Shell Game

Whether in giant form or one of the more moderate sizes, the amiable tortoise can be an enjoyable and rewarding pet.




I have previously spoken out against the keeping of freshwater turtles as pets. They are among the most expensive to set up and least rewarding of all herptile pets. While the babies are seductively cute, the small percentage that receive adequate housing and care—and thus survive—inevitably grow up to be aggressive and potentially dangerous animals. By contrast, tortoises make lovely pets. They are primarily vegetarian, mild-mannered land dwellers that will outlive their owners, and possibly their owners’ children and even grandchildren.


The major trend of the last few years has been toward African spurred tortoises. In fact, they have become so popular that their Latin name has now become their popular name, a first in the pet field as far as I know. The vast majority of people who own them would be lost if I asked after their spurred tortoise, but are happy to give me lengthy descriptions of the exploits of their sulcata.


Add to the positives of pet sulcatas the fact that they are overwhelmingly the product of captive breeding, a goal we strive to achieve with all the animals we sell. Thus, they are relatively inexpensive, hardy, generally free of parasites and put no pressure on wild populations. But therein also lies a problem: sulcatas get huge. They are the largest mainland tortoise in the world, growing to nearly three feet in length and potentially weighing in at close to two hundred pounds. This often exceeds the wants of their owners and creates a looming issue—what to do with herds of unwanted behemoths.


In my store, we always have a few large animals on premises to give potential buyers an idea of what they are in for. This dissuades many potential owners, but some people think they can plan ahead for one and later find they cannot. Thus, it is prudent, both as a matter of ethics and good business, to have an alternative.


Enter the Mediterranean tortoise. The term “Mediterranean tortoise” refers to the genus Testudo, a group that ranges from North Africa around to Greece and parts of southeastern Europe. This breaks down into several species, but in general terms, these animals top out at less than 14 inches and under 10 pounds, perfectly manageable for just about any household. They are bright, outgoing animals and make excellent pets.


Testudos like heat (a range across the cage from 80 to 100 degrees) and low humidity. We don’t use water bowls for them, as they get most of their water from their food, supplemented by periodic soakings in shallow lukewarm water. They also like intense sun—10.0 UV lights are not out of order. They are grass eaters and should be given a diet of leafy greens supplemented by some fruit and vegetables, all heavily powdered in a vitamin/calcium mixture, as bone growth is more important to tortoises than most other reptiles. It is essential to give them enough room to graze and freely walk. A 10 gallon tank serves for hatchlings and, when they outgrow that, a cage with a roughly two-foot by four-foot area is ideal.


I happen to live in a part of the country with, coincidentally, a “Mediterranean” climate, and so having a supplemental outdoor pen comes in quite handy around here. In fact, most parts of the U.S. have some substantial part of the year where an outdoor pen would be useful. Some things to keep in mind:


  • Don’t “overnight” your tortoise, as evening temperatures can drop precipitously, and nocturnal predators can break into seemingly secure enclosures. For that matter, make sure your sunning cage is secure against daytime predators as well.
  • Make sure your tortoise does not have access to exotic plants, many of which can be toxic and your tortoise would not know to avoid.
  • Ensure your enclosure is not subject to “great escapes” via underground burrows. Your tortoise is a burrow ninja.
  • Make certain your tortoise always has access to shade. Even the most resilient desert animals perish when forced into too much sun.


“Russian” tortoises (T. horsfieldii) are overwhelmingly the most common of the testudos. These utterly charming creatures are easily distinguishable by their shell shape. They resemble, even as hatchlings, nothing so much as hamburgers, with a rounded and somewhat flattened shell. Their ready availability is because of their ongoing (though diminished) wild importation from Uzbekistan. You will often recognize imported specimens by their chipped and damaged shells. The good news is that they seem to be the one known species that can actually regenerate shell, given many years.


In all cases I prefer to deal in animals that have been captive-produced, which is becoming more commonplace with these tortoises, and I am able to offer captive-born specimens with some regularity.


Other species of testudo include the following:

  • Greek, a.k.a. spur-thighed (T. graeca) — Another reasonably common tortoise, identifiable by a single enlarged scale on the back of each hind leg.
  • Hermann’s (T. hermanni) — Virtually identical to the Greek but less common, the Hermann’s has no thigh spurs but does have a single horny scale at the end of the tail, like a blunted scorpion’s stinger.
  • Marginated (T. marginata) — To my eye, the most beautiful of the entire group. Their shell is slightly elongated, and, as they mature, the rear “fenders” flange out in beautiful waves.


One more way to distinguish species of testudo is by looking at the markings on the lower plastron. There are guides to this online, but keep in mind that irresponsible cross-breeding has blurred the boundaries. Approach with caution.


As I have mentioned, these tortoises are now being bred with enough proliferation that they are no longer rare in the pet industry. That said, always remember that all turtles under four inches in shell length are illegal to sell for anything but scientific or educational purposes. Notice to this effect needs to be posted in your shop, and your sales must hinge upon verbal affirmation by your customer that this is the intended purpose.


“But, why?” your customer will inevitably inquire. Because turtles were, in the 1960s, unfairly tarnished with a reputation for carrying salmonella. Now, the truth is, virtually any animal, and plenty of food, can also carry salmonella. But turtles were blamed, legislation was enacted and the Four Inch Rule (based, I kid you not, on the notion that a turtle under four inches could be fit into a child’s mouth) became the law of the land. Never mind that salmonella is water-borne, and tortoises are dry as old twigs. Never mind that a part of a turtle that is 10 inches long can still be fit into a child’s mouth. Never mind the many other potential vectors at hand.


This is not the first silly law to come down the pike; it’s just one of the ones we in the pet trade need to deal with. But, frankly, if someone cannot comply with that law and buy a tortoise from you, they most likely wouldn’t do right by the tortoise anyway, so maybe it’s a good thing.  PB


Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 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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