Hermann’s Tortoise | Natural History

Authored by Chris Leone Garden State Tortoise

Hermann’s Tortoise (Testudo hermanni)​

To date there are two recognized and/or accepted subspecies after a recent attempt to elevate them to the rank of full species level(“Eurotestudo”, 2006) failed. This will most likely be revisited in years to come with a different result based on the high degree of differences between the currently recognized subspecies and even the localities found within them.

The western Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni hermanni) is the nominate race with a type locality of Collobrieres, France. It is the rarest of Hermann’s tortoises both in nature and captivity. These animals typically attain smaller dimensions than their eastern cousins and appear more attractive as well. The ground color they exhibit is a rich golden-yellow to bright greenish-yellow bordered by jet black bars, bands or blotches usually covering more than 50% of the carapace (very light specimens occur in almost all localities with heavy concentration in certain origins).

The yellow ground color and jet black markings of the carapace create a high degree of contrast especially noticeable when the tortoise is wet. A well-defined keyhole or “mushroom cloud” symbol is exhibited on the 5th vertebral scute just above the supracaudal shield and this has been present in more than 95% of the animals I have observed. The head is rather sleek with regular contours when compared to those of the other subspecies. A bright yellow, subocular fleck or spot is usually visible underneath and just behind each eye. This may be lacking in elderly specimens or tortoises from certain locales.

The skin color resembles that of the carapace’s ground color but may be a light grey-green. On the plastron there are two longitudinal jet black bands or stripes that are well-formed and continuous along the midline. They are only occasionally, slightly broken, most commonly around the humeral scutes and anal scutes. The suture between the femoral scutes on the plastron is longer than that of the suture between the pectorals but in certain instances they can appear even. Rarely is the pectoral suture longer than the femoral. Inguinal scutes are usually present.

Females rarely exceed six inches while some males may not surpass four; however larger examples are not uncommon. The western Hermann’s tortoise is also known for typically being rounder and more domed in appearance when compared to the other subspecies. The highest point of the carapace is commonly situated somewhere between the second and fourth vertebral scute but this varies with locale and even within a given population. There are in fact several distinguishing characteristics (some rather blatant, others not so much) that set western Hermann’s tortoises from different localities apart. To the untrained eye, these may be less noticeable but to an experienced individual, they can really stand out in certain instances. For detailed information regarding this please visit my site www.hermannihaven.com. Testudo hermanni hermanni are very rare in collections in the USA and finding pure bred specimens can prove to be quite difficult.

Eastern Hermann’s Tortoise

The eastern Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni boettgeri) is the larger, common race. These tortoises are usually viewed as “dull” when compared their western counterparts with colors as well as markings varying extremely. Rather attractively colored specimens are not unheard of. In fact, we maintain some striking eastern tortoises ourselves. The ground color of the carapace is typically a horn color or can be brown, yellowish, or ochre. Less intense black or dark brown bars and blotches border it. The 5th vertebral scute usually lacks the keyhole symbol but a less defined “version” of it can found in some specimens especially captive bred juveniles. The head is bulkier with the eyes situated higher up and the yellow spot or fleck under each eye is usually absent except in neonates.

Skin color is usually dark and may be tan, brown or grey. The plastron exhibits discontinuous black markings which appear faded, broken up and nowhere near as well-defined or prominent as in their western cousins. However, an almost entirely black plastron is sometimes found in specimens deriving from southern Greece. The suture between the pectoral scutes is usually longer than that of the femorals or they may be an even length in various cases. Females typically reach seven to eight inches but extremely large, ten inch plus females have been encountered in parts of the world such as Bulgaria and also in captive collections. Males usually do not surpass seven inches but larger animals are not unheard of. These tortoises have a flatter, broader look and are more elongate than round.

Dalmatian Tortoise

A third, once accepted subspecies known as “The Dalmatian tortoise (Testudo hermanni hercegovinensis)” is still recognized by many keepers worldwide today. Recently, this tortoise has been discounted by taxonomists as a valid subspecies due to the lack of supporting evidence that they are in fact different from Testudo hermanni boettgeri. Instead, they are considered to be nothing more than a geographical variant of the eastern subspecies. For decades, tortoise enthusiasts were unaware of this potential third type of Hermann’s tortoise thus leading to the inevitable cross breeding of them with pure eastern specimens.

The Dalmatian tortoise does exhibit some external differences that certainly set it apart from the western subspecies, but also differentiate it from the eastern to a degree. These animals are rather smallish. They resemble Testudo hermanni hermanni with regards to their size and may even be considered smaller at times due to the wide array of dimensions found within T. h. hermanni depending on the region they are found. Females of this variant of Hermann’s tortoise will rarely exceed 6” with males sometimes falling short of 5.5” (in Sardinia and Corsica, tortoises belonging to the western subspecies can easily surpass 8”, so you can see how the Dalmatian may at times be considered the smallest members of the T. hermanni species complex).

The colors and markings of the Dalmatian are quite close to that of T. h. boettgeri but may be more defined. The plastral pigment can sometimes depict that of the stripes found on T. h. hermanni but instead are always discontinuous. The ratio between the pectoral scute suture and femoral scute suture is often even but may resemble the ratio found in either the western or eastern subspecies. The suture of the humeral scutes typically forms a sharp, downward curving “U”, but again, this may not always be the case and this is also found in a majority of western tortoises and some easterns. The head is rather rounded and blunt with a subocluar spot usually lacking except in younger specimens. Usually, yellow-green markings are found on the top of the head at the back. The supradcaudal shield may or may not be divided and inguinal scutes are lacking some 60% of the time.

Some specimens will feature only one inguinal scute on either the right or left side. This is where differentiation can become difficult because although very rare, both T. h. boettgeri and T. h. hermanni have been encountered with inguinal scutes lacking entirely. In fact, on Sicily, western tortoises may be lacking only one. This is a trait that is less often seen in other western locales and combined with characteristics such as the presence of thigh tubercles (like those found on Testudo graeca), the discovery and addition of a new subspecies of Hermann’s tortoise may surface in years to come. A fourth subspecies has already been proposed but has since failed to gain any real acceptance. Small eastern tortoises found in the Peloponnesus (southern Greece) have been labeled “Testudo hermanni pelponnesica” but they have not graduated from just a geographical variant yet. A complete revision of the taxonomy concerning the Testudo hermanni species group is needed because at present, only two subspecies are valid and this raises great concerns for the captive breeding and also head-starting of juveniles into nature. Hermann’s tortoises vary quite heavily from region to region and even within a select population. It is imperative that we gain a better understanding of not only the morphological differences that set them apart but also behavioral and perhaps even biogeomorphology specifics as well.

Hermann’s Tortoise Range

Hermann’s tortoises are found throughout southern Europe. Mediterranean oak and beech forest, scrubland, rocky hillsides, meadows and other areas with dense vegetation and calcium rich soil are suitable habitat for wild Testudo hermanni. Yugoslavia, Albania, Romania, Bosnia, Croatia, Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria are all inhabited by the eastern strains while the western strains are restricted to mainland Italy (including Sicily and Sardinia), the south of France (including Corisica) and northern Spain (along with the Balearic islands Mallorca and Menorca).

Availability of Hermann’s Tortoise

Eastern Hermann’s tortoises (T. h. boettgeri) are readily available in the USA. Keepers have been successfully breeding this subspecies for decades now and captive born hatchlings are almost always attainable. Typically, hatchlings can be found for sale easily in late summer into fall when eggs laid in spring have hatched. Reptile expos and online sources will offer eastern Hermann’s tortoises throughout the year of various ages for reasonable prices. Every year wild collected and farmed specimens are imported into America from Europe. These specimens are often riddled with parasites and may be harboring infectious diseases. It is best to stay away from these and aim to purchase captive bred tortoises only. Western Hermann’s tortoises (T. h. hermanni) on the other hand, are extremely rare in USA collections. They have never been heavily imported into the country which is attributed to their endangered status in nature and few have been fortunate enough to breed them. Those that are produced fetch high prices. Each year, we produce both eastern, “Dalmatian” and western Hermann’s tortoises (our ongoing, main focus) from the absolute purest, bona fide adult stock we imported ourselves. To learn more about our captive bred babies, visit hermannihaven.com. Hermann’s Tortoise | Captive Care by Chris Leone