© 2017 Chris Leone/Garden State Tortoise LLC.

Hermann's Tortoise Subspecies

....a Comparison

At present, the taxonomic state of Hermann’s tortoises is debatable as science rests at minimal differentiation within the species group. This is unfortunate as there are marked differences between not only the accepted subspecies but between local forms as well. 

 

The Testudo hermanni species complex is currently recognized by two unmistakable subspecies. Although sometimes similar in phenotypic appearance, the two are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of availability and their status in nature. They are also easily differentiated morphologically and illustrate unconnected branches of evolution genetically. The eastern subspecies, Testudo hermanni boettgeri (IUCN listed as vulnerable) is the larger, more robust and abundant while the western, Testudo hermanni hermanni (IUCN listed as endangered) is smaller, more colorful and rare.

A third, once accepted subspecies of Hermann’s tortoise known as the Dalmatian tortoise (Testudo hermanni hercegovinensis) is now merely considered a geographical variant of T. h. boettgeri, but it will be treated as a subspecies here. Various field data and captivity observations do help in supporting the recognition of the Dalmatian tortoise as something clearly different but as of today, genetic analysis has yet to agree. This kind of discovery in nomenclature is often disappointing especially when it concerns  the Testudo tortoise species. This however does not mean we shouldn't treat these animals as something worth preserving. 

In the images to follow, all three subspecies of Hermann's tortoise are revealed with the main differences highlighted in an effort to clarify them for the viewer.  

At this point I feel it incumbent to remind you that variation persists and you will find this in almost every trait assignable to Hermann's tortoises. However, there are telltale characteristics that certainly set the three apart. The purpose of this page is to help end the mass confusion associated with properly differentiating them. It is absolutely crucial to their ultimate survival that they are bred purely and that kind of responsibility and discipline starts right here with learning the true differences.

Western vs. Eastern

Western Hermann's Tortoise

Eastern Hermann's Tortoise

Western Hermann's Tortoise

Eastern Hermann's Tortoise

There is no doubt that the western and eastern Hermann's tortoises can be separated from each other just by looking at them.  Typically, the western Hermann's tortoise (Testudo hermanni hermanni) is smaller and vividly colored.  In addition,  genetically pure western Hermann's tortoises are very rare these days. The eastern Hermann's tortoise (Testudo hermanni boettgeri) is usually larger and is marked by less defined contrast. It is one of the most common tortoises in captivity worldwide.  While they are on a decline in nature, they are still far more abundant than their western cousins.The western Hermann's features particular markings that only occasionally vary heavily while the eastern is all over the place lacking any real definition for the most part. On top of these external characteristics, there are differences in reproduction as well. Testudo hermanni boettgeri produces larger clutches of eggs yielding more offspring annually. Testudo hermanni hermanni may lay as few as 1 to 2 eggs in a single clutch (depending on locale/form) with poor fertility being apparent in some cases.

Above Carapace Highlights:

Blue Arrows: The western Hermann's tortoise features a rich golden yellow ground color that may have hues of orange. It is sometimes so vibrant that it may be referred to as "pastel". This deeply contrasts the almost perfectly symmetrical jet black markings on each scute. The eastern Hermann's tortoise usually exhibits a less colorful carapace with a yellowish, tan, ochre or olive ground color with less conspicuous black markings on each scute. The markings are sometimes frayed or faded. 

Blue Tacks: On the third vertebral scute, the western Hermann's will feature a central black dot, spot or line bordered anteriorly and laterally.  This markings has only been reported as lacking in those found in areas of Tuscany, Italy, and only rarely. On the eastern Hermann's tortoise, this same marking is often lacking entirely but at times may be present. Usually it is faint when present. 

Blue Circles: The western Hermann's tortoise is famous for a marking that is reminiscent of a keyhole or mushroom cloud. Found on the fifth vertebral scute, it's seen on every single pure example of this subspecies across its range varying from skinny and less obvious, to almost perfectly shaped. Even in newly hatched neonates this marking is noticeable.  On the eastern subspecies, there is typically no marking at all or it will appear as misshapen, distorted or extremely widened. Regarding the supracaudal shield above the tail: This is divided nearly 100% of the time in western Hermann's tortoises and may or may not be divided in the eastern.

FIFTH VERTEBRAL SCUTE UP CLOSE

Eastern Hermann's Tortoise

Western Hermann's Tortoise

Above Plastron Highlights:

Blue Arrows: The western Hermann's tortoise's second most well-known attribute is the presence of two unbroken, well-defined, jet black stripes running along the midline of the plastron. Longitudinally, they run from the humeral scutes to the anal scutes always being separated from one another. More often than not, the gular scutes do not feature any dark pigment on the under sides but occasionally a small spot or two shows up. The eastern Hermann's tortoise again lacks definition in this department having broken, faded or ill-defined black pigment on the plastron or, it may be absent entirely. Some southern Greek populations of the eastern Hermann's have a plastron with heavy black pigment to where it covers the majority of it. This differs from the western because it is not in the form of extremely clear stripes or bands, it is more blotchy.

Blue Lines: On the western Hermann's tortoise, the suture of the pectoral scutes is shorter than that of the femoral. This rarely varies, if ever, on 100% pure specimens. This is reversed on the eastern Hermann's tortoise with the pectoral suture usually being longer than the femoral suture. Sometimes they may be nearly even in length.

Blue Dotted Lines: This trait is not always as reliable as the rest but is worth highlighting. Where the humeral scutes meet the pectoral scutes, the suture often dips downward strongly in a distinct "U" shape on the western Hermann's tortoise. This same suture may be a wavy or zig zag line or may even be rather straight edged on the eastern Hermann's tortoise. This characteristic varies so take that into consideration when comparing other individuals to each other. 

Western Hermann's Tortoise Plastral Stripes Highlighted in Blue

Western vs. Dalmatian vs. Eastern

Western Hermann's Tortoise

Dalmatian Tortoise

Eastern Hermann's Tortoise

As stated above, the Dalmatian tortoise (Testudo hermanni hercegovinensis) will be treated as a recognizable subspecies here. Sort of a "middle ground" between the western and eastern subspecies, the Dalmatian holds traits that are assignable to either, making it unique in its own right. When it comes to reproduction, the Dalmatian is more like the western with its smaller clutches of 1 to 3 eggs. It's a smaller animal and because the western Hermann's tortoise currently features larger forms like those from the Italian islands, the Dalmatian is at times considered to be the smallest. The western however, still has the smallest forms of any Hermann's tortoise population out there. The Dalmatian rarely surpasses 5" for males and 6" for females, but like its western and eastern cousins, there are smaller and larger examples out there. The Dalmatian's carapace is noticeably rounded and with an olive to yellowish ground color. The black markings of each scute are more defined than those of the eastern, but overall the carapace does not quite reach the vibrance and contrast of the western. The fifth vertebral scute may bear a marking similar to the western's keyhole or mushroom cloud, but this usually dissipates as the animal reaches considerable age, unlike the western.  

Dalmatian Tortoise

Western Hermann's Tortoise

Eastern Hermann's Tortoise

The Dalmatian tortoise once again shows some middle ground on the plastron. The suture where the humeral scutes meet the pectoral scutes dips downward in a easily recognizable "U" shape similar to that of the western Hermann's tortoise which was highlighted in blue earlier on this page. The black pigment is arranged in rows from the humeral scutes to the anal scutes but the formation and clarity are not there as they are not fused to form two stripes like the western (also highlighted in blue earlier). They are however usually more defined than what is found on the eastern Hermann's tortoise.  The sutures between the pectoral scutes and femoral scutes are usually nearly even in length but, I have witnessed every combination in lengths possible here. Sometimes the pectoral is longer than the femoral like the eastern and sometimes it's reversed like on the western. A characteristic in which the Dalmatian tortoise is most known for is the lack of one or both inguinal scutes where the plastron meets the carapace (referred to as the "bridge"). More than 60% of Dalmatians will lack both, 14 % lack only one and 26% exhibited both (Wegehaupt, 2006). In our collection, more than 80% lack both. When present, they are much smaller, wider scutes instead of the bigger, longer ones found on the other subspecies. To confuse things further, certain Italian insular populations of the western Hermann's tortoise (Testudo hermanni hermanni) will lack one or both of the inguinal scutes. These tortoises are not hybrids, they are pure examples. While this trait may turn up in select western forms, it is still more commonly associated with the Dalmatian subspecies.

Missing Inguinal Scute on Dalmatian Tortoise

Missing Inguinal Scute on Western Hermann's Tortoise (Sicily)

Head Highlights

Viewing the head of each subspecies can reveal some clear indicators for proper identification. Each one has a distinct face and head and while there is still variation, sometimes this is the best way to identify. 

Western Hermann's Tortoise

(Testudo hermanni hermanni)

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Narrow head, sleek with regular contours. A pointed snout often features a hooked beak. A yellow subocular spot or patch is found on either side of the head. In young animals and some forms, the spot is conspicuous and large. Yellow to greenish scales may be found on the top of the head and around the nares depending on form/locale.

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Dalmatian Tortoise

(Testudo hermanni hercegovinensis)

Rounded head, eyes often sitting high. Snout is blunt and less reptilian in appearance. A subocular spot, greenish in color is evident on young but disappears with age. Greenish colored scales form on top of the head at the back. They cluster forming an almost heart shaped image at the base of the skull where the neck begins. 

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Eastern Hermann's Tortoise

(Testudo hermanni boettgeri)

Bulbous head, almost exaggerated on some specimens. Snout is often blunt when compared to the western subspecies but not as much as that of the Dalmatian. Head is wider than other subspecies. Hatchlings are sometimes born with a subocular spot but it fades quickly. Sub adults and adults lack it entirely. Overall, the head is colored dark, almost black in some cases. Some feature greenish scales on the top similar to the Dalmatian.

Hatchlings

Any of the three Hermann's tortoise subspecies can and do demonstrate their telltale characteristics upon hatching but that doesn't mean it's easy to tell them apart all the time.  The western will usually be the most colorful and the eastern and Dalmatian will be extremely similar. This is just one of the many reasons why it's imperative that Testudo hermanni subspecies are kept and bred separately at all times. Some western Hermann's are rather dark at hatching and do not begin to "color up" until they're older. All three can exhibit a bright subocular spot as babies and all three may have broken black stripes on the plastron. Still, they can be separated. Baby western Hermann's tortoises that exhibit rich coloration, bold markings and the keyhole symbol on the fifth vertebral scute right away make things effortless. Dalmatians that lack inguinal scutes will reveal this immediately upon leaving their egg and many eastern Hermann's babies have skin as drab as their parents at hatching. Western Hermann's tortoises are born with clear to light colored nails while both the eastern and Dalmatian are born with gray or dark colored nails. No doubt about it, things get easier as they age as they sort of "grow into themselves", unless of course you are dealing with a hybrid.

Eastern Hermann's Tortoise

Western Hermann's Tortoise

Dalmatian Tortoise

Western Hermann's Tortoise

Eastern Hermann's Tortoise

Eastern Hermann's Tortoise

Western Hermann's Tortoise

Dalmatian Tortoise

Variation among babies of the western Hermann's tortoise from different locales

Sardinia, Italy

Mallorca, Balearic Islands

Tuscany, Italy

Mallorca, Balearic Islands

Sardinia, Italy

Tuscany, Italy

Juveniles

Dalmatian Tortoise

Western Hermann's Tortoise

Eastern Hermann's Tortoise

Differentiation typically gets easier as the tortoises age when we are dealing with nothing less than the purest examples. After the first two to three years of life, captive Hermann's tortoises begin to enter what we commonly consider the juvenile stage. At this point, colors are developing nicely, as are all telltale traits. More often than not, eastern Hermann's tortoises will reach larger sizes quicker than western and Dalmatian tortoises so when comparing animals of the same age, the eastern will most likely be bigger. However, larger forms of the western subspecies can rival this or be neck and neck. The western Hermann's tortoise's colors and contrast continue to intensify as it grows while easterns and Dalmatians may begin to lose certain vibrance in traits such as the subocular spot for example. During this juvenile stage and as they approach sub adult stage, they become visually sexable. The anal scutes of males will start to widen and the large tail fills out. The rear marginal scutes will begin to flare as well.

Eastern Hermann's Tortoise

Dalmatian Tortoise

Western Hermann's Tortoise

Carapace Variation

There is a rather staggering amount of variation found on the carapace of Hermann's tortoise subspecies. Everything from the shape and consistency of the markings to the hue of the ground color and even the amount of black content. This further complicates proper identification, so it's important to take all typically assigned traits per subspecies into consideration as a whole when attempting to differentiate them. The below collage features the carapaces of Testudo hermanni boettgeri (top row across), Testudo hermanni hermanni (middle row across) and Testudo hermanni hercegovinensis (bottom row across).