© 2017 Chris Leone/Garden State Tortoise LLC.

GREEK

TORTOISES

a comparison

THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM

Let's not sugarcoat things and get right to the root of the problem when it comes to the accurate identification of Greek tortoises. It's man. Big surprise, I know. The Testudo graeca species complex has long been inundated with mass confusion concerning its subspecies. Historically speaking, man has over-collected them, exported them and traded or sold them in droves. While these acts against these chelonians have had devastating results as it is, complete loss of history or place of origin inevitably came about. Collectors and dealers paid little to no attention to where any of these tortoises derived from and whether or not they were different animals. So began a massive misunderstanding of the T. graeca complex.  Countless animals taken from multiple locations in nature were thrown together and sent off to other countries. Some tortoises which resembled each other closely were dubbed names like "black Greek" or "golden Greek" when in fact, these titles were highly insufficient and offered no truth to what they really were. The vast majority did not even come from Greece at all. Taxonomic changes have only added to this mess and thus far, Greek tortoises have been  mix-matched in collections for decades upon decades. The vast majority of Greek tortoises in captive collections worldwide belong to the subspecies Testudo graeca ibera and the taxa that is the messiest in terms of identification, Testudo graeca terrestris. Despite the fact that these two subspecies are entirely different from each other even just by looking at them, they are still mixed up. The rest of the Greek tortoise subspecies are weakly expressed here and there, yet they still turn up being grouped with ibera and/or terrestris. They are real, unique and absolutely deserving of genuine recognition especially considering some of them have very specific habitat requirements. One of the main reasons for the creation of this website is to urge enthusiasts and researchers to accept and respect the reality of subspecies, forms and geographical variants. The Testudo graeca group is no exception. The truth is that proper differentiation is crucial to the survival of many types and for some, keeping them nothing less than pure to their kind is their only chance at ultimate survival. 

TESTUDO GRAECA SUBSPECIES

Firstly, let's take a quick glance at the known subspecies of Greek tortoise. While a few are not currently accepted in taxonomy, they are worthy of listing on here. They are in fact different animals that should be housed separately and only with their own kind.

TESTUDO GRAECA SUBSPECIES

Firstly, let's take a quick glance at the known subspecies of Greek tortoise. While a few are not currently accepted in taxonomy, they are worthy of listing on here. They are in fact different animals that should be housed separately and only with their own kind.

Also known as the "Ibera Greek"

Also known as the "Greek tortoise" or "North African Greek"

Also known as the "Golden Greek"

Also known as the "Tunisian Greek"

Also known as the "Moroccan Greek"

Also known as the "Libyan Greek"

Buxton's Tortoise

(Testudo graeca buxtoni)

Also known as the "Zagros Mountain Greek"

Anamur Tortoise

(Testudo graeca ibera)

Formerly known as Testudo graeca anamurensis.

GEOGRAPHICAL VARIANTS

Of course, just like Testudo hermanni, the Greek tortoise species complex features various geographical variants, forms, or locality specific populations. These animals have evolved to appear a certain way and in some cases they are genetically distinct. Unique groups of tortoises such as these are truly fascinating. Many are beyond worthy of taxonomic revision and it is the hope of most passionate enthusiasts to see them elevated from variant to actual subspecies or even full species. Sadly, this may never happen as scientists move further away from the recognition of subspecies which is entirely disturbing and depressing. The chances of revisiting the taxonomic state of Greek tortoises any time soon are slim as the world tends to pay more attention to showier species like those belonging to the genus Cuora, for example. This poses quite a few problems because the less attention we give to a complex group such as Testudo graeca, the more danger they face on both conservation and genetic levels. If the general public is continuously kept in the dark about what these tortoises really are, all hope may be lost in keeping populations pure long term as they inevitably end up mixed together. Eventually, complete dilution of bloodlines may occur. Chelonians of the genus Cuora are critically endangered thus leading to a major movement in conservation initiatives concerning them. Testudo graeca is not currently listed as endangered but this is all the more reason why it is imperative that they are not forgotten and begin receiving undivided surveillance. Without it, populations will slip by with some heading directly toward extinction. A perfect example of this is the situation involving the Testudo hermanni hermanni population native to Albera, Spain. Read more about this unfortunate state of affairs here. When considering the Greek tortoise, its taxonomy is severely flawed. The subspecies Testudo graeca terrestris is the best example of this. It covers far too vast of a natural range and countless isolated populations exist within it. There is no doubt that several other undiscovered subspecies are out there currently blanketed by this almost useless taxaBelow are some recognizable T. graeca variants currently included in already listed subspecies. 

Testudo graeca ??

Formerly known as the now invalid taxa "Testudo graeca antakyensis", these yellowish colored, robust tortoises hailing from southern Turkey are unfortunately grouped under T. g. terrestris. Morphologically, they resemble T. g. ibera way more and some refer to them as "Southern ibera". 

Testudo graeca ??

It does not take an expert to see that these dark colored animals are not the same thing as Testudo graeca terrestris, but guess what? They are currently accepted as such. Originating out of Lebanon, these peculiar tortoises are sometimes dubbed "Lebanese graeca" or "Lebanese terrestris." These populations are how the inaccurate term "black Greek" came about and also why the term "golden Greek" is not valid since both are grouped under T. g. terrestris. 

Testudo graeca floweri ??

Testudo graeca terrestris has really become a blanket term for countless Greek tortoise populations. It has also taken over or replaced other once valid subspecies. Testudo graeca floweri is the most memorable one. Now just a synonym for T. g. terrestris, T. g. floweri was the name given to these golden examples of Greek tortoise occurring at least from the Gaza Strip. These animals are clearly different than the typical Jordanian terrestris most often encountered in captive care and absolutely different from the Lebanese tortoises in question above. Yet, they remain in a torpor under the formidable grip of terrestris. Perhaps it's time we come up with our own new titles for these remarkable tortoises if science is in no rush to do it. Surely something more sophisticated than the ridiculous terms "black Greek" or "golden Greek" are necessary.

COMPARING

Testudo graeca differentiation is no easy task to the untrained eye and is certainly harder to accomplish when compared to the Testudo hermanni species complex. Sometimes simply holding them side by side is the best way to achieve an understanding. 

Testudo graeca  
graeca (Morocco)
Testudo graeca graeca (Algeria)
Testudo graeca  
terrestris/floweri
Testudo graeca  
nabeulensis
Testudo graeca ibera
Testudo graeca ssp (Lebanon)
Testudo graeca ssp (S. Turkey)

T. g. ibera vs T. g. graeca

Testudo graeca ibera is the largest of the Greek tortoises and varies quite a bit. The most classic look is seen in the following images where a large female is used to compare to other graeca. In some cases, the shape of the first vertebral scute on the carapace can be used for identification. In T. g. ibera this scute is often (but not always) straight edged or more square. In T. graeca graeca this scute is always rounded. T. g. graeca is typically marked by a bright yellow to orangish ground color depending on locale with each carapace scute having a central black blotch bordered by a series of irregular spots or flecks. The carapace of T. g. ibera is massive, broad and not usually as domed as T. g. graeca. The carapace of graeca is typically highly arched with an overall rounder or more oval shape.  Males of both subspecies can have significant flaring of the rear marginal scutes while only some females may exhibit it as well. T. g. ibera's head is dark, large, bulbous and blunt while T. g. graeca's head is more petite, rounded and usually features light colored scales on the top and sometimes sides giving way to a "mask" of sorts. Testudo graeca graeca also shows a degree of adaptation to the soils it is at times found on. Populations with specimens showing orange to pink skin color are usually found on soil that is colored the same. 

Testudo graeca  
graeca
Testudo graeca ibera
Testudo graeca  
graeca
Testudo graeca ibera

The plastron of Testudo graeca ibera is many times covered in heavy black pigment but may also nearly lack it. It usually does not depict any defined markings but rather shows a display of splotchy pattern on a light ground color. The suture separating the abdominal scutes from the femoral scutes is typically a wavy line that tapers off at each end. In Testudo graeca graeca, this same suture may sharply descend down at each end creating a more defined dip in the middle of it. T. g. graeca's plastron tends to exhibit more defined black markings which may appear as rays, blotches or spots.

North African Graeca

North Africa is home to wonderful examples of Testudo graeca. This is where the nominate form historically occurs along with several other distinct subspecies and forms. Taxonomy has of course been confusing in this area and subspecies such as Testudo graeca lamberti and Testudo graeca whitei (Algeria) are now invalid while Testudo graeca soussensis and Testudo graeca marokkensis (a relatively newly described tortoise) have come about. Colors, shape and size vary quite a bit pertaining to North African Greek tortoises and it can be extremely difficult to pin an appropriate title to animals without actual origin information. Comparing them, we find that Testudo graeca nabeulensis is by far the smallest (and also one of the absolute

smallest Testudo entirely) and T. g. graeca from Algeria are the largest. Testudo graeca graeca (Morocco) as described above may have a brightly colored, highly arched carapace with irregular black  spots, flecks and blotches. Testudo graeca nabeulensis (Tunisia) is marked by a high degree of contrast. A light ground color of yellow to almost white accompanied by a central black smudge  on each scute surrounded by black edges gives way to a stunningly "neat" look. Some compare this subspecies to Testudo hermanni hermanni with regards to the sharply defined markings and colors. Testudo graeca marokkensis varies from almost uniform tan to yellowish colored individuals to those with impressively decorated shells having scutes with a series of black rays revealing a radiating pattern. The plastron of most North African graeca is similar but Testudo graeca nabeulensis usually features heavy black pigment that does not fade with age. 

Testudo graeca graeca (Morocco)
Testudo graeca nabeulensis
Testudo graeca marokkensis

T. g. nabeulensis vs T. g. ibera

Testudo graeca nabeulensis and Testudo graeca ibera are "night and day" when it comes to identification. They are on complete opposite ends of the size spectrum for one. While T. g. nabeulensis attains adult sizes comparable to the northern hemisphere's smallest tortoise species, the Egyptian tortoise (Testudo kleinmanni), T. g.ibera is often considered the second largest Mediterranean tortoise next to the marginated tortoise (Testudo marginata) T. g. nabeulensis bears a carapace equipped with strong definition in terms of color, contrast and markings while T. g. ibera varies a great deal in this department. The two are found nowhere near each other geographically and inhabit drastically different environments usually. Testudo graeca nabeulensis occurs in desert-like expanses while Testudo graeca ibera is found in a number of habitats such as scrubby hillsides and Mediterranean Oak Forests. While ibera are sometimes subjected to extremely cold and unforgiving winters,

nabeulensis are not. 

Testudo graeca nabeulensis
Testudo graeca ibera

T. g. terrestris vs T. g. ibera

Testudo graeca terrestris is a much smaller subspecies when compared to the majority of Testudo graeca ibera. Depending on their origin, they are nearly a solid yellow or gold with a single small central black spot on each carapace scute. They are typically more elongate in shell morphology with females exhibiting very minimal flaring of the rear marginal scutes (if any at all). T. g. ibera are wider with heavier, bulkier carapaces that may appear broad and carried lower. The normal arrangement of color and markings of Testudo graeca ibera are not usually seen on Testudo graeca terrestris even when terrestris are not very yellow in overall coloration. T. graeca ibera's skin is dark, almost black in elderly specimens while T. graeca terrestris bears skin that usually matches the shell. If they are very yellow, the skin typically is as well. 

Testudo graeca terrestris
Testudo graeca ibera

T. g. terrestris vs T. g. graeca

Testudo graeca terrestris and Testudo graeca graeca are similar in both size and shell morphology. They both exhibit carapaces with a noticeable arch and exhibit minimal flaring of the rear marginals except in males. In this case, it is the males of T. g. graeca that feature heavier flaring, typically. When terrestris do sport their well-known golden color with little to no black, they are easily distinguishable from graeca and their mottled shell with high contrast. Testudo graeca graeca's plastron exhibits recognizable black pigment while T. graeca terrestris will have less conspicuous dark grayish areas or nothing at all. The scute sutures of both subspecies are similar, however, T. graeca graeca's first vertebral scute will always be rounded while terrestris's may or may not be. The head of Testudo graeca graeca may bear a "face mask" created by the yellow scales on the top and sides of the head and terrestris lacks this as their skin is more uniform in coloration.

Testudo graeca terrestris
Testudo graeca graeca

The Terrestris Mess

Testudo graeca terrestris has already been mentioned several times on this website as a problematic taxon. This is because it has been used to umbrella various Greek tortoise populations found in a very expansive range. Simply put, there are far too many tortoise populations occurring throughout this distribution (some undiscovered) to safely assume they are all one thing. Tortoises with completely different morphological traits are being considered "terrestris" making a proper understanding of them impossible. We are also talking about groups that are separated by rivers, mountain ranges and other epic features in nature. They have evolved over time to be what they are today and are more than deserving of full genetic research to reveal the truth behind them. Perhaps the darker colored tortoises of Lebanon are a new subspecies or maybe they are the real Testudo graeca terrestris. Maybe the light, yellow colored tortoises of Gaza are actually the now invalid taxa Testudo graeca floweri judging by the tortoise's original, simple description of "small tortoise of the Negev" by Does Bodenheimer in 1935. Elevating it to full species rank as "Testudo floweri" could potentially make sense and then the orangish colored specimens hailing from Jordan are actually a subspecies of it! In additional to this, it would be no surprise if the larger, light colored graeca found in southern Turkey were reclassified as Testudo graeca antakyensis or if they were grouped with T. graeca ibera instead (since they are clearly more closely related to ibera than

these proposed terrestris tortoises). Conceivably, T. g. terrestris could be elevated itself to full species rank as "Testudo terrestris" with these tortoises covered here as subspecies under it. One thing is for certain and that's the fact that "terrestris" is nothing more than a coating term to sum up these mysterious tortoises until science decides they are worthy enough of a revisit. 

Testudo graeca terrestris (or floweri?)
Testudo graeca terrestris? (Lebanon)
Testudo graeca terrestris? (Lebanon)
Testudo graeca terrestris, antakyensis or ibera??
(Southern Turkey)

More comparisons to come...