How to determine the sex of your Russian tortoise - with pics!

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Nov 3, 2012
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I've seen a lot of questions lately from new RT owners about whether they have a male or a female. I thought the following information might be useful, and possibly even pin-able (*hint hint*).

For those of you who don't want to read the whole article and click on multiple pictures, here is a diagram that sums it all up (click to enlarge):
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Now for the more detailed stuff:
New Russian tortoise owners often, wonder if they have a boy or a girl. If you bought it at a pet store, there is a good chance the sales clerk told you some nonsense about the tortoise being a baby and whatever sex they happen to think it is based on who knows what. You most likely have a male - the pet trade prefers to sell males because they stay smaller, they are easier to hatch (since they require a lower incubation temperature), and they won't produce eggs. However, some females do show up at pet stores, and many show up second-hand on Craigslist or other online marketplaces. Determining the sex (male or female) of Russian tortoises is fairly straightforward, based on the shape of their tail.

Unlike other tortoise species, Russian tortoise males do not have a concave plastron. The body shape of males and females is roughly the same, with small non-gender-specific differences from one animal to the next that are due to the different subspecies and environmental factors. Both can have a little 'claw' at the end of their tail (all males do, not all females do, but some females do).

Size at maturity can be one clue: mature males are significantly smaller than mature females: males are usually about 5" and rarely grow larger than 6 inches (exceptions do occur), while females as large as 12 inches have been reported. Most mature females end up about 8-10 inches large. Most RTs sold in pet stores are around 4" - 5" long, which means some are still too young to sex.

The very simplified description is that males have a long, skinny, pointy tail in which the cloaca (vent) is shaped like a slit, and is close to the tip of the tail. This makes sense, since the male needs to be able to bring his reproductive organs close to the female, and the length of the tail needs to be able to accomodate his penis. Males often carry their tail tucked to the side.

Females have a short, fat, wedge-shaped tail, in which the cloaca (vent) is shaped like an asterisk (*) or pucker, and is closer to the body. This is important for easier passing of eggs, which are surprisingly large!

The vent gets stretched out during egg laying, so a mature female's tail will look different after she has laid eggs.

Please keep in mind that a small tortoise (4.5 inches or smaller) will usually look female. My male had a small stubby tail until he was almost 5" long (SCL) and then his tail suddenly sprouted and got more pointy.

Below is a picture of my male when he was still very young. His tail was not very long, but I was pretty sure he was a male, because his cloaca (vent) was slit-shaped, and the tip was pointy.

A male Russian's plastron (flat belly shell) is NOT concave as it is in e.g. Greek tortoises. This is my young male. I know for a fact that he is a male, because he has "flashed" repeatedly (meaning he showed his penis).
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His tail wasn't very long yet, but he carried it tucked to the side, and the point was much skinnier than it would be in a female.
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This is his tail now. It still isn't super long, but it is definitely longer, he carries it to the side, and his cloaca is slit-shaped:
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Here is a picture of a mature Russian tortoise male:
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Next up, some pictures of female Russian tortoise's tails. First, some young, immature females. Mila was about 5" when I took this pic, but since our male showed no interest in her, I assume she was not mature yet.
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When I first got Jill, she was only 4.5" long, so although her tail looked female, I wasn't 100% sure she was indeed going to keep a small, stubby tail. Now at 5.5" long, her tail remains small and stubby, so I am certain that she is indeed a girl.

Next, the fat and wedge-shaped tail of a mature female who had not yet laid eggs yet. This is a 6.5" female's fat, stubby tail. This one has some shell damage, so please disregard the shape of the pygal scute above the tail.

The next picture shows the asterisk (*) shaped vent of a female. Note how the vent is fairly close to the body, and even though the tortoise is close to 8" long, the tail is TINY. This female has never laid eggs.
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And finally, here is a very wedge-shaped tale of a very large female:
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Mature female tortoises actually have fat deposits in their tails.
This gives them their unique shape.

This female has laid eggs, so her vent is no longer a little asterisk-shape, but rather, a pucker. The skin of her cloaca had to stretch significantly to let the eggs out, and while the muscles contract later to close everything up again, the skin will never look the same as a 'virgin' tortoise's tail.
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The shape of the anal scutes of the plastron, right above the tail, can vary widely in young Russian tortoises, and is not a reliable method to sex a tortoise, unless it is fully grown.

I hope this helps you determine whether you have a male or a female Russian tortoise. If you just keep one, then in the grand scheme of things, it really doesn't matter... one of our female's name is 'Timmy' - named by my oldest son when we first got her.
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