Hermann's tortoise
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.