The tortoise terrarium

This is basically set up like The desert terrarium . However, the floor covering should NOT consist of sand. Tortoises need a large floor area to move around. The substrate has to be covered with an approx. 2 cm thick layer of JBL TerraBark .

A large bent piece of cork can serve as a shelter. Stones and stone plates can be placed in the terrarium, but make sure there aren't any sharp edges.

A heat emitter and a heating stone offer the required heat and will quickly become a favourite spot. A drinking bowl ( Bowls & containers ) and a feeding bowl for vegetarian food should be provided in a sufficiently large size.

The animal size - How big does your terrarium need to be?

Please remember the terrarium you need has to correspond to the maximum size of the tortoise species you are keeping. With tortoises, of course, it’s not the height but the floor area of the terrarium which matters. A good help is the following formula: shell length (of the largest tortoise) x 8 = terrarium length, terrarium length : 2 = terrarium width. For just a few genera and species you may use the factor 4 (Homopus spec., Malacochersus tornieri, Psammobates spec. and Pyxis spec.). The height should be about 60 cm to prevent adult animals from escaping out of the terrarium.

For further details please refer to all relevant literature and talk to your specialised dealer.

Terrarium size

There are legal minimum requirements for terrarium sizes for turtles. As soon as you have chosen a species, find out how big the animals will grow and what size of terrarium will be required. For tortoises in particular, keeping them free range outdoors during the warmer months of the year is ideal and naturally also saves on electricity costs for heating and lighting. However, even those living in a flat can keep tortoises in a species-appropriate way if they have enough space available. Please be sure to observe the legal regulations in your country: In Switzerland, for example, Mediterranean tortoises may only be kept in outdoor enclosures

Terrarium set-up

Desert and steppe-dwelling tortoises need a sandy but dust-free substrate (e.g. JBL TerraSand natural white). If the sand is too fine, they sink in and cannot move around easily. It is also important that, in addition to dry areas, there are also slightly wetter areas, such as those found in nature under bushes and stones. The tortoises don't really care about plants, stones or wood. It is more our wish to set up the terrarium as we imagine a desert or steppe landscape.

However, it is most important to provide a darkened "hiding place" to which the tortoise can retreat. Avoid sharp-edged stones, so that the tortoises do not injure themselves. Don’t use sand that can stick to the food, as this can lead to constipation. Make sure to provide a suitably sized food container that the turtles cannot knock over.

Forest tortoises prefer a loose soil such as JBL TerraBark to sand. You don't have to recreate a forest in the terrarium, but some subdued lighting (no bright lights!) is useful. Plants, wood and stones can be used for decoration, but a darkened hiding place is also essential here. If you are keeping female animals, you’ll need to add a layer of soil as thick as the width of the animal's shell, to allow them to burrow.

It is essential that any structures made of wood or stone are stable! Turtles, even small ones, can be surprisingly strong and literally cause mountains to collapse. Be on the safe side by using a suitable adhesive, such as JBL ProHaru Rapid (superglue), JBL ProHaru Universal (also sticks under water) or JBL AquaSil (silicone).


Where do you get your inspiration when setting up a terrarium? Where do your ideas come from?


When it comes to lighting, we differentiate between general terrarium lighting without UV, which would also be important for any plants (e.g. JBL LED SOLAR NATUR light bar or JBL Reptil LED Daylight in bulb form).

Spot lighting with UV radiation is also vital for the animals. There are various options here, which depend on the height of the terrarium and the distance from the animal to the lamp, which must not be too great, but also not too short. For the lamps mentioned below, the ideal distance from the turtle to the lamp is 30-40 cm.

  • JBL UV-Spot Plus: Extra powerful UV spotlight with daylight spectrum for terrariums. It generates light, heat and UV radiation. Does not require a ballast
  • JBL ReptilDesert L-U-W Light alu: Metal halide solar spotlight for desert terrariums. It generates light, heat and UV radiation. Requires a special ballast
  • JBL ReptilJungle L-U-W Light alu: Wide-beam spotlight for rainforest terrariums. Like JBL ReptilDesert L-U-W Light alu, but with slightly less UV content and a wider 40° beam angle. Ideal for forest tortoise species

Tortoises associate light with warmth and will head for the area under the spotlight when they need warmth. When installing the light, it is important NOT to position it in the centre of the terrarium, but rather off-centre so that the tortoise can seek out sheltered spots. The temperature in the light centre should be 35-40 °C for desert and Mediterranean species and only 30 °C for forest tortoises. Mounting the lamp on the side is highly recommended for forest dwellers.

Strictly speaking, the tortoise terrarium must offer the tortoise sufficient room, some hiding places, a suitable substrate, varying heat zones, a drinking bowl, a food bowl and the right lighting with and without UV. But we also like an attractive set up, where our terrarium recreates the turtle's natural habitat as closely as possible. And this is where it gets exciting: the internet provides us with images of the habitat without us having to travel to Mauritania or the southern states of the USA in person. Let these images inspire you to recreate the biotope. The animals don't really care about plants, but they look pretty AND improve the air climate in the terrarium as they can store and release moisture.

Tortoises are sun worshippers. Only a few species live in the rainforest and need less sun and therefore less UV radiation than the wide range of species which live in sun-drenched regions. The lighting therefore needs to produce heat, UV-A and UV-B radiation. You will find detailed information about lighting here:


Lighting is one of the most important topics in terraristics. What do you need to consider?

Water supply

Even tortoises need water! A shallow drinking bowl is essential. Many tortoises also like to bathe, so the water level needs to be fairly shallow to prevent them from drowning. A little gravel in their bathtub will help them to exit the container. When the bottom is too slippery, they can slip and fall when getting out, especially the younger animals.

Ventilation/accumulated heat

As tortoises are rarely kept in closed terrariums, heat build-up is not a problem for them. Furthermore, their drinking/bathing container generates less humidity than in an aqua-terrarium for aquatic turtles. When keeping forest tortoises, however, it is advisable to cover the top of the terrarium a little to minimise moisture loss.

Garden/outdoor terrarium

Many tortoises are kept in outdoor terrariums in the garden. Some are kept year-round, others only in the warmer seasons. Forest tortoises (e.g. red-footed tortoises and hinged tortoises) should only be kept outside in midsummer! For most species, which often come from the Mediterranean region, the months of April to October are suitable in Central Europe in a normal year. If these tortoises are provided with a slightly insulated house or a UV-permeable cold frame, they can even be kept outdoors throughout the year.

Humidity & day/night temperature

The temperature is also linked to the relative humidity, which is highest at lower temperatures, e.g. in the early hours of the morning. You can and should help with water sprayers to bring humidity into the terrarium. This is very important for the substrate (including sand), as many substrates are far too dry. Rule of thumb: Slightly moist like potting soil, but not muddy! During the day, aim for humidity levels between 30 and 50 %. At night and in the early hours of the morning, 60-70% is preferable. Monitor the air temperature and relative humidity with the two display tools on the JBL TerraControl.

A typical day’s humidity in the Colombian rainforest near Puerto Inirida can be found in the table.

Time Puerto Inirida Air temperature in °C Relative humidity in %
06:16 25.4 72.0
08:16 26.8 74.9
10:16 31.8 5.0
12:16 32.1 51.9
14:16 29.6 68.8
16:16 30.6 65.3
18:16 28.2 80.7
20:16 27.1 83.0
22:16 26.5 85.6
00:16 25.7 89.3
02:16 25.4 91.7
04:16 25.4 90.9
06:16 24.9 94.5

Heat for tortoises

Most species come from warmer regions and therefore need a heat source. Since a temperature reduction at night is almost always useful, the light source can also serve as a heat source. When the light goes out, the temperature drops too. You will find everything you need to know about heat in the terrarium here:


Depending on the turtle's area of origin, they may or may not require additional heat sources. It is often sufficient to use a UV-generating light source such as the JBL metal-halide lamps ( JBL ReptilDesert L-U-W Light alu (Special lamp for use in reptile keeping! Not suitable for other applications! No EEK label required. Exemption according to (EU) 2019/2015 Annex IV 3. c) UV radiation > 2mW/klm) and JBL ReptilJungle L-U-W Light alu (Special lamp for use in reptile keeping! Not suitable for other applications! No EEK label required. Exemption according to (EU) 2019/2015 Annex IV 3. c) UV radiation > 2mW/klm) ), which produce heat as well as UV radiation.

As the air temperature can drop to 21 °C at night even in the tropics, this alternation between higher daytime and lower night-time temperatures is highly recommended. Heating mats ( JBL TerraTemp heatmat ) are also well suited to bringing heat into a terrarium. The fluctuation of day and night temperatures is particularly important for tortoises in deserts and steppes.


How do you get your terrarium to the right temperature? Why does it need warm and cooler spots?


As most tortoises have cold months in their home areas, we should definitely give the animals a rest period in winter. The animals are inactive for around 3-4 months and stop feeding. The ideal temperature of the environment is then between 4 and 8 °C, which is why many cellar rooms are too warm. Very light humidity and loose soil for burrowing in their winter quarters are important.

Overwintering in a refrigerator at 4-8 °C is also possible if the animal is buried in the substrate.

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