Mother Nature never ceases to amaze us with the vast display of incredible animal species that fly, swim, walk, slither or crawl on this great planet. In the chelonian world, many extremes are beautifully featured from color to size and everything in between. The tortoises of the genus Testudo are more than often an easy choice for enthusiasts to house because of their manageable sizes. However, even some of these species are not suitable for some of us because we are often faced with the issue of space, especially those that live in apartments or homes with little to no yard. We are also faced with feeling compelled to own the rarest or most impressive species creating an inner battle with which turtle or tortoise is the best choice to keep. For many, impressive refers to an enormous animal or one with breath taking coloration, but it certainly doesn’t always have to be that way. Sometimes, the bigger deal comes in a very small package The Egyptian tortoise (Testudo kleinmanni) is a prime example of this. Fully grown at between 3 and 4.5”, this truly tiny tortoise is chock full of reasons for the “keeper to keep” and they just may be the perfect solution for those with less than desirable space.
Denizen of the Desert
The Egyptian tortoise is sometimes dubbed Kleinmann’s or Leith’s tortoise and has been a targeted species spanning many years. Its tiny adult size of only 3 to 4 inches (occasionally nearing 5” for females) and inquisitive personality have made them an optimal indoor chelonian for the herpetoculturist. A classic shaped carapace features a high arch, little flaring of the rear marginal scutes and with the supracaudal shield pointing outward. Colored a wonderful gold to ivory and highlighted by dark borders, they are a beautiful desert dweller. This light coloration enables survival in their desert homes by allowing them to regulate the impact of the unforgiving sun. Being light in color means they can remain active in the excessive heat for longer periods of time. A darker colored tortoise would begin to overheat, need to find shelter sooner or even expire. Egyptian tortoise's skin and nail coloration match the shell but some specimens have a pink hue. The pale colored plastron features two to four dark colored chevrons or triangles which are similar to what is found on the Marginated tortoise (Testudo marginata). Genetically speaking, Testudo kleinmanni is more closely related to Testudo marginata than other Mediterranean tortoises even though the two are on complete opposite ends of the size spectrum. In fact, it has been suggested in the past to group these two species together in the proposed genus Chersus. Today, they both remain in the well-known genus Testudo, alongside the famous Greek tortoise (Testudo graeca) and Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni). A visual comparison between T. kleinmanni and T. marginata can be found HERE. The Egyptian tortoise is found in Libya (Tripolitania and Cyrenaica) in arid and semiarid habitats often in coastal areas. Sandy substrate with gravel, rocks, low lying shrubs and other plant life offer the animals traction and places to hide. They will aestivate when summer temperatures soar and may spend their time in rodent burrows where they will remain inactive until favorable conditions return. They are a comical species as they scurry about the sand and gravel plains while grazing on edibles. Males are relentless breeders, pestering females by chasing and ramming them until submission. While other Testudo tortoise males will emit a squeak or quack sound during copulation, Egyptians exhibit a call which is reminiscent of a mourning dove. Both sexes have been known to vocalize which is another trait that sets them apart from the others. Males are smaller than females with a large tail that is carried to the side. In captivity, breeding may reach a peak in the fall with egg laying commencing in spring. Usually only 1 to 2 eggs (very rarely up to 4) are laid in a single clutch which is deposited into a shallow (usually less than 2” deep), flask shaped nest in the substrate. Incubation on dry vermiculite with 70-80% air humidity at between 86 and 91.4F can take from 70 to 95 days.Hatchlings are some of the smallest measuring around 1.10236” and weighing only 4 or 5 grams.
Setting Them Up
Various methods work for housing tortoises in captivity and Egyptians are no exception. However, they certainly do have specific needs which must be met in order to maintain optimal health and even breeding success. Sometimes keepers are rather harsh in holding firm to only one way of housing a species when in fact, you have options. I will describe two methods that have worked well for rearing, keeping and breeding Testudo kleinmanni in my care at Garden State Tortoise. Of course it should be noted that different regions experience different factors. Overall humidity even within a home, barometric pressure and photoperiods can influence any tortoise in captivity. So, while one method may work for me, it may need to be tweaked in your specific situation.
Open top tables, commonly referred to as "tortoise tables", can make for a wonderful habitat that Egyptian tortoises will thrive in. They are easily constructed out of ply wood or other wood purchased from home improvement stores. Keepers may opt to coat the entire unit with a lacquer of sorts once it's been built and before adding in any substrate. This helps to protect the wood from rot, however, Testudo kleinmanni requires an environment that is primarily dry so excessive moisture leading to wood rot is not usually an issue. For a group of 2 to 4 adults, a simple rectangular enclosure measuring 2 feet by 6 feet will comfortably house them. Height of the unit can be anywhere from 8 to 12" because this tortoise is not known to be much of a climber. Still, capping off corners if you opt for lesser of a height would be wise especially if the table is high off the ground. Should an individual climb out and fall a considerable distance, it could have devastating results. Egyptian tortoises are not native to, nor are they suitable for tropical, moist environments. They are inhabitants of arid places and dry conditions are paramount. One interesting point to bring up is that these tortoises typically live in coastal areas in their natural range. While these areas are still desert-like with sandy dunes, sporadic vegetation and excessive heat, they do experience some moisture leading to a rise in humidity especially during certain parts of the year. A coastal morning mist or fog blankets the Egyptian's home particularly in autumn leading to a break in their summer estivation. Summer temperatures are so high that these little tortoises will root into the ground at the base of vegetation remaining inactive just like some other Testudo do for winter. Estivation, like brumation (hibernation) is a way for the animals to deal with unfavorable conditions. When it's that hot, they disappear, resurfacing again in early autumn when safer conditions return. During this time, Testudo kleinmanni reaches a peak in breeding activity. The cool, misty morning, followed by the dry, hot afternoon, drives the males to pursue the females and even combat each other.
Some keepers choose to spray down their Egyptian tortoise enclosure each morning with a mister to help recreate the moisture that occurs in this species' natural habitat. This can pose issues with sitting water or overly damp substrate if too much water is used. Here, we utilize foggers. Various companies sell them for reptile use and we've found that they help to mimic a coastal morning mist better than simply spraying the enclosure down. Small plastic sweater boxes, filled with water, are placed in one far end of the unit. The fogger is submerged at all times and turned on every morning between 7 and 8 am for around 2 hours. The fogger generates a light mist that creeps through the habitat. If the water level in the sweater box drops to a certain level, the fogger automatically shuts off. It will start up again if water is added. Over the sweater box containing the fogger, a piece of plexiglass measuring 24" by 18" is placed. This makes this end of the enclosure more humid than the rest of it. In the morning when the fogger is turned on, the humidity builds into the low to mid 70s % range. After it is shut off, the lights (which are turned on for the day at the same time as the fogger) begin to cause a rise in overall temperature and the humidity dissipates similar to what would happen in nature. Throughout the course of the day, the tortoises may choose to move in and out of the end of the enclosure where the sweater box/fogger are kept. It's always slightly more humid at that end thanks to the plexiglass top and so this offers the tortoises a choice at all times. The "humid end" may remain in the low to mid 60s percentage while the rest may be as low as well-below 40%. Overnight temperatures throughout autumn and winter are allowed to drop as low as 58 to 60F and are risen to between 82 and 90F during the day. Although our external Tortoisery is insulated and heated, outdoor winter temperatures still influence what happens inside. Fluctuation is natural anywhere in thew world and actually promotes breeding behavior so when nights drop followed by days that rise significantly, you may notice male T. kleinmanni becoming more interested in females or even other males.
Closed containers like enclosures manufactured to house other reptiles like snakes can work well for keeping Egyptian tortoises too. Several types, made from various plastics are available and they definitely are aesthetically pleasing. Moveable plexiglass or glass viewing windows allow for a clear look into the habitat you've created for the tortoises. They are equipped with ventilation usually at the back and on the sides to allow for air exchange. They also usually have cut outs with protective mesh for lighting to be installed. Although these units are attractive and ventilated, they do present some challenges. Excessive humidity can easily build up in no time inside them and they can also overheat rapidly. This is all attributed to the "closed chamber" they create. This is not always a bad thing and as long as you're closely monitoring the conditions within them, a dangerous issue can be prevented. The fogging method described above should be used with caution in these enclosures so as to be sure the tortoises aren't being subjected to overly wet conditions for prolonged periods. A very common misconception with maintaining Testudo kleinmanni is the practice of keeping them too hot. Although they are desert dwellers, being forced to live in strictly hot surroundings will inevitably cause them to cease breeding behavior, become inactive and enter into an indefinite estivation before declining in health overall. Be sure to not "hot box" these tortoises if you opt for the closed container method. When down correctly, these units showcase the animals in a wonderful mini habitat where they can thrive and breed.
A few substrates and substrate mixes have worked for us here for Testudo kleinmanni. Coarse, dry and easy traction are musts for this species. The most common choice is crushed oyster shell and it's no wonder why. The tortoises can effortlessly move around on it, it's clean, safe if eaten in small quantities (it's calcium after all...) and offers a desert-like setting. Not to mention, it is a product of the coast...and Egyptian tortoises tend to occur in coastal habitats. Some keepers opt for something with a little more substance to it and certain mixes have proven to be safe for this species too. We've had luck using a mix of 50% decomposed granite, 25% top soil and 25% mason sand. The mix created a very naturalistic looking ground and plants such as agave grew well in it. There is an element of worry with a substrate like this because if the granite were ingested often, it absolutely could cause impaction. Long has the story of sand being the culprit of impaction in tortoises but let's face it...sand is 100% natural. It's found in large quantities in Testudo habitats everywhere and definitely in other species' homes. So many keepers fear sand as "certain death" for their captives but the truth is that when used correctly, it does not pose much of a threat. Here in the southern coastal pine barrens of New Jersey, most of our Testudo tortoises live outdoors on the natural sandy ground. They eat off it, graze off it, dig in it, nest in it and sleep in it. Success couldn't possibly be any better. Sometimes subjecting an indoor tortoise to nothing but play sand can have ill effects if ingested in large amounts but never forget what nature is like for these animals. Sand is a main component in T. kleinanni's natural environment and there is nothing wrong with incorporating it to some degree in our captive versions. Making sure your tortoises have food dishes to eat off can prevent ingestion of sand. Substrates that hold moisture or can mold like mulch of any kind, bark, coconut coir (easily lodges itself into the sensitive nares of Egyptian tortoises), forest-floor style soils, pine shavings, rabbit pellets and cob bedding are not suitable for this species.
For nesting females, we choose small plastic sweater boxes, cut a sizable hole into the base of the enclosure and recess them in. They are then filled with a 50/50 mix of play sand and organic garden soil. The mix is easily excavated by the expectant mothers. These boxes are placed near or under the basking sources because they will seek out warm spots to dig their nests. Once completed, eggs are removed for artificial incubation.
Succulents like various sedum, agave and aloe vera can be grown inside the enclosure with the tortoises. They will of course eat them if they can reach them and this along with having to keep them alive has caused some keepers to choose fake plants over live. I have found that using fake plants not only adds sheer beauty and tranquility to an enclosure but it also offers the tortoises visual barriers, refuge and more to explore. When Testudo kleinmanni reaches its peak activity level for the day, it scurries around from one spot to the next. Having several areas of decor and plants aids them in exercising. Stores such as Michael's and Hobby Lobby sell very realistic fake plants for decent prices. Sometimes they run sales where they are as low as 50% off or buy one get one free. The tortoises cannot seem to pull anything off them so they have proven to be very safe in our experiences. Imitation grasses and succulents are added throughout each T. kleinmanni unit here and they really bring the set ups "to life", no pun intended. They also make the inhabitants feel more secure or in a more natural state. You can get really creative when using live or fake plants. It's all about imagination and studying their wild habitat. All it takes is a little googling.
Egyptian tortoises, like any tortoise species need to feel secure. In nature they seek out vegetative cover and other areas to hide. We've already discussed adding plant life (real or fake) to the enclosure but let's now touch on other decor. Because of their diminutive size, it's not hard to accommodate their security needs. Clay pots like terra cotta can be turned on their sides and half buried into the substrate. These offer nice areas for these tiny tanks to hide. A nice trick for added humidity is to take a simple household sponge, soak it and drape it on top of the pot. Although it will dry out quickly, it does saturate the pot for the time being and build up humidity inside it. Several keepers do this and it makes for a nice little temporary humid hide. It is of course not as reliable as the foggers mentioned above unless you're there to re-soak the sponges over and over. In addition to these pots, drift wood, half log hides, cork bark and various rock including slate, river stone and pebbles are wonderful decorations for the enclosure. Visual barriers like these items are excellent at breaking up the habitat and they increase the overall sense of security for the tortoises. You can also build up the substrate in certain areas to add contour to the terrain. This forces the animals to exercise more and they surely will climb about the decor items as well.
Lighting & Heat
Testudo kleinmanni derives from severely sun drenched places in nature. The sun is actually relentless and so they are subjected to high UVB rays when they are active. Because this species is typically housed indoors, it's important to provide them with reliable artificial lighting. For UVB, I've found that Arcadia 12% T5 bulbs and Zoo Med 10.0 T5 bulbs work well for this purpose. Both need to be changed out after just a few months time (Arcadia may be stronger and lasting slightly longer) so be ready to reorder or have extras on hand. The UVB source should span as much of the enclosure as possible. For basking areas and heat, simple 90-120 watt indoor/outdoor floodlights are more than satisfactory. They should be aimed in one or more focal points in the enclosure. Placing a slate rock under them helps create a hot spot for basking. These areas should reach 100-110F so the tortoises can move in an out of them to reach optimal body temperatures. The entire enclosure must not be this hot. Egyptian tortoises seem most active and comfortable with an ambient temperature of between 75 and 85F and at night, all lights should be turned off to allow a significant drop. Cooler nights replicate what happens in nature and also trigger breeding activity. Being hot day and night is not suitable. This species can safely experience a nighttime drop of down to 60F in the fall and winter. We've even allowed ours to drop down to 57-58F on certain nights out in our Tortoisery. The animals handle it beautifully and easily make their way to the basking spots when the lights come back on in the morning. Other bulbs such as halogens and mercury vapors work well for basking areas too but always remember to keep these bulbs (or any bulb) directed downward at a focal area and not the whole unit. Never use heating pads or heat rocks for tortoises. They cause harmful burns and dehydration. Heat must come from above as it would in nature from the sun. The slate rocks placed underneath the basking lights will mimic the warm ground in their native range and allow them to thermoregulate as they please. Never, ever force heat on any tortoise.
Water....they need it!
It can't be said enough how important water is for any tortoise species and Testudo kleinmanni is no exception to the rule. Even though they are desert denizens where rainfall is scarce, they absolutely need to drink. In nature, tortoises can seek out what they need in various areas while covering considerable distances if need be. In captivity, providing them with essentials such as water is entirely on us as keepers. Shallow terra cotta saucers are an easy and effective way to offer Egyptian tortoises drinking water regularly. As the tortoises go about their day moving from area to area, they will make several pit stops to the saucers to grab a quick drink. It's a very common practice for keepers to soak their tortoises several times weekly. While this has its benefits, it is also forceful. Placing the tortoise inside a container with warm water forces them to relieve themselves. This is not replicant of nature. Essentially, the warm water persuades them to defecate, urinate and hopefully drink during the process. In reality, for the sake of avoiding unnecessary stress, letting the animals do what they want, when they want is in all honesty a better choice. If the tortoises have a drinking/soaking source in their enclosure at all times, they will make perfect use of it as they please. Monitoring the animals for dehydration will help you to notice if they need a soak or two. The eyes are a good indicator of this. Sunken in, partially open eyes or eyes stuck shut are a sure sign of dehydration. In this case, soaks are necessary.
Like most tortoises, Egyptians graze on edible plant life during the active parts of their day. Typically this is done in the morning after warming up and then again later in the day after the heat has lessened a bit. In captivity they will accept food whenever we offer it but we try to stick to the same times of day as it would be in nature as much as possible. However, they certainly do not need to eat every single day and we tend to feed every other day for adults. Hatchlings are offered food daily. Pesticide free weeds grown around the yard such as dandelion, clover, vetch, catsear, thistle, broad leaf plantain and lance leaf plantain are some of the best choices when deciding what to feed. When weeds are not available, organically grown produce such as raddichio, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, shredded green and yellow squashes, kale, watercress and escarole will suffice in moderation. We make use of Mazuri tortoise diet (original formula) at least once weekly which has proven to be an excellent choice to help with a varied diet. It also helps neonates put on size and bulk up. Fruit and animal matter are never offered and this species cannot successfully process either so it is important to keep them out of the diet completely.
While calcium is an important component in Testudo kleinmanni's intake, it's once again important to remember that being forceful can have negative effects. More often than not, keepers "over do it" with calcium powder by sprinkling it on every or almost every meal. This is simply not necessary providing you are offering a varied and correct diet and if they have access to calcium by other means. Cuttlefish bone is by far the best way to get calcium in safe amounts into your tortoises. It can be purchased at pet stores or online in bulk. All one has to do is leave it in the enclsoure and the inhabitants will choose to nibble on it whenever they want. Tortoises know what they need and certainly will use the cuttlefish bone for proper calcium intake. Some keepers claim that they do not believe their tortoises use it but this may simply be due to the fact that they are still using calcium powder on the food items they feed. Cutting out the powder or only using it sparingly (1-2 times a month) may prompt the tortoises to start using the cuttlefish bone. Both neonates and adults will nibble the bone as they feel the need. All T. kleinmanni kept here do not hesitate to nibble on it.
Hatchling Egyptian tortoises are not unlike the adults but do require more humidity. Lack of humidity or proper hydration has been directly linked to pyramiding of the carapace scutes in all tortoise species. This is especially apparent in baby tortoises. In nature, hatchlings seek out humid microclimates to spend a great deal of time in. They only venture out periodically to eat or to quickly bask. Then, it's back to hiding. They are programmed by nature to do this as they know they are vulnerable to predators. Making sure your babies have access to humid areas readily will make all the difference in how they grow. They will also appear more robust and "fuller". Closed units are easier to control humidity in but the fogging system mentioned early in this care-sheet works beautifully. It can be left to run for longer portions of the day since babies require more humidity than adults. Never lose sight of how important it is to not keep T. kleinmanni of any age in a wet situation. Humidity and moisture are very different from damp or wet. This is why the fogger works so well. It creates the morning coastal mist found in nature, increases air humidity for babies but also does not saturate the enclosure. It dissipates quickly which is a wonderful component in the otherwise dry enclosure. Light misting, rubbermaid containers turned upside down with an entrance hole cut in and filled with moist sphagnum moss or clay pots with soaked sponges placed on top (mentioned above) also aid in building humidity for babies. Of course, shallow water dishes are crucial for babies and they should have access to them at all times. Diet, substrate, lighting and decor can mimic the adult enclosure but going smaller in overall size is often best so the little neonates don't become "lost" inside them. A unit that is 2x4 can house up to 10 hatchlings for the first few years of life.
Past & Present
While they may be accessible in the hobby and have proven to be quite a rewarding captive, life in the wild isn’t easy for the Northern Hemisphere’s smallest species of tortoise. With a listing of critically endangered on the IUCN’s red list (CR A2abcd+3d), Testudo kleinmanni has taken serious blows when it comes to its natural populations. They are now found in Libya only as the once populated Egypt is said to no longer be home to these tortoises. Reports suggest that this species has become effectively extinct in Egypt in as little as 10 to 20 years. An estimated less than 8,000 total specimens persist in nature with destruction of coastal habitat in Libya and illegal collection for the pet trade being just some of the threats they face. However, like some other endangered tortoise species, there is hope for their future, at least within the realms of captivity. Without the dedication of serious keepers and zoos worldwide, it is very possible that these Egyptian gems would be lost forever with impending doom continuing to claim them in the wild. Conservation initiatives set in motion to help many of the world’s declining chelonians such as the Egyptian tortoise have reached an all time high and this in combination with the availability of truly captive bred specimens is proof of never-ending devotion and love. Although they cannot be legally exported out of their homeland today, the founder animals that once were have aided in creating a lasting supply of offspring which represent several generations. The access to these captive bred animals helps to lessen the actions of poachers removing them from nature. Today, we constantly find ourselves faced with the truth that many of the planet’s turtles and tortoises are subjected to an uncertain future particularly in the wild. While this sad state of affairs looms over affecting us as both conservationists and keepers, we can only carry on to protect these species in as many ways as possible. The Egyptian tortoise is certainly a success story throughout the years when it comes to captive situations and their kind not only promotes awareness for endangered wildlife as a whole but also helps to educate the young or new reptile lover as to what species may actually be the best fit. In a world overrun by unwanted large red eared sliders and Burmese pythons, the smaller species may be a solution. The higher price tag associated with these desirable and rare animals also helps in regulating where they ultimately end up. It’s safe to say that Testudo kleinmanni rarely, if ever, ends up in an unwanted situation or reptile rescue. Their charm, compact size, antics and story are just some of the reasons why any keeper should feel incredibly privileged to work with them. Sometimes smaller really is a bigger deal.