Testudo graeca (Linnaeus, 1758) is famously dubbed the Greek tortoise and less commonly referred to as the Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise. The enlarged scales or tubercles on each side of the tail (thighs) make this second title more accurate than the first. The name “Greek tortoise” is merely Linnaues’s description for the Greek mosaic pattern often found on the carapace of the vast majority of specimens occurring across their natural distribution. In reality, the only type of Greek tortoise actually occurring anywhere in Greece is Testudo graeca ibera. The remaining nine currently valid subspecies are found elsewhere. The Testudo graeca species complex is at present comprised of ten distinct subspecies spanning a natural range that covers North Africa, southern Europe and southwestern Asia. Its status in nature is dwindling with particular subspecies more at risk than others. The IUCN includes T. graeca as “Vulnerable A1cd” (1996) globally, and regionally in Europe it is listed as “Vulnerable A2bcde+4bcde” (2004) however, the once recognized subspecies Testudo graeca nikolskii which is now a synonym for Testudo graeca ibera was listed as “Critically Endangered A1abcde+2bcde” (1996). This notation may reveal something we did not already know concerning T. g. ibera’s numbers in nature. Many of Testudo graeca’s subspecies and forms have been subjected to severe over-collection for the worldwide pet trade for a staggering amount of time thus leading some to a more critical status.
Altogether, Testudo graeca is a robust species with a blunt snout and boxy head. It of course varies greatly in its appearance across its range but each subspecies or local form follows several basic traits. The carapace is typically rounded or oval with minimal flaring of the marginal scutes except in males (and some distinct subspecies) which may be rather trapezoid in overall shape. The plastron of females features a single hinge and although the tortoise can not seal up like that of Terrapene species, it does allow for some mobility in facilitating egg laying. The domed carapace is littered with irregular dark bars, blotches, rays, spots or flecks on a tan, yellow, ochre or brown ground color. Conspicuous tubercles or spurs are found on each thigh and the supracaudal shield is normally undivided and does not flex inward. The tail of both sexes does not taper to a point but is rather stout and rounded at the end. Males are usually smaller (most of the time) than females, feature notable concavity to the plastron, have longer tails with a vent further away from the edge of the anal scutes and a wider anal scute opening.
Testudo graeca may be broken down into more than a dozen subspecies depending on the literature or individual you choose to source. While it is not particularly difficult to come to the realization that there are probably more than just ten, the fact that recent surveys yield weak expressions in genetic divergence between proposed subspecies (van der Kuyl, et al, 2005) brings expanding this taxa to a screeching halt, for now. There is a marked difference in the mitochondrial DNA between Testudo graeca graeca and Testudo graeca ibera with specific haplotypes possibly resulting in one or both being elevated to full species rank. From a morphological standpoint these two are very different. In fact, other forms of T. graeca are dissimilar from each other in regards to appearance and habitat preference as well.
The genuine recognition of Greek tortoise subspecies is quite possibly the most grueling of any Testudo differentiation task. Similarities in coloration, shape, size and behavior make it tiring to begin with but inaccurate literature does not help. The worldwide web is filled to the brim with outdated chelonian information and Mediterranean tortoises certainly take on the brunt of it. In most cases these inaccuracies began with the dealer or collector who first named them. The putative “Golden Greeks” that came into the United States for the first time in the early 2000s are a prime example. Dealers who were able to get their hands on these animals dubbed them as “golden” because of the high content of yellow coloration most would exhibit. This name was made up entirely and holds absolutely no validation as to what they actually are. More on these later. Testudo graeca is highly variable even within one population making identification nearly impossible if origin is unknown. The significance of knowing the history of a tortoise or group of tortoises has grown to a valuable level today. It does not only enable the probability of specimens being matched up correctly but it also helps to lessen the amount of questionable or hybridized animals in the private keeping network. Up until now hobbyists, dealers, breeders and even some authors have thrown around terms such as golden Greek, black Greek, Libyan Greek, Ibera Greek and others as a way to separate various Testudo graeca types. None of these are authentic names.