A Dip in the Mediterranean

The Mediterranean tortoise offers turtle lovers a variety of fascinating alternatives to the beloved box turtle.


It used to be that the go-to land turtle pet in the United States was the box turtle. In some parts of the country, that is still true, as they inhabit a wide swath of our natural habitat. In terms of our industry, however, box turtles as pets are on the wane—and that is a good thing. Increasingly restrictive laws regarding these animals are a deserved response to their decline in the wild. While the decline can hardly be laid at the feet of the pet industry—freeway deaths more than exceed any culling of wild populations for the pet trade—box turtles are notoriously short-lived in captive situations.

Enter the Mediterranean tortoise. A modestly sized, hardy, personable vegetarian, the Mediterranean tortoise makes for a perfect pet for nearly any home.

Strictly speaking, the Mediterraneans are three species of the genus Testudo: the Greek, aka spur-thighed (T. graeca); marginated (T. marginata); and Hermann’s (T. hermanni). Arguably unrelated, but currently of the same genus—this is almost certain to change soon—is the Egyptian, aka Kleinmann’s (T. kleinmanni). Lastly, but perhaps most important to the current pet trade, is the Russian, aka Horsfield’s (A. horsfieldi)—formerly classified as Testudo, now generally accepted as Agrionemys.

For all intents and purposes, the dwarf species, Egyptian tortoise, is not under consideration as a pet store possibility. While this tortoise has been bred by some—and I am old enough to remember captive-produced babies in my store—it is endangered and extremely rare, having gone extinct in Egypt itself. The other species, however, all have a seat at the pet-trade table.

The first hurdle for pet store workers in selling Testudos is being able to tell the species apart. It is really quite straight-forward if you know what to look for, even in hatchlings. The Greeks have a single enlarged scale on the back of each thigh—hence, the alternative common name: spur-thighed. Many people confuse the common name with the spurred tortoise, Geochelone sulcatta. Spurred tortoises have spurs in great abundance on the front legs, while spur-thighed have a single scale on the back legs. Also, if it is three feet long, it is a spurred. Greeks barely manage 10 inches.

Hermann’s tortoises are just as distinguishable: the tail ends with a single long scale that sometimes has the appearance of a claw or hook. No other species has it. Marginated tortoises are a bit trickier to spot; sometimes, they have thigh spurs like their Greek cousins, sometimes not. The real tell on the marginated is on the lower carapace. Marginateds have a series of three to four pairs of blotches regularly arranged down the belly, whereas Greeks’ blotching is wildly variable. The marginated is known for the flanging effect that the scutes on the rear half achieve as it ages—particularly the males. Hatchlings lack the flanging, but even yearlings will start to show this development.

I will mention that some customers who are, frankly, obsessive fans of the genus, will want to know particulars of subspecies. This is far more difficult to assess and is best understood by having had experience and hands-on demonstration by breeders. Do not guess and embarrass yourself.

Care on these tortoises is relatively straightforward. They prefer a temperature range of 80 to 95 degrees, coupled with low humidity. They benefit from strong UV lighting. They are grassland tortoises, and prefer a diet of greens with a smattering of fruits and vegetables. All their food should be dusted in a good calcium and a vitamin supplement. Many tortoise owners think they can get away with one or the other; nothing is further from the truth. Calcium and vitamins are like participants in a three-legged race. When one stops, the team fails.

Like most vegetarians, they are grazers, and thus want a reasonably large enclosure. A footprint of two feet by four feet is not unreasonable, even for a single adult. They get most of their water from their food. I like to give babies and juveniles a 20-minute bath every morning in shallow tepid water. They drink in one end and defecate out the other, thus saving you a lot of clean up work in the cage. I do the same for the adults on a weekly basis.

Let us now turn to the poorly named Russian tortoise. I say poorly named, as the truth is that their habitat runs across what used to be a large portion of the USSR, but is no longer anywhere near what is currently Russia. The name does roll off the tongue a bit more easily than the more accurate Uzbekistani tortoise.

These tortoises are easily identified by their unique shell shape: slightly flattened, nearly round and squat. They resemble nothing so much as hamburger buns. Russians come from incredibly harsh grassland terrain. Summertime temperatures well exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit without much let-up, and winters rarely get over zero. Thus, they emerge from hibernation for a few weeks in the spring, before diving right back down into their burrows for the worst of the summer—the summertime equivalent to hibernation is called aestivation. They reemerge for a few weeks in the fall, before seeking shelter once again for the winter.

Last month, I discussed hibernation, in particular relating to tortoises, and how harsh and unforgiving the process can be. Let me reassert: if you intend to breed this tortoise, hibernation is a necessary evil. If you don’t, there is no earthly reason you should put these creatures through it. Instead, give them the gift that only captivity can: eternal spring. Give them steady temperatures and steady food, and you will have pets bustling with life and pleasure.

Russian tortoises are now the standard of our business, but of course, this may soon change. Dependence on wild-caught sources is never a good thing, and the fortunes of this animal in the wild are always worrisome. Changes in their status are dependent not only on their population numbers and prognosis, but also on local politics and economic changes, so there are no guarantees.

Importation quotas diminish every year, regardless of other factors. The answer is, as with every other species in the exotics marketplace, captive breeding. The good news is that not only Russians, but also Greeks, Hermann’s and marginateds are all being locally produced in numbers strong enough to meet the foreseeable marketplace needs, but soft enough to ensure high pricing, so baby tortoises will be purchased with care and forethought, and not just as a whim.

“But wait!” I hear you say. “Isn’t it illegal to sell baby turtles under four inches?” Yes it is, with the exception of animals sold for educational or scientific purposes. You must have your cages clearly marked to that effect.

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.

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