Recognizing the Greek Tortoises
As already mentioned in other articles, there are more than ten recognizable Greek tortoise “types” in nature and in collections, even in the USA. Some, including myself, see the current taxonomic findings as insufficient. An up-to-date and in-depth research project concerning this group of tortoises is in dire need to gain an actual understanding of how many subspecies (and maybe even species) there really are and the true differences between them. In an effort to help readers and keepers alike from mixing animals from different bloodlines or geographical areas, I will list more than the current ten with brief descriptions.
As always, you can find more information on all Testudo species by visiting my other website, Hermannihaven.com
Latin Name: Testudo graeca ibera
Americanized name: "Ibera Greek"
Also known as: Asia Minor tortoise
Notes: The most widespread and encountered Greek tortoise subspecies both in nature and captivity. Size and coloration varies incredibly, with some specimens surpassing 11” just like the eastern Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni boettgeri). Robust, hardy, aggressive and extremely cold tolerant. Some may be entirely black while others almost entirely yellow. Most commonly we think of the “Hermann’s tortoise” look when it comes to ibera, in that they have a yellowish ground color with black bars and blotches on each carapace scute. Few have managed to keep the Asia Minor tortoise pure under captive collections all thanks to droves of imported Testudo graeca ssp being mixed together and sold as the same thing.
Most commonly we see ibera bred to terrestris which is described next. This is partly due to the fact that terrestris are known in the hobby as “Golden Greeks” when in fact they are not always golden. An extremely outdated and irresponsible way of thinking was to assume that if it isn’t golden, it must be an ibera. This in return has generated an influx of bastardized (hybridized) Greek tortoises on the global market but most commonly in the USA. Testudo graeca ibera is an animal that should be isolated from any other species of tortoise included all other Greek tortoises. It is unique, brawny, genetically differentiated and far more powerful than its T. graeca ssp cousins.
Latin Name: Testudo graeca terrestris
Americanized name: "Golden Greek"
Also known as: Mesopotamian tortoise
Notes: A commonly encountered subspecies in American collections and inaccurately dubbed the "Golden Greek". Dark and all-black specimens occur within this wide-ranged tortoise. This taxon is under severe debate because it simply covers far too vast of an area where these animals naturally exist. Further examination is needed in order to realistically understand the Greek tortoises occurring in this proposed subspecie's range. Most likely, there is more than one subspecies living within this distribution. This is a sensitive type that cannot tolerate wet conditions for prolonged periods. Runny nose syndrome commonly associated with mycoplasma are often exhibited by wild collected adults. They are capable of handling cooler temperatures as long as they remain dry. Captive bred neonates seem to do quite well under captive conditions and do adapt. These tortoises typically reach carapace lengths of 5" for males and 7" for females, respectively, but smaller and larger examples exist in various local forms. Depending on geographic range, these tortoises can be solid buttery yellow or nearly identical to ibera in having the yellow with black borders “look”. Some animals are even a consistent slate gray color or a rusty brown. This is why the term “Golden Greek” really holds no water.
Perhaps a more appropriate way to this approach would be to simply say, “Wanted: Golden to yellow variant of Testudo graeca terrestris.” Because let’s face it, if you simply state you are looking for Golden Greeks and end up with darkly colored terrestris, no one lied to you in actuality. Do your homework, know what it is you’re really after and help us clean up this mess when it comes to Greek tortoises. All these dealers and field collectors did in the earlier days was leave out the dark animals while they were collecting. That unfortunately gave hobbyists the idea that all of these tortoises are supposed to be gold. Until science puts the work into adequately sampling the wild populations of T. g. terrestris to see if they can be broken down into further subspecies, we are at the mercy of coming together to understand that these animals are not all golden colored.
Latin Name: Testudo graeca marokkensis
Americanized name: "Moroccan Greek"
Also known as: Moroccan tortoise
Notes: A recently discovered North African subspecies. They have only entered the United States pet trade a few times in recent years but sadly most perished within the first year. This was due to heavy parasitic loads and insufficient care. This is a dry-dwelling tortoise which does appreciate vegetative cover in the form of a thick canopy. They do tolerate cold if kept dry. Robust and charming when housed appropriately. Quite prolific once dialed in and following an annual cycle. Adults vary between 500 and 700 grams for males and around 900 grams for females with some exceeding 1,500 grams. Beautiful blotches or radiating rays of black may accompany a horn colored base on both the carapace and plastron.
Darker and lighter animals exist as always. Specimens found in the northern parts of their range in areas like Meknes feature stronger black pigmentation. This creates beautiful contrast while those found closer to places like Agadir are more of a sand-beige color with fewer dark markings. They may on average be smaller as well. Hatchlings are easily differentiated from other Greek tortoise babies by being a uniform brown color with no central dark spot on each carapace scute. The spot eventually appears as the animals grow and will break up into rays, lines and splotches.
Latin Name: Testudo graeca nabeulensis
Americanized name: "Tunisian Greek"
Also known as: Nabeul tortoise or Tunisian spur-thighed tortoise
Notes: By far the smallest of the Testudo graeca species complex on average with adult males rarely surpassing 4-4.5” and females reaching 5-5.5". Overall, this subspecies is alongside the Egyptian tortoise and certain forms of the western Hermann's tortoise as the smallest of all tortoises found in the genus Testudo. They were once accepted as a full species being dubbed Furculachelys nabeulensis (Highfeild, 1990) but are now included in the Greek tortoise grouping. Heavy black pigment accompanies a yellow to almost white ground color on the carapace and plastron.
They are petite and delicate even as captive bred individuals. Never heavily imported into the USA, the few founder animals are associated with being illegally smuggled or mixed into importations of Libyan tortoises in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They require desert-like habitats and must be able to escape rainfall if it persists. Care is basically the same as is for the more common Egyptian tortoise. This is one of the rarest Greek tortoises and a very rare Testudo in general. When set up correctly from the start, we have found that they prove to be a rewarding little tortoise to keep.
Latin Name: Testudo graeca cyrenaica
Americanized name: "Libyan Greek"
Also known as: Cyrenaican Spur-thighed tortoise or Libyan tortoise
Notes: This highly attractive subspecies was notably imported in fairly large numbers into the United States in the late 1990s and 2000s. Like Morocco tortoises, few survived long term because many keepers attempted to house them in conditions similar to Testudo graeca ibera. The two subspecies are actually nothing alike and because of the untimely deaths that countless Cyrenaican Spur-thighed tortoises met, they are now a rarity in American collections.
Another dry-dwelling subspecies, care must be taken to keep them out of overly humid or wet situations. They are marked by a yellow ground colored littered with black dalmatian-like spotting all over the carapace. The shell is oblong with some flaring of the marginal scutes giving way to "skirt-like" appearance. Males may reach 6-6.5" and females may surpass 7.5" respectively. This is quite possibly the most difficult Greek tortoise to acclimate in captivity. Captive bred specimens are of course a better choice but still should be watched closely for any changes in otherwise normal behavior.
Latin Name: Testudo graeca anamurensis
Americanized name: "Anamurensis Greek"
Also known as: Anamur tortoise or Anamurum tortoise
Notes: This subspecies has recently been demoted to a geographical variant of the Asia Minor tortoise which is really an unfortunate move. They are easily differentiated from all other Greek tortoises by taking a clear look at the shell morphology. This tortoise is often confused with the Marginated tortoise (Testudo marginata) because of the conspicuous flaring of the rear marginal scutes on both sexes. Shell coloration may be entirely black or may be ochre with black mottling. They are a larger subspecies reaching sizes more comparable to T. g. ibera. In our care, females surpass 8 and even 9” with males not far behind. Like Asia Minor tortoises, they are robust and hardy, able to withstand a variety of weather conditions including cold. The carapace is also rather flat when compared to any other member of the Testudo graeca species complex.
Some individuals are shockingly narrow in body shape. The skin is gray to black and interestingly, babies are a gorgeous buttery-blonde color with inconspicuous dark spots. Their appearance could rival the most gold examples of Testudo graeca terrestris. This does fade with age and as the colors begin to mix, the animals often become as black as night. Truly a fascinating and very rare Greek tortoise.
Latin Name: Testudo graeca buxtoni
Americanized name: "Zagros Mountain Greek"
Also known as: Buxton's tortoise
Notes: This subspecies has unfortunately come into the pet trade alongside other subspecies of Greek tortoise including T. g. terrestris and T. g. ibera. Because they are not an easily recognizable type, they were inevitably mixed with one or both of these and forced to cross-breed. They are a cold tolerant, robust tortoise reaching considerable sizes of 6-9" and larger. They exhibit an attractive array of browns, tans, grays and black with some animals being uniform gray to black. Skin coloration is dark like the Asia Minor tortoise and the carapace exhibits a noticeable arch. This is not necessarily a rare subspecies of Testudo graeca but rather a poorly understood one that tends to float around in collections of conspecifics belonging to an entirely different subspecies. They resemble T. g. ibera closest on average and are often bred to them. To really get an idea of what this tortoise looks like, I strongly recommend buying a copy of Terralog 1 Turtles of the World (2nd Ed) (Africa, Europe & Western Asia) by Holger Vetter and by visiting the Greek tortoise pages on my site, HermanniHaven.com. You may be surprised.
Latin Name: Testudo graeca graeca
Americanized name: "Greek Tortoise"
Also known as: Mediterranean Spur-thighed or Moorish tortoise
Notes: This is the nominate form of Testudo graeca and despite the fact that the name "Greek tortoise" is thrown around in the global hobby, they are actually quite rare in American collections. Few keepers can describe what a pure T. graeca graeca looks like and some are simply describing Testudo graeca ibera when they attempt to do so. They are highly sensitive and although cold tolerant, they need primarily dry conditions. Customarily, Testudo graeca graeca features a light ground color, sometimes rather bright on the shell with nonuniform dark pigment in the form of spots, blotches and flecks or even rays (Algerian animals). The areola of each carapace scute is marked by a central black smudge or dot that may or may not be fringed with more black pigment laterally and anteriorly. As with most populations, those from the south are predominantly lighter in overall coloration while those from the north are darker.
Specimens found in southern Morocco often have orange to reddish colored skin which corresponds with the color of the soil they occur on. There are variations throughout local forms of this tortoise. In areas where they are believed to have been introduced like Spain, they are very brightly colored with a yellow ground color. In some populations adults are smallish with males reaching 4.5-6" and females reaching 6 to 7.5", respectively. In Algeria, this tortoise grows to large proportions much like T. g. ibera. This form was once dubbed Testudo graeca whitei. These animals, originally described in1836, can attain dimensions and weights of over 11” and nearly 10 lbs (Highfield, 1996). Algerian graeca may differ morphologically from orthodox Moorish tortoises in addition to their impressive size by having a more elongate carapace and pronounced flaring of the rear marginal scutes in males (Highfield, 1996). In my personal opinion, these Algerian tortoises physically resemble Testudo graeca marokkensis rather than T. g. graeca. In reality, it seems Moorish tortoises are morphologically closer to Tunisian animals (Testudo graeca nabeulensis).
Latin Name: Testudo graeca soussensis
Americanized name: ??
Known as: Souss Valley tortoise
Notes: This is a highly difficult tortoise to identify native to southern Morocco and the Souss Valley. Typically light in overall coloration, it bears a sand to yellowish colored carapace with little to no black pigment. When black is present, it is in the form of rays or splotches much like its nearby counterparts Testudo graeca marokkensis. It has been noted that captive born and raised youngsters may feature more black areas at least for a time being during growth. Heavily black pigmented individuals are also encountered in nature which furthermore confuses identification. The skin may be pink to orangish resembling the soils it is found on. Adult size matches both T. g. marokkensis and T. g. graeca with noted variation. Some reports suggest that soussensis is actually larger on average. Perhaps the only true identification tool one can use for this tortoise is the recognition of the lack of thigh spurs. This interesting example of the Greek tortoise family group lacks any thigh spurs in a number of individuals. It is unclear to me what the ratio of specimens with thigh spurs to those without them is, however, various sources state that this is an indicative trait of the Souss Valley tortoise. This is similar to the situation concerning the western Hermann’s tortoises (Testudo hermanni hermanni) occurring on the Madonie in Sicily, Italy. These peculiar Hermann’s tortoises actually exhibit thigh spurs. So, imagine that….a Greek tortoise without spurs and a Hermann’s tortoise with them! This is yet another reason why it is so imperative for outdated information to be replaced.
Latin Name: Testudo graeca zarudnyi
Americanized name: ??
Known as: Iranian tortoise
Notes: This is notably the rarest of the Greeks and little is known about its ecology or presence in captivity. Growing to between 24 and 28 cm, the shell is colored like that of Testudo graeca buxtoni but can feature the same degree of ochre found on Testudo graeca anamurensis. Iranian tortoises occur only in parts of eastern Iran in harsh environments. Flaring of the rear marginal scutes resembles that of Testudo graeca anamurensis and even Testudo marginata. The body type is overall robust and more like that of T. g. ibera.
Latin Name: Testudo graeca armeniaca
Americanized name: ??
Known as: Araxes tortoise
Notes: Another rarity, Testudo graeca armeniaca is special in that it looks very similar to the Russian tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii ssp). Its colors of black, gray and tan, along with its bulbous head shape, rounded shell shape and semi-flatness to the vertebral scutes may lead one to think they are witnessing a Russian tortoise of some type. This tortoise is not known in American collections at the time of writing this but is present in some European collections. Smaller than ibera and anamurensis, it is closer in dimensions to buxtoni and zarudnyi at between 24 and 26 cm.
Like Hermann's tortoises, Greek tortoises suffer greatly from inaccurate identification. This is a very real problem which should be taken seriously. Stay off the Facebook pages filled with pampering tortoise keepers who spit "known it all" comments. Instead, dive deep into the literature written by authors who have real, lifelong experience with these tortoises. It's no easy task to properly separate Greek tortoises but they deserve it. Impurity continues to grow as a threat and as responsible keepers, it should be a top priority to keep them pure to not only their subspecies but to their geographical origin in nature.