The Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise

Dark Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoiseThis particular tortoise has been kept as a pet longer than any other reptile in Europe, but only in recent years have its needs become better understood, to the extent that this species is not only thriving but breeding quite commonly in collections now.

The range of this species spans no less than three continents, extending far beyond the shores of the Mediterranean westwards into Asia. It has a restricted range in western Europe, centred in southern Spain, but it can also be found more widely along the opposite North African coast.

This has given rise to considerable confusion, to the extent that although some herpetologists recognise distinct subspecies over this huge area, where populations can be isolated, others suggest that the Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise (T. graeca) is actually a conglomerate of several distinctive species that should be recognised independently.

Identity problems

As many as 20 separate subspecies have been proposed, but these are generally not that clearly defined. The general view at present is that just four valid subspecies exist. Arguments of this type will only be settled with certainty when more detailed DNA studies are carried out on the various wild populations, with the precise origins of the tortoises being clearly defined under these circumstances.

Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise in the wildThere have been attempts to classify these particular tortoises on the basis of the colouration of their shells, as some have paler shells than others. It is often suggested that those from hot, desert climates tend to have paler shells, which help them to blend into their surroundings.  

This camouflage is important as in some areas, birds of prey will swoop down and pick up tortoises in their talons, before soaring up and dropping the poor creatures on to rocks in the hope of breaking their shells apart.

It is also thought that tortoises with darker shells may be found in cooler areas on the margins of their range, as black colouration probably helps to transmit heat more effectively into their bodies. A difference in hardiness exists too, with these individuals from northern latitudes reputedly adjusting better to our climate.

Did you know?

Although the Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise is found in Africa, it should not be confused with the spurred tortoise (G. sulcata), which grows to a much larger size.

Size

Range of the Mediterranean Spur-thighed tortoiseThere is consideration variation in the individual size of these tortoises through their wide range. (Distribution map courtesy Bizarria/Massimo Lazzari). The smallest individuals originating from the vicinity of Tunisia. They may tip the scales at about 0.7kg (1.5lb).

There appears to be a distinct large population in North Africa too, named after the famous naturalist Gilbert White, who wrote The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne published in 1789 and still in print today. In this book, he documented the behaviour of his tortoise Timothy, who is considered as belonging to this population.

White inherited Timothy following the death of his aunt in 1780, but was well-acquainted with her pet, having seen him frequently when he visited her at her home in Sussex. The tortoise had been acquired from a sailor back in 1740.

The wakes, Gilbert White's house in HampshireAs usual, adult females of this race are slightly larger than males, and they may grow up to 28cm (11in), measured in a straight line over the centre of the back, and can typically weigh around 2.5kg (5.5lb), although this obviously fluctuates through the year.

Based on White’s records, Timothy’s weight reached as much as 3.2kg (7lb) in the summer, prior to hibernation, roaming in the grounds of his home, called The Wakes, which is now a museum in this pretty village located in the county of Hampshire. (Photo courtesy Ludi Ling).

While it may be difficult to distinguish the exact race to which a Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise belongs, it is straightforward to identify this particular species overall though, thanks to the presence of an enlarged tubercle which sits on each side of the tail, midway towards the hind-limbs. This projected swelling is evident even in young hatchlings.

Mature males can be distinguished from females quite easily, by the slight concavity of the plastron (which is the underside of the shell). Their tails are also slightly longer than those of females, although this difference is not as marked as in the case of the related Hermann’s tortoise (T. hermanni), and the tip is rounded rather than pointed.

Long-term pets

Old illustratio of a spur-thighed tortoiseOne of the oldest accounts of a pet tortoise in Britain relates to an individual that was given to Archbishop Laud in 1633, by his former colleagues from St. John’s, which was his college in Oxford. He appears to have enjoyed the company of the reptile, taking it with him from Fulham to Lambeth Palace when he became Archbishop of Canterbury.

After the Archbishop was executed in 1644, the tortoise continued to thrive in the grounds of the palace, but tragically met a rather premature end in January 1753 when disturbed while hibernating in a compost heap by a gardener. Today, its shell is displayed in a glass display case under a copy of painting of the archbishop in Lambeth Palace.

Signs of good health

Healthy young tortoiseWhen you are contemplating the purchase of a young tortoise, the following guidelines are helpful:-
  • It should be alert, and withdraws readily into its shell when handled.
  • No discharge or ‘bubbling’ should be evident from the nostrils, and these are of equal size.
  • The eyes are both open and free from discharge.
  • Faecal staining around the tail may indicate a parasite problem.
  • Green staining around the jaws suggests the tortoise has been eating well.

Health check

It is worthwhile finding a vet in your area who specialises in reptiles, so that you can arrange for your tortoise to have an initial health check. A change in surroundings and diet can tilt the balance, causing parasites to multiply in the tortoise’s gut.  

Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise in a gardenParasites can be a very serious issue with reptiles if they go unrecognised. They can typically cause a loss of appetite, and before long, particularly with a young hatchling especially, so its condition can deteriorate rapidly.

A simple faecal test will provide essential reassurance, and if anything abnormal is identified, then your tortoise can be dewormed at this juncture, miminising the risk of any long-term problem. Just because your pet is captive-bred does not mean that it will be free of parasites. 

Essential paperwork required within the European Union

Thanks to recent advances in micro-chip technology, so it is now possible for baby Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoises to have an identification chip inserted soon after hatching, and so when you acquire your young Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise, you will be given what is known as a specimen-specific A10 certificate, which you need to keep in a safe place. This confirms your tortoise has been legally bred and sold to you, in accordance with EU legislation, and will also be required if your tortoise is transferred to a new owner in the future.

Diet

Tortoise eatingStudies of these tortoises have revealed that they eat a large range of different plants in the wild, typically ranging from 34 to nearly 90, depending on their locality. Variety is important and allowing a tortoise to graze an area of lawn that has not been treated with chemicals is a good way forward.

Nevertheless, some food are more valuable nutritionally than others, with dandelions being one of the best, because of the high calcium content. It is now possible to create your tortoise paddock area, and stocking it with a suitable range of plants.

This is an excellent time of year to sow an area using a specially-formulated tortoise seed mix. Keep the soil watered, and then this will give your pet plenty of opportunity to feed on a widely range of fresh plants and herbs, obtaining maximum benefit from this fresh supply of food.

Practical feeding

These tortoises are herbivores, and so should not be given fruit. Brassicas such as cabbage of any kind are not recommended either, certainly on a regular basis, because these plants contain a component that depresses the thyroid gland, and thus can have an adverse effect on the tortoise’s metabolism.

A high fibre, plant-based diet, with a calcium supplementation will be required, to support the growth of young tortoises. If you want to try your tortoise on one of the prepared tortoise foods now on offer, you may need to moisten a small amount at first, in order to increase its palatability.

Remember though that this then become fresh food in effect, with its moisture content raised, and it will need to be discarded by the end of the day if it has not been eaten, because otherwise it is like to turn mouldy.

A drinking bowl set in the ground should also be provided for the tortoises. Change the contents every day, and be sure that there is no risk that your tortoise could become trapped here.

Taming

With patience, it is quite easy to win the confidence of a young tortoise, and there is clear evidence that your pet will soon come to recognise you. You simply need to hold a piece of greenstuff such as a dandelion leaf a short distance away from your pet’s nose, at a roughly horizontal angle, making it easy for the tortoise to reach.

One or two?

It is worth remembering that in the wild, tortoises live solitary lives. Individuals may be found in the same area, but basically, they wander on their own through their habitat. The only time that they nature come together is for mating purposes.  

Two young Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoisesWith young tortoises, it is impossible to sex them (without resorting to DNA testing). They will agree together though at this early age, but you may encounter problems later in life, after they are sexually mature.

This is the stage at which males seek mates, and courtship is typically quite a rough affair, with the male biting at the legs of the female to slow her down, so he can mount her.

Within the confines of a small area in the garden, this attention may mean that the female is unable to feed in peace, and might even end up being injured too. Be prepared to separate them with a solid partition therefore if necessary, so as to ensure that the female does not lose condition at this stage. Mating tends to occur quite soon after the tortoises emerge from hibernation, which is also the key period when they need to be eating well, in order to put on weight for the following winter.

Nesting behaviour

You are likely to observe a change in behaviour just before a female tortoise nests. She will become very restless, wandering around her enclosure, often sniffing the ground. She will then start to dig her nest laboriously with her back legs, spooning out the soil and urinating in the hole too, to soften the soil. She will then lay her hard-shelled eggs here, typically producing five or so in a clutch, although larger females may lay up to 10.  

She will then cover the nest site, and carry on her way. Nesting itself tends to take place in the late afternoon, and it can be surprisingly difficult to spot the nest site afterwards. The eggs will need to be removed, keeping the same way up as they were laid, and transferred to an incubator for hatching purposes. A temperature of 28-32°C (28-32°F) will see the young emerge after a period of two to three months.

Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoises do not have sex chromosomes that determine their gender. Instead, like many other chelonians, the gender of hatchlings is determined by the incubation temperature of the eggs. This  phenomenon is known as temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD).  In this particular species, male tortoises will be produced at the lower end of the temperature range, while females result if the eggs are incubated at the higher end.

Did you know?

Female Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoises do not need to mate every year, in order to produce fertile eggs, as they can store viable sperm in their bodies.

Care

Baby Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoiseA tortoise table is ideal for young Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoises, providing them with good ventilation, and must be equipped with a suitable UV lighting, along with a heat source to provide warmth and to create a thermal gradient across the enclosure, up to 27°C (81°F).

There should be a basking spot of 35°C (95°F) within its quarters. Ensure the background temperature in the room is not too cold either. It should be at least 21°C (70°F) at night, when the heating above the tortoise table is lowered.
 
In terms of a substrate, choose a bedding that is dust-free and will not harm the tortoise if it is inadvertently ingested. Pelleted bedding is often favoured for this reason. Take particular care if you decide to use newspaper, because this may be raised up as your tortoise retreats under the sheets. There are a number of cases where fires have resulted, inflicting serious burns on the tortoise as a result of the bedding coming into contact with the head source.  

A low-sided feed bowl is to be recommended, giving the young tortoise easy access so that it will be less inclined to drag its food off on to the substrate. Good hygiene is important too, so wash the food bowl between feeds.

Try to allow young tortoises out at regular opportunities throughout the summer, as this will be highly beneficial, helping your pet to get off to a good start in life. In this case though, it may be better to keep your pet in an enclosed run, of the type more commonly sold for rabbits and guinea pigs, with a mesh cover and plastic base.  Most incorporate a hide, although the water drinker will be of no use for a tortoise. The example below was photographed by Richard Mayer.

Secure tortoise accommodationNot only does this mean that you can keep your young tortoise safe from potential predators, which may include seagulls and foxes, but it will also be easy to keep track of your pet, and ensure that it will not be able to escape from your garden. It can be very difficult to locate an adult tortoise, let alone a young hatchling in these surroundings.

Take care to position the run in an area where the tortoise will be able to get out of the sun. Just as in the case of the tortoise table, there should effectively be a temperature gradient across the run, with some shelter as well. Tortoises will seek out warmth in the morning, tracking the sun around the enclosure. Retreats in the enclosure are important too, allowing your tortoise to seek shade when the sun is at its hottest.

Exposure to sunlight on a regular basis will be beneficial to your pet though, helping to ensure that it receives UV light, allowing it to manufacture Vitamin D3 in its body, and regulate its calcium stores accordingly, which are critical for healthy growth of the bones and shell. This also acts as an appetite stimulant too.  

A secure walled garden is ideal for housing these tortoises when they get bigger. Plan the layout of their housing so as to take account of the position of the sun during the day, bearing in mind that your tortoise will be living here from March to October when the weather is good. Then you will need to prepare your pet for hibernation.

A true survivor!

The Mediterranean spur-thighed can have a lifespan far in excess of our own, and so these tortoises can often end up being passed down through different generations of the same family. Timmy was a typical case, taken from a Portuguese warship in 1854 by Captain John Courtenay Everard of the Royal Navy. They spent many years at sea together, and then in 1892, Tommy settled in the grounds of family home at Powderham Castle in Devon.

Ironically, it was not until 1926, when Timmy was about 87 years old, that he was found to be a female! Timmy died in 2004, when she was approximately 165 years old, and has been recognised as the UK’s oldest resident. She was also the last survivor from the Crimean War (1853-1856) at the time of her death, having seen active service there during the siege of Sebastopol.