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The term 'Mediterranean tortoise' is applied to four species of tortoise only three of which live around the Mediterranean! These tortoises are grouped together because they all live in more temperate climates and all four species hibernate in the winter months.
These are the tortoises which enjoyed great popularity throughout the latter part of the twentieth century, but excessive harvesting of these tortoises from their natural habitat has led to them becoming scarce across much of their natural range. Three of these species are now protected by law and require a 'license' if you want to buy or sell them.
'Mediterranean tortoise' is a phrase which is used to describe four species of tortoise, three of which live around the Mediterranean Sea, and one of which shares similar habits (notably hibernation) and is therefore grouped with the other three. These are the most popular tortoises in the UK (often described as 'garden tortoises' and in the 1970's and 80's were widely kept as pets in this country. This led to huge numbers of these tortoises being removed from their natural range which put severe pressure on many populations of these species. They are now protected by CITES and DEFRA and a 'license' (article 10 document) is required to buy and sell them (see History/Legal Issues page for more details).
These tortoise species are reasonably easy to keep in captivity, providing you understand and meet their requirements. Most of the tortoises imported over the last 20-30 years died within a couple of years due to poor feeding and husbandry. Today, the requirements of Mediterranean tortoises are well understood and if these are met then these species could easily outlive their owners! All four species are fairly small tortoises, which makes it easier to meet their requirements than some of their larger tropical cousins. They are well suited to life outside in the British summer, as long as they have somewhere to shelter from the rain and protection from predators, but they need indoor accommodation in spring and autumn and somewhere safe and cool to hibernate for two or three months in the winter.
Although these species are similar in their requirements, each has its own individual needs and differences and even between sub-species there are sometimes different requirements. It is therefore essential to find out exactly which species (and sub-species) of tortoise you have in order to find out more exactly what your tortoises requirements are. If you can meet these requirements, then Mediterranean tortoises make excellent pets and are far more interesting than most people imagine.
Mediterranean SpeciesHermanís Tortoise (Testudo hermanni)
The Hermanís tortoise comes mostly from arid semi-desert regions of Southern Europe and is a fairly small tortoise. Young animals, and some adults (especially in the Western race), have attractive black and yellow patterned carapaces, although the brightness may fade with age to a less distinct gray, straw or yellow coloration.
There are two sub-species of Herman's tortoise, the Eastern race (Testudo hermanni boettgeri), which originates from the Balkans, Albania, Southern Italy and Yugoslavia and the western race (Testudo hermanni hermanni), which occurs in France, Mediterranean Coast of Spain and Italy. Most of the Herman's tortoises kept in the UK are Testudo hermanni boettgeri.
The main difference between the two subspecies is their size. Adult tortoises of the Western race (Testudo hermanni hermanni) are smaller reaching sizes of around 15 - 20cm, with the eastern race (Testudo hermanni boettgeri) reaching a maximum size of about. Male Hermanís tortoises tend to be smaller than females. It must be stressed that although the two subspecies are similar, they should not be kept together.
Hermanís tortoises are a very active and inquisitive tortoise. They do not burrow but will partially bury themselves in very hot or cooler weather to create their own microclimate and conserve water. In the wild they tend to emerge in the morning and warm themselves in the sun. They will then feed and when it gets too hot they return to their shelter, often under thick bushes. In the evening they usually come out to feed again before settling for the night. Captive tortoises will follow a similar pattern, warming themselves under the heat lamp or sun, feeding, then retreating to their hide/tortoise shelter. They enjoy a bath and in the wild often can be found not far from streams.
Herman's tortoises are totally herbivorous and eat a wide range of green leafy plants as well as their flowers. In the past it was common place to feed protein to these tortoises (such as cat/dog food) but this is extremely bad for the tortoise and will significantly shorten its lifespan and possibly cause deformity due to over rapid growth. They should be fed only on leafy non-toxic weeds and plants which are low in protein and high in fibre.
Herman's tortoises hibernate in the wild through the colder months of winter. To do this they dig themselves into the ground to conserve moisture and heat and reawaken in the spring. In the South of Europe, the winters are shorter and milder than in the UK, so it is not normal for these tortoises to hibernate for the length of the British winter.
Marginated Tortoise (Testudo marginata)
This species is the real Greek tortoise being found mostly in mainland Greece and some of the Mediterranean islands (where it was probably introduced). Isolated populations may occur in some of the Balkan states and Italy. This is the largest European tortoise, reaching a length of up to 12 inches and a weight that can exceed 4 kilograms. They appear longer than the other species of Mediterranean tortoise, and have flared marginals which gives rise to their name. There are three possible sub-species of this tortoise although this split is not formally recognised.
Marginated tortoises can be distinguished from other species by the pairs of triangular markings found on their plastron. Marginated tortoises usually have tan and black markings when they are young but they tend to get darker with age and may end up with very dark (almost black) carapaces in older age. Males are larger than females and have a longer tail which is thicker at the base than females.
Their preferred habitat is dry scrubland and rocky hills, especially along the coastline and although their daily habits are very similar to those of Hermann's tortoise, the marginated tortoise prefers more mountainous habitat and is found at higher altitudes. In the heat of the day they bury themselves to escape extreme temperatures.
Marginated tortoises are herbivorous and in the wild they eat a wide range of green leafy weeds and flowers. They do not need any high protein food when kept in captivity and should be fed only non-toxic broadleafed weeds and flowers.
Marginated tortoises hibernate through the colder winter months. To do this they dig themselves into the ground to conserve moisture and heat and reawaken in the spring. In the South of Europe, the winters are shorter and milder than in the UK, so it is not normal for these tortoises to hibernate for the length of the British winter.
Spur-thighed Tortoise (Testudo graeca)
Also known as the Greek tortoise, this species can be found right across the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, with numerous sub-species existing. The exact number of sub-species is still under consideration but two of the most common species are Testudo graeca ibera which comes from Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania, and Testudo graeca graeca which comes from North Africa, Southern Spain, Sardinia, and the Balearic Islands. These are the main sub-species of this tortoise which are likely to be encountered in the UK. It is very important to make sure exactly which subspecies of tortoise you have as different sub-species have different requirements and should not be kept together.
It is difficult to describe this species in general due to the wide variations in size, colour and habitat between the different sub-species of tortoise. They are all arid species ranging from the semi-desert and scrubland habitats or Hermann's and Marginated tortoises to hotter, more arid desert regions of North Africa. Most sub-species hibernate, but for different lengths of time and some of the more sensitive species will fail to thrive outdoors in the British summer. The two sub-species mentioned above however come from similar climates and as such can be treated much the same way as Hermann's or marginated tortoises with regards hibernation and general husbandry.
The species gets its name from the noticeable spurs on the thighs of its back legs. Males tend to be smaller than females and have a longer tapering tail and generally a curved underside.
All sub-species of spur thighed tortoise are completely herbivorous and will do best on a diet which matches that of their natural environment. This would consist of broad leafed weeds and flowers in captivity such as clover and dandelion.
Horsfield's Tortoise (Testudo horsfieldi)
Although grouped with the Mediterranean tortoises (because of vaguely similar care requirements and the fact that it hibernates), This tortoise is not in fact from the Mediterranean at all instead coming from Pakistan, Eastern Iran, Afghanistan, Western China and Russia. It is also commonly known as the Russian tortoise. It is a fairly small tortoise reaching maximum lengths of up to eight and a half inches.
Horsefield's tortoises tend to have a pale or olive green carapace colour overlaid with darker brown areas. The limbs and head tend to be yellow or brown. It is fairly heavy in shape with a rounded carapace and is almost as wide as it is long. Females tend to be larger than males.
The preferred habitat of this tortoise is inland, mountainous regions and sandy/grassy steppes, often near to water. They are known to excavate long burrows up to two meters long in which they spend a greater part of the year. Horsfield's tortoises are only active in spring and early summer across a large part of their range. In captivity, this species is particularly intolerant of damp/humid conditions.
Horsefield's tortoises are totally herbivorous and eat a wide range of green leafy plants as well as grass and flowers. They should not under any circumstances be fed any foods containing protein or any fruit as this can cause deformities and/or gut problems.
Horsfield's tortoises hibernate through the colder winter months. To do this they dig themselves into the ground to conserve moisture and heat and reawaken in the spring. These tortoises live in places which have long and cold winters. They live farther North than any other species of tortoise. In this respect they differ from other Mediterranean tortoises in that they hibernate for longer periods in the wild (reportedly up to eight months) and therefore is the only Mediterranean tortoise species which could possibly be able to hibernate for the length of the British winter.