Mediterranean Tortoises : Care of Hatchlings


Mediterranean tortoise hatchlings (Testudo graeca, Testudo hermanni & Testudo marginata) all require suitable indoor accommodation for the first 2/3 years of their lives, in order that they are kept in a similar temperature to that of their native country.

If kept in a vivarium it must be well ventilated.  The top must always be left open as an enclosed environment creates humidity which can cause respiratory disease and so plenty of air is needed.  The vivarium will need to be a minimum of 36 inches long and 12 -15 inches wide with a 60 watt bulb at one end for basking.  A temperature of around 95 degrees directly under the bulb is about right.  Don't guess; put a thermometer under the bulb to check.  If the temperature is too warm the tortoise will not bask directly under the bulb and will move to one side, where the temperature is more comfortable.  There should be a drop of about 10 degrees towards the opposite end of the vivarium.

Also required is a UV fluorescent tube.  These are usually made by Arcadia or Reptisun.  This simulates natural sunlight and provides the tortoise with vitamin D3.  Without this vital vitamin any calcium supplement given cannot be absorbed by the tortoise.

The lights in the vivarium should be on a timer set to come on about 0800 and switch off about 1600.  Once the hatchlings are established and eating well it is advisable to leave the lights off for 1 or two days a week to simulate cloudy days.  On these days no food should be offered.  Tortoises kept in captivity eat much more than they would normally get in the wild and this can lead to a much accelerated growth rate and can lead to abnormal bumpy growth of the shell.  In severe cases, this interferes with the space taken up by the heart and lungs, causing severe respiratory problems.  Every effort should be made to ensure slow steady growth.

The temperature in the vivarium does not need to be thermostatically controlled.  It would be unnatural for a Mediterranean tortoise to be kept at a constant set temperature.  Neither do they need a ceramic bulb{sometimes called a dull emitter) except for night time heating, if kept outdoors.  These give heat but not light and may be suitable for some reptiles but tortoises much prefer a simple 60 watt bulb that gives a bright light.  This, together with the UV tube, is all that is necessary.

A vivarium is only necessary because the climate in UK is not as suitable as the climate in the tortoise's native country and the tortoise must not spend all of its early years constantly in the vivarium.  On warm summer days every effort should be made to get it into the fresh air and sunshine in a secure pen on the lawn.  A shaded area inside the pen must be provided.

When the tortoise is around 3 - 4 years old it can spend more time housed in a shed or greenhouse with an overhead basking lamp.  It should have access to a secure outdoor run, similar to that which you would provide for a rabbit but please make sure there are no steps, holes or cracks into which your tortoise could fall.  It is also important to provide a shady area to shelter from the sun.


In the areas of the Mediterranean where tortoises live, the soil is rich in limestone and minerals which provide the tortoise with all its needs for healthy growth.  In captivity, however, it is not so fortunate and, therefore, it is vital to provide a supplement 2/3 times a week.  There are various ones on the market which can be bought from pet shops specialising in reptile requirements.  Alternatively, it can be obtained from your vet.  One of the best is Nutrobal by Vet Ark which is highly recommended for hatchlings.  The easiest way to administer this is to dip the tip of a child’s paint brush into the powder and tap it over the food.  Another supplement, by Four Paws, is Nature’s Reptile Calcium, available in spray form.  This contains calcium and vitamin D3.  Being fruit flavoured, this can be useful for fussy feeders.


Ideally tortoises should have a diet consisting of wild plants, i.e. dandelions, clover, sow thistle, plantain, wild pansy.  This diet should be quite easy to achieve during the summer months.  Any plants gathered should be washed before feeding to remove any possible pesticides.  If tortoises graze on the lawn, be careful not to treat the lawn with any weed killer.  During warm summer months the hatchlings are happiest outside in a secure run; a rabbit run or similar is ideal.  Make sure it is covered with wire netting and placed on even ground so that the hatchlings cannot escape.  It is good idea to grow your own clover, dandelion, etc.  Most seed catalogues have a wild plant section.

During the winter months the diet can be supplemented with watercress, grated carrot, spring green cabbage; also broccoli and cauliflower.  Salad food such as lettuce, cucumber, tomato should be kept to an absolute minimum.  Although appreciated by the tortoise, these foods can become addictive and they offer practically no nutritional benefits.  A healthier alternative can usually be found.

Food can be prepared in advance, chopped up and kept in a sealed container in the fridge.  It will keep perfectly fresh for up to a week.

Mediterranean tortoises do not require much fruit in their diets but a small piece of apple, tomato, strawberry or melon may be given occasionally (not banana) but don't overdo it.

Never, ever feed any meat, dairy products, banana or citrus fruit to your tortoise. No beans or peas either, as these contain protein. Tortoises do not need protein.

Clean drinking water should always be available. The tortoise will appreciate a soak in tepid water about every 2 weeks.  Clean the shell gently with a baby's toothbrush.  Water should be no deeper than the tortoise's chin.  The majority of tortoises will only drink when they are actually stood in the water, rather than put their head into a dish.

Allow your tortoise to warm up and achieve its correct body temperature before offering food.  A cold tortoise will not be interested in eating and any food placed in the vivarium or outdoor housing will be left to wilt until the tortoise achieves its correct body temperature.  Food should be placed away from the basking lamp.


As previously stated, on warm sunny days your tortoise will be happier and healthier outside in the garden.  Do not use any weed killer or weed and feed on your lawn, so that your tortoise may be able to graze naturally, and make sure that the pen is on level ground, so that there are no gaps round the edges through which it could escape.

If you do not have a garden, please do not consider having a tortoise.  They are wild animals and must have access to the garden whenever the weather is suitable.  As they reach juvenile and adulthood they must live outside housed in a shed or greenhouse with a basking lamp, set to come on at 0800 and off at 1600, just the same as the vivarium.  They should have access to the garden or secure run (see notes on adult tortoise care).


This is the material placed in the bottom of the vivarium or put down under your heatlamp (if your tortoise is housed in a shed or greenhouse).  A suitable substrate for the vivarium in a 50/50 mixture of play pit sand and compost (or topsoil).  This is for the tortoise to burrow into when it goes to sleep at night. Please do not use sawdust, wood shavings or straw.  Sawdust gets in the eyes and nose and straw also can cause nasty eye injuries.  The small pieces of woodchip, which pet shops use, can be highly dangerous.  If the hatchling swallows a piece it can cause a blockage and choking.  The substrate needs to be approx 1.5 - 2 inches deep in the vivarium, deeper in the shed or greenhouse, as the tortoise will be much bigger.