Male Hermann's tortoise
Photograph by Francisco Velasquez
Hermann's tortoises are small to medium sized tortoises that come from southern Europe. Young animals, and some
adults, have attractive black and yellow patterned carapaces, although the brightness may fade with age to a less
distinct gray, straw or yellow coloration. They are found in the wild in a variety of habitats including woods, scrub,
heath, grassland, and farmland.
At one time, hundreds of thousands of these tortoises were removed from their habitat in southeast Europe every
year and exported to Britain and northwest Europe for the bulk pet trade. Sadly, because of the unsuitable cold and
wet climates they were moved to, most of them died within a short time. Ten years ago, the European Economic Community
introduced a ban on trade in these animals to deal with this problem, and Hermann's tortoise has managed to recover
its numbers in some areas. Now, in common with many other reptiles and amphibians, the major threat to the future
survival of these wonderful tortoises in southwestern Europe is the destruction and redevelopment of their habitat for
human residential, agricultural, and recreational uses. Collection for the international pet trade continues in Turkey
and from some of the newly liberated former communist countries of eastern Europe (several thousand recently arrived
in the U.S.A., ostensibly from Turkey). It is unclear what effects the ongoing social and political upheavals will
have on the future survival of Hermann's tortoise in its eastern European strongholds.
Southern California, with its mild Mediterranean climate, offers ideal conditions for keeping and breeding
Testudo hermanni. Captive-bred offspring are frequently available. In my experience, Hermann's are among the
bright stars as far as turtle intelligence is concerned. Captives quickly become very tame, and often show distinct
individual characteristics and behavior patterns. My adults, some of which are free to wander about my backyard, often
follow me when I am out gardening or doing yard work, just in case I should happen to have a treat for them or should
happen to uncover a tasty slug or snail. During the summer "barbecue" months the Hermann's may hang around the patio,
patiently waiting for food to appear. They have learned that if nothing falls to the ground within a reasonable span
of time, a quick nip of someone's toes will often produce results.
Hermann's tortoise is a typical member of the Testudo genus. Both the males and females have a large horny
scale or nail on the end of their tails. Adult males tend to be smaller than females, have a slight plastral
concavity, and have much larger and longer tails. The very similar Testudo graeca is easily differentiated
because it has a large wart or "spur" on the rear thigh area of the back legs that is absent from T. hermanni.
Two very similar sub-species of Hermann's tortoise are currently recognized. The western race, T. hermanni
hermanni, from northern Spain, southern France, northwest Italy and some of the islands in the western
Mediterranean, tends to be the smaller and more brightly colored of the two sub-species, and has a more domed carapace
and usually a yellow spot on the head behind each eye. The plastron is marked longitudinally by two distinct dark
bands. The very variable eastern race, T. hermanni boettgeri, from southern Italy, Albania, Greece, Yugoslavia
and the Balkans, tends to have a less highly domed carapace with less contrast to the markings, may lack the yellow
spot behind the eye (although many have it!), and, most distinctively, tends to have more diffuse sometimes
discontinuous plastral markings.
Hermann's are very active tortoises. In mornings and late afternoons throughout the spring, summer and fall my
males are out patrolling the yard looking for a fight or a chance to court a female. Here in southern California they
may remain active even during the winter months, occasionally digging themselves into loose soil or the piles of straw
or leaves provided in their "house" during cold spells.
The males frequently interact with each other, and often engage in combat among themselves or with other animals
they come across. This male-male interaction may be important in conditioning the males for breeding. During courtship
and breeding the males may become even more aggressive than usual, and more than once have inflicted nasty bites on
the flanks of the females. Because of this aggressive tendency, Hermann's should be examined regularly so that any
wounds are dealt with promptly, particularly during the breeding season. Fly eggs laid on an open wound can become
maggots within 24 hours. To avoid unnecessary stress and injury to females, it may be better to house males and
females separately except for the prime spring breeding months.
Because Hermann's tortoises lead very active life styles for chelonians they should be given as large and as varied
an area as possible. They should be able to run, forage, hunt, dig, climb, sun bathe, hide and have access to drinking
water within their enclosure. Although their small size may make them hard to find until you know their habits, allow
them the run of your whole yard if possible. Adults do not thrive well when kept indoors for prolonged periods.
However, because of their small size hatchlings and young tortoises may have to be kept indoors temporarily. Indoor
set ups should be illuminated by a wide spectrum fluorescent light such as a Vitalite and kept at 80°F during the day.
Provide a hiding place for security.
Hermann's tortoises are largely vegetarian, and in the wild are known to feed on leguminous plants (beans, clovers,
and wild lupines) and flowers, as well as snails, slugs, carrion, wild fruits and even animal feces. In captivity they
will eat a wide range of similar foods. They have enormous appetites. Mine subsist on a diet that includes weeds,
grass, hibiscus flowers, endive, romaine, dandelion, zucchini, yellow squash, snails, slugs, pill bugs, and a variety
of seasonal vegetables and fruits. Favorite food items include ripe figs (that drop from a neighbor's fig tree),
strawberries, and snails. Every few days they will take advantage of the sprinklers or the shallow pans of water I
provide in shady areas of the yard, to bathe and to take long drinks of water.
In captivity courtship may occur throughout the year, but is concentrated during spring and summer. Courtship
consists of elaborate chasing, ramming and biting behaviors that may last for several hours. Males can be both
incessantly persistent and aggressive to the point of injuring the females. As soon as the male mounts the female he
becomes very vocal, and utters a distinctive squeal that sounds like an old squeaky toy. Accordingly, keepers must be
prepared to separate the sexes when necessary.
Like female Testudo graeca, female T. hermanni seem to prefer to nest on slopes. I
provide small mounds of soil (2 to 4 foot wide and about 1 foot high) which the females of both species seem to favor
as nest sites. This arrangement is preferable to me too, since the softer, more accessible soil of these "nesting
hills" makes egg retrieval easier.
When the time comes for egg laying the female clears the surface area of her selected site, and then digs her nest
in typical turtle style using her back feet. She carefully camouflages the nest area when she is finished. Nests may
be 7 to 9 cm or 3 to 4 inches deep, and are often dug in the late afternoon. From 2 to 12 eggs may be laid, the number
tending to increase with the size of the female. Some females may lay more than one clutch per year. The hard-shelled
eggs are elongated in shape and are about 3 cm or 1.25 inches long. The eggs hatch in 90 to 120 days depending upon
incubation conditions. The brightly patterned hatchlings will begin to eat 2 to 3 days after leaving the eggs, and
will take the same kinds of food as the adults. Hermann's tortoises are particularly prone to pyramiding and other
shell deformities. Careful attention should be paid to the provision of a varied fiber-rich natural diet with adequate
amounts of minerals (particularly calcium) and vitamins. Hatchlings should be allowed access to unfiltered sunlight
and grazing whenever possible.
Bour, R. (1987) L'identite des tortues terrestres europiennes: specimens-types et localites-types. Revue. fr.
Aquariol., 13: 111-122.
C. H. Ernst & R. W. Barbour (1989) Turtles of the world. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C.
R. Meek (1989) The comparative population ecology of Hermann's tortoise, Testudo hermanni, in Croatia and
Montenegro, Yugoslavia. Herpetological Journal 1: 404-414.
R. E. Willemsen & A. Hailey (1989) Status and conservation of tortoises in Greece. Herpetological Journal 1: 315-330.
Originally published in the Tortuga Gazette 29(8): 1-3, August 1993