Hermann’s tortoise

Hermann tortoises (testudo hermanni) are one of the most popular species of tortoise to keep as pets and it’s easy to see why. They have a level of individual personality that is rare in reptiles, and they can be very charming and funny. They develop a bond of companionship with their owner, and you will get to know their individual quirks, likes and dislikes. They live about 75 years, which gives us something in common!

Like the Horsfield tortoise, they are one of the Mediterranean tortoises, native to the Northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

Identification

Hermann tortoises can be identified by their distinctive tail, which has a large scale or nail at the end. They are brightly colored, though this brightness may fade with age. The males are somewhat smaller than the females.

There are two races of Hermann tortoises, a Western race and an Eastern race –

The Western race, testudo hermanni hermanni, is native to northern Spain, southern France, northwest Italy and some of the islands in the western Mediterranean. They grow to 15-18cm in length. Compared to its Eastern cousins, it is more brightly colored, with a more domed carapace. Western Hermann tortoises usually (but not always) have a yellow spot on the head behind each eye. The most reliable distinguishing mark is the two dark bands running along the length of the plastron (i.e. the underbelly), which the Eastern race do not have.

The Eastern race, testudo hermanni boettgeri, is native to southern Italy, Albania, Greece, Yugoslavia and the Balkans. The shell is not as highly domed than the Western race and they grow a bit bigger, to about 20cm. The markings show more individual variation than in Western Hermanns, with less color contrast. The yellow spot behind the eye is rare (though some have it!). Most distinctively, the underbelly of this beast has more broken, faded marking than the Western subspecies.

Outdoor habitat

Hermann tortoises are particularly frisky and active. They like to burrow and they like to climb, so you need to secure their habitat to stop them busting out and getting into mischief. If you’re keeping them outdoors, make sure they can’t tunnel out. My favourite way to do this is to dig up about a foot of soil, lay chicken wire at the bottom of the hole, and fill the dirt back in. This way, the tortoise can walk around on nice comfy soil (walking around on chicken wire can’t be pleasant for them) and can satisfy its instinct to burrow, but you can still be confident that it can’t tunnel out. The chicken wire is likely to break at the corners of the pen, so double it up there. If you want more details, the ebook Practical Tortoise Care contains diagrams and real-world examples of both indoor and outdoor enclosures.

Surprisingly, Hermann tortoises are also quite capable of climbing. You need to enclose the top of their pen just as carefully as the bottom. Again, chicken wire, doubled up at the corners, is the best way to do this.

The key to a habitat that keeps tortoises happy is a variety of microclimates. Like us, they sometimes want to be in warmer spots, sometimes in colder spots. Your enclosure should allow for this. Make sure there is a well-drained, elevated spot for them. This can be achieved by creating a mound of mixed sand and earth about a foot or two high. The enclosure should have a few spots of shade, but mostly be in full sun; they are sun-loving animals.

Because they are so active, their outdoor habitat needs to have plenty of room for them to play and move. 10m2 per animal is about right. If you don’t have the room to give them a good outdoor play-pen, then consider getting a less active species of tortoise.

Indoor habitat

See our article on tortoise housing for more information.
Being from the Mediterranean, they do not cope well with temperatures lower than 70oF (21oC). Unless you’re living in a very hot climate, you will need to make arrangements to house them indoors. Many Hermann tortoise owners keep them indoors most of the time, and have an outdoor pen for them for when the weather is fine. This gives them the best of both worlds; the warmth of the indoors and the space and freedom of the garden. This is the best solution if you have the space.

Indoor enclosures should have a heat lamp that emits UV light, which the tortoises need to synthesize vitamin D. A good daytime temperature is 80oF (26-27oC). There are different kinds of indoor pens, but a “tortoise table” is arguably the best. This is a bookcase (or a wardrobe with the doors removed) laid on its back. Sink a tray for water into the wood. The tray should be large enough for the tortoise to get into for a soak, but less than 10cm deep so there is no chance of drowning. Lay a substrate of mixed compost and sand to a depth of about 5cm, and you have a place your tortoise will love.

In addition to the UV light, a heat lamp should be provided. Many Hermann tortoise keepers have success in just using an ordinary 45W desk lamp for this. The heat mats that reptile shops sell are unnecessary; tortoises prefer radiated heat from a lamp than the sort of ambient heat these mats provide. (Reptile mats have their uses in some circumstances, though – Practical Tortoise Care discusses this in more detail.)

Just like the outdoor habitat, the indoor habitat should have a variety of microclimates. Allow both a cool, shady place and a warm, bright spot for basking. This is easy to do: just put the heat lamp at one end of the enclosure and leave the other end shady. Your tortoise will also appreciate something like as a hollow log or a box where it can get some alone time to think about whatever tortoises think about.

Food and water

See our article on tortoise diet for more information.
Like all Mediterranean tortoises, Hermann tortoises are pretty strictly herbivorous. It is alright if they pick up a snail or slug in the garden every now and then, but you should never feed them meat, and certainly never dog or cat food, as some misinformed tortoise owners do. Their system is not capable of handling that much protein. Even beans and peas should be avoided, as these are too also high in protein and can stress the liver and kidneys. (Beans also contain phytic acid, an antinutrient which can block the absorption of calcium, the most important mineral for tortoise nutrition.)

This species is particularly prone to soft-shell and pyramiding, but this is entirely avoidable so long as you ensure their diet is high in calcium and low in phosphorous. Sadly, pyramiding is almost pandemic among pet tortoises (some owners think the shells are supposed to look like that!), and this is entirely a result of improper diet. These shell problems usually happen because the tortoise is not getting enough calcium, but it is also possible that the calcium intake is sufficient, but the levels of dietary phosphorous are too high. This results in an abnormal calcium-phosphorous ratio, which interferes with its ability to metabolise calcium. This is another reason not to feed meat to tortoises.

The best way to provide calcium is to leave a cuttlebone (the bone of a cuttlefish, available at either your petstore or fishmonger) in the enclosure for your tortoise to nibble on.

The basis of your Hermann tortoise’s diet should be green leafy plants: weeds, flowers, clover, wild lupine, grass, hibiscus, endive, romaine, dandelion, charlock, watercress, chickweed, groundsel, plantain leaves, sow thistle and vetches and the leaves of plants and bushes like buddleja, ice plant, lilac, rose and bramble. Get the idea? Chop these up into a fine salad, and give the tortoise as much as it can eat in thirty minutes, about five times a week. (UPDATE: The full list of plants approved for feeding your Hermann tortoise has been compiled – a whole chapter of Practical Tortoise Care is dedicated to it!)

The green salad covers the basics, but to be sure you will avoid vitamin deficiencies, it is best to supplement with a good multivitamin. There are many inferior products on the market, so be careful.There are good and bad multivitamins, but some that are up to standard are Vionate Vitamin-Mineral Powder or the Vetark range (Arkvits, Nutrobal AceHigh).

Hibernation

Some species of tortoise do not hibernate at all, while others won’t hibernate when kept in domestic conditions where plenty of food and water is available. Hermann tortoises are unusual in that they always hibernate no matter the conditions. As a tortoise keeper, you need to be aware of this and prepare a spot to let your animal hibernate.

The most important consideration is temperature: for hibernation, Hermann tortoises need the temperature kept steady between 39 and 50oF (4 – 10oC). If the temperature drops below this during hibernation, damage to the nervous system is common, resulting in blindness, disorientation and even death.

One good way to create a hibernation box is to place a small cardboard box inside a larger cardboard or wooden box. Stuff the space between the two boxes with some insulating material, such as shredded egg cartons, builders’ insulation or polystyrene. Some keepers advise placing a piece of wood at the bottom of the inner box to make sure the tortoise doesn’t burrow through the insulation; we have found this to be a good idea.

When the average outside temperature reaches about 10oC, it is time to wake your tortoise up from its long sleep. At this time, you can move the box to a warm place for a few hours, and then remove the tortoise. The old belief was that it is dangerous to handle a hibernating tortoise, and they should be allowed to wake by themselves; this belief has no basis in reality. When it wakes up, make sure there is water there for it to drink, as it has lost considerable moisture during hibernation. It may not take food for up to a week. This is nothing to worry about, but refusal to eat for longer than that is often a sign of frost damage and you should seek veterinary care immediately.

Mating rituals

Hermann tortoises can mate at any time of year, but most keepers notice that activity peaks in spring and summer, especially in the late afternoon. As you might expect from such a spirited species, the courting rituals are energetic and elaborate. The males ram, chase and bite the females and will fight each other for mating rights.

Females are sometimes injured by a male’s persistent behavior. Serious injuries are rare, but you should frequently check both males and females for minor wounds so you can prevent infections. There is a danger that flies will lay eggs on an open wound; these will hatch into maggots within 24 hours if you don’t treat the wound.

To protect the females from stress and injury, some keepers house males and females separately during the year, and only move them into the same enclosure during the prime breeding months. This is usually not necessary, but if you notice your animals are particularly rambunctious it is something to think about. You may want to breed tortoises year-round, and this is definitely possible. A single female can sometimes lay two or three clutches in a single year.

Eggs, nesting and hatchlings

When the time comes for the female to lay her eggs, she will seek out a well-drained slope. If you have an outdoor enclosure, make a small mound of soil, a foot high and 2 to 4 foot wide, with sloping sides. This not only satisfies the female’s instinct to find a convenient slope for her nest, it makes it easier for the keeper to find the nest and retrieve the eggs afterwards.

When she finds her spot, a pregnant female uses her hind legs to clear the surface and create a little burrow, 3-4 inches (7-9cm) deep. Most keepers report she does this in the late afternoon. Once she’s satisfied with the nest, she lays her clutch. Clutches can contain anything from a single egg to twelve. (Larger females lay larger clutches.) She will then camoflague the nest to protect it from predators. These nests can be quite cleverly hidden, and you’ll appreciate having made the effort to build the sloping mound so you know where it is.

Place the eggs in an incubator at a temperature of 26-31°C (80-85°F). You can make an incubator by getting a box of some sort and wrapping it in plenty of sheets for insulation. To control the temperature, I’ve found the best thing is to get a cheap aquarium heater and put it in a water bottle next to the eggs. This allows you to keep the incubator constantly at the chosen temperature. One of the amazing things about raising tortoises is that you can determine the gender of the hatchlings by the incubation temperature. Temperatures near 26°C produce more males and nearer 31°C produce more females. Set the temperature to 28 or 29 if you like surprises.

After 90 to 120 days in the incubator, the eggs will start to hatch. The hatchlings require similar care to grown tortoises; they eat the same food and need a constant supply of water for soaking and drinking. Be extra-careful with hatchlings that the water-tray is no deep enough for them to drown. Of course, they do not need as much room as grown-ups, and can be successfully housed in plastic tubs. Be sure they get the large amounts of calcium they need to grow their shell.

Hatchlings do not eat until they are two or three days old. Then you can then start feeding them the same food as you feed the adults.

Diseases

If you are caring for a Hermann tortoise, you should be aware of some of the most common medical problems they face. Of course, this is no substitute for proper veterinary care. Call up your local vets to check if they have experience in caring for tortoises. Small veterinary clinics often only know about cats and dogs, but can refer you to a specialist in tortoises. It is good to know in advance what vet you can take your tortoise to.

Upper respiratory tract problems are common with Hermann tortoises. If your tortoise has a runny nose and runny eyes, there are several possible causes. First, check that there is no foreign body lodged in the nostrils or sinuses. If this is not the problem, it is most likely an infection and you will need to take the tortoise to your vet so they can culture and identify the infection. The most common cause of respiratory tract infections is plain bad luck, but an inadequate diet can also weaken the tortoise’s immune system. Unhygienic conditions, contact with other pets and damp caused by too moistened a substrate in the enclosure are other risk factors.

Stomatitis or mouth-rot (also called canker) is common among Hermann tortoises. You will notice a build-up of white stuff around the mouth and on the tongue. A vet can give you iodine swabs that will usually take care of it within a few days.

Soft-shell (osteodystrophy) is common in malnourished tortoises. As far as I know, it is not possible for an adequately nourished tortoise to suffer from soft-shell. Too little calcium, too little vitamin D3 or too much protein are precipitating factors.

Diarrhea is also common among tortoises being fed a poor diet, specifically one with too much sugar or not enough fiber. Of course, diarrhea can be a symptom of a number of other underlying causes. Intestinal parasites are pretty common in Hermann tortoises, so if the diet is alright and your tortoise still has diarrhea, you should take it to your vet, who can prescribe effective medication for these parasites.

As mentioned, cold temperatures during hibernation can lead to neurological damage. The usual symptoms are blindness and disorientation. There is no treatment, so prevent it! Keep the temperature during hibernation safely above 4°C.