Spur Thighed in the UK

 

 

Testudo graeca graeca were the first tortoises I cared for as an adult when two were rehomed to me in 1990.  The female of the two was already very elderly having been given to my friend,s grandfather during the Second World War.  She was of adult size then so you can imagine the grand old age she must have been.  The male was younger having been brought in a pet shop approximately 40 years ago.  I very sadly lost the female in December of 2002, she didn't show any particular signs of illness, she just generally declined in health and slipped away.  Tammy and Timmy were responsible for my going out and researching these wonderful creatures which I suppose in turn, has led to me writing this website. 

I have had many "spur thighed" tortoises rehomed to me over the years, some of which stayed with me here and some of which I rehomed to other people who I felt could offer that particular tortoise more.  For more rehoming details, please visit my rehoming page.  

 

 

 

 

Indoor Accommodation

My iberas' indoor accommodation comprises of an 8ft x 8ft polycarbonate greenhouse which is mounted on wooden railway sleepers.  The front sleeper is cut 15 inches too short which allows for a doorway out into the garden so that they can come and go as they please.  I find this works really well as they have indoor/outdoor access without having to leave the greenhouse door open which would lose precious heat during the cooler times of the year.   The floor of the greenhouse is garden soil which the tortoises like to bury into at night, although you will probably find you will have to hose it down occasionally during the summer months to prevent it becoming a "dust bowl".

Daytime heat and UV light is provided using 160 Watt Active UV lamps which are suspended on chains from the wooden benching which extends down two sides of the greenhouse.  They can be hung at a suitable height to give perfect temperatures. I aim for a hot spot of approximately 90F and the tortoises use these extensively.   The greenhouse gets really quite warm even first thing in the morning when the sun is out so make sure min/max thermometers are used to check that temps aren't getting too hot.  Don't forget that although tortoises *need* heat, they can also have too much of it and when temps get too much, they will attempt to aestivate and just hide away or bury down into the ground to escape it.  For night time heat I use a 6ft tubular heater which is thermostatically controlled and only set to come on during the night if the temperatures fall too low (ie: below 10C or 50F) and as a back up, an electric heater which again is set on a thermostat.   This is obviously used mainly in early Spring and in Autumn time.  

During the cooler months of the year, the lights are turned on for approx. 12-14 hours a day to simulate Mediterranean light levels but in the hottest part of the summer, they aren't used much.  Remember that natural sunlight (even on cloudy days) gives far superior levels of UV than even the best UV basking lamp.

The tortoises have a water bowl in the form of a heavy stone bird bath which needs changing daily and disinfecting weekly.  They are fed on heavy paving slabs dotted about the greenhouse which stops the food getting too dirty but also keeps their beaks and nails in trim.  They also have various hiding/sleeping holes but they don't tend to use them an awful lot inside preferring to dig down in the warm soil at night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outdoor Accommodation

 

Tortoises are far better off outside in the sunshine when the weather permits.  Natural UV from the sun far outweighs the benefits of even the best UV lights.  As described in the "indoor section", my spurs have free access to the outside from their indoor quarters and I often find them basking in the early morning sun even before their lights have been turned on.   This is the behavior of a normal healthy tortoise.   Even baby tortoises are much better off outside when the weather is good enough although remember that babies will need protection from predators and nosey children.   This can be achieved either by constructing a tortoise table and covering it with mesh or by marking out a smaller area on the ground, surrounding it with log roll sunk into the ground and making a mesh lid to go over the top.  

My adult tortoises' outside area is approx. 45ft x 18ft and consists of many differing terrains.  They have a grassy/weedy area, paving slabs (which they always bask on first thing in the morning), planted areas and rocky areas.   Tortoises must have access to shade to get away from the hot sun if they wish and plants and shrubs are ideal for this.  Some plants that are favoured for shading under but not eating are hebes, lavender bushes, ornamental grasses, low growing palms and bamboo.  Just make sure you check all plants for toxicity in case the tortoises nibble on them.  Also remember if you are giving your tortoise access to the whole garden that weed killers/slug pellets and pesticides should not be used under any circumstances.  

Drinking water should also be provided using something large enough so that the tortoises can get in it rather than just putting their heads in.   Old bird baths and large plastic dog beds are ideal for this and are easily cleaned.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diet

 

Thankfully the days of feeding tortoises lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber are long behind us.  They are "empty" foods having no nutritional value and provide little else but water.   Tortoises need a high fibre, high calcium, low phosphorous diet and this can be provided by using natural plants, flowers and weeds.  A high fibre diet takes approximately 20-25 days to pass through the digestive system and allows optimum nutrition extraction.  Foods such as lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber pass through quickly and generally lead to loose, poorly formed stools. 

I try and feed as varied a diet as I can, tortoises do seem to become easily addicted to one type of food.  Some of the items I include are dandelions, sow thistles, hawksbit, bittercress, clover, plantains, lavateria (flowers and leaves), hibiscus (flowers and leaves), aubrietia, campanula, chicory, mallows, nipplewort, bindweed, vetch, honeysuckle (flowers ONLY) and mimulus.  For an extensive edible plant list with pictures for ease of identification, please visit www.tortoises.net 

Obviously in the colder parts of the year, these plants are not always readily available although a fair amount can be grown in seeds trays indoors.  If you are finding it hard to gather enough of these recommended foods, you can supplement with watercress, endives, radicchio, cos (or romaine) hearts and a variety of dark leafy greens.

All feeds are sprinkled with calcium carbonate daily (in the form of Limestone Flour) and a good multivitamin powder such as Nutrobal, Vitasaur or Vionate should be used twice a week.   Tortoises have a high calcium need and it cannot be met by diet alone, you must provide extra if calcium deficiencies are to be avoided.  As well as sprinkling food with calcium carbonate, you can leave lumps of cuttlefish around the enclosure which they may chew on but most tortoises ignore it until it has been thouroughly "weathered" outside. 

 

 

 

 

 

Hibernation

 

Hibernation is a natural part of a Testudo ibera's cycle, so I feel we should replicate this in captivity.  Please note that although a great many Testudo graeca graeca *do* hibernate, not all sub species can so you must be sure which species of graeca your tortoise is. As long as your tortoise is of a good weight according to his size, and hasn't had any major health problems in the last 6 months, then there is no reason not to.  Some people believe that small tortoises shouldn't be hibernated but if they are healthy, why not?  That is, after all, what they would do in the wild.

I try to leave hibernation as late in the year as possible, especially considering the warm autumns we have had over the last few years.  The later they get up in the spring, the more weeds and sun there will be for them.   I wind my tortoises down for hibernation over a period of 4 weeks.  The first two weeks are spent with full summer time temperatures, ie full basking/UV light, but with no food.  They are bathed and given the opportunity to drink during this time every 3-4 days.  The temperatures need to kept at a normal level for a period of time to keep the digestive system working properly to pass through any food that they have recently eaten.  On the 3rd week, the lights are turned off but night time background heating is kept on in the greenhouse should the temperatures fall low.  By this time they are starting to slow right down and don't emerge from their caves so much.  The 4th week is spent with no basking or UV and the night time heating is turned right down so that it will only come on if the temperatures fall very low.  This is to cool them down in preparation for going into the fridge, which is where I hibernate all my tortoises.  During this process, the tortoises are bathed regularly.  It is important that they are well hydrated when going into hibernation.

 

In 2002 I had a female Ibera bury herself down in the greenhouse to hibernate and so I left her, figuring she knew best!  She dug down approximately 4-6 inches and I covered the spot with a terracotta roof tile.  I also buried a thermometer probe and another for the tubular heater just in case the temps dropped very low.  It was interesting to note that although the ambient temps in the greenhouse fluctuated wildly, the temps below the ground stayed very stable and she did not move.

The tortoise refrigerator is set up several weeks prior to use which allows time to set the thermostats and monitor the temperatures.  The fridge is filled with bottles of water to help put some mass inside the fridge, which will in turn help to stabilize the temperatures.  The ideal temperature for the fridge is 5C but a variance between 3C - 8C is fine.  You can monitor this easily by using a digital max/min thermometer with a probe positioned inside the fridge.  Once the tortoises are ready for hibernation, place them in cardboard boxes filled with substrate.  Shredded paper, hemp or soil can be used, it's purely down to personal preference.   Place the boxes inside the fridge with the thermometer probe next to the tortoises.  You may find that once the tortoises are inside, the fridge temps will fluctuate slightly and settle again after approximately 12-24 hours.  Make sure you open the fridge door once daily which allows for fresh air exchange, or alternatively, you can use an aquarium air pump fed through the seal of the door to allow continual air exchange.   Once the tortoises are inside, they can be monitored easily and weighed weekly to ensure that excessive weight loss is not occurring.  I have found that using this method, weight loss is absolutely minimal.

 

 

 

 

 

Breeding

 

I have been lucky enough to breed my Testudo graeca graeca which is a wonderful experience.  Breeding pairs should be carefully matched for visual likeness and size.  It,s no good having a very eager male when he's not big enough to "lift" the female.  

Courtship and mating can be quite an aggressive affair and you must be ready to separate the males from the females if need be.  Females can become very stressed with the continual advances of a male.  Male Iberas butt and bite the females in an attempt to get them to stand still long enough for mating to happen.  When they achieve this and the female cooperates, the male will mount the female and open his mouth widely giving out high pitched "squeaks".   They are surprisingly loud and my neighbours sure know about it when the tortoises are at it!  It doesn't tend to last too long and then they will both go about their normal business of eating and basking.  

If the mating is successful, in a short time you will have a female tortoise that wants to lay her eggs.   Tortoises are usually quite choosy about the conditions they lay in as in the wild, they want to be pretty sure their eggs have a good chance of survival.   Signs of a gravid female are "leg wiggling", loss of appetite, aggression towards other tortoises and general pacing.  Gravid females must be given access to a quiet area in which to lay their eggs without the continual interruption of other tortoises.   They like to lay their eggs in an area near to shrub roots or rocks, maybe to give themselves something to hold on to whilst digging the nest.   They tend to sniff and test the ground to find a suitable site and the substrate should be neither too wet or too dry which would mean the nest would cave in on itself.  When I know a female is ready to lay, I usually damp down the nest site with a kettle full of water in the morning which provides the right consistency for nest digging.   A basking lamp is suspended above the nesting site to give a temperature of approx. 90F.   The female may dig several trial nests which she then abandons and this is quite normal.  My female T.graeca graeca did this for two weeks before digging a nest that she deemed to be satisfactory.   The nest is dug as deeply with her back legs as she can reach with a "bowl" shape at the end.  She may spend several hours working away at the nest site and scoops the soil out with her back legs.   When she is satisfied with the nest, she will then brace her back legs against the sides of the nest to allow the egg to protrude from her cloaca.  Once each egg is laid, she will gently move it into position with her legs and then lay another.  Clutch sizes vary with each species and each individual tortoise.  Tammy usually laid 5 or 6 eggs with another clutch to follow a few weeks later.   Once all the eggs are laid, she will reverse her earlier digging and fill the nest back in carefully.  This again can take several hours and is remarkably undetectable if you haven't witnessed the event.  I always give them a nice warm bath and a pile of food once they have laid, they have worked hard and you would expect the same after a long labour wouldn't you!

It's now time for you to transfer the eggs from the nest site to an incubator.  Carefully dig up the nest and retrieve the eggs, marking them on the top with a soft pencil.   Some people say that the eggs should be kept the same way up straight after laying while others say the first few days don't matter.  I would rather play safe and keep them the same way up that they were laid.  They are then placed carefully in the incubator.

 

 

 

 

 

Incubation

 

 

I use a home made incubator which has worked well for me.  It is a large polystyrene box (the type that tropical fish are transported in) with air holes made in the top and the sides.   The heat is provided by a heat mat which is wired into a thermostat and the temperature set at 31C.  The probe for the thermostat is placed directly next to the incubating eggs.  A min/max thermometer is also used so that temperatures can be checked daily.  I use a substrate of vermiculite which has worked well and the eggs are placed gently on the top.   I also have a small bowl of water inside the incubator giving a humidity reading of approx. 50-60%.  Bricks or large stones are placed in the incubator which help stabilize the temperatures. 

 

 

 

 

 

Hatching

 

After approximately 65+ days, if the eggs are fertile, you should have babies emerging.  Once the hatchlings are ready to emerge, they will begin by making a small hole in the egg which is known as "pipping".  They may then sit in the egg for a couple of days or they may hatch much quicker.  It is worth noting that not all eggs from the same clutch hatch at the same time, I have had hatchlings emerge as much as two weeks apart.  The baby will break open the egg piece by piece until it climbs out fully.   Once the baby has emerged, it should be given a nice warm bath and they generally drink straight away.   It should then be placed in a previously prepared enclosure.  I generally use kitchen towels as a substrate until the egg sac is absorbed fully and the babies are eating.  They then are treated the same as the adults with the exception of bathing them every day and their food is chopped into small pieces for a couple of months. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Basic Health Care

 

 

There is no substitute for having your tortoise checked out by a good qualified vet that has experience with reptiles, but there are some basic measures you can take at home which will hopefully cut down on your need to see a vet.  The most important thing you can do is to monitor your tortoise regularly by checking weights and general condition, this will alert you early should any problems arise, and allow you to get to a qualified vet before things progress any further.

Make sure that the eyes are clear and bright, and not sticky.  The nose should be clean and dry. Check the skin carefully for any signs of cuts or abrasions, and the joints for swellings.   Also keep a careful eye on the condition of the shell.  Any signs of abnormalities such as soft or discoloured areas or cracks/chips should be checked by a qualified vet which, if left, could lead to shell rot.  Tortoises' beaks and claws can sometimes need some attention, especially if not kept on varying terrains which would normally prevent them from them growing too long.  If they do need shortening, you can gently do this with a strong emery board, taking off a little at a time.  If you are not confident in doing this, again take the tortoise to a vet.  If you do suspect a problem with your tortoise, don't delay in getting advice, as tortoises can be slow to show signs of illness, and by the time you spot it, it could have been developing for a while.

 

 

These notes are not intended as a complete and comprehensive guide on how to keep Testudo graeca graeca and Testudo ibera tortoises, but purely information and tips on how I keep mine and what works well for me in my part of the country.   If you need further information, please see the links section on my home page.