly has one of the best personalities out there. They are highly adaptive and have proven to thrive in captive situations. This species quickly learns to associate its keeper as the food source and will enthusiastically approach in search of something to eat. We can even pet and scratch our Burmese stars' heads and necks, they rarely flinch or withdraw into their carapaces. A very, very outgoing and responsive tortoise to work with.
Reproduction and Breeding
Despite the turmoil and bleak future theu face in nature, Geochelone platynota has proven to be quite prolific in captivity. Warm rains and a rise in humidity can trigger courtship. Males will relentlessly pursue females to get the job done and some keepers have found that housing a somewhat higher number of males than what is usually suggested, may help in fertility and frequency of egg laying. Outdoors, the female will choose a sandy or loamy, sun drenched spot to deposit her clutch of eggs. Indoors, we use recessed plastic nesting boxes in our wooden enclosures. A hole is cut the size of the plastic container we choose to use into the bottom of the unit and the container is then sunken into place. It is then filled with a sand/soil mix. A heat lamp is hung above it and here, the females will dig a deep nest and deposit her eggs. Sometimes more than 12 eggs are laid, but usually less is common. The eggs are first placed in a sort of "pre-incubation" stage for the first week at room temperature (about 75F). They are then subjected to a cooling period for roughly 30 days at 65F-70F. After that they are warmed back up to room temperature for another week before being consistently incubated at between 86 and 90F and they will then hatch in about 90 days. Like many species, the sex of the tortoises is determined by the incubation temperature with the lower resulting in males, the higher in females. Over 90F can harshly subject the hatchlings to deformities and defects.
The incubation techniques for Geochelone platynota vary from keeper to keeper with an array of results. Some interesting notes to explore can be found from the following sources: Jerry D. Fife, Drew Rheinhardt (The Batagur #3, 2013), and Gerald Kuchling, Eric Goode, Peter Praschag (Endoscopic Imaging of Gonads, Sex Ratio and Temperature Dependent Sex Determination in Captive Bred Juvenile Burmese Star Tortoises Geochelone platynota, Asian Herpetological Research, 2011, 2:240-244).
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