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Mediterranean Tortoise Care

By: Dr. Steve Divers

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The Mediterranean tortoise (Testudo hermanni) is a medium sized chelonian and is differentiated from its close cousin Testudo graeca (North African Spur-thighed tortoise) by having a horny tip to the tail and a lack of tubercles on the back of the thighs. Also called the Hermann's tortoise, it has a flattened, broad low carapace, which is usually olive to tan in color with darker, often black markings.

This species is found throughout much of the Mediterranean basin including southern France, eastern Spain, Italy, the Balearic Islands, the Balkan Peninsula, former Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece and Turkey. An inhabitant of bush, scrubland and lowland forests, this tortoise is most active by day when it feeds on coarse vegetation.

Mediterranean tortoises are generally small animals, typically up to 8 inches (20 cm) carapace length and rarely exceeding 3.5 pounds (1.5 kg). Some specimens from the eastern range may achieve 1 foot (30 cm) and weight over 6.5 pounds (3 kg), but these are seldom encountered in the pet world.

Accurate longevities are hard to come by but these animals are long lived and may exceed 60 years in captivity. Therefore, the acquisition of such a tortoise is a long term commitment that may ultimately exceed the owners life span.

The previous mass exportation of wild animals has been largely curtailed through legislation. This has placed greater emphasis on captive breeding and relatively large numbers (especially in Europe and the United States) are now produced. Most breeding has been accomplished using wild caught stock but more second and third generation breeding are being recorded.

Behavior

No tortoise can be considered an easy reptile to keep due to specific nutritional and environmental requirements. Nevertheless with proper provision, the Hermann's tortoise is an active and long lived companion. They appear to adapt well to captivity as long as they are provided with large enclosures in which to roam. These tortoises will continuously attempt to escape if they can see 'the other side', so all perimeter barriers should be solid to prevent burrowing under and climbing over.

This docile species shows no aggressive tendencies but may retreat inside his shell if treated roughly. All tortoises can excrete Salmonella and therefore routine personal hygiene and the supervision of all child-tortoise interactions are important.

This species is active, bold and generally harmless. They often prefer periods of seclusion in retreats or partly burrowed in the ground, especially when the temperature exceeds 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius). They tolerate handling but many will withdraw head and limbs into the shell for protection, or void urine as a defensive mechanism. The Hermann's tortoise grazes and feeds on grasses, herbaceous and succulent plants.

Housing and Environment

All tortoises benefit from a large outdoor enclosure when climatic conditions permit, and an area of 10 feet by 13 feet (3m by 4m) is ideal for an individual or pair. Indoor enclosures must be as large as possible for this active tortoise and a vivarium at least 6 feet by 3 feet (2m by 1m) is required for an adult.

It is important to prevent excessive humidity and moisture as skin infections are likely in such situations. A warm, dry and well ventilated vivarium is preferred. Sliding glass doors are required for good access and ventilation grills to facilitate air flow. All glass tanks are often a poor enclosure unless the entire roof is meshed to encourage air exchange. It is completely inappropriate to reduce ventilation in an effort to maintain temperature artificially.

Heating is best provided by an overhead ceramic or infrared heater out of reach of the animal, and under the control of a thermostat. Under floor heaters should be avoided.

Artificial turf or paper towels should be used to cover the floor and several hide-outs or retreats (e.g. bark, small cardboard boxes etc) are essential to provide retreats. Baked (sterilized) soil can also be used as a floor substrate and although more natural is more time consuming to manage.

Nutrition

Despite rare observations of scavenging, Hermann's tortoises are essential herbivorous eating a wide variety of grasses, herbaceous and succulent plants. Dark green leafy greens should therefore form the bulk (80 percent) of the diet. The remainder can be made up of grated root vegetables like carrots, and fruits, although excess fruit can cause diarrhea.

Animals with access to sufficient natural grazing and wild weeds will usually not require supplementary feeding or nutritional supplements. When feeding adults homemade diets, all food items should be coarsely chopped and supplemented with a high calcium supplement 2 to 3 times weekly, or daily for breeding females. Neonates and growing juveniles should be offered more finely chopped foods with daily calcium supplementation.

All tortoises are best offered food daily, although care should be taken to avoid obesity, especially in non-breeding adult females restricted to a vivarium.

Fresh water should always be available in a large, shallow bowl into which the tortoise can enter to drink.

Temperature

A daytime temperature gradient of 72 to 82 F (22 to 28 C) with a basking area of 86 to 95 F (30 to 35 C), should be lowered to 65 to 75 F (18 to 24 C) at night. Hibernation is a normal feature for this species, and those adults kept outdoors will usually become anorectic once temperatures and photoperiods decrease in the fall. No tortoise should be permitted to hibernate unless physical examination reveals sufficient body condition and fat reserves to make it through the hibernation period.

Adults of sufficient body condition should be starved for 3 to 4 weeks prior to hibernation at 40 to 50 F (5 to 10 C) in a rodent proof hibernation box. Animals artificially maintained indoors may show no inclination to hibernate. Juveniles should be introduced to hibernation from the third or fourth year but should only be hibernated for a short period, building up over 2 to 4 years to the full adult hibernation period that may be up to 6 months in certain areas.

Lighting

Hermanns, like most other terrestrial tortoises, need broad spectrum light of a high quality. Essentially ultraviolet B is essential for vitamin D synthesis, proper calcium absorption and metabolism. Without it tortoises become soft shelled, deformed, anorectic and ultimately die. Natural unfiltered sunlight is by far the best source of light and all tortoises will benefit immensely from regular exposure, hence the advantage of an outdoor enclosure.

For tortoises maintained indoors, a broad spectrum fluorescent strip light (e.g. ZooMed Reptisun 5.0) should be positioned within 10 feet (30 cm) of the ground and replaced every 6 months for growing tortoises, or yearly for adults. For non-breeding animals, a 12 hour photoperiod is suitable, but during hibernation periods, these tortoises are often not illuminated at all.

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