© 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. 

Firstly, let's take a quick glance at the known subspecies of Greek tortoise. While Testudo graeca "anamurensis" is 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 ibera
Testudo graeca graeca
Testudo graeca terrestris

TESTUDO GRAECA SUBSPECIES

Testudo graeca marokkensis
Testudo graeca nabeulensis
Testudo graeca "anamurensis"
Testudo graeca soussensis
Testudo graeca cyrenaica
Testudo graeca buxtoni
Testudo graeca zarudnyi
Testudo graeca armeniaca

Descriptions

Testudo graeca ibera

Asia Minor Tortoise or "Ibera Greek"

The most widespread and encountered Greek tortoise subspecies both in nature and captivity. Size and coloration varies incredibly, with some specimens surpassing 11” just like the eastern Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni boettgeri). Typically, they reach dimensions of 6 to 8" for males and 7 to 9" for females. They are robust, hardy, aggressive and extremely cold tolerant. Some may be entirely black while others almost entirely yellow. Most commonly we think of the “Hermann’s tortoise” look when it comes to ibera, in that they have a yellowish ground color with black bars and blotches on each carapace scute. Few have managed to keep the Asia Minor tortoise pure under captive collections all thanks to droves of imported Testudo graeca ssp being mixed together and sold as the same thing. Most commonly we see ibera bred to terrestris which is described next. This is partly due to the fact that terrestris are known in the hobby as “Golden Greeks” when in fact they are not always golden. An extremely outdated and irresponsible way of thinking was to assume that if it isn’t golden, it must be an ibera. This in return has generated an influx of bastardized (hybridized) Greek tortoises on the global market but most commonly in the USA. Testudo graeca ibera is an animal that should be isolated from any other species of tortoise included all other Greek tortoises. It is unique, brawny, genetically differentiated and far more powerful than its T. graeca ssp cousins. 

 

Testudo graeca terrestris

Mesopotamian Tortoise or "Golden Greek"

A commonly encountered subspecies in American collections and inaccurately dubbed the "Golden Greek". Dark and all-black specimens occur within this wide-ranged tortoise. This taxon is under severe debate because it simply covers far too vast of an area where these animals naturally exist. Further examination is needed in order to realistically understand the Greek tortoises occurring in this proposed subspecie's range. Most likely, there is more than one subspecies living within this distribution. This is a sensitive tortoise that cannot tolerate wet conditions for prolonged periods. Runny nose syndrome commonly associated with mycoplasma are often exhibited by wild collected adults. They are capable of handling cooler temperatures as long as they remain dry. Captive bred neonates seem to do quite well under captive conditions and do adapt. These tortoises typically reach carapace lengths of between 3.8 and 5" for males and 5 to 7" for females respectively. Depending on geographic range, these tortoises can be solid buttery yellow or nearly identical to ibera in having the yellow with black borders “look”. Some animals are a consistent slate gray color or a rusty brown. Compared to T. g. ibera these animals are delicately built with a small head. They are less widened at the mid section and some are rather narrow shaped.  

 

Testudo graeca marokkensis

Moroccan Tortoise or "Moroccan Greek"

A recently discovered North African subspecies. They have only entered the United States pet trade a few times in recent years but sadly most perished within the first year. This was due to heavy parasitic loads and insufficient care. This is a dry-dwelling tortoise which does appreciate vegetation cover in the form of a thick canopy. They do tolerate cold if kept dry. Robust and charming when housed appropriately. They can be quite prolific once dialed in and following an annual cycle. Adults vary between 500 and 700 grams for males and around 900 grams for females with some exceeding 1,500 grams. Beautiful blotches or radiating rays of black may accompany a horn colored ground color on both the carapace and plastron. Darker and lighter animals exist as always. Specimens found in the northern parts of their range in areas like Meknes feature stronger black pigmentation. This creates beautiful contrast while those found closer to places like Agadir are more of a sand-beige color with fewer dark markings. They may on average be smaller as well. 

 

Testudo graeca nabeulensis

Nabeul Tortoise or "Tunisian Spur-Thigh"

By far the smallest of the Testudo graeca species complex with adult males rarely surpassing 3.5-4.5” and females reaching 5-5.5", respectively.  Overall, this subspecies is alongside the Egyptian tortoise and certain forms of the western Hermann's tortoise as the smallest of all tortoises found in the genus Testudo. They were once accepted as a full species being dubbed Furculachelys nabeulensis (Highfeild, 1990) but are now included in the Greek tortoise grouping. Heavy black pigment accompanies a yellow to almost white ground color on the carapace and plastron. They are petite and delicate even as captive bred individuals. Never heavily imported into the USA, the few founder animals are associated with being illegally smuggled or mixed into importations of Libyan tortoises in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They require desert-like habitats and must be able to escape rainfall if it persists. Care is basically the same as is for the more common Egyptian tortoise. This is one of the rarest Greek tortoises in collections and a rare Testudo in general.

 

Testudo graeca cyrenaica

Cyrenaican Tortoise or "Libyan Greek"

This highly attractive subspecies was notably imported in fairly large numbers into the United States in the late 1990s and 2000s. Like Moroccan tortoises, few survived long term because many keepers attempted to house them in conditions similar to Testudo graeca ibera. The two subspecies are actually nothing alike and because of the untimely deaths that countless Cyrenaican Spur-thighed tortoises met, they are now a rarity in American collections. Another dry-dwelling subspecies, care must be taken to keep them out of overly humid or wet situations. They are marked by a yellow ground color that is littered with black dalmatian-like spotting all over the carapace. The shell is oblong with some flaring of the marginal scutes giving way to "skirt-like" appearance. Males may reach 6-6.5" and females may surpass 7.5", respectively. This is quite possibly the most difficult Greek tortoise to acclimate in captivity. Captive bred specimens are of course a better choice but still should be watched closely for any changes in otherwise normal behavior. 

 

Testudo graeca "anamurensis

Anamurum Tortoise or "Anamur Variant of Testudo g. ibera"

This subspecies has recently been demoted to a geographical variant of the Asia Minor tortoise which can be frustrating. They are easily differentiated from all other Greek tortoises by taking a clear look at the shell morphology. This tortoise can actually be easily confused with the Marginated tortoise  because of the conspicuous flaring of the rear marginal scutes on both sexes. Shell coloration may be entirely black or may be ochre with black mottling. They are a larger subspecies reaching sizes more comparable to T. g. ibera. In our care, females surpass 8 and even 9” with males not far behind. Like Asia Minor tortoises, they are robust and hardy, able to withstand a variety of weather conditions including cold. The carapace is also rather flat when compared to any other member of the Testudo graeca species complex. Some individuals are downright narrow in body shape. The skin is gray to black and interestingly, babies are a gorgeous buttery-blonde color with inconspicuous dark spots. Their appearance could rival the most gold examples of Testudo graeca terrestris. This does fade with age and as the colors begin to mix, the animals often become as black as night. Truly a fascinating and very rare Greek tortoise. At the time of writing this, the only known true T. g. anamurensis in the USA reside at our facility. 

 

Testudo graeca buxtoni

Buxton's Tortoise or "Zagros Mountain Greek"

This subspecies has unfortunately come into the pet trade alongside other subspecies of Greek tortoise including T. g. terrestris and T. g. ibera. Because they are not an easily recognizable type, they were inevitably mixed with one or both of these and forced to cross-breed. They are a cold tolerant, robust tortoise reaching considerable sizes of 6-9" and larger. They exhibit an attractive array of browns, tans, grays and black with some animals being uniform gray to black. Skin coloration is dark like the Asia Minor tortoise and the carapace exhibits a noticeable arch. This is not necessarily a rare subspecies of Testudo graeca but rather a poorly understood one that tends to float around in collections of conspecifics belonging to an entirely different subspecies. They resemble T. g. ibera closest and are often bred to them. To really get an idea of what this tortoise looks like, I strongly recommend buying a copy of Terralog 1 Turtles of the World (2nd Ed) (Africa, Europe & Western Asia) by Holger Vetter. You may be surprised. 

 

Testudo graeca graeca

Moorish Tortoise or "The Greek Tortoise"

This is the nominate form of Testudo graeca and despite the fact that the name "Greek tortoise" is thrown around in the global hobby, they are actually quite rare in American collections. Few keepers can describe what a pure T. graeca graeca looks like and some are simply describing Testudo graeca ibera when they attempt to do so. They are highly sensitive and although cold tolerant, they need dry conditions. Customarily, Testudo graeca graeca features a light ground color, sometimes rather bright on the shell with nonuniform dark pigment in the form of spots, blotches and flecks or even rays (Algerian animals). The areola of each carapace scute is marked by a central black smudge or dot that may or may not be fringed with more black pigment laterally and anteriorly. As with most populations, those from the south are predominantly lighter in overall coloration while those from the north are darker. Specimens found in southern Morocco often have orange to reddish colored skin which corresponds with the color of the soil they occur on. There are variations throughout local forms of this tortoise. In areas where they are believed to have been introduced like Spain, they are very brightly colored with a yellow ground color. In some populations adults are smallish with males reaching 4.5-6" and females reaching 6 to 7.5", respectively. In Algeria, this tortoise grows to large proportions much like T. g. ibera. This form was originally dubbed "Testudo graeca whitei". These animals, originally described in1836, can attain dimensions and weights of over 11” and nearly 10 lbs (Highfield, 1996). Algerian graeca may differ morphologically from orthodox Moorish tortoises in addition to their impressive size by having a more elongate carapace and pronounced flaring of the rear marginal scutes in males (Highfield, 1996). In my personal opinion, these Algerian tortoises physically resemble Testudo graeca marokkensis rather than T. g. graeca. In reality, it seems Moorish tortoises are morphologically closer to Tunisian animals (Testudo graeca nabeulensis)

 

Testudo graeca soussensis

Souss Valley Tortoise

This is a highly difficult tortoise to identify native to southern Morocco and the Souss Valley. Typically light in overall coloration, it bears a sand to yellowish colored carapace with little to no black pigment. When black is present, it is in the form of rays or splotches much like its nearby counterparts Testudo graeca marokkensis. It has been noted that captive born and raised youngsters may feature more black areas at least for a time being during growth. Heavily black pigmented individuals are also encountered in nature which furthermore confuses identification. The skin may be pink to orangish resembling the soils it is found on. Adult size matches both T. g. marokkensis and T. g. graeca with noted variation. Some reports suggest that soussensis is actually larger on average. Perhaps the only true identification tool one can use for this tortoise is the recognition of the lack of thigh spurs. This interesting example of the Greek tortoise family group lacks any thigh spurs in a number of individuals. It is unclear to me what the ratio of specimens with thigh spurs to those without them is, however, various sources state that this is an indicative trait of the Souss Valley tortoise. This is similar to the situation concerning the western Hermann’s tortoises (Testudo hermanni hermanni) occurring on the Madonie in Sicily, Italy. These peculiar Hermann’s tortoises actually exhibit thigh spurs or at least raised thigh scales. 

 

Testudo graeca zarudnyi

Iranian Tortoise

This is notably one ofthe rarest of the Greeks and little is known about its ecology or presence in captivity. Growing to between 24 and 28 cm, the shell is colored like that of Testudo graeca buxtoni but can feature the same degree of ochre found on Testudo graeca anamurensis. Iranian tortoises occur only in parts of eastern Iran in harsh environments. Flaring of the rear marginal scutes resembles that of Testudo graeca anamurensis and even Testudo marginata. The body type is overall robust and more like that of T. g. ibera

 

Testudo graeca armeniaca

Araxes Tortoise

Another rarity, Testudo graeca armeniaca is special in that it looks very similar to the Russian tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii ssp). Its colors of black, gray and tan, along with its bulbous head shape, rounded shell shape and semi-flatness to the vertebral scutes may lead one to think they are witnessing a Russian tortoise of some type. This tortoise is not known in American collections at the time of writing this but is present in some European collections. Smaller than ibera and anamurensis, it is closer in dimensions to buxtoni and zarudnyi at between 24 and 26 cm.