Cleo Gets a Coat!

This tortoise is wearing a 3D printed shell. Why?

⎈ Cleopatra is a teenager who seems pretty happy with her bright, new red coat. What’s unusual is that Cleo is a leopard tortoise! Also, her coat was 3D printed from a corn-based polylactate polymer by student designers at Colorado Technical University. No, this isn’t a new challenge on Project Runway, although the coat does stylishly drape over Cleo’s shell. It’s actually a 600 hour labor of love that will hopefully let Cleo enjoy a long (80+ years), tortoise life. 

⎈ Tortoises in the wild have smooth and convex shells. Unfortunately, when bred in captivity, tortoise shells grow in raised bumps known as pyramiding. When Cleo horsed around with her tortoise friends, the deformed shell wore through in spots, making her susceptible to bacteria and other infections. Fortunately, her red coat is temporary and her shell is expected to heal in a few years. 

⎈ Scientists are not sure what causes pyramiding. Too much dietary protein (Cleo is a herbivore) is one culprit. Not enough bone calcium is another. One study showed that raising the humidity helped. Until we solve the problem or stop breeding tortoises in captivity, we have prosthetics -not just for humans, but for our four legged friends too. 

News Story:

Ref: Influence of environmental humidity and dietary protein on pyramidal growth of carapaces in African spurred tortoises (Geochelone sulcata) (2003). C. S. Wiesner andC. Iben. Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition. Volume 87, pages 66–74

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67 Responses to Cleo Gets a Coat!

  1. James Benson says:

    Wow! What a great report! Nice 2 hear 3D printing put 2 good use!

  2. Rajini Rao says:

    I love that this was a student project too 🙂

  3. Dan Boggs says:

    Scholarly reference included! Bravo Rajini Rao 

  4. James Benson says:

    Indeed! Those students should be very proud!!

  5. Rajini Rao says:

    Hehe, thanks for appreciating that Dan Boggs . I did spend some time looking up “pyramiding”.

  6. Amber Peall says:

    Thoroughly adorable! I suspect Mz Maau  will like this – whilst not technically being a lizard or a hat, it’s decidedly remarkable!

  7. Rajini Rao says:

    It’s such a jaunty color too. Perhaps Mz Maau won’t mind that it’s not pink 🙂

  8. Elaine Smith says:


  9. Rajini Rao says:

    Turtle symbols, how cute Elaine Smith ! What’s the other one..can’t make it out 🙂

  10. Aww, I love tortoises, go Cleo! I hope that she isn’t in too much pain, she must be very sensitive in those exposed spots.

  11. Rajini Rao says:

    Tom Nathe  Reminds me of the Turtle Derby that first year med school students put on at my university to raise money for sick kids. We sponsor them with fanciful science-y race horse names and they have numbers and colors taped on their shells, as well as excitable jockeys who urge them on. Most don’t budge. 

  12. Rajini Rao says:

    Ohh, now you’ve reminded me of Jenny Joseph and her poem, which starts like this: 

    When I am an old woman I shall wear purple

    With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.

    And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves

    And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.

  13. Tortoises seem to adapt well to prosthetics. That caster wheel leg replacement springs to mind. 🙂

  14. That is awesome! I’ve seen some sad, messed up turtles from bad diet/habitat/husbandry. It’s cool seeing more solutions! (Including the tortoise with the wheel).

  15. Rajini Rao says:

    Carissa Braun I had not heard that tortoises/turtles were so susceptible in captivity. A commentator on the community share said that he fed them aragonite (calcium carbonate from the sea) and that kept their shells from pyramiding.

  16. Unfortunately, it’s not just pyramiding that can be an issue. I saw one poor turtle fed only dog food (I don’t even know) whose nickname is Pancake…because she looks like a pancake. Calcium is definitely essential for all reptile diets. Many deformities can be linked to a lack of adequate calcium, but even then, it isn’t foolproof. Each species is different, but turtles aren’t easy to care for like most people believe simple because of the dietary/habitat/growth issues.

  17. Also many of these developmental problems don’t show for years, so it’s harder to know what’s wrong :/

  18. Rajini Rao says:

    Oh my, that is so sad! Thanks for the details, Carissa Braun, helpful to all pet owners. 

  19. Didn’t know that this happened. Does it happens to pet turtles? Do all species suffer this?

  20. Rajini Rao says:

    Yes, apparently this happens to pet turtles. Sometimes they are kept too long by “basking lamps” and the dehydration messes their carapace. 

  21. Aww … that new coat is just great! Nice to know that 3D printing can be useful in this instance.

  22. Rajini Rao says:

    Yes, indeed Florence Gamiao ! According to the news story in the link, 3D printing is making a difference everywhere: “Doctors have printed a windpipe to help an infant breathe. They are implanting in people tiny beads that dispense antibiotics or cancer-fighting chemicals before dissolving. Designers are crafting custom prosthetics. Dentists are scanning and printing teeth. A 3-D-printed helmet wired to the brain of a paraplegic wearing a robotic exoskeleton enabled the man to kick a soccer ball to open the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, marking a scientific milestone.”

  23. rare avis says:

    3D prosthetics are magnificent, for all creatures: Great and Small…

    I’m thrilled to see science helping, too.

    I wonder if materials like chitosan: isolated from marine-life, might be somehow turned into a 3D printing material for these applications?

    Dolphins, Tortoise, and Hawks, O My! So many rescued with humanity’s innovations. It’s really uplifting to see the best of us, for a change.

    Under the shell, perhaps: we’re all in it together…  😉

    Last- I’m curious if modifying diets might aid in ‘shell’ resistance to basking lamps? Perhaps extra omegas, or a different supplement?  A foil to the ‘crackenstance” of too much brittle, not enough elastic?

    Slow and Steady wins the race. Right on, Science!

  24. Rajini Rao says:

    A fine example of human empathy, rare avis ! 

    Re. your question on chitosan, it is used as a scaffold in 3D printing apparently.

    A blog post that I came across described using humidifiers around the tortoises to counter the drying effect of the lamps.

    Supplementing diets would be great too, yes! 

    I’m glad the 3D printing wasn’t a hare-brained idea for this tortoise 🙂

  25. rare avis says:

    Rajini Rao


    As a prize for ye, the hare~apparent, I’ll punctually pungle you a punnet of pungent-sweet fruit punch for being both pundit and punctilios pungeon master, not as a punitive measure, but in awe of the homespun spunk, and for illuminating the spunbonding potential of puny chitosan… 😉

  26. Rajini Rao says:

    rare avis I’m tortoise shell-shocked by the discovery of your punchy punditry and must punctuate my praise with pause to parse your punderstorm for my punderful colleagues.

    Chad Haney Bill McGarvey Gnotic Pasta 

  27. Mary T says:

    Lovely post that brings a big smile ;-))). 

  28. *E* Dubb says:

    great idea! I luv turtles!!!

  29. Captive Cleo’s coat made to measure, to cover her achilles heel. Can’t resist tales that end “happily ever after” . thanks, Rajini

  30. Rajini Rao says:

    John Condliffe a “feel good” story that makes us humans look good for a change..let’s hope the tortoise survives well in captivity. 

  31. Kansu Lal says:

    Very intresting dear

  32. Chad Haney says:

    I raced back from the lab to get hare in time for some puns.

  33. I made it back because I have turtle recall

  34. That is really cool and very interesting

  35. 🐢🐢🐢🐢🐢 A turtally 5-turtle perfect rating for this group & Cleo‼️

  36. Chad Haney says:

    I’m glad Cleo has shell-ter. 

  37. Pardon the question am from England is turtle a tortoise

  38. Rajini Rao says:

    Anita Beaven Beaven that’s a great question! Tortoises are purely terrestrial, terrapins are aquatic and turtles, well..they can be both, but I don’t remember how they differ. I expect Carissa Braun however to have turtle recall.  

  39. Rajini Rao says:

    Chad Haney it’s hard to miss how happy Cleo is in the photo where she is walking right tortoise.

  40. Rajini Rao says:

    Rashid Moore I’d love to match your verse with worse but all I could find is a truly terrapin limerick:

    In Rome, an old tortoise named Myrtle

    Was in prison for stealing a girdle.

    Then the Vatican City

    Agreed to have pity

    The headlines read: “Pope Springs a Turtle!”


  41. Anita Beaven Beaven they are all within the order Testudinata, but as to the differences, it’s as Rajini Rao said, and even that classification scheme is up for debate.

    For example, some experts argue that a box turtle is a turtle whereas others say it’s a tortoise (box turtles can be miles from water and have more of a tortoise/terrestrial type of structure/adaptation). To that degree, a box turtle is in the exact same family as as a diamondback terrapin. Beyond habitat preference, there isn’t much of a set of rules.

  42. Rajini Rao says:

    Thanks, Carissa Braun ! I read somewhere that “turtles” are an American term. 

  43. James Benson says:

    Probably also an American sports team. Sorry I couldn’t resist! Hey, it’s close 2 Easter! 😉

  44. Rajini Rao says:

    Our local university (UMD) has a snapping turtle as mascot. Somehow I think their motto Fear the Turtle doesn’t quite do the trick 🙂

  45. James Benson says:

    My undergrad, university of Maryland, also has the turtle as a mascot! Turtles rule!! 😉

  46. Rajini Rao says:

    James Benson I was referring to the University of Maryland too! 🙂

  47. Mad B says:

    My guess is that pyramiding is turtle obesity. Flesh inside cant go anywhere and pushing shell outside in [fast growing] center

  48. Rajini Rao says:

    Could be a contributing factor, Madjid Boukri . It’s hard to raise wild critters in captivity. Besides, they get little exercise. 

  49. Madjid Boukri fast growth can contribute to pyramiding. But those that apply high humidity to prevent pyramiding gets an unexpected result – fast growth. That is, at 80% humidity and up (and assuming right temperatures) they tend not only have smooth shell but fast growth as well

  50. Ive never owned a tortoise they look interesting to look after with a lot of understanding . I got millipedes those to need calcium for there body structure .

  51.  I heard about this = just fantastic! Thanks for sharing.

  52. Rajini Rao says:

    My pleasure, it was such a delightful story Judy McKnight 🙂

  53. Kilee Bough says:

    Love turtles! I am the hippy nature lover that stops traffic to rescue a turtle… I have an Eastern box turtle … Mini me.

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