The Russian tortoise, also known by many other names such as the Afghan tortoise, Steppe tortoise, Horsfield’s tortoise or Central Asian tortoise, is one of the most commonly available tortoises as pets. Wild caught individuals have been imported regularly by the thousands each year for the past several decades. Only in recent years have they begun to be reproduced in captivity. Even so, the importation of adults continues due to the species being a pet shop staple.
The Russian tortoise’s natural range covers a vast area that include Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eastern Iran, Kazakhstan and into Western China and Southern Russia. In most of its range the species inhabits arid, rocky deserts and steppes (flat plateaus) with sparse vegetation growth. In some locations they live in similar conditions but on slopes and hillsides. Their environment is one of extremes. Summers are short but very hot and dry with very limited rainfall. Winters are long and brutally severe with temperatures dropping well below freezing for much of the season. The transition between winter and summer and summer to winter is very abrupt with no real seasonal transition. Because of these conditions the tortoises may only be active for about 3-5 months of the year. The rest of the time they spend in their underground burrows to escape the seasonal temperature extremes. This is not only during the winter months but also for periods during the extremely hot and dry summer. Russians are one of only a few true burrowing tortoise species in the entire world and they actually spend the majority of their life underground.
Because of this very different evolutionary lifestyle compared to most other tortoise species, the actions and needs of Russian tortoises kept in captivity are often misunderstood.
Russian tortoises look much the same from one locale to another in terms of their appearance and size. The differences are very minor from one locale to another. While the patterns on their carapace and plastron do vary some, their overall adult size, shape, colors and other characteristics are very much the same throughout their natural geographical range.
Both males and females are very much the same in terms of their build and characteristics, differing only in size and tail structure. Their skin color is basically a flat or dull yellows with some being more of darker grey to dull black. The carapace is a dull yellow to horn color base with pattern colors being brown, to greenish-brown to some black. Rarely is their carapace bright or solid in color. The plastron is usually either nearly all black or the same yellowish horn color of the carapace. There is almost never any variation of the plastron. When viewed from above Russian tortoises are very round in shape. From the side their carapace is very flat on top. Their shape and appearance very much resembles a river rock! Their front legs are very adapt to their burrowing propensity being very thick, broad and strong with four large, thick claws. Their back legs, which act as anchors when burrowing, are very trunk like and stout. Their head is bulbous in shape with a thick, strong neck. All of these characteristics are evolved to facilitate their burrowing lifestyle.
Males are smaller in size as adults reaching an average size of 5.5-6” at maturity. Females grow to 7-8” average.
Mature males have a very obviously larger, thicker tail that is cone shaped in appearance. The vent is near the base with a groove running from it to near the tip. There is a very small, hard point or “claw” at the tip. The plastron of a male Russian tortoise is flat, never concave as is more common with other Testudo species males.
A female’s tail is short, rarely extend past the edge of the carapace. It is very thick and blunt giving a stump-like appearance. The vent is located at the end of this stump. The tip of the tail extended beyond that but is very short in length.
Russian tortoises aren’t generally considered a communal species but they will often share burrows and night time resting areas in captivity. More often than not when the light comes out and the temperatures begin to rise to normal activity levels all sharing is ended. Active males will usually strongly defend their territory against any other male that they deem as an intruder. This defense can often be very violent and result injury from biting, ramming and chasing. These defensive attacks can be constant or can be sudden and intense. Therefore males should never be housed together. Keeping an active male with a female or females may also result in injury and undo stress as a result of the male relentlessly pursuing females to court and mate with. The male will continually bite at a female legs and head, ram them and attempt to mount them until the female gives in. For females that are not ready to breed this can be very stressful and again possibly result in injury. For this reason, it is not wise to keep males and females together except for short periods for breeding purposes. Females can usually be kept with each other without much cause for concern. Occasionally, a female may take on a dominant role in a group, usually due to the absence of a male, but little to no harm or real aggression takes place.
Russians are true vegetarians, with their diet being almost entirely rough, leafy greens and fresh shoots when available. Most of their available foods being high in fiber and low in nutritional value. Because of the sparse natural conditions that they have evolved in they take full advantage of food when it’s available. They will consume as much as they can find at the time. In captivity most are often fed a larger quantity diet that is far richer in vitamins and minerals than what they are exposed to in the wild. Their propensity to consume all food that they see when it’s available can often result in obesity in captivity. In the wild it is very much a survival instinct. In captivity it gives the appearance of being as though they are forever hungry. In reality, they aren’t. Their diet and activity level in captivity needs to be constantly monitored and adjusted so as to avoid obesity and other related health issues.
While they should have drinking water available at all times, Russian tortoises are not generally known to be big drinkers and many often fear water. Some will frantically attempt to escape when put into shallow container of water and most will run for cover when being sprayed.
Russian tortoises can be kept outdoors most everywhere within the U.S. and in many places they can live outdoors year round as long as adequate conditions are available to them. In almost all northern areas while they can be kept outdoors in the summer, they often spend most of their time in burrows or other secluded hide areas. Some keepers don’t see their Russian tortoises for several weeks, even months when kept outdoors. Their inclination to remain underground for long periods is not at all unusual for the species. Based on the environment that they are from in the wild they do obviously brumate (hibernate) and can in captivity. Whether or not it is necessary for them to do so is debatable. The necessity to brumate is based on seasonal environmental extremes, most notably winter conditions. In captivity, tortoises need not be exposed to those conditions on purpose.