Bell’s hinged tortoise (Kinixys belliana)

Also known as: Bell’s hingeback tortoise, Bell’s hingebacked tortoise
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassReptilia
OrderTestudines
FamilyTestudinidae
GenusKinixys (1)
SizeLength: 15 - 22 cm (2) (3)
Weight1 - 2 kg (2)

Listed on Appendix II of CITES (1).

Bell’s hinged tortoise is a medium-sized tortoise whose common name derives from the unique, moveable ‘hinge’ at the rear of its elongated carapace (upper shell), which allows the tortoise to cover up its rear legs and tail when threatened (2) (4) (5). This species is one of only four tortoises in the world, all within this genus, to possess this unusual structure (2). The carapace of Bell’s hinged tortoise is domed, with sloping sides, and is quite variable in colour, though typically bears a pattern of yellow or reddish-brown scutes with dark brown or black edges (2) (3) (4). The lower shell, or plastron, is usually yellow with black radiations, while the limbs and tail are greyish brown, the tail ending in a claw-like tip (2) (3). The head, which is brown or black to yellow or tan in colour, is relatively small, with an upper jaw that may or may not be hooked (3). The male Bell’s hinged tortoise tends to be more faded in colour than the female and also has a larger tail and a concave plastron (2) (3) (4), while juveniles lack the distinguishing hinge of the adult’s shell (5).

Two subspecies of Bell’s hinged tortoise are usually recognised: Kinixys belliana belliana, which has five claws on each of its forefeet, and Kinixys belliana nogueyi, which has only four claws on each of its forefeet (3) (4) (6). Some also recognise a third subspecies, Kinixys belliana zombensis (6) (7), but others include this form with K. b. belliana (3).

Bell’s hinged tortoise is widely distributed across sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal east to Eritrea and Somalia, and south to South Africa, and may have also been introduced to Madagascar (2) (3). K. b. belliana occurs in eastern Africa, from Somalia and Ethiopia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and south to Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa, as well as Madagascar, while K. b. nogueyi occurs in western Africa, from Senegal eastward to Cameroon and Central African Republic (3).

Savanna, savanna woodland, open grassland, coastal plain and dry brush (2) (3) (5), up to elevations of about 3,000 metres (8). In southern Nigeria, Bell’s hinged tortoise may also occur at the border between forest, Guinea savannas and forest-derived savannas, although it is apparently uncommon in these marginal habitats (9). The species tends to occur in areas which have distinct wet and dry seasons (3).

Bell’s hinged tortoise is active during the wet season, spending the dry season aestivating in a burrow or in the mud at the bottom of drying waterholes (3) (5). The diet is varied and includes vegetation, such as leaves, grasses and sedges, as well as fallen fruits, sugarcane, fungi, insects, millipedes, snails and even carrion (3) (5) (10). Breeding is thought to occur during the wetter months, when the female excavates a hole into which up to ten elongate, brittle-shelled eggs are laid (2) (3) (5). Laying can occur at 40 day intervals, up to 45 eggs being laid in total over the breeding season (2) (4). Incubation may last between 90 and 110 days, or possibly up to a year (4) (5). The hatchlings measure a mere four centimetres or so in length (3) (4) (5) and are often uniformly yellowish, reddish or olive brown in colour, or with dark brown scutes surrounded by yellow borders (3). Bell’s hinged tortoise can live up to 22 years in captivity (4) (5).

Bell’s hinged tortoise is actively hunted for food and for traditional medicine throughout its range (5), particularly in parts of Nigeria (11) (12), although in some areas it is traditionally venerated as a “holy animal” which brings happiness (11). Bell’s hinged tortoise may also be threatened by the pet trade. Although not generally recommended as a pet for beginners (6), bans on trade in European tortoises have meant that West African species such as Bell’s hinged tortoise have increasingly featured in the wild pet trade (13).

Bell’s hinged tortoise is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that international trade in Bell’s hinged tortoises should be carefully monitored and controlled (1). However, more research may be needed to better understand the ecology and conservation needs of Bell’s hinged tortoise, and to ensure that it is not being adversely affected by overhunting or collection for the pet trade. In particular, populations of Bell’s hinged tortoise in the Niger Delta in Nigeria are thought to be extremely threatened and in need of urgent conservation action (11).

For more information on tortoises and turtles and their conservation, see:

Authenticated (06/08/09) by Dr Luca Luiselli, Senior Researcher in Ecology, Institute Demetra, Rome, Italy.
http://www.intecol.net/pages/002_personal.php?id=lucamlu

  1. CITES (January, 2009)
    http://www.cites.org
  2. Alden, P.C., Estes, R.D., Schlitter, D. and McBride, B. (1996) Collins Guide to African Wildlife. HarperCollins Publishers, London.
  3. Turtles of the World (CD-ROM), by Ernst, C.H., Altenburg, R.G.M. and Barbour, R.W. (January, 2009)
    http://ip30.eti.uva.nl/BIS/turtles.php?menuentry=soorten&id=350
  4. Branch, B. and Branch, W.R. (1998) Field Guide to Snakes and Other Reptiles of Southern Africa. Struik, Cape Town.
  5. Harris, M. (2002) Assessment of the status of seven reptile species in TOGO. Report to the Commission of the European Union. Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), Peterborough, UK. Available at:
    http://www.jncc.gov.uk/default.aspx?page=3379
  6. Kingsnake.com: Natural History and Care of Bell’s Hinged Tortoise (January, 2009)
    http://www.kingsnake.com/thewyvernslair/articles/phfrog_01.html
  7. World Chelonian Trust (January, 2009)
    http://www.chelonia.org/index.htm
  8. Halliday, T. and Adler, K. (2002) The New Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  9. Luiselli, L. (2009) Pers. comm.
  10. Luiselli, L. (2003) Seasonal activity patterns and diet divergence of three sympatric Afrotropical tortoise species (genus Kinixys). Contributions to Zoology, 72(4): 211 - 220.
  11. Luiselli, L. (2003) Comparative abundance and population structure of sympatric Afrotropical tortoises in six rainforest areas: the differential effects of “traditional veneration” and of “subsistence hunting” by local people. Acta Oecologica, 24(3): 157 - 163.
  12. Luiselli, L., Politano, E. and Akani, G.C. (2003) Seasonal incidence, sex-ratio, and population cohorts of hinge-back tortoises (genus Kinixys) in the wild and in bush-meat markets of the Niger Delta, southern Nigeria: are human predation effects random. Revue de Ecologie - La Terre et la Vie, 58(2): 243 - 248.
  13. IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group. (1991) Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles: An Action Plan for their Conservation. Second Edition. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.