Geochelone elegans

(Schoepff, 1795)
Indian star tortoise

The oval carapace (to 38 cm) is domed with a very convex dorsal surface and abruptly descending sides. A deep cervical indentation is present, but no cervical scute. Posterior marginals are serrated and, in some, slightly upturned. Vertebrals are usually broader than long, although the first may be longer or as long as broad; the 5th is expanded. Well-defined growth annuli surround the raised vertebral and pleural areolae, causing the carapace to appear lumpy. There are usually 11 marginals on each side, and a single, undivided, downturned supracaudal scute. The carapace is dark brown or black; a series of 6-12 yellow stripes radiate outward from the yellow or tan vertebral and pleural areolae (6 or less in G. platynota). Each marginal has one to three yellow stripes beginning at a yellow spot in the lower posterior corner and extending upward toward the pleurals and vertebrals. The well-developed plastron is slightly upturned anteriorly. Its forelobe is longer but narrower than the hindlobe, which bears a deep anal notch. The plastral formula is: abd > hum > gul > fem > pect >< an; the paired gulars are thickened but do not greatly protrude anteriorly. The bridge is wide with single axillary and inguinal scutes of moderate size. Plastron and bridge are yellow with black radiations. The head is moderate with a nonprojecting snout and a weakly hooked, sometime bi- or tricuspid, upper jaw. Its large prefrontal scale is divided longitudinally and followed by a single, rather narrow frontal scale which may extend forward to partially separate the two halves of the prefrontal. Other head scales are small. The head is yellow to tan with brown jaws; limbs and tail are also yellow or tan. The anterior surface of each forelimb is covered with large and small irregularly shaped to pointed scales in five to seven longitudinal rows. Several small to moderate conical tubercles occur on the thigh. The tail usually lacks an enlarged scale.
Males have longer, thicker tails than do females; females are larger and broader. Males have a concave plastron.

The star tortoise ranges in peninsular India from Orissa in the east and Sind and Kutch in the west southward to the tip (Minton, 1966). It also occurs in Pakistan and on Sri Lanka, and on other small offshore islands where its only fresh water comes from the monsoons.

Geographic Variation
No subspecies are recognized, but variation does occur. A north to south cline in carapace length exists through peninsular India, with tortoises from the north being larger than those from the south (Charles R. Crumly, pers. comm.). Also, Frazier (in Das, 1991) reported that tortoises from eastern Pakistan and western India have a dull dirty brown or beige color, while those from southern India are more brightly colored.

Geochelone elegans lives in a variety of habitats ranging from tropical deciduous forests to dry savannahs, but seems to require an ample supply of water. Seasonally they are most active during the monsoon rains when they may wander about all day; in dry seasons they are active only during early morning and late afternoon or evening. They soak in puddles and pools of water.

Natural History
Female maturity probably occurs in 6-7 years (Das, 1995). The mating season corresponds to the rainy season from mid-June to mid-October. While courting, males pursue females, and, when they are caught, ram and push the females with their thickened gular scutes. When she is immobilized, the male mounts from the rear while resting his forefeet on her 3rd pleural scutes. He may then raise his hind feet free of the ground and smash his anal scutes against the lower, rear portion of her carapace. During this phase and after intromission the male may utter short grunts. Aggressive males ram and push rival males during the mating season to drive them away from potential mates.
Nestings have been observed in the wild and in captivity from April to November, and 2-4 clutches are laid each year. A typical nest is flask shaped and about 10-16 cm deep. Eggs are elongated (38.0-52.5 x 27.0-39.0 mm) with brittle shells; 2-10 (usually 6) are laid at one time (Deraniyagala, 1939; Whelan and Coakley, 1982; Das, 1991, 1995). Incubation may last over 140 days, and the hatchlings may remain in the nest until rains soften the soil allowing them to escape. Hatchlings have rounded, slightly domed carapaces (35-40 mm), with or without yellow radiations.
Like other tortoises, G. elegans is predominantly herbivorous, feeding on grasses, forest onions, fallen fruits, flowers, and the leaves of succulent plants. Occasionally carrion is eaten, and some captives will accept animal foods.

IUCN Red List Status (1996)
Not listed.