What better way to shellabrate World Turtle Day 2021 than to cover your all-time favorite species in a blog post? Hermann's tortoises have been a major part of my life since I was only 9 years old. It's been one heck of a ride from genetic work to creating an entire website about them and it just never gets tiring to share more about them.
Standing in my grandmother’s kitchen, I was fixated on the little plastic box she held in her hand. In it was the most fascinating little gem, a baby tortoise. Grandma Leone had just returned home from visiting family in Italy, and here she stood before me with my very own living souvenir. After consulting a few books, Dad helped me to discover that our new pet was a Hermann’s tortoise, and so began a lifelong obsession. It was one of those moments where everything changed and the stage was set for the rest of my life.
Fast forward 22 years: I’m photographing some of my Hermann’s tortoises as they graze about a clover patch, and I am still deeply moved by the sheer beauty and peacefulness of such creatures. Their brilliant black-on-yellow shells, shiny and wet from a morning rain, bring to mind a swarm of plump bumblebees busily moving about the vegetation. They’re living art, to say the least.
The Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni, named after French naturalist Johann Hermann) has remained a heavyweight champion in the reptile community for decades. Hailing from Europe, it is a member of the Mediterranean group of tortoises that includes other species such as the Greek tortoise (T. graeca), marginated tortoise (T. marginata) and Egyptian or Kleinmann’s tortoise (T. kleinmanni). For decades, it’s been common to find at least one in the gardens of many European households.
The Hermann’s displays a yellow carapace with dark markings, fixed plastrons, strong legs with thick scales and powerful nails, a faintly hooked upper jaw and a horny tip at the very end of the tail. This latter feature is the reason for the Hermann’s less frequently used common name of Mediterranean spur-tailed tortoise.
Hermann’s tortoises are active within sun-drenched portions of the species’ range throughout southern Europe from April through October, depending on geographical origin. Scrubland, rocky hillsides, Mediterranean oak and beech forest, as well as areas featuring low shrubs and thick vegetation are favored. In the Hermann’s habitat, sunlight is plentiful, rainfall is scarce and temperatures soar during the peak of summer.
Two subspecies are recognized. The rare western Hermann’s tortoise (T. h. hermanni) is the nominate form and is restricted to small, disjoint populations in mainland Italy, including the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, Spain with the Balearic islands Mallorca and Menorca, and southern France, including the island of Corsica.
The widely distributed, more common eastern Hermann’s (T. h. boettgeri) is found in Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro.
This subspecies now includes the geographical variant known as the “Dalmatian tortoise” (formerly T. h. hercegovinensis) native to Croatia, Herzegovina and Bosnia.
Road mortality, over-collection for the pet trade and habitat destruction (particularly fires) have decimated wild Hermann’s populations, and many that were once thriving have now been completely extirpated or reduced to alarming figures. The IUCN Red List classifies the western Hermann’s as Endangered and the eastern Hermann’s as Near Threatened. Head-starting programs in combination with other conservation efforts have aided in the survival of tortoises in some areas of the Hermann’s range, and captive breeding has had positive effects, with a high success rate for the eastern subspecies especially.
Each year, hundreds of T. h. boettgeri are still imported into the U.S. from Europe. These animals are often emaciated and riddled with parasites, and many do not survive their first year. With so many dedicated keepers now breeding the eastern Hermann’s, hatchlings are readily available and should always be chosen as pets over wild-collected specimens.
Help for the western Hermann’s tortoise has also been initiated. Organizations in both France (SOPTOM) and Italy (CARAPAX) are head-starting juveniles for wild release in combination with rehabilitating injured adults. At Garden State Tortoise, we have been very successful at producing this subspecies yearly in the U.S., and we have launched the first North American Regional Studbook for Testudo hermanni hermanni.
Hatchling Hermann’s tortoises can be kept indoors, and it’s wise to do so until they reach a less vulnerable size. I recommend using a Rubbermaid tote for an indoor hatchling setup—they’re readily available and inexpensive at many stores, such as Walmart, etc. Up to three hatchlings can be kept in one measuring 2 by 3 feet. As the tortoises grow, the size of the container can be increased to accommodate them.
A suitable substrate is clean top soil mixed with coconut coir or peat moss, at a depth of about 4 inches to allow for burrowing. Add a 2-inch top layer of cypress mulch to aid in maintaining a proper humidity level of about 70 percent.
A common misconception regarding tortoise keeping is thinking they must be kept very dry. This is not true, and pyramiding has been directly linked to improper humidity levels along with insufficient hydration. So do not let the substrate dry out; keep a spray bottle filled with water on hand to mist the enclosure. A very shallow (half-inch) water tray should also be provided so the hatchling(s) have constant access to fresh water. Additional 15-minute soaks in lukewarm water, four times weekly, is also wise. I cannot stress enough how important it is for young Hermann’s tortoises to have appropriate humidity levels and hydration.
Half logs, tupperware containers placed upside down and with an entrance hole cut in one side, driftwood and cork bark make for excellent hatchling hides. For lighting, a 10.0 UVB-emitting fluorescent bulb should be across the top of the enclosure, and a 100-watt basking light should be placed at one end to provide a basking site of around 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
The tortoises should receive 12 to 14 hours of light each day. Ambient room temperature should be between 75 and 85 degrees during the day and can drop to the high 60s or low 70s at night.
Hermann’s tortoises, like many tortoise species, do best outdoors. There is nothing like natural sunlight or a thunderstorm to invigorate them, and T. hermanni do appreciate a good rain.
They can be successfully kept in an outdoor pen April through October in most parts of the U.S., if not longer. In areas that experience cold winters, I recommend keeping them inside, in a tortoise table setup such as that previously described.
An outdoor enclosure measuring at least 16 by 8 feet and 2 feet tall will house a small breeding group of eight to 10 tortoises. Various materials can be used to build the pen’s retaining wall, but I think landscaping timbers from stores such as Lowe’s or Home Depot work best. These are inexpensive, very strong, pressure treated and attractive. By staggering them and bolting them together, you can create a reliable wall with a sort of “log cabin” effect.
Lids can be made for outdoor tortoise pens by framing 2 by 3s. The lids should be set on hinges for easy opening and fitted with strong wire mesh to keep predators out of the enclosure. I include latches that are locked every night.
The substrate for an outdoor enclosure is especially important in areas that experience heavy rainfall, and it’s crucial for the ground inside a tortoise pen to be well draining. I remove the existing soil inside a new pen and replace it with a mix of clean top soil, gravel and sand. This mix drains well and looks appealing. I prefer to not locate pens on flat ground, and think doing so is boring for the inhabitants, so get creative. Sloping areas and uneven terrain will offer Hermann’s tortoises a variety of basking or nesting sites, and will force them to exercise, as well.
Boulders, slate, river stone, driftwood, logs, cork bark and other natural materials should be included wherever possible (be sure placement is secure to avoid possible injury to the tortoises). The tortoises will not hesitate to climb such décor, and they may also scrape out hiding places beneath such objects.
Fountain grasses, Mediterranean Heather, maiden grasses, Sedum, spireas, Hosta, knockout rose, Hibiscus and stone crop, to name a few, are excellent choices for planting the pen. Hermann’s tortoises do not appreciate large, open spaces and will stress out if they cannot find sufficient cover (indicated by them pacing the enclosure relentlessly). Providing your tortoises with stands of thick vegetation will go a long way toward having contented tortoises.
Outdoor tortoises should also have constant access to fresh water; provide it using the previously mentioned methods for indoor tortoises.
In areas where weather can be unpredictable, consider using cold frames or mini greenhouses for the tortoises to enter. These can be ordered online and are relatively inexpensive. I situate them onto a base that is slightly sunken into the ground. An entrance is made for the animals and inside, a thick bed of straw is available. Hermann’s tortoises really make use of these greenhouses when seeking warmth inside them on days when temperatures are not optimal. A heat lamp with a 250-watt infrared bulb can be installed inside for even cooler days/nights.
A proper Hermann’s tortoise diet must meet three major requirements: it must be low in protein, high in fiber and rich in calcium. All three are crucial to keeping these tortoises healthy.
Unfortunately, many keepers feed their tortoises supermarket produce, which is generally lacking in appropriate fiber levels and high in sugar. A diet high in protein will inevitably cause renal failure, and offering too much fruit will lead to diarrhea or an outbreak of internal parasites.
Pesticide-free weeds grown in the yard, such as dandelion, clover, plantain, catsear, thistle and vetch, are excellent food items. Mulberry leaves are also recommended. I also make sure my tortoises get Mazuri tortoise diet (original blend and LS blend), mixed with organic dried herbs (available online) several times a week. The Mazuri diet aids in keeping a healthy weight on the animals, enables hatchlings to grow steadily, and rapidly replenishes nutrients lost in females that have recently deposited eggs.
At times, supermarket produce may be your only option. Whenever possible, purchase only organic greens and stay away from lettuces. Collard greens, mustard greens, radicchio, endive and turnip greens will suffice in moderation.
I believe it is best to not force calcium on your tortoises. The common practice of dusting all their meals with calcium powder can cause problems down the road. Instead, keep a constant supply of cuttlebone in the enclosure(s) of both young and adult animals. They will nibble the bone as they feel the need. Only occasionally will I dust food items with powder; in the case of growing youngsters and gravid females, this is done weekly. Phosphorus-free calcium powder and cuttlebone can be purchased at most pet stores or in bulk online.
Breeding and Reproduction
Under appropriate conditions, Hermann's tortoises prove to be rather prolific.
Male T. hermanni have enormously long tails with a large, horny tip at the end. It is believed this tip is used by the male to stimulate the female’s cloacal region during courtship. The plastron is slightly concave in older specimens, and when viewed from above the carapace may sport a more trapezoidal shape due to flaring of the marginal scutes. In many males, the supracaudal scute is bent down and inward as sort of a shield, which appears to protect the tortoise’s impressive tail.
Females, the larger of the sexes, exhibit much shorter tails with a puckered vent, a smaller tail spur and a flat or level plastron. They appear more rounded when viewed from above. A tip for sexing juveniles into adulthood is to examine the anal scutes on the plastron; in males, they will form a wide “V” as they grow away from each other to make way for the large tail, and in females, they will exhibit a less-widened “V,” and sometimes a “U” shape.
Peak breeding activity normally takes place in late summer/early fall and again in spring. Hibernation or brumation may play an important role in long term fertility in this species group. Depending on where a population derives from in nature typically determines how long they will rest for.
During courtship the male will relentlessly pursue the female—ramming, biting, scratching and even overturning her—until she submits to his advances. During copulation, the male emits high-pitched squeaks while sticking his tongue out of his gaping mouth. Females seek suitable nesting areas in May and June in nature; in captivity, nesting can take place at any time if the tortoises are not hibernated. I’ve noticed that western females usually choose an area just under or next to grass or other décor, while eastern specimens tend to select more open spaces.
Once oviposition takes place the female uses her rear legs to dig a flask-shaped nesting chamber roughly 3 to 4 inches deep. One to three eggs (western) or three to eight (eastern) are deposited and covered, and one to two additional clutches may be laid in a given season.
Eggs can be removed from the nest and placed on dry vermiculite in deli containers with a few small air holes punched in the lids. These containers can then be placed in an incubator for the entire incubation period. Sex of Hermann’s tortoises is incubation temperature dependent; 84.5 to 86.9 degrees results in males, 87 to 89 degrees males and females, and 89.6 to 91 degrees results in females. Humidity is best at 70 percent, and this can be achieved by leaving bowls of water next to the deli containers holding the eggs. The eggs themselves should be very lightly sprayed with warm water only occasionally, every two and a half to three weeks.
Under these conditions, eggs will hatch after 53 to 70 days. Once the tiny neonates emerge and have absorbed the remnants of their yolk sacs, they are ready to begin their fragile lives.
The Hermann’s tortoise is highly sought after due to its attractive appearance, adaptability, responsiveness and charm. The eastern subspecies prevails as an extremely rewarding and easily obtainable pet, while the western survives as a sort of “ghost,” both in much of its natural range and in most captive collections. These are creatures that have presented me with decades of pleasure as hardy and captivating inhabitants. Simply put, they are a masterpiece, and one of nature’s absolute best, in my opinion.