The most populous and widely distributed species of Mediterranean tortoises is Testudo (graeca) ibera Pallas 1814, which occurs from the Republic of Georgia, Bulgaria, North-eastern Greece, throughout Turkey (with the exception of the Black Sea coast), Iran, Syria, Iraq and Jordan. A single specimen has been recorded in Northern Israel. Although Robert Mertens in his 1946 paper considered Testudo ibera a subspecies of the North African T. graeca this was on the basis of a small number of specimens (23 in all, 13 ibera and 10 miscellaneous North African 'graeca' complex). This author takes the view that Mertens' hypothesis is invalid on a number of grounds and that Testudo ibera* is a full and biologically separate species from the North African graeca - as indeed it was so designated when first described and named by Pallas in 1814.
Specimens of ibera from higher altitudes tend to exhibit melanistic scute markings, often with a complete absence of the central areola and anterior banding typical of the species. On occasions, entirely black specimens are found. This can be an effect of age, but self-evidently young melanistic animals are frequently encountered in some locations. In the extreme south of Turkey, in the hills of Antakya (Antioch) and extending into Syria (Aleppo), brightly marked yellow colored specimens are commonly seen. The areas where these tortoises occur are typically extremely hot in summer, and it may be that the differences in coloration noted assist the animal in thermal regulation, preventing overheating. By comparison, tortoises from high altitudes, where temperatures are lower, may find that their dark coloration is a more efficient heat absorber for basking purposes. On the topic of color, it is worth noting that some populations include individuals of differing shades - from normal to very dark. It should also be noted that juveniles are almost always more brightly colored than adults within the same population.
Basoglu and Baran (1977) have suggested that intergrades between T. (graeca) ibera and T. graeca terrestris occur in Turkey. I examined tortoises at one site where these supposed intergrades occur, the coastal town of Kas. This is an interesting site, in that it consists of a low lying isthmus and lagoon area, backed up by steep and impenetrable cliffs on all sides. The ground is extremely rocky and consists mostly of loose scree covered by coarse and thorny shrubs including gorse and Kermes oak. Finding tortoises in these conditions is far from easy (and frequently painful!). However, a young adult female and well-worn elderly male were eventually located and photographed. In terms of their coloration and markings, both conformed to that typical of T. ibera. There was no evidence of anything unusual at all, other than noting that the adult male was smaller than would be expected given his evident great age (160 mm SCL). This could, however, very easily be attributed to the generally poor food availability in this spartan and arid location. Certainly, this is an inhospitable place for tortoises, and I would estimate the population density in the few remaining undeveloped areas of the bay to be very low.
The average size of adult female T. ibera is about 200 mm SCL, while males are smaller at about 180 mm SCL. In Lycia recently (Fethiye), I encountered one enormous female measuring 290 mm SCL, and two others one measuring 270 mm SCL and one of 280 mm SCL. Large males measuring up to 235 mm SCL were also encountered in this locality. Out of 112 animals recorded during a 1 week survey of the region only 6 exceeded 250 mm SCL and all were female. Most of the larger animals exhibited obvious signs of considerable age, being very battered and worn. One interesting discovery was that of 3 specimens which exhibited divided supracaudal scutes. Previously, this had only been observed in captive specimens (Highfield, 1989).
In the surrounding mountains (Ak Ben Yala), a nesting female was observed at an altitude of 1350 m on an overcast and somewhat cool day. This particular study site is a summer pasture, surrounded by peaks on all sides, but itself gently sloping and lightly populated by a Kermes oak shrubs (Quercus coccifera) which with their sharp, spiny leaves are much favored by the tortoises for constructing their overnight scrapes beneath. From these scrapes, which are used by several tortoises alternately, very clear 'tortoise trails' can frequently been seen in the surrounding vegetation. The natural food plants of this tortoise, which is an exclusive herbivore, include vetches, dandelions, mallows, and numerous species of the Leguminosae family.