Captive Care of Young Mediterranean Tortoises
This care sheet applies to care of the following species: Eastern, Dalmatian and Western Hermann's (Testudo hermanni ssp.); Ibera Greek (Testudo (graeca) ibera) and Marginateds (Testudo marginata). It may also be useful for other temperate climate species as well. While the information within is designed to care for baby and young tortoises the information also applies toadults of the same species keeping in mind that everything will need to be a a bit larger scale.
In order to promote normal activity ambient daytime temperatures should be in the range of 68-82 degrees. Lower temperatures during the day will result in prolonged basking and less activity. When temperatures begin to increase above the mid 80's tortoises will often begin to seek shelter to escape the impending heat. Neither extreme is desirable for extended periods as it will disrupt the tortoises normal activity and routine. Ideally on a regular basis, an ambient range of 74-78 degrees during the daytime is ideal. But variances within that range are also normal. At night the temperatures should ideally fall 15-20 degrees lower than ambient daytime temperatures. Generally an ambient range of 55-65 degrees at night is ideal. Occasionally warmer nights are also fine. The tortoises described above are temperate climate species which means that they are from an climate that has warm summer days but also often cold nights as well as long, cold winters. They have evolved to adapt to these conditions and survive well in them.
A basking temperature of about 90-98 degrees is ideal. This is achieved by a dedicated basking lamp. More details about how to achieve this are under the lighting description.
One of the most common mistakes that keepers make with tortoises is keeping them in an environment that is much too dry. This can be especially detrimental to baby, young and small tortoise species because of their low body mass due to their small size. Proper humidity is of the utmost importance to keeping a tortoise healthy. There are three key elements to proper humidity; ambient air, substrate moisture and body hydration.
Ambient air is the most difficult to maintain and the least important of the three elements. The ambient air within the enclosure should be maintained within a range of 50-70%. Occasionally higher is fine. Lower should be avoided for long periods. The ideal range can be achieved with a humidifier either within the room or a small unit within the enclosure itself. Also equally important is air circulation. Humid, stagnant air is unhealthy and can breed mold, fungus and bacteria. So while maintaining humdity is important, equally important is a source of fresh air.
Substrate humidity is easy to maintain. It can be done by misting and spraying the substrate when needed. This is usually once or twice daily. The substrate should be slightly moist to the touch but not damp or wet. It helps to spray it heavily and churn it up once a week to allow the moisture to the entire layers of substrate. The area under and around the basking light will naturally dry faster due to the heat. This is fine and desirable.
Body hydration too is very easy to achieve. This is done by allowing the tortoise to have a constant, clean source of drinking water at all times. A small, shallow dish with it's rim at substrate level work well. It should be about the approximate size (or slightly larger than) the tortoise's body size. This will allow the tortoise to soak in it if it wants to. Some individuals prefer to drink this way. Others will only drink from the side without getting into the dish. Either is normal. What is important is that they have water available at all times.
The UVB rays either from direct sunlight or a suitable artifical source are absolutely crucial to health, growth and well being of a tortoise. When weather permits a tortoise should be kept outdoors as much as possible to reap this benefit. Indoors artifical UVB can be provided by one of the many UV (also known as "full spectrum") lamps designed specifically for reptiles. The most effective are fluorescent tube type lamps. These work well because they can be positioned to saturate the entire enclosure with UV rays.
The basking light is very important in providing heat that allows the tortoise to warm up in the early morning to begin it's activity routine. It also provides heat which aids in the digestion process and is how the tortoise maintains it's desired body temperature. A basking light should be able to produced the desired temperatures of 90-98 degrees directly under the center of it's beam after being on for approximately one hour. A few degrees one direction or the other is fine. But temperatures too hot again, can lead to the tortoise struggling with dehydration. Usually a standard (not soft white) 40-60 watt bulb will suffice. Low wattage halogen and other types of bulbs can work also as long as they produced the desired heat range. Temperature adjustment can be controlled by how close or far from the basking area that the light is mounted. If the light has to be mounted closer than 6" to the basking area than a larger wattage should be used and mounted farther away.
Both the UV and basking lights need to be securely mounted and should be on for a period of 14-16 hours each day. In order to establish a routine for the tortoise it's best if these lights are on an automatic timer.
There is a belief and a lot of mis-information available that tortoises need to be hot all the time. This is simply not true. Tortoises are ectothermic (cold blooded) which basically stated means that they rely on temperatures outside of their body to regulate inner body temperatures. Those outside temperatures in the control of the keeper, not the tortoise. Constant and/or excessive heat can be fatal to a tortoise. If the correct ambient and basking temperatures are in place there is no need whatsover for any other source of heat. Heat pads are common source that some use. This is an absolutely unnatural and unnecessary form of heat for most tortoise species. Especially temperate climate species. Too much heat can be as bad as not enough in the case of tortoises.
It is difficult to accurately determine how much food, in terms of volume, tortoises require to remain healthy. Individuals may consume different amounts based on their age, existing growth rate, time of year and other factors. A basic rule of thumb is to provide them with enough food that they will consume almost completely within an hour. Some food being left over throughout the day is fine. Most tortoise species are browsers. This means that in nature they don't necessarily sit in one spot and eat all that is in front of them but instead roam around taking small bits of food from various sources throughout a day. In captivity most have been accustomed to being offered a whole meal at once in front of them. Much like we feed our other pets and ourselves. So while they are trained to eat at one sitting it is also good for them to browse as they want to throughout the day. If they consume everything offered within a half hour or so the volume of food should be increased slightly until the level of a little left after an hour is reached. If they are leaving a lot of food after an hour the volume of food should be decreased slightly. Some people may have the ability to actually allow tortoises to browse more close to how they would in nature by feeding small amounts of food throughout the day rather than all at once. This is the ultimate feeding situation but few people are home with their tortoises all day to be able to do this.
Ideally, they should be fed in the morning, shortly after their lights come on. This is a more natural order for them in their routine rather then being fed later in the day soon before the lights go out.
They can be fed daily as long as they are not overfed each day. It's better to have a more reasonable or smaller amount of food than to have excessive amounts of leftovers each day. It also does no harm to skip a day a week or if you're gone, a weekend or a few days. Contrary to some believe, you are not starving or depriving them. Tortoises are slow in digesting their food. The wastes that come out today were not from yesterday but from 3-4 days prior. Their digestive systems are evolved to consume large amounts of low nutritional value foods and extract as much out of it as possible. So they're digestive systems works very slowly, like most grazing and browsing animals.
Their diet should be varied and of high quality sources at all times. This will expose them to as many vitamins and minerals as possible. Tortoises are vegetarians with dark, leafy greens being the main part of their diet. But they are also opportunistic feeders, consuming many other forms of food when available too. In captivity they should be fed a diet of approximately 80-85% good quality greens with the remainder being vitamin packed vegetables. Some suggestions are: Dandelion, clover, vetch grass, alfalfa, broad & narrow leaf plantain, sow thistle leaves, wild chicory and other naturally growing wild plants. Along with those and especially in the winter when weeds may not be available they can be fed grocery store greens consisting of: Endive, escarole, chicory, dandelion, parsley, mustard, beet & collard greens, kale, romaine lettuce cabbage and occasionally some spinach. A little bit of green, red leaf or other lettuces once in a while is fine too. But know that they have very little to no nutritional value and are really just filler foods. Vegetables can consist of (but not be limited to) the following: Pumpkin, squashes, sweet potato, green & yellow beans, peas, carrots, Bell peppers and occasionally some corn. Fresh vegetables should be offered whenever possible. Thawed frozen vegetables when fresh is not available. Never feed canned vegetables unless they contain no sodium or any other preservatives. Fruit should not be a part of their regular diet. While many are nutritional they are also high in citric acids and sugars. In particular too much sugar can overload a tortoises digestive system causing beneficial digestive bacteria to over flourish and create digestion problems. An occasional piece of fruit once in a while is fine.
Processed pellet foods for tortoises have become commonplace and can be a good supplement to a regular diet to ensure that your tortoise has even more exposure to variety and vitamins & minerals. They should not however be considered as the starting point or mainstay of a tortoises diet. In general companies such as Mazuri and Zoo Med produce a quality product with good nutritional balance. Some products attract tortoises to eat them by color, not necessarily having the best nutritional value. It's wise to do the research on any processed food before feeding it to your tortoise. Learn the nutritional value, percentages of ingredients and source of composition.
There is a current trend to feed tortoises "spring mix" which a prepackaged variety of lettuces as the main part of their diet. Lettuce products in general have very little to no nutritional value. They have some fiber and a lot of water content with little else. Keepers are compensating for this lack of nutritional value by saturating the lettuce with multi-vitamins. This is not an adequate solution and by no means a viable substitute for providing well rounded, varied, high quality food sources
It is debatable if additional vitamins are needed for tortoises in captivity. Many keepers with decades of experience don't feel that supplemental vitamins are necessary if a varied, high quality diet is fed on a regular basis. Vitamin overuse can be abused and contribute to accelerated growth and deformities.
This is an important supplement to tortoises throughout their live from hatchling to older adult. Calcium should be available in the form of Calcium Carbonate, at all times to a tortoise. Powdered form is best for baby and young tortoises. Larger tortoises can be given cuttlebone pieces. Both should be available 24/7 for the tortoise to consume as they need it. For babies and young a small, shallow dish at substrate level with a small mound calcium powder in it works well. Some keepers coat the tortoises food with calcium. This essentially forces them to consume it whether they require it or not. In reality, tortoises require different amounts of calcium at different times throughout their life based on growth needs, seasonal periods and in the case of mature females, prior to and during egg production. Individual tortoises each have their own need for the amount of calcium they consume and when they consume it. Some will consume it constantly while others will rarely do so. Some consume it at only certain times of the year. Others will go for long periods without it and then suddenly consume it for several weeks, stopping again for a long period afterward. For those reasons and others it is best not to coat their food with calcium powder but to have it available at all times so that they may consume it when they know that they need it.
Tortoises are terrestrial animals that in the wild roam a relatively large range or territory in the search of food, water, shelter and potential breeding mates. the true size of range that they would be accustomed to is impossible to provide in captivity. The next best thing is to give them as much space as you can within your means. Babies generally wander from a known secure shelter much less than an adult would. Because of that they can be started out in smaller, more manageable size enclosures. These smaller enclosures not only make them easier to observe but also easier to maintain humidity and temperature levels and keep clean. A good starting point for a baby size or tortoise under 3" is a plastic sweater box that is approximately 16" x 26" x 5". Once the tortoise gets larger it can be moved to larger, sturdier wooden box approximately 2' x 4' or larger. Ultimately, an adult should be kept in an enclosure no smaller than 2' x 6'. Larger enclosures are always better as are larger, more spacious outdoor enclosures.
The substrate or "bedding" should consist of an all natural material such as organic potting or topsoil. It should be kept 1.5-2" deep. At one end should be a couple of shelters, also known as "hides" or "hide boxes". They should be at least twice the size of the tortoise and dark inside. A small bit of moss can be added to them to increase moisture retention. A small mound of sphagnum moss can also be placed next to, behind or around them or in a corner and kept a bit wetter than the substrate. This will provide another alternative hiding spot for the tortoise. On the opposite end of the hide areas should be the basking light with a flat stone or slate at substrate level to act as a basking platform for the tortoise. The stone acts as an excellent heat sink by absorbing and discipating some of the heat for the center of the light. The tortoise will bask in various spots on the stone depending upon how much or how little heat it requires to regulate it's body at the time. A few other smaller flat stones can be randomly placed in the enclosure if desired to break up the terrain and allow cooler resting spots for the tortoise to use. Approximately in the middle of the enclosure, away from the sides, is where the food, water and calcium dishes can be placed. If spot cleaned daily and kept at the proper moisture level the substrate should easily last an entire year without having to replace it. As the tortoise becomes an young adult a more economical substrate such as cypress mulch can be used. Never use wood shavings, rabbit pellets, "eco" pellets or any paper based substrates. All create dust when dry and can trap moisture and mold when damp.
Most tortoise species in nature live a solitary life. They do come together occasionally at different times for breeding, food foraging and by chance. Quite often, usually in the case of males, they have territorial boundaries and will defend those boundaries aggressively. Often to the point of physical injury. Because of the openness in nature there is an escape route for the loser. In captivity they are confined to an enclosure with no real escape or hiding areas. Males especially should never be kept together once they reach sexual maturity which is when they become most aggressive. Females of the same species can quite often be kept in small groups peacefully as long as they have enough space for all members in the group. Males and females can rarely be kept together long term and should only be brought together for breeding purposes. Males are almost always aggressively active in their pursuit to attempt to mate with females. Females are only receptive if environmental conditions are right. Constant exposure to each other can easily result in the females being physically injured and intimidated to the point of their health being in jeopardy. For these reasons, it is best to keep tortoises by themselves or in very small groups of juveniles or females. They do not seek or have the emotional need of the company of other tortoises and are very content living alone.
It's usually not a good idea to keep different species of tortoises together. Or other animals species with a tortoise. Tortoises of different species will often have different environmental needs based on where they are found in nature. Keeping different species together makes it difficult to meet the environmental requirements of each species creating less than ideal conditions for both.
It is never a good idea to keep other species of animals with tortoises. The most obvious reason being very different environmental requirements. Other reasons include differences in diet, compatibility, foreign bacterial and viral exposure and a multitude of other more minor, but no less important reasons.
The obvious are wild animals such as raccoons, fox, hawks and others when a tortoise is being kept outdoors. But predators that are often overlooked or not considered as such are family pets like cats and dogs. Many people trust and believe that they know their family cat or dog well. But a new, actively moving "toy" tortoise is often very enticing to otherwise seemingly harmless house pets. A tortoise should never be directly exposed to a family pet and especially never left unattended where a cat or dog has access to them. While most people wouldn't consider their children a predator, they unknowingly can become one to a tortoise. Young children are curious by nature and especially like to handle and "play" with a cute tortoise. They may not realize how rough or careless they are being and can quickly and easily injure the tortoise. It is always encouraging for them to be involved with the care of a tortoise as much as safely possible, it can be a very educational experience. But they should never be left unsupervised with a tortoise for any reason.
A Happy Tortoise
When provided with the correct care and environmental requirements in a safe setting your tortoise can live a long, satisfying life and become a cherished family member for many decades to come.