Manouria emys / Burmese mountain tortoise - Care

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Specification Description
Class: Reptilia
Order: Testudines
Suborder: Cryptodira
Family: Testudinidae
Scientific name: Manouria emys
Dutch name: Bruine woudschildpad
English name: Azian forest tortoise
Distribution: Asia
Reproduction: oviparous / egglaying
Status: Threatened
Cites: B

Manouria emys (ssp), (Schlegel & Müller, 1840)

The genus Manouria consists of only two species, the Manouria impressa which so far is very scarcely kept let alone bred long term in captivity and Manouria emys. The Manouria emys has two subspecies, Manouria emys emys (Brown Burmese mountain tortoise) and Manouria emys phayrei (Burmese black tortoise). The Manouria emys is the largest tortoise in Asia and one of the larger species in the world. They are only surpassed in size by the Galapagos tortoises (Chelonoides), Seychelles giant tortoises (Aldabrachelys gigantea) and the African spur thigh tortoise (Geochelone sulcata).


Status:  This species is classified by IUCN as 'threatened'. Mainly because of habitat loss and hunting for the Asian food market the wild population of this species has diminished. Still there are tortoises regularly stolen from their natural habitat to be sold as pets. Fortunately this species is bred more and more in captivity. By private keepers and zoo’s and there is a studbook maintained by the European Studbook Foundation.


General appearance and distinction:  Manouria emys is basically a dark colour. This may vary from brown, dark grey to almost black. The horn plates on the carapace are slightly concave into the carapace (Manouria emys emys). They have strong sturdy legs with coarse rough scales. These scales are used to protect them from thorns and relatives as they roam on the forest floor pushing through the thick vegetation. At their hind feet they have on each side on the thighs a thickening with coarse enlarged scales. Because of this they are sometimes also known as the "six-legged 'turtle. Like many forest-dwelling tortoises these species have relatively long and strong legs. They need them to move over obstacles on the forest floor and assist in reversing them when they end up on their backs.

Although these subspecies are distinguished in English literature as the "brown" and "black” Burmese wood tortoise. The colour is certainly not a reliable indicator to distinguish the Manouria emys emys and Manouria emys phayrei. Mainly young M. e. phayrei clearly are darker than the nominate but this difference is often difficult to distinguish in adult animals.

The best way to distinguish these two subspecies is via the second pair of pectoral plates on the plastron. This pair is positioned on the plastron just behind the front legs. At the M. e. emys this second pair is are not fused with each other but there is space between them and they are enclosed by the first and third pair. Which tough each other at the centre line. Also, the marginal horn plates have a weak raised edge. In Manouria emys phayrei the second pair of plates do touch each other at the centreline. Also, the marginal scales and smoother and less raised and the shields on the carapace are not dente/concave. Young animals have a slightly jagged edge along the shield. But these will become smoother when they get older. The Manouria emys emys is the smaller of the two subspecies and reaches on average 34-40cm with exceptions off 50cm. Manouria emys phayrei becomes considerably larger, on average 50cm carapace but can reach measurements of 65cm and 30+ kilograms.

Sexes are distinguishable only when they are 6 years or older. And even then it can be difficult compared to many other species. Males have a longer tail than females. A good indicator is that the tail of the females do not pass the femoral enlarged scales on their thighs. Only in adult males the plastron is concave, which you will not see in an adult female.


Behaviour:  Young Manouria are naturally shy and spend most of their time hidden between the thick vegetation on the forest floor. They prefer the shade and are mainly active in the twilight hours. However in captivity they get used very quickly and are very perceptive, active and curious tortoises. They quickly learn who their caregiver is and are happy to take food from him.


Origin and habitat:  Manouria emys emys occurs in the south of Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo. At the height of the Gulf of Thailand, in the borderlands of Thailand and Malaysia specimens have been found that appear to be an inter-grade between the two subspecies. The Manouria emys phayrei originates in India, Myanmar, Burma and western Thailand. There is documentation of alleged expanded populations in Vietnam Manouria emys emys. They share their habitat with other turtles and tortoises as Indotestudo elongata and Heosemys grandis.

Manouria emys prefers a moist, shady area with lots of vegetation and shelters. Almost always near water. These are often shallow pools and slow-flowing mountain streams hidden in the humid forests where they live. Young animals are found especially close to the water. Adults are often found at a greater distances from the water, grazing in bamboo forests. They are therefore most common in mountain to moderately tropical climates and landscapes which have a strong rainy season. They prefer shade above a strong sun and when it gets to hot they will puddle in the water to cool. They avoid people. The natural temperatures may range from 13C to 29C.


Housing:  Offspring Burmese forest tortoises do very well in captivity (whilst the Manouria impressa is very hard to get acclimated). What we mainly want to remember is that this species does not tolerate prolonged high temperatures. Give a daily average temperature of 21C on the cool side to a warmer part of up to 24C (not higher as 26C). Heat preferably with a ceramic heat lamp connected to a thermostat. They will thermoregulate, although often shortly. Night temperatures can drop to 15C.

Lighting:  There are various opinions and experiences about the light and also the UVB requierments of the Manouria emys. By nature, this species inhabits dense forests and bamboo forests and is mainly active in the shade. Therefore, there are no sunbeds and high light and UVB intensity are often avoided. The exposure is naturally low due to the fact that the vegetation filters and stops a lot of solar radiation. In captivity however, there are reports that Manouria emys may sometimes seek out and lie under HQL lamps if they are offered the possibility, provided they are hanging on a good height and the UVB exposure is not very concentrated and intensive. To provide a degree of day / night rhythm and the ability to thermoregulate when the turtles need it is it possible for young animals to use a heat spot lamp with a UVB compact light with a moderate UVB emission. For adult animals in spacious enclosures, use HQL (non HID) lamps. Hang it at a higher distance than one would do for a sun-loving species to reduce the UVB intensity and concentration. Keep an eye on the activity and response of the turtles in this light. Alternatively, with the offer of a warm side, use ceramic radiators in combination with UVB Fullspectrum Tl lighting. Make sure there are always enough options for your Manouria emys to seek out shady areas. Adjust, as the activity increases or decreases, the light and UVB intensity.

Humidity:  The humidity needs to be 80% or higher and mist almost daily. The humidity will rise in the night because of dropping of the temperatures. Activity and food intake drops drastically when they are kept to dry. Place a shallow water area where the animal can bath entirely, this species bathes a lot. If your Manouria constantly lies in the water section, please check your temperatures. These may be too high and the animal is looking for cooling.

Decoration:  Offer a thick layer of earth mixed with leaves and moss and place several hallow logs or the Exo Terra Turtle cave (for hatchlings) to create hides and visual barriers. Manouria is a good climber so will manoeuvre regularly over these obstacles. We like to mix different types of springtails, woodlice and worms for example through the substrate. These little helpers clean up waste and keep the soil in motion preventing excessive bacteria. Especially to young animals we like to offer several shelters filled with damp moss where the can hide in. Terracotta pots are very suitable for this purpose. These absorb moisture well and create a perfect humid hide. For adult animals piles composting leaves are a godsend.

Size of the enclosure:  Young animals require a minimum size of 100x50. In a terrarium it is considerably easier to maintain a constant temperature and humidity. Especially with young animals the humidity has a big effect on the growth of the shield. Pyramiding of the shell is a consequence of a too dry enclosure and soil. Often combined with a and poor nutrition. All of this seems Manouria do not show this problem as much as seen in other species of tortoise. This is probably because of their relatively slow growth and protein/calcium rich diet. Adults need an enclosure that is at least 10x their carapax-length long and wide. With tortoises, bigger is always better. A enclosure like this is suitable for a pair or small trio. With each additional adult animal you need to add 6 to 8 square meters

Remember that tortoises have a well-developed vision. This means that they can see well what's on the other side of the glass walls of the terrarium and they will continuously try to get to the other side to explore their environment. This can not only cause stress but also provide continuous pounding against the windows (with possibly cracking of the glass as a result). Therefore line all the walls with a background, you will notice that the animals will than examine their entire enclosure significantly more.

Outdoor enclosure:  When the weather permits and night-time temperatures do not drop below 13 C and the average daytime temperatures are 22-26C. You can keep healthy (sub)adults in an outdoor area. Provided there is a heated indoor accommodation available to them. Always make sure there are plenty of shelters on the sunny spot and a lot of cool shady places for the animals to thermo-regulate properly. Planting fruit trees can help you with this. In addition, any fallen fruit is a good addition to the diet of your tortoises. Please note that the sun can let temperatures rise very quickly in an outdoor enclosure. So observe your animals well and make sure there are plenty of shades at any moment of the day.


Diet:  Manouria feed on a widely varied diet of various vegetables, a low percentage (maximum 20%) of fruits and animal materials. For Manouria emys emys the animal matter comprises 10-15% of the diet and the Manouria emys phayrei needs till 30%. There are hobbyist who feed almost none, or a much higher percentage of animal matter. In nature, these forest tortoises are constantly looking for various kinds of leaf, flower, fruit and their favourite mushrooms and fungi.

Young Manouria need to be fed daily and adults every other day. Keep in mind these tortoises have a relatively slow growth rate compared to some of the commonly kept tortoises like Red-footed tortoises (Chelonoides carbonarius) In the basis we can feed various greens as chicory, tomatoes, endive, pak choy, carrot, bell peppers, zucchini, various romains, nettle, thistle, bamboo leaf, paprika, hibiscus, dandelion leaf and flower and various herbs. Palm leaf and various types of needleless cacti are also greatly appreciated. Add a small degree of various legumes and for example cucumber. Manouria (and many other forest turtles) are crazy about edible mushrooms and fungi. Add to their diet seasonally fruit. Remember that the commercially grown fruit has a different nutritional value than their natural diet and is especially rich in sugars. It's therefore very beneficial to plant fruit trees in the outdoor area. As reported, these are also very suitable for creating shade but the animals like to eat the fallen fruit. Good options include banana, mango, melon, apple and pear.

Young animals can be fed animal materials like different insects as mealworms, crickets and grasshoppers (with tweezers) and worms and small mice, chunks of chicken and beef heart. Adults can also be offered larger rodents and even whole chickes. Supplement the greens regularly with a  calcium powder with vitamin D3 in order to compensate for the low UVB exposure.


Reproduction:  This tortoise differs from almost all other types of chelonians in their nesting behaviour. Manouria emys builds a large nest to lay their eggs. In captivity we have learned that a composting pile of leaves and earth is necessary to get these animals to breed. These animals use this to build a nest and lay eggs. After laying the female protects the nest for several days. Invaders such as other tortoises and small predators that come down to the buried eggs are pushed away. There are reports of mothers who were trying to bite monitor lizards in an attempt to scare them of. When needed, the motherwill lie ying on the nest to shield them with her body. Such behaviour is unique among chelonians and very rare with other reptiles

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