Authored by Chris Leone Garden State Tortoise
Hermann’s Tortoise Captive Care Essentials
Hermann’s Tortoise Size Variation
Size varies with Hermann’s tortoises. Typically, the eastern subspecies tops out between 6” for males and 8” for females (4.5-6” for the Dalmatian variant). Smaller examples from areas like southern Greece and huge specimens (9 to 11”) from places like Bulgaria are not rare. For the western subspecies, males may not grow larger than 4 to 4.5” and females may not surpass 6” max. Again, smaller tortoises (Mt. Etna for example) and larger individuals (Corsica and Sardinia) exist. Some Sardinian and Corse T. h. hermanni may reach impressive dimensions of more than 8”. Regardless of subspecies, males are the smaller of the sexes. In some cases they may appear to be nearly half the size of an adult female when fully grown depending on origin.
Hatchling Testudo hermanni are suitable for indoor keeping and by choosing this method in the beginning we are protecting them from harsh elements and possible predation. Outdoor keeping at this stage of life does work well but can pose problems especially for an inexperienced keeper. We have managed to successfully house neonates and juveniles in both outdoor and indoor settings but you may find it more comforting and easier to monitor them if indoor housing is your method of choice. Never use glass aquariums for tortoises. They create a constant “greenhouse” effect inside causing them to rapidly dehydrate. They also drive the tortoises crazy because they cannot comprehend what glass is and why they can see through it but not move forward. This sends stress levels through the roof.
Use Rubbermaid containers instead or “tortoise tables” built from plywood. For 2 to 3 hatchlings, a container roughly 2×3 feet will suffice. It should be at least 6” tall. Do not go too big while they are so small because they may become “lost” in the environment and you will find yourself constantly digging around to find them. As the T. hermanni grow, the size of the container can be increased to accommodate them.
Several neonates can be raised together without issue if space permits but watch out for any weaker individuals who may have trouble competing for food.
A suitable substrate is clean top soil mixed with coconut coir or peat moss. I prefer to add sand into this mix to help generate a substrate that replicates what they experience in nature more closely. However, using sand has been known to cause impaction in reptiles which can lead to death. Although in more than 20 years we have never experienced this with any of our tortoises kept on it, this does not mean it won’t happen to your animal(s). Use caution or simply don’t use the sand. The substrate can be up to 4” deep to allow for burrowing. Burrowing is 100% normal! Do not be alarmed by his behavior while they are this young. They are babies after all and babies sleep. I also recommend adding Cypress mulch as a 2” top layer but you can also mix it in to the existing substrate. The mulch aids in keeping an adequate humidity level which should be around 70%. Do not let the substrate dry out entirely by keeping a spray bottle filled with water on hand to mist the enclosure.
A common misconception regarding tortoise keeping is thinking they must be kept very dry.
This is in fact not true and we now know that pyramiding (unnatural, lumpy growth of the carapace scutes) is directly linked to improper humidity levels along with insufficient hydration. In nature, baby tortoises spend a great deal of time burrowed into the ground, under leaf litter or jammed under debris. There, it is humid, moist and dark. They are programmed to hide and typically do not venture out anywhere near as much as older specimens. By doing this they are constantly subjected to a higher level of humidity than one might assume. Although wild tortoises can sometimes appear lumpy or pyramided, this is only in extreme cases where severe droughts are common. Most will exhibit beautiful growth and smooth shells. In the evening after the lights are turned off, I place the lid on the Rubbermaid containers that house our baby tortoises. This helps to mimic the dark, humid refuges the neonates confide in when in nature. The humidity builds up overnight and in the morning it is released when the lids are taken off. I do not doubt for one second that this method has something to do with the natural, smooth shells our tortoises attain as they grow.
A very shallow water tray (0.5”) can also be provided to the babies so that they have constant access to fresh water. Drinking is crucial for baby Hermann’s tortoises and additional soaks for 15 minutes in lukewarm water, 3 to 4 times weekly are also wise. Half logs, upside down Tupperware with an entrance hole cut in, drift wood and cork bark make for excellent hide aways. These will be used frequently by the occupants. Fake plants or edible weeds may be grown in the indoor unit if you wish to do so. I opt against it for the sake of simplicity and cleanliness because we are dealing with a high number of animals. The use of plants absolutely does not “make” or “break” the enclosure for us especially since our tortoises spend a great portion of the year outdoors in very natural conditions.
Housing larger juveniles and adults indoors is possible especially during the winter. By using the “tortoise table” method, an 8×4 foot rectangular enclosure out of plywood can easily be constructed. This will house a trio of adult tortoises in the 4 to 6” range for part of the year but as always, going as big as possible is best. Aggressive animals must be watched closely. Even female Hermann’s tortoises can inflict wounds on one another especially if they are carrying eggs and fighting for a nesting area. Males may naturally engage in combat but be ready to separate them if it gets out of hand. It is part of the natural daily cycle for members of the Testudo hermanni species complex to encounter others of their own kind. While tortoises do not suffer from loneliness or experience emotions, it is stimulating and nothing less than natural for them to be subjected to other members of their species/subspecies. However, it is always wise to have extra enclosures ready to house aggressors to prevent serious damage to the other conspecifics.
Cypress mulch 4 to 6” deep works best for adults but you can also use the same combo that I described above for hatchlings. Large pieces of cork bark or drift wood make for excellent decor inside the enclosure. Larger Rubbermaid containers turned upside down with an entrance hole cut into it can be made into a “humid hide” for younger Hermann’s tortoises to help keep up with smooth shell growth. The container can be filled with moistened sphagnum moss. Change the moss frequently because it can become a breeding ground for harmful bacteria. For full-sized adults, I prefer to use straw inside any hide-box given to them. It is not as messy and allows the adults access to a cozy, dry refuge. A stainless steel water dish no more than 2” deep should be set into the cypress mulch so that the animals always have fresh water to drink and soak in. This must be changed frequently because the tortoises will defecate in it often. Even for larger T. hermanni, hydration is crucial for long-term success. This is especially evident with the western subspecies which seems to “dry out” and become dehydrated quicker than their eastern counterparts.
Hermann’s tortoises undoubtedly do best outdoors and they can be kept in this manner from at least April until October in most parts of the USA. A strong outdoor enclosure placed in a sunny location can be constructed out of pressure treated wood, stone wall or landscaping timbers. For a group of 2 males and 6 females, the unit should measure at least 12×8 feet with a height of 18”. A graciously planted outdoor pen situated on well-drained soil makes for a great captive environment for these tortoises. I recommend removing the existing soil especially if it does not drain well. Replacing it with a mix of clean top soil, pit gravel and sand makes for a nice, naturalistic terrain for the occupants. Be creative with the terrain and rather than leaving it flat, allow sloping areas, and uneven spots with higher ground. Although Hermann’s tortoises prefer a bit more humidity in their environment than most other Testudo, they should never be subjected to consistent damp situations. A variety of planted, edible weeds to promote natural grazing is suggested as well as an array of decorations like logs, rocks, slates, shrubs, African grasses and bushes, for exercise, hiding and burrowing.
Some excellent plant choices are spirea, hosta, knockout rose, hibiscus, fountain grass, maiden grass, sedum, yarrow and Mediterranean heather. Make sure to keep tortoises well protected from predators such as raccoons and theft. A framed lid out of 2×3’s equipped with a thick wire mesh should cover most or all of the outdoor enclosure to keep invaders out. Set on hinges the lid or lids can easily be opened and closed. I recommend using locking latches to further prevent potential theft.
Just like indoors, they should always have access to fresh water. The 2” deep stainless steel dishes mentioned above work great outside too and can easily be cleaned. The adults will use them frequently to soak in and drink from but they will be soiled quickly. Mosquitoes will use them as a perfect breeding ground so be ready to change them often.
In areas where weather isn’t very reliable, I recommend using cold frame 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. Testudo hermanni really make use of these greenhouses as they seek the warmth inside them on days when temperatures are not optimal. I have even noticed nesting females will choose to dig their nests and deposit their eggs inside them. A heat lamp with a 250 watt infrared bulb can be installed inside them for even cooler days/nights. I’ve also had a great deal of success when using small dog houses or hutches filled with straw as shelters. The tortoises seem to find them very comfortable and will choose them over the greenhouses on very hot days.
Lighting, Temperature, Humidity and Handling
Absolutely nothing beats natural sunlight especially when it comes to tortoises such as Hermann’s. These animals occur in “warm spots or islands” within their native range. In these places, sunlight is plentiful and strong thus providing the animals with adequate UVB. This is why it is so important to place the outdoor enclosure in the sunniest location of the yard. For indoor lighting, a 10.0 UVB emitting fluorescent bulb should be fixed across the top of the enclosure.
A 100-150 watt basking light should also be placed at one end only to offer the tortoises a basking site of around 95F. Depending on the size of the enclosure, you may want to use more than one basking light to offer the tortoises multiple basking areas but be sure the occupants always have an area where they can escape the direct light and heat. They may however not use the basking area too frequently if they are newborns. Remember, they know they are vulnerable and instinct tells them to hide as much as possible. The tortoises should be subjected to 12-14 hours of light each day regardless of age.
Humidity is crucial in properly housing Hermann’s tortoises long-term. Dehydration is a real threat especially in artificial conditions. A humidity level of around 70% is needed and this can be achieved by offering the tortoises a proper substrate, a constant supply of fresh water and regular, light mistings with a spray bottle. T. hermanni of all ages ages will appreciate a “fake rain” through means of misting or spraying them down. They will walk with their bodies held high, extend their heads and necks into the “rain” and drink from little puddles or from the beads of water that form on the walls of the enclosure.
Ambient room temperature should hover around 80-85F during the day and can be allowed to drop into the low 70s at night. T. hermanni are capable of withstanding much cooler nighttime temperatures but if they are very young, it’s wise to not let it drop that low just yet. Additional heat sources like heat pads or rocks are terrible for tortoises and should never be used. Another common misconception is when keepers panic and feel that their “babies” need additional heat at night. This is how heat rocks and pads end up being used and how tortoises can die from them. It’s a “no brainer” to know that the indoor set up should not be near a drafty area such as window or in a cold room.
Do not pamper these animals, there is simply no need for it and overdoing things can actually cause harm. These are wild animals no matter how many times we produce them in captivity. They do not “like” or “love” us, and this is important for us as responsible keepers, to accept and understand this. They need little interference from us if set up correctly from the start. On another note, it should not go without saying that Hermann’s tortoises, although shy in nature, can prove to be quite outgoing and responsive in captivity. They quickly associate their keepers as a source of food and lose there fear of us. Some will even allow a scratch on the top of the head. However, like all turtle and tortoise species, T. hermanni do not like to be handled. Handling a tortoise, an animal that is so close to ground by nature, only causes unnecessary stress and long-term problems.
Your tortoise should only be picked up when absolutely necessary especially when they are so small and young.
Low protein, high fiber and calcium rich are crucial points to keeping Hermann’s tortoises stable and healthy. In nature, much of their day is comprised of grazing or browsing for edible vegetation. Unfortunately, many uninformed keepers turn to supermarket produce which is generally lacking in acceptable fiber levels and is too high in sugar. A diet rich in protein will eventually cause renal failure and offering too much fruit will bring on diarrhea or even an outbreak of internal parasites. Pesticide-free weeds grown in the yard such as dandelion, clover, plantain, catsear, thistle and vetch make for excellent food items. Mulberry leaves are also recommended. Here, we make sure our tortoises get Mazuri tortoise diet (original blend and LS blend) several times a week.
This commercial diet aids in keeping a healthy weight on the animals, enables hatchlings to grow steadily and rapidly replenishes nutrients lost in females who have recently deposited eggs. For years we have raised many species of tortoise by using this diet in combination with appropriate weeds and the outcome is more than satisfactory. We also mix the Mazuri diet with organic dried herbs which can be purchased online at www.mountainroseherbs.com. This method comes in handy during the winter months when weeds are really inaccessible. On my site www.hermannihaven.com, a video I have put together shows how to make this mix. Sometimes, supermarket produce may be your only option.
Whenever possible, purchase only organic greens and stay away from all lettuces. Collard greens, mustard greens, radicchio, endive and turnip greens will suffice in moderation. Various “tortoise seed mixes” are now available from distributors and while these can make for an excellent variety of safely grown edibles, be extremely careful with them. Reports of tortoises becoming poisoned from these mixes are now beginning to surface. This may be attributed to the accidental presence of seeds from poisonous plants being mixed into the mix. Doing your homework in order to gain the knowledge of how to properly identify poisonous plants goes a long way. Google is at everyone’s fingertips now so start researching, it could save your tortoise’s life.
For calcium intake, I choose to not force it on the tortoises. The all too familiar practice of dusting each meal with calcium powder can cause long-term problems down the road. Instead, a constant supply of cuttlebone is kept in every enclosure with tortoises of all ages. The animals will nibble the bone as they feel the need. Adults, particularly females, will use the cuttle bone more often than males or neonates. Only occasionally will we dust the food items with powder. In the case of growing youngsters and gravid females we may do this twice weekly. Phosphorus free calcium powder and cuttlebone can be purchased at most pet stores or in bulk online.