Mediterranean Tortoises : Testudo graeca & T. hermanni


The tortoise is a living fossil having survived since the dawn of the age of reptiles, 200 million years ago. Collection for exportation and habitat destruction have dramatically reduced populations in their native countries around the Mediterranean like France, Spain, Italy, the former Yugoslavia, Turkey, Greece and northern Africa.  In Britain, with wet summers and cold damp winters, they are outside their distribution range, but if basic guidelines are followed, a captive tortoise can have as long and happy a life as possible.


In 1984 it was agreed with the EEC Council to treat three species of Mediterranean tortoise (the Spur-thighed, Hermann's and Marginated Tortoise from Greece) according to Appendix 1 of the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).  The Egyptian Tortoise (Testudo kleinmanni) was added to Appendix I in 1994.  This meant that these four species were protected and commercial trade strictly prohibited.  For the sale, exchange or barter of these protected tortoises by private individuals a licence is required, obtainable from the Department of the Environment in Bristol.  This licence applies to the selling of eggs as well, but not to the giving away of either tortoises or eggs.  When answering advertisements ask for the licence number.

The ban does not apply to some tortoises from tropical and non-temperate areas imported into Britain after 1984.  Three American Box Turtles, (Terrapene carolina, T ornata and T nelsoni) are now included in Appendix II in which trade is closely monitored.


The species of Mediterranean tortoise most commonly imported into Britain have been the Spur-thighed Tortoise (Testudo graeca) and the Hermann's Tortoise (Testudo hermanni).  The Spur-thighed Tortoise is further divided into sub-species with a main division between Europe and northern Africa.  They are in an active state of evolution and not fully understood. The Hermann's tortoise, with two recognised sub-species, exists in the south of France, on the coastlines of Italy and the former Yugoslavia and on islands in the Mediterranean.  The Spur-thighed Tortoise has a spur on either side of the tail, whereas the Hermann's Tortoise has a single horny claw at the tip of the tail (see diagram).  In both species. the male can be recognised by the longer, narrower and more pointed tail (see diagram): some males have a concave plastron.

Hermann's Tortoise



Mediterranean Spur-thighed Tortoise



A tortoise's body is surrounded by a protective shell with an upper part (the carapace) and a lower part (the plastron), both of which are made up of individual bony plates and horny scutes.  The upper and lower parts of the shell are joined by bridges between the fore- and hindlimbs.

The vertebrae of the backbone are fused to the carapace, as are the scapulae (shoulder blades) and pelvis (hip girdles).  The lungs are located in the top third of the carapace and below are the other body organs. The lungs during breathing, are inflated and deflated using the muscles of the front legs.

Tortoises, like most reptiles, are ectothermic and rely on an external heat source (the sun) to raise their body temperature sufficiently for them to be alert, feed and digest their food.  They are inactive in cold weather.


Tortoises like roaming about, so if possible make the garden completely escape-proof.  Walled gardens are ideal but if you have to pen your tortoise in, allow at least 10 square metres per tortoise and make sure that the animal can neither climb over nor burrow under the surround.  Wire or wooden pens should be at least 40cm (16 ins) high, buried to a depth of 10cm (4 ins), with wooden stakes as support.  Garden ponds should be adequately covered to prevent risk of drowning.

A well ventilated greenhouse with access to a clover lawn and a paved sunbathing area is ideal for tortoises as in both spring and autumn the animals will be able to heat up sufficiently to feed well, thereby extending their year and shortening their hiberation period.  A lower pane of glass can be replaced with a panel of wood with an entrance hole or catflap in it, thus ensuring that the tortoises can escape from overheating on the hottest summer days.

Never attempt tethering a tortoise by string round the leg which will cut off blood circulation and may result in gangrene or by boring holes through the shell, which will cut through live tissue and cause pain or infection.

A waterproof house in a sunny position is essential to protect the tortoise from extremes of cold, wet and heat.  It should be of a wooden construction, preferably covered with roofing felt and be slightly raised to prevent the floor from becoming damp.  It can be lined with thick newspaper or dried leaves.

If you have several tortoises, it is advisable to separate the males and females as the males often engage in female shell-butting and leg biting as part of their courtship.  Females constantly exposed to this treatment and unable to escape will feed less, produce eggs less frequently and will eventually suffer from extensive shell and leg damage with an increased likelihood of infections.


Contrary to belief tortoises do drink, especially on waking from hiberation, when a warm bath is usually appreciated .  A shallow dish about 10 cm (4 ins) deep, should be sunk into the ground to allow the animals to submerge their heads Into the water.  Allow for easy access into and out of the dish.


Tortoises need a diet which is high in dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals, but low in fat and proteins and feed mainly on green leaves.  If your tortoise has the run of a garden it will forage quite successfully for itself on charlock, chickweed, clover, dandelion, groundsel, plantains, sow thistle and vetches and the leaves of plants and bushes like buddleja, ice plant, lilac, rose and bramble.  Beware of weedkillers and slug pellets.

In the wild, tortoises are opportunistic feeders and they will on occasion tackle carrion and dung.  Their digestive systems are, however, geared towards the digestion of leaves, including cellulose, so a wide variety of greens must be offered and the diet should be as varied as possible with leaves, vegetables and fruits as well as proprietary vitamin and mineral supplements such as Vionate or the Vetark range (Arkvits, Nutrobal AceHigh) obtainable via most veterinary surgeons or via the British Chelonia Group.

The following foods can be tried: beans (leaves and pods), broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, cucumber, endive, lettuce, kale, spring greens, watercress.  Beetroot, carrots, cauliflower and parsnips may be grated or offered cooked.  Sprouts of the pulses are excellent.

Of the fruits, try apples, apricots, blackberries, currants, gooseberries, grapes, mandarins, melons, peaches, pears, plums, oranges, raspberries, strawberries and tomatoes.  Tinned or defrosted fruit can be offered as an alterative.  After feeding on sticky fruit, wipe the mouth with damp tissue.

A varied diet is recommended and one guided by the wild situation.  Avoid excess of one food type.  High protein items like dog and cat food and peas are not natural and can be harmful in excess, especially in juveniles.


A pair of tortoises may mate.  The gestation period is from thirty days to three years.  The female may dig several trial nests in suitable mounds of warm friable soil and finally will deposit on average between 5-10 eggs.  In the absence of an acceptable site or temperature for laying, the tortoise may become egg-bound, in which case veterinary help will be needed. In Britain eggs need to be retrieved and placed in an incubator kept at a temperature of (26-31 C) 80-85°F.  Depending on temperature, the eggs will hatch after 8-12 weeks.  The sex of the hatchlings is determined by the incubation temperature Environmental Sex Determination.  At the lower temperature hatchlings will be males, at the higher end they will be female; average temperatures will produce mixed clutches. Hatchlings, although soft-shelled at first, are fully developed requiring no maternal care.  They need access to a heated vivarium during cold and damp spells.

Only breed from healthy adult tortoises.  If in doubt consult the Jackson graph on the correct weight for your tortoise (see separate care sheet).


Tortoises are susceptible to a variety of illnesses which will need the advice of a veterinary surgeon.  Runny nose, mouth rot and parasite infestation are infectious and require isolation.

1 . Discharge from the nostrils and watery eyes can be due to rhinitis, sinusitis or runny nose syndrome. The symptoms may      progress from upper respiratory tract disease to pneumonia in the lungs.
2.  Stomatitis (mouthrot or canker) is often seen post-hibernation. In the mouth it appears as a general inflammation to      caseous (cheesy) material attached to the tongue, mouth and throat.
3.  Osteodystrophy (soft shell) can result from a combination of calcium deficiency, incorrect lighting and excessive protein in      the diet.
4.  Diarrhoea is a sign of ill-health, husbandry problems, a dietary imbalance or parasites. Check for undigested food, mucus      or worms in faeces.
5.  Blindness or disorientation after hiberation can be caused by frost damage. The tortoise shuffles in circles and does not      feed.
6.  Refusal to eat is natural in the month before hibernation, cold weather and gravid females. It can also relate to stress and      disease including stomatitis (mouth rot), ear abscesses, severe systemic disease (liver or kidney) and heavy burden of      ascarid worms. There should be a thorough health check and evaluation of husbandry.


During August and September, as the days grow shorter, the light intensity decreases, the temperature begins to fall and tortoises prepare for hibernation. Feeding declines: it takes 4-6 weeks for their gut to empty for winter, and before they start this process in early September the tortoises need a check over.

Make sure there are no signs of wounds, abscesses, infections internally or externally, also that the mouth is clean and pink, the eyes alert and bright.  Ensure their weights and measurements correspond with the Jackson ratio, clear away any faecal matter adhering to the shell or tail.


Any tortoise which is underweight or suffering from an ailment should not be hibernated, but overwintered in a vivarium. This should have a heat source and full spectrum light for 13-14 hours to prevent hibernation. The temperatures should be 26°C (8°F) by day and 18-22°C (65-70°F) at night.  Fresh food and water should be provided.  A simple vivarium can be provided with the light source on one end and a shelter on the other.  Never allow the temperature to go below 15°C ( 60°F).


Use a large, wooden, rodent-proof tea-chest or box, with small airholes in the sides.  Both the top and the holes should be covered in wiremesh to prevent vermin entering.

Line the base and the sides of the box with thick pads of polystyrene or newspaper.  Place the tortoise in an inner box with airholes and filled for one to threequarters with polystyrene chips, dry leaves or shredded newspaper.  Avoid hay or straw. Place the smaller box inside the larger one, making sure you can open it easily for check-ups.

The tortoise can be carefully weighed individually or complete with inner box on a weekly or twice monthly basis.

An adult tortoise loses about 1% of its pre-hibernation weight so a 1000g tortoise is allowed to lose 10g monthly.  A drastic weight loss indicates something is wrong: the animal should be brought out of hiberation immediately and checked.

Make sure the tortoise is hiberated in a frost-free environment, at temperatures of 4-10°C (36-50°F).  Tortoises kept below freezing point can lose their eyesight or at worst their lives. Use a maximum and minimum thermometer (obtainable from garden shops) to check temperature changes.

For every drop of 10°C the heart rate drops 50%.  At 40°C the respiratory movements are negligible.  If the tortoise is kept too warm and becomes too active it will use up its fat and of glycogen or animal starch stored in the liver, the latter is needed on emergence from hiberation.


Start checking your tortoise from the end of January onwards.  When the animal starts moving take it out of its hibernation quarters.

1. Bring it out of hiberation slowly, check for discharges from the nose, eyes and tail end.
2. Inspect it carefully, bath the face and eyes and wash the mouth.
3. Give the animal a warm bath for at least half an hour. It is important that the tortoise empties its bladder to get rid of the toxic waste accumulated during hibernation and that it replenishes its water supply by drinking.
4. Keep the animal warm during the day and indoors overnight until the nights get warmer.
5. Once out of hiberation and eating, keep it active (as for overwintering) if the weather becomes cold again. Warm spells in February breaking hibernation are a hazard of the British climate.

Any tortoise not feeding or appearing ill should be taken to veterinary surgeon without delay.

Reproduced with kind permission of British Chelonia Group
Photos by Bob Elliot