Hermann’s tortoise

Hermann's tortoise in profileThere are a number of choices when it comes to selecting a pet tortoise that can be allowed to roam in secure surroundings out of doors when the weather is fine over the summer. Horsfield's tortoises (Agrionemys horsfieldii) are quite commonly offered, and free from paperwork restrictions, in terms of requiring an Article 10 certificate from the vendor if you live within the European Union, which you will have to keep in a safe place.

But Horsfield’s are inclined to burrow and climb very readily too, making them harder to contain. Their activity period is also relatively short, as in the wild, they may spend up to six months of the year buried underground.

Then there is the marginated tortoise (Testudo marginata), which is not bred in such large numbers as the other species, making it relatively rare. It also grows up to 45cm (18in) long, which can cause accommodation issues.

The Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise (T. graeca) has long been kept as a pet, dating back nearly four centuries in the UK, but today, this species seems to be less widely bred than Hermann’s (seen left), and those of North African descent may not be quite as well-suited to more northerly latitudes. 

Distribution

Hermann’s tortoise is confined to parts of southern Europe, with the western subspecies (T. h. hermanni) extending from northeastern Spain and southern France to southern and central parts of Italy. It is also to be found on various islands in this area of the Mediterranean, including the Balearics, Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily.

Hermann's tortoise - range mapThe central subspecies (T. h. hercegovinensis) occupies an area along the eastern coast of the Adriatic, extending from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Croatia and Montenegro.

The current ranges of the three recognised subspecies of Hermann’s tortoise are shown in this map, courtesy of Mkljun.

The most easterly of the three currently recognised subspecies (T. h. boettgeri) can be found in Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia, extending to Albania and Greece, as well as into parts of Romania and Bulgaria. This is also the largest of the three subspecies, reaching up to 28cm (11in), whereas the western race typically grows no bigger than 18cm (7.5in).

Mixed up

Pale Hermann's tortoiseSome Hermann’s tortoises have shells that display few black areas. This can be an indicator of those originating from more westerly areas of the species’ range, but the markings of youngsters can vary quite widely.

Furthermore, the widescale captive-breeding of Hermann’s tortoises that has taken place over the past 20 years or so has resulted in differences between the various subspecies becoming less apparent, as the result of random crossings in many cases in the past.

However, there are still older individuals around, given the life expectancy of these reptiles, which can exceed our own! Breeders are becoming increasingly aware of the need to pair these individuals carefully with members of their particular subspecies, rather than encouraging random matings.

Help with identity

Male Hermann's tortoiseThere are several characteristics that set Hermann’s apart from other tortoises, but the most evident is the shape of the tail. In the case of mature males in particular, this is long, and in both sexes, there is what can be described as a hook, known technically as a xiphiplastron, at its tip.

Males in general grow to a slightly smaller adult size than females, and also have a slight concave plastron – the area of the underside of the shell. This helps the male to maintain his balance resting on the female’s shell when they are mating.

Testudo h. hermannin maleAside from the issue of size, it is possible to use the shell markings as a guide to determining the subspecies to which an individual belongs. In the case of the western race, look at the plastron (which is the underside of the shell). There will be two broad blackish bands on the sides, with a yellowish-horn stripe separating them, as shown left.

In Testudo h. boettgeri femalethe case of Boettgeri’s tortoise (right), the black stripes are broken into more evident blotches, rather than being a continuous dark band. In either case though, the shell markings are likely to be distinctive enough to allow individual tortoises to be told apart from each other. (Both these photos courtesy Adele L.).

DNA studies carried out over recent years suggest that the last Ice Age, around 15,000 years ago, had an impact on the distribution of these tortoises, notably in eastern parts of their range. The dramatic fall in temperature seems to have triggered localised extinctions in the vicinity of the Balkans, causing the surviving populations to become isolated, creating more variance as a result.

Nevertheless, there is still some controversy surrounding T. h. peloponnesica, a population that is found along the southwestern part of Greece’s Peloponnesus coast. It is thought that these tortoises may form a valid subspecies, but this has not yet been proven. The shell itself may vary slightly in shape, with some individuals having a shell that appears more elongated than rounded.

Hermann's tortoise with normal shellHermann's tortoise with pyramidingA potential health issue that alters the shape of the carapace and can arise in young Hermann’s tortoises, however, is pyramiding. This effects are clear from comparing the photograph on the left, with that on the right where the shell is smooth. As its name suggests, pyramiding causes the scutes over the back can grow abnormally, so they start to look like miniature pyramids.

The cause is unclear, but both a dry atmosphere and an unsuitable diet have been implicated. Providing retreats where the humidity is higher than in other areas of the tortoise’s enclosure, and offering a high fibre weed-based diet should help to prevent this condition arising.

A friendly companion

Hermann’s tortoises have been bred on a much wider scale since the 1990s, and they can be relatively prolific. The fact that they do not grow to a large size means that they are quite easy to accommodate, and they can become very tame, although hatchlings may be rather shy at first.

Tortoise feeding from the handNevertheless, a young Hermann’s tortoise can soon be persuaded to start taking food from the hand, and will rapidly form a strong bond with you. These reptiles are very responsive, with observations suggesting, that they can soon learn to recognise their owners, and will come over to you to be fed, particularly when being housed indoors.

A health check

When buying a young tortoise, try to ensure that it is eating at the time of purchase, as this can give peace of mind. In any event, check around the mouth for signs of green staining, for example, around the jaws, as this shows a healthy appetite. Look underneath as well, in case there are any signs of faecal staining around the tail, and if in doubt, look around in the tortoise’s quarters as well.  

As in all young animals, diarrhoea – whatever the cause – is more serious than in an adult, because of the risk of fluid loss and the association issue of dehydration. A tortoise in this state will be disinclined to feed, marking the start of what will be a downward cycle without intervention on your part.

Healthy Hermann's tortoiseCheck the tortoise’s eyes, which should be bright and clear. The nostrils need to be of even size, and free from any signs of blockage or discharge. A newly-hatched tortoise will not display the shell rings seen in older animals, although it is a myth that each ring that then develops represents a year in the tortoise’s life. Young, healthy tortoises will grow rapidly, and will be displaying a number of rings on their shell before they are a year old.

Look for any evident signs of any injury or damage. On occasions, the pattern of scutes making up the outer covering of the shell above the bony layer may be slightly awry, in terms of their usual distribution. This is not normally a cause for concern that will result in any handicap for the tortoise itself in the future.

Hermann's tortoise youngsterThe claws of young tortoises will usually be sharp, with pinprick points. This is not a worry, because once the tortoise is walking more consistently, bearing in mind that they can spend much of the day foraging for food, these will soon wear down, especially if your pet can walk on a hard surface.

When you first acquire a young tortoise, it will be well-worth arranging to take a fresh sample of droppings to your local veterinary surgery for analysis, in order to check if there are any parasites present. Young Hermann’s tortoises can suffer quite badly from pinworms, which can be very debilitating, depressing their appetite and leading to a rapid fall-off in condition, with the consequences soon becoming very serious.

One or two?

Two young Hermann's tortoisesTortoises have a popular image of being gentle, inoffensive creatures, and although this is generally the case, it is worth bearing in mind they are solitary by nature in the wild. Pairs only come briefly together to mate, and they are not social in any way, so there is no requirement to purchase two tortoises to live together and keep each other company.

Aggressive Hermann's tortoise In fact, this can be creating problems in a few years’ times, once they become sexually mature. If you have a true pair, you may well find that the male constantly harries the female, in his desire to mate with her. If she cannot escape from him, then the chances are that she will not be able to feed properly, and may start to lose weight as a result.

Furthermore, the female may end up with scars of their encounters. Constant shell-butting on the rear of the shell results in a line of damage developing here, and although she will be quite well-protected against the male trying to bite her forelegs and slow her down, this can sometimes result in damage to the scales on this part of the body.

Jean HermannDid you know?

Hermann’s tortoise is named after Johann Hermann (1738-1800) (shown right - source PD), who was professor of medicine at the University of Strasbourg. He was also a keen naturalist, and his zoological collection helping to create the basis of what became the Strasbourg Zoological Museum after his death.

Housing considerations

Young hatchling Hermann's tortoiseWhen it comes to housing, it is generally recommended to house young tortoises in a room on a tortoise table, rather than in a vivarium. This will give you better access to your pet, so that you can interact more readily, and it will also mean that ventilation is better, plus your tortoise will not constantly be seeking to get out through the clear glass or plastic  present at the front of a vivarium.

Nevertheless, there are issues surrounding the use of tortoise tables that must be considered. Firstly, the temperature fluctuations are greater, and this is particularly important during the winter, when the room temperature in your home is likely to be lower. This can affect the tortoise’s appetite, and it becomes less active.

As your tortoise grows larger, there is an increased risk that it may be able to clamber over the barrier surrounding the table, and then it is likely to topple down on to the floor. Young tortoises, with their sharp claws acting rather like a mountaineer’s crampons, are very adept at climbing. Take particular care as to how you position décor on the tortoise table, so as to prevent your tortoise clambering up and over the edge via this route.

Beware of dangers

If you have other pets, there is also a risk, particularly with cats, that the feline resident will be keen to investigate what is in this new enclosure. Even if the cat does not harm the tortoise directly, it could end up knock the heat source down into the enclosure, and even potentially triggering a fire, so keep your cat out of the room where your tortoise is housed. Both cats and dogs have been known to attack tortoises, with hatchlings being particularly vulnerable.

Hermann's tortoise outdoorsEqually, outdoors in the garden, it will be necessary to consider your pet’s safety, and invest in a secure run, which can be moved around the garden as necessary. This will prevent your tortoise from disappearing, as can happen very easily in these surroundings if your pet is simply allowed to wander on its own. The markings on the shell provide surprisingly effective camouflage.

A run will prevent neighbourhood cats and, more significantly, wild predators such as foxes and seagulls from attacking your pet outdoors. The growing urban fox population in many areas of Europe today represents a serious hazard, even to adult tortoises allowed out during the daytime, and a tortoise was killed in 2015 by seagulls in Cornwall, southwest England.  

Provided that you follow a few simple rules though, Hermann’s tortoises are quite straightforward to look after, and individuals have been known to live for more than a century. Here’s a pet that you can potentially pass on to your grandchildren!