Tortoise Shell Pyramiding

Tortoise Shell Pyramiding: Knowing the Signs & What to do

Caring for a tortoise is relatively easy to care for when you consider them to other reptiles. However, not understanding their care needs can cause your tortoise many problems that can be slow to show themselves. A tortoise’s shell pyramiding will not be noticed overnight and can take months to show signs. 

A tortoise’s shell is made from lots of plates called scutes. Pyramiding is when the scutes rais during the tortoise’s growth periods. The shell should be smooth and evenly shaped; however, pyramiding increases the vertical shell size and raises the scutes making the shell bumpy. 

There is a lot of debate around what causes pyramiding in tortoises and the effects are on your tortoise. I hope to displace all the myths and help you spot early signs of pyramiding and what action to take. 

What is Pyramiding?

The shell of a tortoise is made up of individual plates that are called scutes. As your tortoise develops, these plates keep growing, giving your tortoise a nice smooth rounded shell. However, if a tortoise grows too quickly, these plates will be pushed out of shape, providing a tortoise a bumpy shell.

There are many reasons that people say is the cause of pyramiding, for instance, excess growth that pushes the scutes upwards. Or down to the poor bone structure and make your tortoise have a misshaped shell. 

If you have seen a tortoise with pyramiding and the chances you have, it can be a common problem with many captive-bred tortoises. With that said, this doesn’t mean tortoises in the wild don’t suffer from pyramiding. Tortoises in the wild can suffer pyramiding as their diet can be poor. 

However, pyramiding to a tortoise can be debilitating and cause your tortoise many health problems. Yet, it is avoidable that can be easily avoided despite how common it is with captive-bred tortoises. 

What Are The Risk Factors of Pyramiding?

Scientists don’t know 100% know why pyramiding actually happens, but despite this, I do believe that pyramiding is preventable with the correct care. Some tortoises will be more prone to pyramiding than others. 

With that said, science has not given much time to the investigation of pyramiding. I believe this is because it is more of a captive-bred problem than a wild phenomenon.

But here are some of the things that I have learned over my years keeping tortoises that I have seen increased the risk of tortoises developing pyramiding.

The Early Years Are Most Important Time

Your tortoise is going to do most of its growth during the first couple of years of its life. I believe the first part of your tortoise’s life will dramatically affect its shell growth. 

Mediterranean and desert tortoise species live in low humidity parts of the world, so you need to replicate this as closely as possible. If you don’t supply a low humidity environment, I have seen an increased chance of pyramiding.   

The one theory behind this is that the tortoise’s shell grows excessively to prevent water loss from evaporation in the dry environment provided.  

Matching the environment that is closely matched to your tortoise’s natural habitat will give your tortoise the best chance of not developing shell pyramiding. 

Suppose you are struggling to get the moisture up in your enclosure, then spraying the area with a spray bottle. Doing this will bring up the humidity in the enclosure that Mediterranean and desert tortoise species need.

Incorrect Substrate

The substrate may sound like a strange thing that can lead to pyramiding, but it does have a significant impact on your tortoise’s environment. The substrate is a hotly debated topic in the tortoise communities, which substrate is the best substrate for tortoises, and getting it right can be tricky. 

Wherever you turn, there will be someone arguing that your choice is wrong as it’s too moist and a breeding ground for fungus and bacteria. You will have others saying your choice may dry and can the dust cause respiratory infection problems. 

I find the best solution is to use a combination of a few different substrates. Using hay or straw as the bulk of your enclosure’s substrate, then utilizing a damper soil substrate that will allow your tortoises to burrow in their hide. 

This will give your tortoises enclosure the perfect microclimate that is not too damp but not too dry. 

Having an Excess Protein In The Diet

Its always been a belief that too much protein in your tortoise diet will cause pyramiding. The theory behind this is based on the thinking that protein is the primary building block in growth. 

So if your tortoise has too much protein, then the shell’s growth is behind the tortoise’s body. Leading to your tortoise’s scutes being pushed out, making the shell bumpy, which is called pyramiding. 

Protein in all tortoises is only ever required in very small amounts. The protein level found in a tortoises regular diet of salad leaves and weeds should give your tortoises an adequate amount of protein. You shouldn’t have to add any extra protein to your tortoise’s diet. 

Some tortoises require a little more protein than other tortoises; the red and yellow foot tortoise comes to mind. However, people mistake this and feed them dog food, and you should never do this and just up the protein with weeds. 

Heat or UV Lighting and Dietary Minerals Wrong 

Getting your tortoise’s heating and lighting is crucial in preventing pyramiding. Heating allows your tortoise to function correctly brings their blood temperature to correct levels.  However, they can cause tortoise problems if they make their enclosure too dry. An enclosure that is too dry will cause your tortoise to lose water and dry out its shell, leading to pyramiding. 

You shouldn’t take out the heat lamp as this is crucial to your tortoise, but taking steps to up the humidity should be followed. 

A tortoise gets its vital vitamins from food and supplements; however, they also get many vitamins from UV lighting, which cant be obtained from food. If your tortoise has doesn’t have access to UV light, it can cause their shell to become misshaped, more commonly known as pyramiding.

How To Prevent Pyramiding 

Before we jump into how to prevent pyramiding, I will first point out that if you purchase an older than a one-year-old tortoise. You may do everything right to prevent pyramiding, but the care given before you have the tortoise may have been incorrect. You may not stop the pyramiding with correct care, but you can stop it from getting any worse.

Tortoises are a lifetime commitment but the first couple of years of your tortoise’s life are the most important from stopping pyramiding from setting in.

Sticking to all the best practices that are commonly known will best help your tortoise never get shell pyramiding. Here are some simple tips to help you:

  • Ensure that your tortoise’s enclosure has the correct heating and UV lighting
  • Make sure there is enough moisture in the enclosure can be added by spray bottle
  • A diet that is low in protein and low in carbohydrate, and high in fiber  
  • Even for tortoises that require higher protein, keep it to a minimum 
  • Regular calcium supplement 
  • Clean water dish in the enclosure
  • Bath your tortoise at least once weekly 

How To Tell You Have Pyramiding Under Control?

If you follow the above practices and follow all the care sheets you got with your tortoise when you purchased it, then pyramiding should be unlikely. However, if you ever neglected or your tortoise has been neglected before purchasing, you will need to take action. 

There is a saying that a picture says a thousand words, which is when we talk about pyramiding. Taking pictures of your tortoise will be your first defense line, making sure you take the photos from the same angles. The taking of photographs will enable you to see if you are getting on top of the problem.

When you follow your tortoise’s care sheet, you should monitor the pictures you have taken over the months. Assessing if you have gotten on top of the problem will be much easier with the images. 

If you are struggling to get on top of the problem, I advise you to visit a vet to look at your tortoise. The images will be a big help to your vet in determined the problem. A vet will also be able to give advice on dietary needs and help you get them correct. If you are new to tortoises, we can get our tortoise’s dietary needs off a little. 

Can Pyramiding be Reversed or Cured?

There is a simple answer to this, and that’s no; unfortunately, once pyramiding has happened, you will not be able to reverse it, but you can stop it from getting any worse. The shell and bone structure will be permanently deformed and will always be like this for the rest of their lives.

Despite the disappointing answer, the good part of this is that if you take proper care actions, you will be able to stop it from getting any worse. If you get on top of the problem quickly, your tortoise will live a happy life; all be it with a wonky shell. 

Tortoise Pyramiding FAQ 

There are many questions about tortoise pyramiding, and we hope that our article has helped answer many you may have, but we have included many of the common questions below. 

What Causes Tortoise Shell Pyramiding?

Pyramiding can be caused by overeating food or metabolic bone disease. Pyramiding causes the tortoise shell to become misshapen and bumpy, pushing the scutes out of shape. Eventually, pyramiding can cause your tortoise discomfort and eventual death.  

How Do You Stop Tortoise Shell From Pyramiding?

Tips to stopping pyramiding 

  1. Correct humidity in the tortoise enclosure
  2. Low protein, low carbohydrate, high fiber diet
  3. Supply access to water
  4. Mist enclosure to bring the humidity up
  5. Access to Correct heating
  6. Correct UV light
  7. Allow access to as much natural sunlight as possible.
  8. Encourage the tortoise to be active

Can Pyramiding on a Tortoise Be Reversed?

Unfortunately, pyramiding can not be reversed. However, you can stop the pyramiding from getting any worse. Taking some simple steps like upping the humidity and lowering the tortoise’s protein intake will all slow or stop the process of pyramiding. 

How Do I Know if My Tortoise Is Pyramiding?

A tortoise shell is made up of scutes that grow, making up the shell that should be smooth across the shell. You will know that your tortoises have pyramiding of the shell if you start to feel bumps. The scutes on the shell begin to protrude, making it bumpy and can cause many problems to a tortoise.

Is Pyramiding Bad for Tortoises?

Pyramiding doesn’t pose any problems in itself to a tortoise; however, it is a sign of a poor diet, so it needs rectifying. If you continue to feed a poor diet, this will cause your tortoise many problems. Severe pyramiding can lead to your tortoise being unable to follow its instincts. 


Pyramiding is very common within captive bred tortoises, and in some cases, it will not be you, the owner, that caused the problem. Getting a tortoise over one-year-old and you may have a tortoise with early onset of shell pyramiding.

Follow the correct care for your tortoise diet, and lighting will keep pyramiding from ever occurring.

If you find your tortoise has a problem, then changing your tortoise’s diet and making sure the lighting is correct will be the first step. When you change what you feel is the problem, keep taking pictures to check that you are getting onto the problem. If you can not get the problem sorted, visit a vet to get onto the situation.