How are they recognised?

Like all tortoises, Hermann’s Tortoises have a bony shell. The domed top of the shell is the carapace. It has an outer layer of horny shields, called scutes. The flat layer underneath the animal’s belly is the plastron.

The carapace and plastron are yellow or greenish yellow with black markings. The black markings form 2 longitudinal bands that run parallel along the central seam of the plastron. In eastern specimens the black stripes are reduced to disperse patches, or are almost absent. The western populations show more vivid colours than the eastern ones, skin and nail colour varying from yellowish to almost black.

Testudo hermanni is a medium-sized species. Adults show a great variation in size across their range. The eastern populations are larger than the ones in Western Europe. On average females measure 18 cm and weigh 2.5 kg, while males measure 14 cm and weigh 1.5 kg.

Are there any subspecies?

Two subspecies are currently recognized: Testudo hermanni hermanni in Western Europe and Testudo hermanni boettgeri in Eastern Europe. The border between them is the Po Valley in North-eastern Italy.

Main characteristics

The main characteristics found in Testudo hermanni are as follows, and are useful in distinguishing Hermann’s Tortoises from other species with which they coexist.

  • Horny claw-like tip of tail.
  • The scute situated above the tail, which is called the supracaudal, is divided into 2 parts.
  • Large scales on the outside of the forelegs.
  • 5 claws on the forelegs and 4 claws on the hind legs. However, the fifth claw on the forelegs is smaller, or even absent.
  • No spurs on the inner thighs.
  • Western individuals usually have a yellow spot on the head behind each eye.
Differences between males and females

The carapace is oval in females, while in males it is quite trapezoidal at the rear. Males are approximately 12% smaller than females. They also have a thicker and longer tail. The plastron is flat in females and slightly concave in males.

It takes 6-7 years before differences between males and females are obvious, as the carapace must be at least 10 cm long to be useful in sex determination.

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Trenca Association

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Where are they found?

The Hermann’s Tortoise is found in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, and Turkey.

It presents a fragmented distribution in Southern Europe. It includes the north-eastern coast of Spain, the southern coast of France and most of Italy. This tortoise shows a more continuous distribution throughout the Balkan Peninsula and area of European Turkey.

Testudo hermanni also occurs in the western Mediterranean islands (Balearics, Corsica, Tuscan Archipelago, Sardinia, and Sicily), as well as in some eastern islands (Ionian and Euboea).

What is their habitat?

The Hermann’s Tortoise typically inhabits Mediterranean stony and sun-drenched hills with scattered scrubs and grass. It can also be seen in coastal dunes with vegetation, pastures, open forests of evergreen oak or pine trees, as well as in abandoned or not mechanised farmlands.

Testudo hermanni needs heat from the sun, but also shade to shelter and rest. Some populations in Eastern Europe are found up to a height of 1,300 m, but most populations are below 500 m. Moist areas are generally avoided.

When are they active?

Hermann’s Tortoises hibernate from October or November to the end of February, March or April. This varies according to climate. During these months they remain in a deep sleep underground. This mechanism protects cold-blooded animals, like tortoises, from cold weather and scarcity of food.

Throughout the active season, Hermann’s Tortoises warm up in the sun early in the morning. Once the optimal body temperature has been reached, they either become active or, especially in summer, they disappear under cover, only becoming active in the evening.

Hermann’s Tortoise released by Trenca at Vall Major de Bovera

Source: Trenca Association

How do they mate?

The Hermann’s Tortoise breeds seasonally, soon after surfacing from its winter resting place. Males explore to locate females and, once located, they use visual and olfactory cues to find a mate. During courtship, the male pursues and rams the female. He also bites the female’s limbs and displays head nodding.

At the end of the courtship, the male mounts the female and tries to copulate. During copulation, the male emits sounds that make the female more willing. However, the female usually tries to escape, with the male often falling off its carapace. Males try to mate with multiple females, but females usually show a passive attitude towards males.

More than a clutch might be laid in each breeding season. However, not all adult females reproduce every year. Most clutches are laid between May and July. Females build nests by digging into the ground, and then deposit 1 to 9 eggs deep in the soil. Eggs are white, hard-shelled, and almost elliptical.

After laying their eggs, females then leave them alone, with incubation lasting 110 to 124 days. Minimum and maximum temperatures for embryo development are 23ºC and 35ºC respectively. The temperature of the soil determines the hatchlings’ sex. At 26ºC only males will be produced, while at 34ºC all the hatchlings will be females.

Hatchlings emerge from late August to October, normally after rainfall at the end of summer. However, if the rains do not come or the nesting takes place late in the year, young may remain underground until the next spring. They usually stay near the nest for the first few years of their lives to allow the carapace to completely develop.

Aggression between rival males is common during the breeding season. Males try to bite each other in the limbs and head, and bump each other with their carapaces, often ending with one being tipped on its back. On a steep hill, the loser can fall or roll a long distance, and sometimes become seriously wounded.

About their offspring

Hatchlings are on average 3 to 4 cm long and weigh around 15 g. They have paler colours than adults during the first months of life, but soon become more contrasted than them. It has not yet been proven at which age they reach sexual maturity.

Are there any similar species?

Testudo hermanni coexists with 2 other tortoises that belong to the same genus (Testudo marginata and Testudo graeca). They can occasionally be confused, especially when young.

What do they eat?

Testudo hermanni is almost entirely herbivorous. Apart from eating plants and fruits, the Hermann’s Tortoise supplements its diet with small insects, earthworms, snails, mushrooms, algae, carrion, dung, feathers, and bones.

This tortoise actively seeks plants and mushrooms that are known to be toxic to mammals. It is believed that these plants rid them of intestinal parasites.

A male mounting a female

Source: Mayer Richard

Female laying eggs

Source: Mayer Richard

Do they have predators?

Eggs and young Hermann’s Tortoises are at risk of predation by mammals and birds. Some of their predators are magpies, wild boars, foxes, and hedgehogs. Adults have very few natural predators thanks to their ability to hide the head and limbs within the carapace. Birds of prey are their main enemies.

Male tail

Source: Bizarria

Hatchling

Source: Trenca Association

What is their lifespan?

Average lifespan in the wild: 40-60 years.
Average lifespan in captivity: 100 years.

What is the global population?

There is no data available. In Catalonia and the Balearic Islands, for example, there are between 8,000 and 10,000 individuals.

Are they endangered?

Testudo hermanni is declining rapidly in its western range and has very restricted distribution. In the Balkans it appears to be more stable, though there is little information available and some populations also show a significant drop.

These are the main threats to Hermann’s Tortoises:

  • Habitat loss and degradation due to urbanisation, tourist infrastructure development, wildfires, agricultural intensification, and use of herbicides.
  • Poaching for pet trade. Large numbers of tortoises are captive-bred by hobbyists and distributed within the hobbyist community.
  • Road construction and the resulting traffic.
  • Overpopulation of predators, basically wild boars, in some areas.

Practical conservation measures have mostly been undertaken where the species is most vulnerable. Reintroduction programs have been implemented in an attempt to stabilise existing populations. Also some reserves have been created.

Evaluated by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Near Threatened (2004).

Did you know?

  • Nesting can last from minutes to several hours. Females beginning nesting in the morning are at risk of overheating and death.

  • The largest Hermann’s Tortoises have been found in Bulgaria, and the smallest, in Greece and Catalonia (North-Eastern Spain). 

  • In dense populations many animals may bask together and often climb one on top of the other in up to 3 layers.

  • Throughout the World War II, people ate Hermann’s Tortoise during times of food rationing. They were also eaten in convents and monasteries, since they were considered to be neither meat nor fish.