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Mediterranean Tortoises

Spur Thighed (Testudo graeca), Hermanns (Testudo hermanni), Marginated (Testudo marginata), Horsfields (Testudo horsfieldi)

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Life span:

With appropriate care tortoises are very long lived. Reaching the age of 60 years or more is not uncommon, although many do not reach this milestone if essential care, enclosure conditions and dietary requirements are not strictly maintained. With tortoises having a potential longevity that exceeds our own it is important to consider the implications of its long life before purchasing as a pet. Some tortoise keepers make arrangements for the welfare of their tortoise in the event of their death, but it is also important to plan ahead in less morbid circumstances, for example what will happen if a teenager loses interest in their pet when they reach adulthood? Only give a tortoise a home if you are confident that you or your family can make a lifelong commitment to keeping that tortoise.

Habitat:

Mediterranean Tortoises are terrestrial species that live in hot, dry inhospitable places like near deserts and on dry slopes in mountainous regions. Their native habitat has an extreme climate where weather conditions range from extreme heat in summer and severe cold in winter. For this reason in the wild Tortoises are only active for a few months of the year as they tend to brumate over the cold winter and aestivate over the hot summer. Brumation is the reptile equivalent of hibernation and Aestivation is the process of burying down below the surface of the ground in hot weather to avoid dehydration and exposure to the sun’s powerful rays.

Housing:

Tortoises require both an indoor and outdoor enclosure if they are to stay healthy and happy.

Indoor enclosures should be in the form of a tortoise table, which is well ventilated and as large as possible. Tortoises are an active species, so the more room you can allow them the better. Vivariums are not an ideal indoor enclosure for tortoises because they seem to have trouble recognising see-through barriers like glass, which can cause unnecessary stress for your tortoise. Vivariums can also not give enough air flow which in turn can cause stagnant air, which can lead to respiratory infections.

Outdoor enclosures also need to be large and provide your tortoise with a variety of aspects including shade, shelter, edible plants and a sunny spot. The enclosure should be secure to prevent both your tortoise escaping (tortoises are adept climbers and expert diggers) and potential predators (dogs, cats, foxes) from getting in. It is also important to ensure that your enclosure is not positioned in an area that allows your tortoise access to toxic or chemically treated plants. Tortoises do not always realise what vegetation is edible and not edible for them and can become ill quite easily if they ingest unsuitable plants. Some toxic plants that are common in gardens include Foxgloves, Ivy, Daffodils, Hydrangeas, and Buttercups, but it is important to research ALL the plants that are reachable from the enclosure before placing your tortoise in the garden to ensure they are safe.

Water:

Tortoises, like all reptiles, need fresh, clean water daily. This can be provided using a large shallow water bowl or tray. It is important to change the water frequently because tortoises usually urinate at the same time as drinking. Changing the water daily (or more often if you observe your tortoise using the water bowl) will avoid the build up of bacteria and also prevent the tortoise from drinking it's own waste materials next time it is thirsty.

To ensure that your Tortoise is drinking regularly, you can soak your tortoise in a shallow bath a few times weekly.

Heat & Light:

There are a variety of different ways in which to provide sufficient heat and light within the enclosure, but it is important to note that regardless of the type of equipment setup you choose, Horsfield Tortoises require an overhead heat source with temperatures around 29-32°C (84-90°F), with surrounding temperatures around 20°C (68°F) and 12 hours of full spectrum UVA/UVB lighting. They are a diurnal species, so light is not required at night time, and temperatures can also be allowed to drop overnight to simulate the conditions they would be accustomed to in the wild. 

The right sort of lighting is critical for the health and well-being of your Horsfield tortoise, as they require UV-B lighting to help their bodies absorb vitamin D3.

Feeding:

Ensuring that your tortoise’s diet is suitable and well-balanced enough to keep your tortoise in optimum health is the most crucial aspect of tortoise care. Tortoises have specific dietary needs and many problems can arise from not meeting those needs, including too rapid or slow growth and shell deformities. They are an herbivorous species (plant eating) and need a high fibre, calcium-rich and low fat diet in order to stay healthy.

The majority of the tortoise diet should be made up of non-toxic weeds and flowers, with the occasional leafy vegetables and complete pellets available from reptile specialists. Many of these food items can be collected from the wild, but it is important to ensure that they come from chemical/fertilizer-free sources. Alternatively, many reptile suppliers will sell packets of seeds suitable for growing your own tortoise food. These are especially useful in the winter months when suitable plants may not be as abundant outside, but will grow quite well in trays and window boxes within the house.

Variety is key to both providing a well-balanced diet and keeping your tortoise interested in the food you are offering. A few edible plants and vegetables that are suitable for feeding to your Horsfield tortoise include dandelions (leaves and flowers), dry hay, grasses, bramble, chick weed, nasturtium, mustard, sunflower, mint, clover, water cress, turnip, carrot tops, cabbage, barley, rose petals and sow thistles. This is in no way a comprehensive list, so if you require further ideas on suitable food items then more research is recommended. Some items to avoid include iceberg lettuce, cucumber, tomato, spinach and banana, because these items are low in calcium and have poor nutritional value. 

Some keepers encourage the growth of certain plants within the outside enclosure to allow their tortoise to graze on whilst outdoors. This can be done quite easily with prolific weeds such as dandelions, brambles and chick weed. It is important to ensure that your outside enclosure does not contain any toxic plants as these may also be eaten by your tortoise. Some common garden plants to avoid are Daffodils, Foxgloves, Ivy, Buttercups, Begonias, Hydrangeas and Cyclamens.

Calcium is a very important part of your tortoise’s diet and is essential for healthy shell development and the creation of vitamin D3, so it is advisable to dust your tortoises food with a good calcium supplement at least 2-3 times a week. Pure Chalk is also a good source of calcium, so can be placed within your tortoise’s enclosure for your tortoise to nibble on if required. A vitamin supplement should also be used alongside your calcium supplement such as Nutrobal… this should be used a couple times a week. Alternate between the calcium & vitamin supplements.

Cleaning:

Your tortoise’s enclosure should be inspected and spot cleaned daily when changing the water. 

Every month or two clean out the table completely and sterilise the enclosure using a reptile friendly disinfectant. You will also need to remove and sterilise any décor, ready to replace back in the enclosure when it has been cleaned. Your tortoise should be moved to a temporary tank/ tub during the cleaning process.

Your outside enclosure may not need cleaning as such, but you may find that your tortoise can exhaust an area by eating any edible plants and digging up the soil. If the enclosure is movable, then it may be beneficial to the garden to move the enclosure regularly, ensuring before you do so that the new area is chemical/pesticide free, is escape proof and does not contain any toxic plants.
 

Hibernation:

The great hibernation debate… should we be recommending hibernation to all tortoise keepers? The jury is still out on this one, and there are a lot of variables to consider before we recommend they do or don’t.
Regardless of the final consensus, it is always a mistake to keep the animal in exactly the same conditions all year round. It’s a common error for keepers to maintain temperatures that are too warm in vivariums and tortoise tables.
This issue is compensated somewhat during the warmer months when the tortoise can go outside. However, when it’s kept at high temperatures for long periods during the winter the result is a tortoise with a racing metabolism, doing laps around its enclosure in top gear to burn energy.
Eleanor Tirtasana Chubb from the Tortoise Welfare UK advises, if you’re not going to hibernate, you should at least bring it down a gear or two by cooling the enclosure and offering food less often.
You can do this by shortening the time the lamps are on – so instead of being heated for ten or twelve hours each day, the lamps are on for only either hours.
You can also miss a feed session every three or four days. Feeding up the animal for the winter is a bad idea, but some people still do this, when quite the opposite is recommended. Winter is a time for slowing down.

If you decide to hibernate your tortoise, they should be hibernated over the winter months, unless they show any signs of illness and then they should be kept awake in an indoor enclosure.

A good time to hibernate your tortoise is in November when temperatures begin to drop naturally to below 10ºC (50ºF). Try to mimic this gradual drop in heat and light within the enclosure to prepare your tortoise for hibernation.

Before allowing your tortoise to hibernate you should refrain from feeding for about 2-3 weeks to allow your tortoise time to clear any food still within the digestive system. Water should still be given.

Create a hibernation box in preparation. This is usually two cardboard boxes, one being smaller and being placed within the other. The larger box should be insulated with straw of shredded paper. Place your tortoise in the inner box with a bedding of more shredded paper and cover within the larger box. This hibernation box needs to be kept in a place where temperatures stay around 5ºC (41ºF), which should be constantly monitored using a thermometer. This is important because temperatures below freezing are likely to kill your tortoise and temperatures above around 10ºC (50ºF) would mean that your tortoise will remain active and risks losing sufficient weight or becoming ill by doing so. Check on your hibernating tortoise regularly to monitor for any signs of illness or awakening during this time.

In Spring your Horsfield tortoise should reawaken and should be removed from the hibernation box and returned to its indoor enclosure for a gradual increase in temperatures. It is advisable to soak your tortoise in a warm, shallow bath on the first day to encourage your tortoise to drink. Food can be offered at this time and should be taken within the first few days after re-awakening.

Sexing:

Hatchling or juvenile tortoises are difficult to sex, but as adults there are a few external signs that can be used for sex determination.

The easiest way to recognise a male is to examine the tail and the plastron (bottom shell). Males tend to have longer tails than females, so if your tortoise has a tail that is large enough to tuck up to one side, then this usually indicates a male. Female tails are quite stumpy in comparison, so recognition is quite straightforward.

Males also tend to have a curved plastron, while female plastrons are usually flattened. This is to help the male during breeding as he strives to mount the female.

Females are also generally larger than males, but this is not an accurate way of determining sex.

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