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Greek Tortoise Care Guide

Discussion in 'Greek tortoises' started by HermanniChris, Apr 12, 2019.

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  1. HermanniChris

    HermanniChris Well-Known Member TFO Sponsor 10 Year Member!

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    The Greek Tortoise Care Guide
    (Testudo graeca ssp)


    Chris Leone
    HermanniHaven.com
    GardenStateTortoise.com
    theTurtleRoom.com


    THIS CARE-SHEET IS DETAILED FOR A REASON. READ IT THOROUGHLY BEFORE PROCEEDING WITH OBTAINING A TORTOISE.
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    Moroccan tortoise (Testudo graeca marokkensis)

    Introduction

    Testudo graeca (Linnaeus, 1758) is famously dubbed the Greek tortoise and less commonly referred to as the Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise. The enlarged scales or tubercles on each side of the tail (thighs) make this second title more accurate than the first. The name “Greek tortoise” is merely Linnaues’s description for the Greek mosaic pattern often found on the carapace of the vast majority of specimens occurring across their natural distribution. In reality, the only type of Greek tortoise actually occurring anywhere in Greece is Testudo graeca ibera. The remaining nine currently valid subspecies are found elsewhere. The Testudo graeca species complex is at present comprised of ten distinct subspecies spanning a natural range that covers North Africa, southern Europe and southwestern Asia. Its status in nature is dwindling with particular subspecies more at risk than others. The IUCN includes T. graeca as “Vulnerable A1cd” (1996) globally, and regionally in Europe it is listed as “Vulnerable A2bcde+4bcde” (2004) however, the once recognized subspecies Testudo graeca nikolskii which is now a synonym for Testudo graeca ibera was listed as “Critically Endangered A1abcde+2bcde” (1996). This notation may reveal something we did not already know concerning T. g. ibera’s numbers in nature. Many of Testudo graeca’s subspecies and forms have been subjected to severe over-collection for the worldwide pet trade for a staggering amount of time thus leading some to a more critical status.

    Altogether, Testudo graeca is a robust species with a blunt snout and boxy head. It of course varies greatly in its appearance across its range but each subspecies or local form follows several basic traits. The carapace is typically rounded or oval with minimal flaring of the marginal scutes except in males (and some distinct subspecies) which may be rather trapezoid in overall shape. The plastron of females features a single hinge and although the tortoise can not seal up like that of Terrapene species, it does allow for some mobility in facilitating egg laying. The domed carapace is littered with irregular dark bars, blotches, rays, spots or flecks on a tan, yellow, ochre or brown ground color. Conspicuous tubercles or spurs are found on each thigh and the supracaudal shield is normally undivided and does not flex inward. The tail of both sexes does not taper to a point but is rather stout and rounded at the end. Males are usually smaller (most of the time) than females, feature notable concavity to the plastron, have longer tails with a vent further away from the edge of the anal scutes and a wider anal scute opening.

    Testudo graeca may be broken down into more than a dozen subspecies depending on the literature or individual you choose to source. While it is not particularly difficult to come to the realization that there are probably more than just ten, the fact that recent surveys yield weak expressions in genetic divergence between proposed subspecies (van der Kuyl, et al, 2005) brings expanding this taxa to a screeching halt, for now. There is a marked difference in the mitochondrial DNA between Testudo graeca graeca and Testudo graeca ibera with specific haplotypes possibly resulting in one or both being elevated to full species rank. From a morphological standpoint these two are very different. In fact, other forms of T. graeca are dissimilar from each other in regards to appearance and habitat preference as well.

    The genuine recognition of Greek tortoise subspecies is quite possibly the most grueling of any Testudo differentiation task. Similarities in coloration, shape, size and behavior make it tiring to begin with but inaccurate literature does not help. The worldwide web is filled to the brim with outdated chelonian information and Mediterranean tortoises certainly take on the brunt of it. In most cases these inaccuracies began with the dealer or collector who first named them. The putative “Golden Greeks” that came into the United States for the first time in the early 2000s are a prime example. Dealers who were able to get their hands on these animals dubbed them as “golden” because of the high content of yellow coloration most would exhibit. This name was made up entirely and holds absolutely no validation as to what they actually are. More on these later. Testudo graeca is highly variable even within one population making identification nearly impossible if origin is unknown. The significance of knowing the history of a tortoise or group of tortoises has grown to a valuable level today. It does not only enable the probability of specimens being matched up correctly but it also helps to lessen the amount of questionable or hybridized animals in the private keeping network. Up until now hobbyists, dealers, breeders and even some authors have thrown around terms such as golden Greek, black Greek, Libyan Greek, Ibera Greek and others as a way to separate various Testudo graeca types. None of these are authentic names.

    The Subspecies

    As already mentioned, there are more than ten recognizable Greek tortoise “types” in nature and in collections, even in the USA. Some, including myself, see the current taxonomic findings as insufficient. An up-to-date and in-depth research project concerning this group of tortoises is in dire need to gain an actual understanding of how many subspecies (and maybe even species) there really are and the true differences between them. In an effort to help readers and keepers alike from mixing animals from different bloodlines or geographical areas, I will list more than the current ten with brief descriptions before we get into the main body of this care-sheet.

    Latin Name: Testudo graeca ibera
    Americanized Common name: "Ibera Greek"
    Valid Common Name: Asia Minor tortoise
    Notes:
    The most widespread and encountered Greek tortoise subspecies both in nature and captivity. Size and coloration varies incredibly, with some specimens surpassing 11” just like the eastern Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni boettgeri). Robust, hardy, aggressive and extremely cold tolerant. Some may be entirely black while others almost entirely yellow. Most commonly we think of the “Hermann’s tortoise” look when it comes to ibera, in that they have a yellowish ground color with black bars and blotches on each carapace scute. Few have managed to keep the Asia Minor tortoise pure under captive collections all thanks to droves of imported Testudo graeca ssp being mixed together and sold as the same thing. Most commonly we see ibera bred to terrestris which is described next. This is partly due to the fact that terrestris are known in the hobby as “Golden Greeks” when in fact they are not always golden. An extremely outdated and irresponsible way of thinking was to assume that if it isn’t golden, it must be an ibera. This in return has generated an influx of bastardized (hybridized) Greek tortoises on the global market but most commonly in the USA. Testudo graeca ibera is an animal that should be isolated from any other species of tortoise included all other Greek tortoises. It is unique, brawny, genetically differentiated and far more powerful than its T. graeca ssp cousins.
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    Asia Minor Tortoise (Testudo graeca ibera)

    Latin Name: Testudo graeca terrestris
    Americanized Common name: "Golden Greek"
    Valid Common Name: Mesopotamian tortoise
    Notes:
    A commonly encountered subspecies in American collections and inaccurately dubbed the "Golden Greek". Dark and all-black specimens occur within this wide-ranged tortoise. This taxon is under severe debate because it simply covers far too vast of an area where these animals naturally exist. Further examination is needed in order to realistically understand the Greek tortoises occurring in this proposed subspecie's range. Most likely, there is more than one subspecies living within this distribution. This is a sensitive type that cannot tolerate wet conditions for prolonged periods. Runny nose syndrome commonly associated with mycoplasma are often exhibited by wild collected adults. They are capable of handling cooler temperatures as long as they remain dry. Captive bred neonates seem to do quite well under captive conditions and do adapt. These tortoises typically reach carapace lengths of 5" for males and 7" for females, respectively. Depending on geographic range, these tortoises can be solid buttery yellow or nearly identical to ibera in having the yellow with black borders “look”. Some animals are even a consistent slate gray color or a rusty brown. This is why the term “Golden Greek” really holds no water. Perhaps a more appropriate way to this approach would be to simply say, “Wanted: Golden to yellow variant of Testudo graeca terrestris.” Because let’s face it, if you simply state you are looking for Golden Greeks and end up with darkly colored terrestris, no one lied to you in actuality. Do your homework, know what it is you’re really after and help us clean up this mess when it comes to Greek tortoises. All the dealers did in the earlier days was leave out the dark animals while they were collecting. That unfortunately gave hobbyists the idea that all of these tortoises are supposed to be gold. Until science puts the work into adequately sampling the wild populations of T. g. terrestris to see if they can be broken down into further subspecies, we are at the mercy of coming together to understand that these animals are not all golden colored.
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    Mesopotamian tortoise (Testudo graeca terrestris)

    Latin Name: Testudo graeca marokkensis
    Americanized Common name: "Moroccan Greek"
    Valid Common Name: Morocco tortoise
    Notes:
    A recently discovered North African subspecies. They have only entered the United States pet trade a few times in recent years but sadly most perished within the first year. This was due to heavy parasitic loads and insufficient care. This is a dry-dwelling tortoise which does appreciate vegetative cover in the form of a thick canopy. They do tolerate cold if kept dry. Robust and charming when housed appropriately. Quite prolific once dialed in and following an annual cycle. Adults vary between 500 and 700 grams for males and around 900 grams for females with some exceeding 1,500 grams. Beautiful blotches or radiating rays of black may accompany a horn colored base on both the carapace and plastron. Darker and lighter animals exist as always. Specimens found in the northern parts of their range in areas like Meknes feature stronger black pigmentation. This creates beautiful contrast while those found closer to places like Agadir are more of a sand-beige color with fewer dark markings. They may on average be smaller as well. Hatchlings are easily differentiated from other Greek tortoise babies by being a uniform brown color with no central dark spot on each carapace scute. The spot eventually appears as the animals grow and will break up into rays, lines and splotches.
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    Moroccan tortoise (Testudo graeca marokkensis)

    Latin Name: Testudo graeca nabeulensis
    Americanized Common name: "Tunisian Greek"
    Valid Common Name: Nabeul tortoise or Tunisian spur-thighed tortoise
    Notes:
    By far the smallest of the Testudo graeca species complex on average with adult males rarely surpassing 4-4.5” and females reaching 5-5.5". Overall, this subspecies is alongside the Egyptian tortoise and certain forms of the western Hermann's tortoise as the smallest of all tortoises found in the genus Testudo. They were once accepted as a full species being dubbed Furculachelys nabeulensis (Highfeild, 1990) but are now included in the Greek tortoise grouping. Heavy black pigment accompanies a yellow to almost white ground color on the carapace and plastron. They are petite and delicate even as captive bred individuals. Never heavily imported into the USA, the few founder animals are associated with being illegally smuggled or mixed into importations of Libyan tortoises in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They require desert-like habitats and must be able to escape rainfall if it persists. Care is basically the same as is for the more common Egyptian tortoise. This is one of the rarest Greek tortoises and a very rare Testudo in general. When set up correctly from the start, we have found that they prove to be a rewarding little tortoise to keep.
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    Nabeul tortoise (Testudo graeca nabeulensis)

    Latin Name: Testudo graeca cyrenaica
    Americanized Common name: "Libyan Greek"
    Valid Common Name: Cyrenaican Spur-thighed tortoise or Libyan tortoise
    Notes:
    This highly attractive subspecies was notably imported in fairly large numbers into the United States in the late 1990s and 2000s. Like Morocco tortoises, few survived long term because many keepers attempted to house them in conditions similar to Testudo graeca ibera. The two subspecies are actually nothing alike and because of the untimely deaths that countless Cyrenaican Spur-thighed tortoises met, they are now a rarity in American collections. Another dry-dwelling subspecies, care must be taken to keep them out of overly humid or wet situations. They are marked by a yellow ground colored littered with black dalmatian-like spotting all over the carapace. The shell is oblong with some flaring of the marginal scutes giving way to "skirt-like" appearance. Males may reach 6-6.5" and females may surpass 7.5" respectively. This is quite possibly the most difficult Greek tortoise to acclimate in captivity. Captive bred specimens are of course a better choice but still should be watched closely for any changes in otherwise normal behavior.
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    Cyrenaican spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca cyrenaica)

    Latin Name: Testudo graeca anamurensis
    Americanized Common name: "Anamurensis Greek"
    Valid Common Name: Anamur tortoise or Anamurum tortoise
    Notes:
    This subspecies has recently been demoted to a geographical variant of the Asia Minor tortoise which is really an unfortunate move. They are easily differentiated from all other Greek tortoises by taking a clear look at the shell morphology. This tortoise is often confused with the Marginated tortoise (Testudo marginata) because of the conspicuous flaring of the rear marginal scutes on both sexes. Shell coloration may be entirely black or may be ochre with black mottling. They are a larger subspecies reaching sizes more comparable to T. g. ibera. In our care, females surpass 8 and even 9” with males not far behind. Like Asia Minor tortoises, they are robust and hardy, able to withstand a variety of weather conditions including cold. The carapace is also rather flat when compared to any other member of the Testudo graeca species complex. Some individuals are shockingly narrow in body shape. The skin is gray to black and interestingly, babies are a gorgeous buttery-blonde color with inconspicuous dark spots. Their appearance could rival the most gold examples of Testudo graeca terrestris. This does fade with age and as the colors begin to mix, the animals often become as black as night. Truly a fascinating and very rare Greek tortoise. At the time of writing this, the only known true T. g. anamurensis in the USA reside at our facility.
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    Anamur tortoise (Testudo graeca anamurensis)

    Latin Name: Testudo graeca buxtoni
    Americanized Common name: "Zagros Mountain Greek"
    Valid Common Name: Buxton's tortoise
    Notes:
    This subspecies has unfortunately come into the pet trade alongside other subspecies of Greek tortoise including T. g. terrestris and T. g. ibera. Because they are not an easily recognizable type, they were inevitably mixed with one or both of these and forced to cross-breed. They are a cold tolerant, robust tortoise reaching considerable sizes of 6-9" and larger. They exhibit an attractive array of browns, tans, grays and black with some animals being uniform gray to black. Skin coloration is dark like the Asia Minor tortoise and the carapace exhibits a noticeable arch. This is not necessarily a rare subspecies of Testudo graeca but rather a poorly understood one that tends to float around in collections of conspecifics belonging to an entirely different subspecies. They resemble T. g. ibera closest on average and are often bred to them. To really get an idea of what this tortoise looks like, I strongly recommend buying a copy of Terralog 1 Turtles of the World (2nd Ed) (Africa, Europe & Western Asia) by Holger Vetter and by visiting the Greek tortoise pages on my site, HermanniHaven.com. You may be surprised.
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    Buxton's tortoise (Testudo graeca buxtoni)

    Latin Name: Testudo graeca graeca
    Americanized Common name: "Greek Tortoise"
    Valid Common Name: Mediterranean Spur-thighed or Moorish tortoise
    Notes:
    This is the nominate form of Testudo graeca and despite the fact that the name "Greek tortoise" is thrown around in the global hobby, they are actually quite rare in American collections. Few keepers can describe what a pure T. graeca graeca looks like and some are simply describing Testudo graeca ibera when they attempt to do so. They are highly sensitive and although cold tolerant, they need primarily dry conditions. Customarily, Testudo graeca graeca features a light ground color, sometimes rather bright on the shell with nonuniform dark pigment in the form of spots, blotches and flecks or even rays (Algerian animals). The areola of each carapace scute is marked by a central black smudge or dot that may or may not be fringed with more black pigment laterally and anteriorly. As with most populations, those from the south are predominantly lighter in overall coloration while those from the north are darker. Specimens found in southern Morocco often have orange to reddish colored skin which corresponds with the color of the soil they occur on. There are variations throughout local forms of this tortoise. In areas where they are believed to have been introduced like Spain, they are very brightly colored with a yellow ground color. In some populations adults are smallish with males reaching 4.5-6" and females reaching 6 to 7.5", respectively. In Algeria, this tortoise grows to large proportions much like T. g. ibera. This form was once dubbed Testudo graeca whitei. These animals, originally described in1836, can attain dimensions and weights of over 11” and nearly 10 lbs (Highfield, 1996). Algerian graeca may differ morphologically from orthodox Moorish tortoises in addition to their impressive size by having a more elongate carapace and pronounced flaring of the rear marginal scutes in males (Highfield, 1996). In my personal opinion, these Algerian tortoises physically resemble Testudo graeca marokkensis rather than T. g. graeca. In reality, it seems Moorish tortoises are morphologically closer to Tunisian animals (Testudo graeca nabeulensis).
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    Moorish tortoise (Testudo graeca graeca)

    Latin Name: Testudo graeca soussensis
    Americanized Common name: ??
    Valid Common Name: Souss Valley tortoise
    Notes:
    This is a highly difficult tortoise to identify native to southern Morocco and the Souss Valley. Typically light in overall coloration, it bears a sand to yellowish colored carapace with little to no black pigment. When black is present, it is in the form of rays or splotches much like its nearby counterparts Testudo graeca marokkensis. It has been noted that captive born and raised youngsters may feature more black areas at least for a time being during growth. Heavily black pigmented individuals are also encountered in nature which furthermore confuses identification. The skin may be pink to orangish resembling the soils it is found on. Adult size matches both T. g. marokkensis and T. g. graeca with noted variation. Some reports suggest that soussensis is actually larger on average. Perhaps the only true identification tool one can use for this tortoise is the recognition of the lack of thigh spurs. This interesting example of the Greek tortoise family group lacks any thigh spurs in a number of individuals. It is unclear to me what the ratio of specimens with thigh spurs to those without them is, however, various sources state that this is an indicative trait of the Souss Valley tortoise. This is similar to the situation concerning the western Hermann’s tortoises (Testudo hermanni hermanni) occurring on the Madonie in Sicily, Italy. These peculiar Hermann’s tortoises actually exhibit thigh spurs. So, imagine that….a Greek tortoise without spurs and a Hermann’s tortoise with them! This is yet another reason why it is so imperative for outdated information to be replaced.
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    Souss Valley tortoise (Testudo graeca soussensis)

    Latin Name: Testudo graeca zarudnyi
    Americanized Common name: ??
    Valid Common Name: Iranian tortoise
    Notes:
    This is notably the rarest of the Greeks and little is known about its ecology or presence in captivity. Growing to between 24 and 28 cm, the shell is colored like that of Testudo graeca buxtoni but can feature the same degree of ochre found on Testudo graeca anamurensis. Iranian tortoises occur only in parts of eastern Iran in harsh environments. Flaring of the rear marginal scutes resembles that of Testudo graeca anamurensis and even Testudo marginata. The body type is overall robust and more like that of T. g. ibera.
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    Iranian tortoise (Testudo graeca zarudnyi)


    Latin Name: Testudo graeca armeniaca
    Americanized Common name: ??
    Valid Common Name: Araxes tortoise
    Notes:
    Another rarity, Testudo graeca armeniaca is special in that it looks very similar to the Russian tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii ssp). Its colors of black, gray and tan, along with its bulbous head shape, rounded shell shape and semi-flatness to the vertebral scutes may lead one to think they are witnessing a Russian tortoise of some type. This tortoise is not known in American collections at the time of writing this but is present in some European collections. Smaller than ibera and anamurensis, it is closer in dimensions to buxtoni and zarudnyi at between 24 and 26 cm.
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    Araxes tortoise (Testudo graeca armeniaca)

    Availability

    The availability of Greek tortoise subspecies is often subjected to country but it is the Asia Minor tortoise (Testudo graeca ibera) that is most common. Today we see this tortoise typically offered as captive born babies because true, reproductive adults are hard to come by. Still, it is the most produced subspecies in captivity. It’s worth noting that just like Hermann’s tortoises, ibera are recognized by having some distinct local forms (locales). Some are considerably larger than others but the pet trade has done an excellent job in mixing them up.

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    Asia Minor tortoise (Testudo graeca ibera) on the left and Anamur tortoise (Testudo graeca anamurensis) on the right

    Taking second place in popularity along with abundance is the Mesopotamian tortoise (Testudo graeca terrestris). This tortoise continues to be imported into various countries for the demanding pet trade and shipments are comprised of golden examples, black ones, mottled individuals and everything in between. Although not as easily reproduced as T. g. ibera, the Mesopotamian tortoise is far from unavailable in terms of captive bred hatchlings. What’s actually rare is getting any T. g. terrestris that are pure to origin. Jordanian, Syrian, Israeli and Turkish forms of this animal have been tossed around and mixed together for years. In the United States, more than 75% of keepers breeding them have absolutely no clue if all the tortoises in their group are from the same place. Locality specific specimens are not only a treat but are a savior in keeping these species as pure as possible for generations ahead.

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    Mesopotamian tortoise (Testudo graeca terrestris) from Jordan

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    Mesopotamian tortoise (Testudo graeca terrestris) from Syria

    When it comes to the rest of the Testudo graeca subspecies, it is unclear just how rare some of them are under human care. In the USA the Moroccan tortoise (Testudo graeca marokkensis) has stepped up to the plate in popularity but with a disturbing amount of imports dying off in their first 12 months after shipment, only a fraction of them have yielded any captive born young. We find them to be rather hardy once acclimated properly and set up correctly from the start. The case with other Moroccan forms of T. graeca (this includes T. graeca graeca and T. g. soussensis) is not an easy one to assess but surely they are less available than T. g. marokkensis. It’s worth mentioning that the large imports of tortoises from Morocco that have come into the American pet trade via dealers never had any real identification tag attached to them. They were simply (and not surprisingly) labeled “Moroccan Greeks”. Perhaps these shipments were comprised of several subspecies and are still being bred to each other by keepers today. The Anamur tortoise (Testudo graeca anamurensis) is very rare globally despite it not currently being listed as a valid taxon. While they are one of the most recognizable Greek tortoises, they have never been easy to obtain. Buxton’s tortoise (T. graeca buxtoni) is more confusing than it is rare. This subspecie’s purity is severely disrupted by mix ups and this is mainly the result of keepers thinking they have something they do not because they went off a photo floating around on the world wide web. This is especially apparent in the USA. Buxton’s tortoise is not a particularly vibrant form of the Greek tortoise and often resembles T. g. ibera and some forms of T. g. terrestris which does not coincide with what is being offered. Various keepers are selling “buxtoni” when in actuality they are offering a form of Testudo graeca terrestris, the Mesopotamian tortoise. The fact that the animals aren’t golden is why sellers think they are Buxton’s or something else. Confused yet? You can blame the collectors and dealers that first began exporting wild tortoises for sale without any note of origin, or care for that matter.

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    Mesopotamian tortoise (Testudo graeca terrestris)

    The Tunisian spur-thigh (Testudo graeca nabeulensis) is more common in UK collections and remains a true rarity here on American soil. Their sensitivity and petiteness has sadly landed most of them a front row seat on the “untimely death train”. Like Moroccan tortoises, we find them to be hardy when given the right care and environment. Tunisians are highly sought after considering their diminutive size and brilliant coloration. The same goes for Testudo graeca cyrenaica, the Libyan tortoise. This tortoise is also beautifully colored and sensitive. Like T. g. marokkensis, many of them perished before their time after being imported into the United States. Those lucky enough to still have them may find that captive bred and raised stock prove to be much hardier than wild caught. Libyans are unfortunately also subjected to mix ups and we tend to see these dark, or “washed out” looking babies offered from time to time when they should be a rich yellow color with a central dark spot on each carapace scute. The spot is then bordered by dark pigment but contrast is usually clear and not muddied. The Araxes tortoise (T. g. armeniaca) and Iranian tortoise (T. g. zarudnyi) are currently unknown in American collections but we are working to change that. Finding legitimate, legal animals is no easy task. There have been a small few in the past that claimed to have these animals but the claims resulted in no photos, no paperwork and well, no proof.

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    Cyrenaican Spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca cyrenaica)

    When looking for any Greek tortoise to add to your collection, I strongly advise that you do thorough research on the seller. The American reptile trade is littered with dishonest parties looking to make a quick buck by offering up animals that are not legitimate to purity. Impurity is one of the biggest threats that the tortoises of the genus Testudo face but we as responsible enthusiasts can help the situation by thoroughly educating ourselves. For starters, have plenty of questions prepared for those who offer “Golden Greeks” or “Black Greeks”. Neither name corresponds to a valid subspecies and are simply tied to color. Keep in mind that there are both gold and black examples found in various populations of any Greek tortoise as already stated. When you come across these offerings, absolutely request photos of the parents if they are babies that are being sold.

    Habitat

    All members of the Testudo graeca species complex occur in Mediterranean landscape of some degree. Sloping hillsides, rocky outcrops. scrubland, meadows and the edge of forests are commonplace. Low lying shrubbery is the preferred choice for refuge from the relentless sun and typically there is no thick canopy overhead. Generally speaking, the habitat of any Greek tortoise is on the dry side if not extremely dry but some subspecies are equipped to handle substantial rainfall such as Testudo graeca ibera, for example. Sunlight is paramount for these animals and is required for them to live normal lives and reach optimal functionality including reproduction. The severity and duration of winter varies from region to region which concludes that some Greek tortoises are able to withstand long, frigid periods while others can only handle short, mild ones. The species’ range is so vast that annual precipitation levels, average temperatures, substrate consistency and vegetation vary incredibly.

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    Moroccan tortoise (Testudo graeca marokkensis)
    Care in Captivity

    The proper care of Greek tortoises in captivity is not always an easy topic to tackle. This is because we are dealing with several subspecies that are not only physically or genetically different from each other, but they have different husbandry requirements too. This goes hand in hand with why it is so imperative to know exactly what you have when you purchase one or more of these tortoises. Far too many hatchlings meet their end because of keepers being misinformed from the beginning about the animal(s) they’ve acquired. If you’re patient and obtain a Greek tortoise from a known breeder of pure stock, chances are you’ll have long term success. Buying solely on impulse is not a practice recommended for tortoise keeping and especially not when it concerns the Testudo graeca family group. Truth be told, their care is not the same across the board and although similar as babies, adults must be met with specific requirements pertaining to their historic origin. For this reason, I will break this husbandry part of the care-sheet down into two groups of Greek tortoises. We will deal with the hardy subspecies which are more tolerant of conditions and we will also cover the arid dwelling ones which are more sensitive. Those are that not known in captivity to any thorough extent will not be covered at this time.

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    Asia Minor tortoise (Testudo graeca ibera) accepting a cactus pad from my hand.

    Care for Hardy Subspecies

    Hardy Greek tortoise subspecies include the Asia Minor tortoise (Testudo graeca ibera), the Anamurum tortoise (Testudo graeca anamurensis) and Buxton’s tortoise (Testudo graeca buxtoni). These animals, particularly ibera, are well-built, robust types with the capability of withstanding extreme temperatures and conditions.

    Without question, outdoors is best for them. There is no replacement for the sun and the animals will appreciate being subjected to natural elements even when they are not exactly favorable. The enclosure must be built in a sun drenched spot and nothing less. In the wild, the sun beats down on their Mediterranean landscapes and the tortoises make full use of it in the morning to reach a desirable body temperature. This temperature allows them to function at a normal level for the time of year at hand. South facing and sloped is best. The size of the enclosure is up for debate as it usually is, but I will at least describe what we do here. These subspecies are medium to large sized so this needs to be taken into consideration during the early planning stages. T. g. ibera are the largest on average but T. g. anamurensis are not far behind. We choose to house groups of 2 males and 6 females in nothing less than 30 feet by 20 feet. The walls of the enclosures are made from pressure treated planks. They do not pose any harm to the tortoises and last much longer than untreated wood does in an outdoor setting. Planks are 2 inches thick and vary from 8 to 12 feet long, and are 10 to 12 inches high. Using 3 to 4” exterior decking screws, they are secured to landscape timbers acting as posts. The 8 foot timbers are cut in half and each half is buried into the ground 18 to 24”. Any excess from the timbers that exceeds the final height of the wall is cut off with a sawzall. If you’re working with exceptionally lose ground, you may want to fill the hole you dig for the timber posts with cement to keep them in place. You’ll need to double the wall planks up in order to achieve a wall height of 20 to 24” above the ground to prevent escapes. These animals are capable of climbing and corners are an easy way for them to claw their way to the top. Always cap corners off or install a lip on top of the the entire perimeter so that if a tortoise makes its way up it will hit the lip and fall back down. We choose to only bury the first plank into the ground 4 to 6”. Of course Greek tortoises are able to dig down but when provided with a beautifully decorated, naturalistic pen, they will not try to escape by digging out. If plenty of sun, shade, plants, food, water, decor and other natural elements are provided, members of the Testudo graeca species group will settle down nicely and begin to exhibit daily cycles of grazing, breeding, exploring and hiding. Only gravid females looking to nest should be the ones pacing relentlessly and it’s only temporary. Once the eggs have been safely deposited into the ground, the female will resume normal activity patterns. If a tortoise is not gravid or is a male and is tirelessly pacing the enclosure, climbing the walls, flipping over and/or trying to dig out, something is wrong with the set up. You will need to rethink the enclosure and take all possibilities of why the specimen(s) is/are not happy into account.

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    Testudo enclosures here at Garden State Tortoise/Hermanni Haven.

    Up front, I want the reader to be fully aware that Greek tortoises are aggressive animals and this does not only pertain to males. Testudo graeca ibera and Testudo graeca anamurensis can be downright violent. I find it best to have a few extra, smaller pens available to separate out aggressors that take things a little too far. Excessive biting, ramming and chasing are commonplace. While these behaviors are normal for them and should be allowed to some degree, you must keep an eye on them. Male combat and female dominance are wonderful, natural displays of T. graeca conduct but things can escalate quickly. Shell and skin injuries along with stress can become real issues which may lead to more serious health problems. A tortoise that sits in a corner, does not venture over for food or rests in the same spot for days is one that is showing clear signs of being stressed-out. More than likely this is being caused by another individual, be it male or female. When keeping larger groups of ibera, anamurensis or buxtoni, aggression complications seem to be less of a problem. This is typically due to there being multiple animals around to share any pressing behavior instead of just one individual taking on the brunt of it. After-all, a group or colony tends to behave more like a wild population would. Early on in life, tortoises often gather together under the same object or vegetation used for hiding. They congregate and are typically seen in groups of sorts. This sets the stage for the dynamic of the population at hand and the animals learn how to coexist. Aggression of any kind is still part of their annual cycle but “rogue males” are less commonly seen, if at all. It is believed that at a young age they are imprinting on each other, behaving naturally and seeking close contact (Wegehaupt et al 2006). Males in particular that have been housed alone their entire lives may become a serious problem down the line if added to a colony. Their frustration, both sexual and from seeking dominance, takes them over and they will spend all their time harassing conspecifics of both sexes. Despite the fact that these tortoises occur in colonies in nature, housing them in just pairs is not recommended. The female will absolutely become stressed to the point of food refusal from the male’s persistence. In some cases, the male can actually become stressed by the female. Females can and will assert dominance especially when gravid. They will exhibit the same aggressive behavior as males do by ramming and even mounting. Of course keeping only a pair can work but it’s more than wise to not always house them together unless of course you have the room to provide them with an enormous pen. Such a pen will need to be so big that the two do not always encounter each other, as would be the case in the wild.

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    Typical biting behavior in Testudo graeca ibera.

    Tortoises occur in colonies in nature and so we find it best to do the same under captive conditions. There is a dynamic that is portrayed within a given population where males combat over females and females go about their day to day rituals. Males may not always engage in a battle upon encounters and several individuals may be found grazing or basking together in harmony at any time. Females will compete over oviposition (egg laying) areas and the right spots are hotly contested. Both sexes follow the same annual cycle becoming less active in autumn and increasingly active in the spring. This all remains within a delicate balance, one that cannot be mimicked by housing only one tortoise, or a pair for that matter. If your plan is to breed these animals long term and have long term success with regards to health, keeping a group is recommended. In either case, a proper environment for them needs to be in place first.

    In our coastal location, we have a naturally sandy substrate that works well for many tortoise species, including Testudo graeca ssp. A grass lawn would need to be removed and replaced with a substrate comprised of sand, top soil and some gravel. It’s crucial for the substrate to drain well, so be sure to survey the chosen area for the enclosure ahead of time to see how it fares during torrential downpours. Uneven terrain within the enclosure should be provided by creating mounds and slopes. Boulders, drift wood and rocks can be pushed around the base of a mound or slope to give it stability. This also coaxes the inhabitants to climb which is of course good exercise. Sun-bleached tree limbs, river stone, flag stone and more boulders can be added for aesthetic appeal and as visual barriers that will help curb potential stress. Plant life is of course important for these tortoises in offering refuge. Mediterranean Heather, Spirea, hibiscus, fountain grass and knockout rose are beautiful, safe choices. Allowing edibles to grow throughout the enclosure will enable the tortoises to graze at their leisure. Clover, plantain, vetch, sow thistle, black medic, hens and chicks, mallow and sedum are recommended. Shallow water dishes 1 to 2 inches deep should be recessed into the ground. Both terra cotta saucers and stainless steel dog food pans work well. Digging out shallow dips into the ground will suffice to catch rainfall. Once dug out, you can back fill with some gravel (3/4” Delaware river stone is a nice choice) and this drains slightly slower. This is a neat way to let rain water pool which offers the tortoises a fresh drinking source. It will drain on its own and refill again during the next rain. A small green house or cold frame can be installed in the enclosure to allow the tortoises to thermoregulate. Here in the northeast, we have found them to be very beneficial and help to keep our tortoises safe during bouts with unseasonably bad weather. An excellent choice is the 8 by 2 foot cedar cold frame by Gardener’s Supply. Although cedar based, it absolutely does not harm the animals in any way. It can be situated on a base made from landscape timbers or pressure treated planks. This is especially good for extra large T. g. ibera which may have a significant arch to their shells. By having the cold frame raised up with an entrance cut into the base, taller shelled specimens can enter and exit easily. Our summers are scorching as are many areas of the United States, so it is imperative that the tortoises can escape the cold frame on excessively hot days. The polycarbonate panels on the top can be propped open so that there is always air exchange and safer temps inside the cold frame during this time of year.

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    Cedar cold frame with polycarbonate panels open showing additional inner framing.

    Hardy Testudo graeca ssp typically become active in April and remain as such until October or November. Breeding takes place at any time during the active season but reaches a peak in spring and autumn. Egg laying commences in May through June with hatchlings emerging in late summer, early autumn. On favorable days, these tortoises wake up from resting overnight and immediately seek out morning sun to bask. They will pivot against the fence line, lay on a rock, prop up against a log or remain in the cold frame to soak up the heat and the sun’s rays. Once optimal body temperature is achieved, they look for food. As the day’s temperatures increase, the tortoises retreat to shady areas and wait until they drop a bit. They will then resume grazing or basking until shortly before nightfall. Summer rain is greatly appreciated especially after periods of drought. Testudo greaca ibera is so hardy that they will not even mind if they get caught in minor flooding. We’ve witnessed our animals drink, defecate and even rest in a few inches of water after a major downpour. As summer turns to fall, these subspecies begin to bask more while consuming less food. This is the time that they begin to prepare for their winter rest.

    An Excerpt About Brumation

    The onset of autumn can be a stressful time for tortoise keepers as the inevitable battle of what to do with our tortoises during the winter faces us. While some species will need to be brought indoors and kept awake and active until spring, there are others that can safely sleep the winter away. Tortoises are ectothermic (cold blooded) and they don’t actually hibernate, but instead enter a period of dormancy that is referred to as “brumation.” Unlike mammals, reptiles are not in a true state of sleep during this time. They enter a state of torpor to deal with unfavorable conditions by becoming less physiologically active during a decline in temperature. Because they cannot reach optimal digestive temperatures during the coolest part of the year, brumation reduces their risk of losing too much weight by remaining inactive. Simply put, by resting, the tortoises are not burning precious calories. When a warm winter day occurs, however, they are capable of emerging from their burrows to soak up some sun and may even drink from a puddle. Mammals do not do this. Only certain tortoise species can safely brumate; types that experience the same seasons we do in areas such as the northeastern U.S. Those belonging to the genus Testudo are particularly accustomed to doing so, and keepers have had success brumating them under captive conditions for years. These include the Hermann’s tortoises (Testudo hermanni ssp.), marginated tortoise (T. marginata) and some types of Greek tortoise (T. graeca ssp.), particularly the Asia Minor or “Ibera Greek” (T. g. ibera). Russian tortoises (T. horsfieldii) also fall into the “safe-to-brumate” category, as do some American tortoises, such as the desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii). The majority of the world’s tortoise species are not safe to brumate. Even though many of them experience some kind of cooler portion of the year that forces them to remain somewhat inactive, they cannot handle the temperatures or length of inactivity that the previously mentioned tortoises can. It’s crucial to know what your own tortoises experience naturally in the wild, and what they are able to withstand. Otherwise, attempting to brumate a tortoise that does not normally experience brumation in nature will surely end in illness and quite likely, the tortoise’s untimely death. This is yet again why it is so crucial to only purchase Greek tortoise types from trusted breeders of pure stock. To be blunt, you need you know what you have. To read my full brumation article with notes on how to safely do it, please use this link: http://www.reptilesmagazine.com/How-To-Brumate-A-Tortoise/

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    Testudo graeca anamurensis exiting a cold frame after brumation in early spring.

    Care for Sensitive Subspecies

    Sensitive Greek tortoise subspecies include the Tunsian spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca nabeulensis), the Moorish tortoise (Testudo graeca graeca), the Libyan or Cyrencaican tortoise (Testudo graeca cyrenaica), the Mesopotamian tortoise (Testudo graeca terrestris) and the Moroccan tortoise (Testudo graeca marokkensis). These animals have all proven to be notoriously difficult to acclimate in captivity after being imported. They derive from arid habitats in nature with little to no rainfall are not as robust as hardy subspecies are and succumb more rapidly to parasitic and viral infections. Never, ever mix these tortoises with anything else for the sake of themselves and other species. They are known carriers of herpes viruses among others which can remain dormant until stress brings them out. Although wild caught stock can be carriers of these diseases their whole lives without revealing any symptoms, they undoubtedly are a danger to other tortoises. Hermann’s tortoises in particular are extremely vulnerable to herpes infections caused by Greek tortoises and will surely die. The fact that these various Testudo graeca types can persist as asymptomatic is a scary but very real situation. Take this seriously, it could save your entire collection.

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    Testudo graeca marokkensis basking indoors.

    Considering stress is the main factor for these tortoises to go downhill, it’s important to have them set up correctly from the very start. The animals need a chance to settle in, grow accustomed to their new surroundings and should be left alone. Survivors are certainly not shy animals. Once stress has diminished, they are rather personable and will advance to their keepers for food.

    Unlike hardy subspecies, it may be best to primarily house sensitive ones indoors, depending on your geographical location. Keeping them free from prolonged periods of rain, cool or wet conditions and high humidity will make all the difference in trying to establish them as healthy, long term specimens. In most portions of the United States, weather patterns typically make it impossible to keep them outdoors year round. Still, summer normally allows for at least temporary outdoor housing in certain areas. If you live in a state that receives significant rainfall throughout summer or where the temperatures cannot be trusted, you’ll need to be prepared to move them indoors at any moment. Always have indoor accommodation ready for them.

    Like hardy species, an outdoor pen for sensitive ones needs to be placed in a well-drained, sunny area. The substrate should mimic that of their wild spaces. A mix comprised of play or mason sand and various grades of gravel should make up the bulk of it. Coastal areas like ours naturally have sandy ground so if you live on the coast, you may find it easier to prepare an outdoor unit for these types of Testudo graeca. Peat moss and top soil can be added in to help the mix have better consistency. This will come especially in handy for nesting females looking to break ground. Various succulents including select sedums, cacti and agave can be planted. Other plants like those mentioned above for hardy T. graeca subspecies can be used too. Rocks, logs and driftwood are of course useful as well in creating visual barriers and more refuge. A cold frame as discussed above for hardy subspecies is a must for these arid dwelling graeca in the majority of the United States. They simply cannot handle our rainfall in any excess and they will highly benefit from being able to enter a cold frame to escape it. Brooder lamps or ceramic heat emitters of 250 watts can be installed inside the cold frame for added heat and to aid in drying up in the inside should it become wet at all. Keep in mind that during summer’s peak, these brooder lamps may need to be shut off and the panels of the cold frame may need to be propped open. Even though these are arid dwelling tortoises, they are of course in danger of overheating when those scorching days come. During excessive heat, make sure the animals do not get trapped inside. We frequently experience days in the mid to high 90s (fahrenheit) in the summer and this is when we pay close attention to the cold frames. If it’s that hot outside, imagine what it’s like inside them.

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    Some of our outdoor Testudo pens each equipped with natural, sandy soil and a cold frame.

    Altogether, the enclosure materials, size, design and construction methods mentioned for hardy Greek tortoise subspecies are acceptable for sensitive ones but the substrate is what needs some extra TLC. It should mimic the sandy ground they thrive on in the wild to at least some extent.

    Indoors, these more sensitive Testudo graeca subspecies tend to do well. This is mainly attributed to the reality that they are not subjected to the amount of fluctuation in weather and temperatures as they would be if kept outside. Indoor areas of course should be spacious and we like to offer groups of 3 or 4 adults no less than 8x4 feet (bare minimum). Particularly large specimens will require more space than this. Ply wood is most commonly used to construct indoor units and works well. Again, substrate is important as these animals were not meant to sit on mulch, wood shavings or just hay and straw. There are several neat substrates specifically designed for arid reptile species today and although pricey, some are fun to work with. Zoo Med Excavator Clay is one that has proven to be effective in creating a naturalistic ground. This sand/clay product is mixed with water so that it can actually be molded to your liking. This helps the keeper create mounds and other uneven areas which the tortoises will use as they move about the enclosure. It s a reddish color which closely mimics the red sand areas some Greek tortoises legitimately occur on in nature. Testudo graeca marokkensis and Testudo graeca graeca can both be found in habitats with red sand or soil, for example. The tortoises can break through it, burrow into it and move it around even though it is molded. It’s not cement-like or too abrasive and after-all, these species naturally live in harsh, rocky environments anyway. Less expensive ways of making an aesthetically pleasing indoor environment include buying regular mason/play sand, organic potting mix, peat moss and top soil and mixing it all together. The same types of gravel used in outdoor enclosures can be added to the indoor substrate mix too. Even crushed oyster shell (commonly used as substrate for Egyptian tortoises ) is a nice additive to the mix. The substrate should be at least 8 to 12” deep if one expects females to be able to successfully nest in it. If you choose to keep the substrate shallow at between 4 and 6” deep, a large nesting box (rubbermaid containers and plastic totes work well for this) will need to be recessed into the wooden base of the enclosure so the animals can easily access it.

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    A well constructed indoor unit for Testudo graeca terrestris here, used during unfavorable weather.

    Plant Life Tips

    Plant life inside an enclosure is an important addition to bringing the entire unit together. In nature, all Greek tortoises are surrounded by various forms of vegetation which they use as both food and cover. In captivity it can be very difficult to keep edible plants alive long enough since the tortoises will constantly pick at them and eventually mow them down. In our outdoor enclosures, springtime triggers a wonderful display of weeds and wildflowers to begin blanketing the majority of the ground. Upon emergence from brumation, the tortoises are more concerned with basking and only nibble here and there which gives this vegetation a running start to really expand. By mid to late spring, they begin consuming large quantities of these naturally growing edibles and by summer, the grounds of the pens are nearly bare. This is one of the reasons why it is so crucial to plant other life within the enclosures that the animals do not necessarily want to eat (but safely can if the choose to) or cannot reach with their mouths. Hungry Greek tortoises will not hesitate to actually climb up into a plant to eat its leaves! It can be frustrating for the keeper especially if you’re like me and enjoy beautiful, naturalistic pens with flowing vegetation. Since we consistently offer our tortoises food items in addition to the vegetation in their pens, making sure they can eat their plant co-inhabitants is of secondary importance. Of course one would never want to plant something toxic, so instead, we plant hardy items that can either take some tortoise-power or are just not a preferred food. What’s primarily important is that the plants offer refuge and visual barriers. In the wild these animals do not occur completely exposed while resting on a bare ground of dirt. Simply put, they would fry in the blazing sun. Testudo graeca ssp actually will become “freaked out” if they sit vulnerable to anyone or anything because they do not have cover to escape under. These are wild animals at heart no matter what, and they are instinctively programmed to hide from potential threats. When they don’t have the chance to do this, we are once again dealing with stress.

    Large grasses are an excellent way to provide cover and the animals do not eat them. Fountain or maiden grasses are a preferred choice here and they come back each year fuller and larger. The tortoises waste no time making scrapes around the bases of the grasses and can easily cool off under them during very hot days. Knockout rose, although edible, is typically left alone by the tortoises. These grow large and feature stunning flowers of pink, red or yellow… just watch out for those thorns! As the petals fall, the animals may choose to snack on them. Spirea plant varieties are some of my favorites. These also grow large and full, come back each year and are very attractive. The only negative aspect of spirea is that the animals will eat them. They are easy to climb into and the leaves are delectable, it seems. Greek tortoises (and any other Testudo species) will strip them bare. Either start with already established large spirea or be prepared to fence them in so the tortoises cannot access them until they mature and fill out. Yucca is a very hardy perennial that appears as if it were a desert succulent and as it grows it provides shade from the sun. The tortoises do not eat it. Hibiscus trees and plants are absolutely great choices but up here in the northeast we are forced to buy new ones each season, or over-winter them indoors. We typically do not have easy access to hardy types that can survive the winter. Both the leaves and flowers are edible and favored by the tortoises. They are a constant source of food as leaves and flowers drop throughout the active part of the year. The trees are tall enough so that the animals cannot reach anything and destroy them. At the end of the summer, we remove all hibiscus and feed them out to the animals in full. We then start over in the spring with new ones.

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    Testudo graeca anamurensis comfortably nestled in the planted vegetation.

    When planting any of these items, it’s wise to clump them together in random parts of the enclosures to make nice thick areas of refuge. Of course as they grow and enlarge they may need to be trimmed especially being so close to each other but that is another thing that is of secondary importance. The well-being of our tortoises comes first and we are trying to replicate nature as best as we can. Plants do not grow in neat little rows in the wild. They grow wild! Remember you are creating a habitat for a wild animal and although the placement of these plants may not follow a typical gardener’s rule of thumb, it can still be beautiful and captivating. It also gives you piece of mind knowing your tortoises can safely access hiding areas by supplying them with appropriate plant life. There is a wide range of plants one can use in a tortoise enclosure that are safe for the occupants. It’s best to do thorough research on what can grow well in your particular area. Because New Jersey experiences all 4 seasons, we prefer to mostly use perennials outdoors. It saves us money and the plants come back better each year.

    For a thorough and interesting look at plants that are both safe and unsafe for tortoises, use this link: www.thetortoisetable.org.uk

    Planting an indoor enclosure is not always easy and lack of space can have a major impact. Typically, tortoises are more confined in an indoor setting and plants will of course take up space. The animals will also root around trampling any plants in the act. We make use of some indoor live plants such as agave, spider plants and Dracanea which are all safe, but the use of fake ones has proven to work quite well. Stores like Michael’s and Hobby Lobby sell countless plant replicas that are actually very realistic. Grasses, large leafed plants and even various succulents can be purchased. These stores often run 50% off on these items which is excellent if you have a large enclosure to decorate. These fakes come in all sizes and are suitable for both adult and hatchlings Testudo graeca. We’ve only occasionally seen tortoises nibble at them but because they are well-made, the animals do not seem to be able to rip any pieces off. Some of the smaller succulent items feature tiny parts that may or may not break off. Use these smaller ones with caution. By using fake plant life, one can get very creative and construct a breathtaking enclosure for the tortoises without taking on the work of having to keep them alive. They can be glued or screwed to the side and/or base of a unit or weighed down with rocks. You can also drill a hole into the base followed by slipping the plant’s plastic stalk into it. This will anchor it in and the animals won’t be able to uproot it once the substrate is in place.

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    Testudo graeca marokkensis with fake plants indoors.

    Protection From Predation

    While outdoor housing has its great benefits, it also comes with one major set-back. Predators are a very real issue for tortoises living outside without the protection of a home or building. Raccoons are of course the number one threat to outdoor tortoise collections but mink, rats, voles, coyote, fox, raptors and even ferrel dogs and cats are all potential killers. Crows in particular learn to recognize nesting female tortoises and will rapidly make a meal out of the eggs as they are being laid. Skunks and fox love to unearth tortoise nests and devour the eggs. Most attacks from predators occur at night or when the keeper leaves for several days. Some of these animals are highly intelligent and able to learn quickly when a human’s presence is no longer near. Raccoons have been known to annihilate a group or collection of tortoises in just one night, so it is especially important to have methods in place to deter them. Even very large Testudo graeca ibera may be at risk to them. Voles love to eat baby tortoises and although rare, raptors such as hawks, eagles and owls have been reported to make off with one they can easily carry in their talons. We prefer to house the vast majority of our Testudo tortoise collection outside year-round, so we have made sure to equip the entire property with not one, but several predator deterrents. It’s unclear which of these methods works best because we always have all of them in place at the same time, but the absolute truth is that animals are staying out of our pens to date.

    Electric fencing is a very effective method. We use American Farm Works electric fence controllers with 1.2 output joules that are good for 30 miles. This emits a painful, powerful shock. These systems are easy to install, just ask any Tractor Supply employee or google it. Both AC and solar powered units are available. Our fences are turned on at sundown and turned off at sunrise. The wire is run at a specific height and distance from the enclosure so that an animal must hit it if it tries to enter. As a father with young children, I recommend making sure the fence is shut off before allowing them anywhere near it. Some people have asked us questions like, “Isn’t the electric fence kinda harsh on the animals that might try to come in?” My answer is, “Umm, yes, that’s the point.”
    We choose to keep these tortoises, therefore we should vow to protect them through any measure possible.

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    Testudo graeca anamurensis in a safe, outdoor enclosure.

    Yard Sentinel makes an interesting product that acts as an ultrasonic pest repeller. These small green units are mounted on a tree or enclosure wall at different heights depending on what you want to repel. For raccoons, we mount them roughly 15” from the ground and for raptors, 8 to 12 feet high. On the back of the unit is a dial which allows you to set it to a fixed frequency based on the predator you mostly want to deter. Several units can be installed around the yard, as we have done, and set to keep out various predators. Some are set to raccoon while others are set to raptors, so on and so forth. Yard Sentinel repellers can also be set to run on a constant loop or only come on at sundown. They then turn themselves off at sunrise. If your property is in very close proximity to a neighbor, you may want to make sure with them first that it does not irritate their ears. Some people can hear the sonic frequencies well while others do not seem to care. The units do not bother the tortoises.

    Nite Guard makes neat little solar powered black boxes that are mounted on trees or enclosure walls. They act as simple red blinking lights, that run all night, to mimic the appearance of an animal’s eyes. The objective is that Nite Guard’s blinking red lights let a predator that may looking to enter the premises think that something is already there and that it may pose a threat.

    Motion sensors work as a way to tell animals they’ve been spotted. Depending on the size of the animal and where the sensor is, the motion of it walking by sets off a bright light. This may send an illusive predator running for the hills.

    Have-a-Heart traps can be an excellent way to humanely capture predators for release elsewhere. These traps come in various sizes but are a bit pricey. By using the right bait, a predator nearby will pick up the scent of it instead of the sleeping tortoises and get stuck in the trap. For raccoons, we’ve found that bluefish heads, discarded lobster parts, chocolate chip cookies and plain old aquatic turtle pellets (or koi food) work to draw them in. You’ll also draw the attention of skunks and possums, so keep that in mind. It’s also worth mentioning that by using bait, you could potentially be attracting predators that weren’t previously interested in your yard. When releasing these animals, take them a considerable distance away because they can and will find their way back. We choose to take raccoons 30 to 50 miles away if we catch any.

    Decoys can be used but it’s assumed that animals get used to them quickly. Perhaps moving them around the premises will help to continue to fool them. Owl decoys, coyote and dog decoys are available as well as “halloween crows”. These cheap, plastic, feathered fake crows can be strung around in trees to deter live crows looking for tortoise eggs. Crows are surprisingly smart and may recognize these strung up fake ones as dead members of their own kind. This alarms them and alerts them to stay away.

    Cameras go a very long way in at least letting you know what is going on at any time. They may not stop a natural predator but their presence may keep out human thieves. Tortoise collections are very valuable and in the case of some species being so hard to obtain, all it takes is one indecent human-being getting wind of your location and you may find yourself “tortoise-less”. We make use of Arlo systems. They are attractive little wireless cameras for both indoor and outdoor use. The base unit hooks up to WiFi and an app is downloaded to your smart phone. You can then watch your cameras from anywhere and have them set to motion so that they alert your phone when something has come into focus. They also record. The base units allow multiple cameras depending on what service option you choose to purchase and all of them can be viewed on your phone. This is also a great way to make sure you aren’t missing nesting females as they lay their eggs and disguise them from view. These systems really give us piece of mind because we can see our animals 24/7 if we want, even when we’re far away on family vacations. Various eye-catching signs can be bought online with sayings such as, “Smile, you’re on camera!”, or “Warning: area under 24 hour surveillance”. We place these around our entire property to let potential trespassers know that we can actually see them, even if we aren’t home.

    Lastly, a highly effective method of keeping anything or anyone out of your tortoise enclosures is by having a large dog, or several dogs. Not everyone is a dog person, and although we can’t imagine our life without them, I get it. But, a large, powerful dog, trained to protect your animals and the property is without a doubt an excellent deterrent that sincerely gives piece of mind. Our big guy knows what he has to do and they are of course his tortoises.

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    Greek tortoise pens here with high powered electric fencing around them.

    As already mentioned, it’s difficult to claim which of these methods or which combo of them works best. Because we work with our animals daily and they are our life, we make use of this wide variety to really make a solid effort in keeping all harm away. We also live backed up to 47,000 acres of protected wildlife refuge, so, predators are certainly out there lurking. It wouldn’t be wise to let our guard down, needless to say. Take this very seriously. I can’t tell you how many horrific stories I’ve heard through the community and friends who have lost beloved tortoises to these very real threats. These wild animals are only doing what they know best and it is us that has encroached on their territory. They have to survive and they will stop at nothing to get a meal, unless we take the proper, responsible precautions.
    Diet

    As with any Testudo species or subspecies, the diet of Greek tortoises must be made up of 3 major components: low protein, high fiber and high calcium. Perhaps appropriate ratios for food items should be somewhere in the range of 15-20% (max) protein, less than 15% fat and above 15% in raw fibers with a calcium to phosphorus ratio of 2:1. Most foods in nature contain a much higher ratio with some exceeding a ratio of 20:1 and tortoises kept outdoors can safely consume foods with higher ratios on a more regular basis. This does not mean that these tortoises won’t willingly accept items that are made up of less than desirable ratios and in actuality, their willingness to eat such foods is why many of them end up deformed, grown improperly or suffer from liver diseases under captive conditions. Like humans, the food items that Testudo graeca specimens are started on upon entering the world can imprint on them. If inappropriate foods are what is first offered, the animals may become stuck on them leading to a reluctance in accepting healthy choices later on. For this reason it is imperative to start neonates on a healthy, at least somewhat natural diet from the start. In captivity, we as keepers tend to load our tortoises up with supermarket produce or commercial feeds and this is often attributed to the lack of available natural food items in winter. The truth is that these unnatural foods are not awful for the animals, but they must be used in moderation and only as part of a varied diet. Commonly used produce such as lettuces, tomato, squash, cucumber, sweet potato and various fruits have minimal benefits but when used excessively they can cause a fat build up, particularly in the liver and even under the skin. If fruit and vegetables are to be offered, spread them out and aim to use them no more than once weekly, if that. We prefer to stay away from fruits almost entirely with the exception of only occasionally offering watermelon rinds in the peak of summer for added hydration. Various berries like blackberry or blueberries are only sometimes provided as well. The animals may receive these items only a handful of times throughout the active season.

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    Testudo graeca terrestris feeding.

    In the wild, Testudo graeca subspecies graze on edibles that are low in nutritional value. These plants, which grow in soils that are calcium-packed, are loaded with vitamins, raw fiber and minerals, while being low in calories. The availability and level of growth changes seasonally and so this means the tortoises’ intakes also change. The animals typically graze or browse in the morning after warming up and again later in the day once the peak in heat has subsided some. They usually do not eat a plant in its entirety but instead move from item to item taking bites as they go. This enables them to consume a wide variety of plant life. They will eat what they are familiar with and as already stated, this was imprinted on them at a very young age. Leaves and flowers of appropriate plants, shoots, seeds and even roots are eaten. Select plants and weeds that grow naturally even in the USA are excellent staple food items for Greek tortoises. These include but are not limited to pointed and Mediterranean plantain, sow thistle, mallow, dandelion, catsear (also known as flatweed), thorn lettuce, vetches, red clover and purple dead nettle. We are able to pick these foods for our tortoises throughout a good portion of the year with some still being available in the heart of winter in southern New Jersey. They also grow naturally in the tortoise pens, in which case the inhabitants can help themselves by grazing like they would in nature.

    Various store-bought greens like curly endive, collard greens, turnip greens, chicory and escarole can be added to the diet of any Testudo graeca subspecies but be sure to rotate them. In combination with a more naturalistic diet, they help keep things varied. The fact that Greek tortoises are opportunistic feeders but primarily herbivorous, means they will openly accept a variety. This suggests they will even consume invertebrates. Like Hermann’s tortoises, some T. graeca specimens will eat earthworms, slugs and garden snails. These random prey choices do not cause the animals any harm because they are not the staple diet. In addition to this, the consumption of snails offers calcium through the ingestion of the snail’s shell which is of course a benefit. When living outdoors in naturally constructed pens, the tortoises will inevitably come across such prey and may or may not choose to eat them. Although Testudo species may eat invertebrates and even carrion in some cases, it is absolutely not advisable to offer them high-protein items such as dog or cat foods. While this may be acceptable to some degree for other species of tortoise such as red foot tortoises (Chelonoidis carbonaria), Mediterranean tortoises do not require protein-rich feed with regards to staying in optimal health.

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    Testudo graeca ibera feeding on curly endive.

    The use of prepared commercial diets specially made for tortoises has reached an all time high in recent years. While some of these brands or formulas are not acceptable mainly due to a protein content that is much too high, others can safely be used in moderation. Mazuri tortoise diets are popular products in the United States. While the 5M21 original formula is a bit higher in protein than the LS form, it has proven to yield healthy animals if not used in excess. Many Testudo graeca will refuse the LS formula but will eagerly accept the 5M21 formula. It’s important to remember that these commercial pellet feeds are not a natural food source for these creatures but they can be beneficial when used correctly. We use 5M21 once to twice weekly during the active season. It’s soaked in water until it becomes spongy and offered on terra cotta plates. Other products can be mixed in with Mazuri diets such as Zoo Med’s grassland tortoise diet (which is another product that many tortoises will ignore unless disguised with something else) or dried herbs. Kapidolo Farms offers a variety of dried products that are excellent choices to add to the diet of any Testudo species. These items can also help coax a reluctant feeder into accepting food. Some imported tortoise specimens may only accept what they were familiar with during their time in nature. These animals are sometimes problematic when it comes to getting them onto a sufficient diet. Usually underweight and otherwise compromised from a long trip and less-than-desirable shipping conditions, it’s imperative to get them feeding well as quickly as possible. Offering more natural choices may spark a familiarity trigger and the tortoise might start to eat. Dried herbs and other items from Kapidolo Farms such as rose hips, dandelion, plantain loose leaf, mulberry leaves, hibiscus flowers, cactus chips, raspberry loose leaf, oat straw looseleaf and red clover loose leaf are just some good choices one can order. Visit kapidolofarms.com

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    Testudo graeca nabeulensis feeding on Mazuri tortoise diet mixed with herbs from Kapidolo Farms.

    For calcium intake, a common practice is to heavily sprinkle commercially made calcium powders directly onto the food. These products, often containing vitamin D3, can actually cause harm if overused or even when used if a tortoise is already suffering from a calcium deficiency. The practice of forcing vitamin D3 into our animals can have adverse effects and may even lead to death as the internal system becomes “confused”. Forcing calcium on tortoises can also lead to calcium deposits in the form of build ups as the blood looks to relieve itself of it by storing it in organs. This is yet another reason why an appropriate, varied diet is so crucial. Calcium powders may be safely used in moderation but letting the tortoises choose when to consume it seems to be the better option. In nature, they will eat discarded snail shells, bones, limestone rock pieces and egg shell pieces. The shell or calcified skeleton of the cuttlefish, known as “cuttle-bone” is most commonly associated with being used for captive birds. This is actually an excellent and preferred source of calcium for tortoises. Cuttlebone can be purchased in bulk and randomly placed throughout a tortoise enclosure. The animals will nibble them when they feel the need. Even hatchlings will utilize them. Breaking off small pieces can be done for younger specimens while adults can easy manipulate a whole piece. You can also boil the shells of chicken eggs or collect empty shells of garden snails. These are more natural choices for calcium intake. If you are to use calcium powder, I have found that sprinkling it once monthly on food is enough, if you are offering a proper diet and the animals are exposed to natural sunlight for part of the year. Ready-made calcium blocks designed for reptiles are something I’ve chosen to stay away from. They are sometimes jam-packed with a content of minerals and vitamins that are unnecessary for Testudo species to consume regularly. Cuttlebone is without a doubt a reliable and safe source of calcium for the tortoises and if you find that your animals are not nibbling at it, you can occasionally shave some off by scraping a knife on it. It will make a fine powder that sticks to the food.

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    Baby Testudo graeca cyrenaica feeding on dandelion greens.

    To conclude the dietary section of this article, I will emphasize a very interesting point. No matter what we do under captive conditions, we will never be able to completely replicate the natural diet of tortoises. This is particularly important to understand if you reside in the United States. We as responsible keepers must do our best to offer as close to a natural diet as we possibly can, but we also need to understand that the inevitable gaps we find in a captive diet have to be filled with something. These gaps, which are not an issue in nature, may deprive the animals of some necessary dietary components and so, variety is absolutely key. Moderation is a crucial term to take into account and when practiced, it can make some food items beneficial that typically would not be if used alone. Keep in mind that tortoises are opportunistic feeders with a survival instinct that has been imbedded in them since the time of the dinosaur. They eat to be able to stay alive and they know what they need to make that happen. By offering them a wide variety, we can be more assured that they are getting a better chance at consuming all the specifics required for a long and healthy life.
  2. HermanniChris

    HermanniChris Well-Known Member TFO Sponsor 10 Year Member!

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    Indoor Lighting

    Whether you’re housing babies or adults indoors, it’s recommended that appropriate lighting be used. Two forms of light are required with one being solely for basking while the other is for UVB. Mercury vapor bulbs are often used as they emit both UVA and UVB. These are ok for adult tortoises but prove to be too harsh for babies. Keepers reporting that their hatchlings are running about the enclosure, climbing and flipping over are usually the ones providing overly hot conditions, typically blamed on the heat or lighting source they use. Mercury vapor bulbs, heat pads, heat rocks or basking lights too high in wattage are the main causes. Never, ever use heat pads or heat rocks for tortoises, they can cause certain dehydration or death. Heat must come from above and warm the ground just like the sun does in nature. Overwhelming baby tortoises with heat is what causes them to become uneasy and even panicked. As they work to escape the heat they inevitably dehydrate themselves to an irreversible level. For babies, a simple 75 to 100 watt indoor/outdoor floodlight or ceramic heat emitter is perfect for basking. It should be placed on one far end of the enclosure and can hover over a flat rock. A temperature of 90F and up to 95 is fine so long as the rest of the enclosure remains well below that. Air temperatures of between 80 and 85 (max) are safe for during the day but down to 75 is fine too. Nighttime temperatures are discussed in the section below. For adults, basking lights or ceramic heat emitters of 160 to 250 watts work well indoors and the overall temperature of your building or home will determine which wattage you should use to achieve a basking site of between 95 and 105F. For UVB output, I have found that both Zoo Med T5 10.0 fluorescent tubes and Arcadia 12% T5 fluorescent tubes are reliable as long as they are changed every 6 months or so. They both come in a variety of sizes to fit different enclosures. Never use combo lights even though they seem to be the easy way out. UVB coil bulbs have been known to cause eye damage so I advise staying away from them altogether. If your tortoises spend anywhere from 5 to 9 months outside under natural sun, UVB may not be necessary for the time they are housed inside. Save the money and the stress by utilizing the real sun when you can. Both your tortoise and your wallet will benefit.

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    Indoor heat/lighting examples.
    Reproduction

    Behaviors like biting, chasing, ramming and mounting have all been discussed throughout this care guide as they are natural for Greek tortoises to exhibit. Most commonly they are associated with courtship and breeding. This is a vigorous affair with the male being extremely persistent. Testudo graeca ssp are not particularly hard to breed and in fact, when the sexes are kept together, it’ll just happen. Females usually become gravid in spring between April and June and may lay between 1 and 3 clutches (occasionally more) in a single active season. Clutch size varies with some females laying as little as 3 eggs and some laying as many as 12 in one shot. Larger subspecies like T. g. ibera tend to lay the larger clutches. Oviposition sites are always sunny locations in well-drained ground and tend to lack heavy vegetative growth. We see Greek tortoise females nest at as early as 7:30 in the morning to as late as 4:30 in the evening. In early spring, nesting commences later as temperatures rise because mornings are too cool and in summer it occurs either early in the morning or in the evening when daytime heat is not as excessive. While T. g. ibera and T. g. anamurensis eggs can and do hatch naturally here, we always opt for removing clutches for artificial incubation. Regardless of subspecies, we unearth the eggs after the mother has covered them, gently rub a bit of dirt off with a paper towel and carefully write the date, subspecies and the mother’s identification on each one. They are then placed on either dry perlite or dry vermiculite in deli containers perforated with tiny air holes. The deli containers are put inside an incubator with about 80% air humidity at all times. The eggs are never wetted down until they are nearing hatching. At that point we gently mist them with a spray bottle to simulate rain which triggers hatching. At temperatures between 82 and 85.6F, Greek tortoises will hatch between 60 to 90 days and will more than likely all be male. At temperatures between 86 and 89.6F, they may hatch slightly sooner containing the probability of both sexes and any incubated at over 89.6 but lower than 91.3F will mostly yield females. We have found that some subspecies like T. graeca marokkensis and T. graeca terrestris for example, typically incubate longer (closer to or at 90 days) than T. g. ibera which tend to hatch sooner. All newly hatched babies are left to absorb their precious yolk sacs on dampened paper towels inside deli containers for 3 to 5 days before being moved to rearing units. They may eat right away or refuse food for up to a week thanks to the nutrients from the yolk sac.

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    Testudo graeca ibera during oviposition.

    Raising Hatchlings

    Successfully raising tortoise hatchlings of any kind has truly morphed into its own art at this stage in the global reptile hobby. So much has been learned about topics like why baby tortoises often fail to thrive long term and how to grow them smoothly as they typically do in the wild. While this is all monumental in tortoise keeping, outdated information, myths and general assumptions about rearing still loom overhead thus landing the animals in positions where they ultimately face an untimely death. Greek tortoises are no different when it comes to this subject and with some of the subspecies being highly sensitive, they are commonly some of the ones that suffer the most. To start, I want to highlight a few crucial points:

    • Hydration and moisture are extremely important for survival and smooth shell growth


    • Nighttime heat can actually harm or even kill these tortoises


    • Over-handling or over-pampering leads to stress and can cause death


    • The introduction of appropriate food items from the start is imperative


    • Outdoor keeping absolutely can be successful from day one (subspecies & geographical location dependent)

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    Testudo graeca terrestris hatching.

    Hydration, Moisture and Tips

    In the old days it was assumed that tortoises achieved appropriate hydration and moisture solely from the foods they eat. Keepers opted for drier substrates and intense lighting all leading to an overly dry environment, collectively. Most baby Testudo graeca would perish before reaching their first birthday from these husbandry methods and those that did survive would be awfully pyramided or deformed. Pyramiding relates to the formation of lumpy or raised scutes on the carapace. The shell of a Greek tortoise is intended to have wonderfully smooth growth with a significant arch to it. Only slightly raised vertebral scutes are sometimes encountered in nature. In human care, the outdated information on captive maintenance resulted in horribly distorted animals to the point where some could not even be properly identified. These poor practices also caused a reduction in coloration as the animals developed a muddied or extremely drab appearance. Today, we now know that adequate hydration and moisture helps to keep these animals from growing improperly and of course, this ties back to what they experience in nature. Baby tortoises subject themselves to a high degree of moisture through burrowing into moist substrate, hiding in thick vegetation and even seeking refuge underneath debris, be it natural or from human rubbish. All chelonians are programmed to stay out of sight from predators but when so young, they do this the vast majority of the time. Instinct prevails as the neonates know they are severely vulnerable to predators and so they react by only venturing out for short bursts to bask or feed. This secretive behavior allows them to be in humid or moist conditions frequently, and more so than the adults. Tortoises spend their entire lives on the ground or in it and this is exactly where they encounter such humid conditions, on average. The animals also do not void their systems of urates and feces from being picked up or moved like they do more often in captivity from being handled. For some subspecies such as Testudo graeca nabeulensis, it can be a death sentence for them to empty their precious water reserves from being disturbed, especially during extreme droughts in an already very arid habitat. When rains do come or when a natural water source is found, Greek tortoises will dip their faces into the water and intake as much as they can. This becomes a valuable reserve which enables them to go without drinking for extended periods. Retaining hydration and burrowing into moist microclimates from the day they hatch sets the stage for proper growth. Regardless of the fact that some Greek tortoise types naturally occur in arid areas of the world, babies still need the necessary exposure to moisture. Even in these desert-like habitats, youngsters are able to seek out humidity or slightly wet locations by burrowing and hiding. The natural annual cycle of Greek tortoises further supports the importance of moisture by simply taking into account when babies hatch. Eggs are deposited into the ground by gravid females in late spring and summer. They are then timed to hatch with the onset of autumn rains. Those that overwinter in the nest from hatching too late in the year such as some Testudo graeca ibera, will emerge in spring once the rains return. Water as a whole is a major factor for survival and beyond important for baby T. graeca ssp to thrive and grow properly into adulthood.

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    Testudo graeca nabeulensis displaying well-grown, strong shells.

    The first key to ensuring our baby Greek tortoises do not easily dehydrate is to select the proper indoor enclosure. Up front, I want the reader to understand that any wooden enclosure is going to have a hard time retaining sufficient moisture or humidity. The “tortoise table” style enclosures historically associated with indoor keeping are really only suitable for specimens that are out of the fragile stage. For me, tortoises that have surpassed a carapace length of 3” are ready for a tortoise table-type unit. Before this point in development, something as simple as a rubbermaid tote is best. These can be purchased at Home Depot, Walmart, Target or Lowes and come in a variety of sizes. They are durable and being made out of plastic, they help to keep moisture in. Choose a darker color so that the tortoises cannot see out of it. The animals do not understand the concept behind glass or clear plastic so when they can easily see out of their enclosure, they will spend most of their time trying to escape it. The days of raising tortoises in fish tanks are long gone for the most part and I’d like to think I do not need to cover the reasons why they should never be used. The dark coloration of a tote or bin becomes a visual barrier allowing them to learn their environment and remain content within it. Cement mixing tubs are already colored black and may be a better choice for an enclosure depending on what you prefer. If you’re ok with going a more expensive route, various reptile companies offer caging made from plastics or PVC. They are specifically designed for the purpose of keeping snakes, lizards, turtles and even tortoises. Vision Cages, Herp Cages and other manufactured products are not only suitable for retaining moisture but they are highly attractive too. These enclosures are closed in completely with vents along the back and/or sides for air exchange. The front window is opened or closed via hinges and locking mechanisms. This allows for easier upkeep concerning moisture levels. We use these units that come in sizes such as 2x4 feet for up to 6 hatchlings or 2x6 feet for up to 12 hatchlings. As the animals grow, the are separated out to avoid overcrowding or moved outdoors to larger enclosures. When using a rubbermaid, be sure you keep the lid that it comes with. This lid can come in handy at night. Once all lighting is turned off in the evening, the lights can be removed and the lid of the container can be placed on (be sure there are a few air holes poked into the lid or sides of the container). This will create a build up of humidity and moisture overnight. In the morning, remove the lid, place the lights back on and turn them on and the babies will resume basking. This “contain and release” effect simulates nature while subjecting the youngsters to beneficial overnight moisture. In the morning, the sun rises overhead drying up moisture that has formed during the night in the wild. The lights being turned back on on your tortoise enclosure will have the same job when you use the lid at night. Of course, this idea won’t prove out if you aren’t working to keep the substrate moist and at a sufficient depth to begin with. The substrate of choice should be at a depth of no less than 4”. I typically recommend a depth of 5 to 6” and this offers the tortoises the opportunity to burrow deeply into the precious moisture the substrate holds. This also helps the keeper to relax a bit. So many struggle to keep up with proper humidity levels which should range from 70 to 80% for baby Testudo graeca when in fact, it is the substrate that holds the key to success. If the animals are able to exhibit nature-given behavior and follow instinct, they will attempt to burrow at any given time. They do not just sit out all day in humid air, kicking back while enjoying life because humidity is there to save the day. If they did that, they’d be eaten by a predator….quickly. Sure, in captivity the tortoises will inevitably display a “trust” of sorts as they recognize us as their source of food. They will then dare to expose themselves more than they would in the great wilds of the Mediterranean, but instinct is still inside them and natural behaviors should be promoted. Let them burrow and leave them be. They may do this for days on end which is completely normal. A baby tortoise that sits out, does not aggressively eat or spends all its time near the heat lamp is probably sick and in need of attention. Burrowing is absolutely normal and it helps them stay content. Promote it, don’t fight it. When trying to keep the substrate moist, actually adding water to it with a cup or bowl and mixing it around will work better than spraying it down. The act of spraying or misting the substrate does nothing more than make for an artificial rain. Granted, the tortoises will enjoy this and benefit short term from it but it does little more than wet the surface. The lights and heat will quickly rid that moisture from the enclosure and you’ll end up with an environment that is too dry. Adding water directly will penetrate the substrate and help to keep the moisture within it.

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    Example of a 2x6 foot "HerpCage" we use for raising baby Greek tortoises.

    Substrate choice is of course important. Perhaps mentioning a few that are not safe to use is a good idea. Aspen wood shavings, rabbit pellets, cedar shavings, pine shavings, corn cob bedding, crushed walnut, and newspaper are all poor choices. Not only do they lack in the moisture retention department, they are also dangerous if consumed. In addition to these, the use of straight sand, straight gravel or straight coconut coir is also not recommended. In the end, any type of substrate can cause impaction in the gut which leads to death, so we have found that it is best to create a naturalistic mix. Over the course of nearly 30 years in keeping Testudo species, it is substrate mixes that work best, long term. Sand is a natural element of all Greek tortoise habitats in the wild. Some actually do occur on a ground that is primarily made up of sand but in captivity it can be difficult to manage the amount of sand our animals accidentally eat. This is especially dangerous when it becomes stuck to food items. Still, sand is a great addition to a substrate and when used in moderation it causes no harm. Organic products like top soils, potting mixes and raised bed soils (Nature’s Care is a good choice, available at Home Depot and Lowe’s) are excellent to mix with play or mason sand. The ratio is not as important as the depth for proper burrowing as mentioned above but we typically mix 35% potting mix, 15% sand and then 50% raised bed soil or top soil. The potting mix contains peat moss which is another good addition to a naturalistic substrate mix. Coconut coir can be mixed in as well but when used on its own it can severely clog the nostrils of baby tortoises. Coconut coir is also incredibly dusty as soon as it dries out which creates quite a mess. We no longer use it for any tortoises.

    You’ve probably noticed the use of the words moist and moisture by now. It’s important to understand what that means to avoid any issues. Slightly wet or humid is essentially the point these terms are intended to get across. The substrate needs to be moist in that it holds some moisture and is never bone dry or dusty except for the very surface at times. This does not mean wet. The tortoises should not be walking around in consistent puddles or mud. When adding water to the substrate, mix it around with your hands and squeeze it. It should not “cake together” or wring out water. It should simply feel moist to touch and not be brittle. When the animals burrow into it they are encompassed in a humid situation and will absorb the much needed moisture from the substrate. This is a perfectly natural way for them to obtain what they need from a very basic requirement we provide them with.

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    A yearling Testudo graeca marokkensis exhibiting wonderful growth.

    Using the same terra cotta saucers that are recommended for water access, you can place food items down safely to avoid the overconsumption of substrate. Ingesting substrate is perfectly natural for tortoises, but only in small amounts. Try to control your tortoise’s intake by feeding on dishes or plates. In nature the animals are eating off shoots and actual growing vegetation that is typically not covered in substrate. Throwing away any uneaten food will also limit the ingestion of substrate.

    Lastly, a shallow water dish should always be available for drinking and soaking. Terra cotta saucers work great for this and can effortlessly be recessed into the substrate so that they are accessible to the baby tortoises. They are very shallow which enables the specimens to walk in and out of them freely. Adding a few pebbles or stones will aid any that might accidentally flip themselves over. They will pivot against the stones and flip back over. The water dish should be changed daily because the tortoises will defecate in them frequently. The common practice of soaking baby tortoises in a separate container is not a necessity if the enclosure is set up correctly and provides proper moisture. Placing them in warm water forces their bowels to empty. No one does this for them in nature, yet they grow up just fine. Should you still opt to soak, spread it out to twice weekly at the most. When drinking water is constantly available, the substrate is deep and moist enough, temperatures are on point and adequate diet is fed, the tortoises need little interference from us. Over-handling or pampering them leads to only one thing which is stress. They are and always will be wild at heart no matter how many times we reproduce them in captivity. Yes, they absolutely get used to us and will eagerly approach us but it’s crucial to remind ourselves that this is a feeding response and not an emotion being displayed for our presence. Tortoises know how to survive and their persistence since the time of the dinosaur is proof that once they are provided with the basic requirements, they then require our absence.
    Nighttime Heat

    The incredibly common misconception of assuming baby Testudo species require overnight heat has led to an insurmountable number of early tortoise deaths under captive conditions. This subject goes hand in hand with over-pampering because it is absolutely a form of pampering a “pet”. These animals require a cool period during the night. It serves as a “break” from the relentless sun in nature. Summer temperatures soar in the Mediterranean regardless of exact location and as the day comes to an end, they naturally begin to fall. Greek tortoises will actually venture out once more in the later part of the day to graze, before nightfall, because it is not as hot. They then seek out a spot to spend the night, usually in vegetation, where basking or displaying any degree of activity is ceased. Offering baby tortoises overnight heat via infrared heat bulbs or the more commonly used ceramic heat emitters can actually force unnatural behaviors such as nighttime basking. Some animals grow accustomed to this and will sleep the night under the heat source. This does nothing more than eventually lead to severe dehydration and the possibility of an overnight moisture build up being impossible. Subjecting them to constant warmth also dangerously conditions them to not be able to handle dips in temperatures later on. The Testudo genus overall is equipped to deal with unfavorable conditions by nature which includes cold but when we pamper them, we strip them of this amazing ability. I cannot stress enough that these are wild, primitive animals that know what they require to survive. We do not need to intervene at every chance given. Hardier subspecies like Testudo graeca ibera can handle overnight temperatures down into the low 50s (fahrenheit) during the active season and will remain at temperatures in the high 30s to low 40s underground for winter. This even goes for hatchlings! For less hardy subspecies such as Testudo graeca marokkensis, overnight temperatures can still dip into the high 50s or low 60s during the active season without the need for an overnight heating element. We have even had nights where they experience temperatures in the mid 40s without any ill-effects. If you’re housing these tortoises as babies indoors and your home gets colder than 60F at night consistently, you can cautiously explore offering a heat source after daytime lights have been shut off. When doing this, place the heat source (ceramic heat emitter) at a distance from the enclosure so that it warms the surrounding air and does not create a specific basking area. A simple space heater near the tortoises may work better. On extremely cold nights during our winter, we will periodically turn on space heaters to keep our tortoise building in the 50s overnight. On the occasion that the building drops lower than that, it does not cause any harm to any of our Testudo species, even the more arid dwelling ones. Don’t forget, deserts get very cold at night, naturally. If the animals can seek refuge and burrow easily into thick substrate for the night, there is little need, if any, to do anything else for them. They will spend the night content while soaking up that valuable moisture and in the morning, they will unearth themselves to resume basking. In the summer, we strive to keep the building no higher than 70F at night regardless of subspecies. Sometimes the overnight temperature will reach 75F inside but seeing as this is only temporary, it does not produce any problems. Prolonged periods of cool temperatures are of course not safe during the active time of the year and the animals should be able to warm up and feed each day. If you’re away for 2 to 3 days and wish to keep lights and heat off, this is typically safe for Greek tortoises, even babies. They will simply see the period as a string of unpleasant conditions just like what happens in the wild from time to time and will most likely remain securely hidden.

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    Four distinct Greek tortoise subspecies at the hatchling stage. Top left to right: T. g. terrestris and T. g. marokkensis. Bottom left to right: T. g. ibera and T. g. graeca.
    Outdoors?

    Depending on where you live in the United States will determine which subspecies you can safely keep outdoors as babies for at least part of the year. Details on the requirements for each subspecies were mentioned earlier so take all of that into account. All too commonly keepers will assume that babies absolutely cannot be reared outside. This is incredibly untrue. Dare I mention once more that these are wild animals at heart? That means no one is there to tuck them in at night. The sun, the earth, the rain, the night and all other aspects of nature are part of Testudo graeca’s natural home. We just have to be smart in knowing their limits based on our own geographical placement. Testudo graeca ibera can successfully be housed outdoors year-round from the size of a tiny hatchling in many parts of the USA. In southern NJ, we can actually leave them outdoors from hatching even during our winters. It’s all about providing the necessities for them to have a solid chance at ultimate survival. Mini versions of the adult enclosures can be made in a variety of sizes but don’t go too big. The animals can become “lost” in there which will make it difficult for the keeper to have a watchful eye on health. A simple 2x4 foot enclosure will comfortably house up to a dozen hatchlings in a fully naturalistic type setting. The substrate will of course need to be loose to allow for easy digging which is not a problem for the brawny adults that can effortlessly excavate even hard ground. The same substrate mixes mentioned earlier will suffice outside and if you have a natural tortoise friendly ground like we do here, use it. You can even allow edible weeds to grow wild in the unit and this will provide an amazing food source the babies can bulk up on each and every day. It even trains them to display behaviors like grazing or browsing. Predator protection is particularly paramount for babies because even small birds can snatch them up quickly. Small mammals like voles can make their way from underneath an enclosure and eat the inhabitants. Protect hatchling Greek tortoises from top to bottom with strong wire mesh and by constructing easily managed lids. Of course be sure to keep the baby unit away from potential flooding and be certain that they can escape the sun by hiding under debris, plants and by burrowing into substrate. If you’re an inexperienced keeper who has not yet ventured into the art of brumating tortoises, it may be wise for you to skip at least the first year for babies. For the more sensitive subspecies of T. graeca I would advise against housing babies outdoors unless you live in a climate that closely matches their wild one. They can however be kept outside for at least the warmest portion of the year where daytime temperatures consistently reach the 80s and rainfall is not too abundant. In times of extended bad weather, bring them inside and do not take chances. There is a big difference between the tolerances of hardy subspecies and sensitive ones, and that is something that is imbedded into their makeup. Plenty of tortoise enthusiasts opt for raising babies indoors until they are nearing a carapace length of 4” before moving them outside. This is a safe route to go but if you do live in an area where you can allow the animals a chance to grow up under natural conditions I do recommend it. If you do it right and cover all aspects to protect them, they will grow beautifully. They will begin to exhibit that incomparable nature-given look with rich coloration, instead of a washed out, overly-clean appearance that many indoor tortoises take on.

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    Example of one of our safe outdoor hatchling units.

    Conclusion

    There are various methods for successfully keeping not just Greek tortoises but all chelonians today. Although I always opt for as natural as possible, maybe that route simply doesn’t work for you. If anything at all, this care guide and any other I’ve written may serve as just one more option for you to explore and consider. Mistakes are commonplace and ultimately it is the tortoises that sadly suffer, but that is a part of animal keeping and it is imperative that we always strive to do better. The day we as humans agree to be caretakers for any other living creature is the day we agree to understand that there may be losses. Tortoise husbandry has come a long way since the time of using rabbit pellets as bedding and fish tanks as enclosures, but there is still a world of knowledge we have yet to obtain. We must be humble enough to admit that we do not know everything there is to know about these primitive reptiles and we have a very long way to go. My life’s work has been to be hands on with chelonians daily and it is through my success and my errors that I am able to share with you all. Keeping Greek tortoises or any species is a privilege and one we should never take for granted. They have survived as long as they have without us, so it is up to us to learn from them and continue to share. It is my deepest hope that this care guide, my sites HermanniHaven.com, GardenStateTortoise.com and theTurtleRoom.com will continue to aid you in your quest to learn as much as possible about the natural history and proper keeping of turtles and tortoises for many years to come. -Chris

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    Testudo graeca ibera, the Asia Minor tortoise, reaching for some spirea growing in her naturalistic enclosure.
    SummerMagpie31 likes this.
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