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Insular Italy & Corsica




Considered to be a genetic sanctuary (Zenboudji et al 2016), the islands of Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia may play an important role in the ultimate conservation for Testudo hermanni hermanni. This is a peculiar discovery because island populations typically display lower genetic diversity than mainland ones. In the case of the western Hermann's tortoise, because its continental distribution has been so reduced over time, it is believed the insular populations have been able to preserve this genetic richness (Zenboudji et al 2016). The tortoises occurring on these 3 islands belong to the same genetic cluster and all tend to exhibit very similar morphological traits. Being very different from continental animals, Corsican, Sardinian and Sicilian populations share the same lineage and hypotheses suggest that tortoises went extinct on Corsica and Sardinia only to be repopulated by animals from Sicily. However, in recent studies, the tortoises of Corsica appear to be more ancient than previously thought. They harbor the largest number of private alleles which suggests they are actually indigenous to the island and not migrants from Sicily. These same findings show that Sardinia and Sicily are more closely related (Zenboudji et al 2016).

At the same time, some of the largest and smallest examples of T. h. hermanni are found within these insular populations. Generally speaking, these insular tortoises have less of a golden ground color which is actually somewhat greenish. The black carapace markings are more frayed or striped. The suture between the first and second vertebral scutes extends forward in a "U" or "V" shape and the keyhole symbol of the fifth vertebral scute is much less consistent in formation than what we find on continental animals. The carapace is broad and either sex can exhibit some notable flaring of the rear marginal scutes. The highest point of the carapace is often carried toward the back. The plastron of insular T. h. hermanni always bears the indicative black stripes from the humeral scutes to the anal scutes but they may be slightly broken in areas such as where the humeral scutes meet the pectorals. On the inner sides of the gular scutes, just below the throat, 1 to 2 black stripes or smudges can be found. Known as the "gular mustache," this trait is very common for any insular tortoise. 

The head of insular western Hermann's tortoises is snake-like, often pointed at the snout with a recognizable hooked beak and the subocular spot is commonly large. It may be regarded more as a patch than a spot and is quite conspicuous on a high number of animals. There are also detectable yellow-green scales on top of the head and around the nostrils. Skin color is light yellow usually with claws that match it. 


Sicily, the Mediterranean's largest island, harbors various populations of Testudo hermanni hermanni. It is on this island that we tend to see the most diversity when it comes to morphology. Extremely large tortoises surpassing 8" and very petite ones that barely reach 4" fully grown occur here. Tortoises with atypical traits are also not uncommon such as those which appear to exhibit thigh spurs or tubercles much like what we see on Greek tortoises (Testudo graeca ssp). Sicily's Hermann's tortoises are beautiful, variant animals found in coastal and volcanic areas on the island. They are subjected to a milder winter and brumation is short, usually only 2 months or so. In captivity however, these island natives are capable of brumating much longer in very cold temperatures. They are a robust, hardy form of T. h. hermanni. 

There are 4 populations that are usually mentioned in literature. These include the Madonie, a mountain range in Palermo that is an extension of the mainland's Apennine Mountain System. Ragusa, which is in the south-east of the island below the Hyblaean Mountains. Mount Etna, an active volcano on the island's east coast, and Nebrodi, a northeast mountain range in which forms the Sicilian Apennines with the Madonie and the Peloritani. There are reported differences between these known populations but it is unclear just how consistent these differences actually are. Suspicions suggest the majority of these claims may be sellers trying to create a fad or something different to make a sale. Be that as it may, there are some interesting specifics tied to certain locales even with the island's animals following a  similar phenotype across the board. We do notice some characteristics that set these animals apart at least in our own collection but it should not go without saying that our tortoises absolutely do not represent the entire wild population. It is impossible to gauge whether or not these recorded traits are an actual way to differentiate them. After-all, we are dealing with animals that all belong to the same subspecies here. 

Sicilian Testudo hermanni hermanni range from 5 to over 8" for females and 3.6 to 6" for males. Their place of origin on the island seems to have something to do with this. The largest examples reportedly hail from Nebrodi while the smallest come from Mount Etna. In our collection, the tortoises from Mount Etna are very small with the males being the smallest of all T. h. hermanni we have, however, field researchers do suggest there are much larger examples out there. Environmental factors may play a big role in why these tortoises are so small seeing as they live in a harsh area at the base of an active volcano. Below are some examples in our collection showing carapace color, markings and overall size.

T. h. hermanni, Madonie

T. h. hermanni, Mount Etna

T. h. hermanni, Ragusa


Like some Sicilian Testudo hermanni hermanni, those found on the island of Sardinia are some of the largest recorded. The tortoises occurring in the southeast of the island are typically larger animals with some females reaching 8" or more. The ground color of the shell is usually more of a greenish hue. Those in the northwest tip around Stintino may be more averaged sized for the western subspecies with more of a golden color. Sardinia's tortoises follow the morphological characteristics typically associated with Italian insular T. h. hermanni. The head is sleek and narrow with a subocular spot that is bright and large. Yellow-green scales are found on top of the head and around the snout and the second vertebral is rounded, dipping forward as it does in Sicilian specimens. Nail color is light, matching the forelimbs. Sardinian tortoises in our care commonly lay more eggs (4 to 6) in a single clutch than any other form we work with. Babies are brawny right out of the egg and grow fast.

Sardinian Testudo hermanni hermanni range from 6 to over 8" for females and 5 to 7" for males. Males may surpass 800 grams while females may exceed 1,300 grams. There does not seem to be any particularly small specimens living on this island to date. This is of course subject to change, but it is here that we see tortoises that "go against the grain" when it comes to the sizes we normally associate with the western Hermann's. 

T. h. hermanni, Sardinia, with rounded second vertebral scute highlighted.

T. h. hermanni, Sardinia, plastral bands.

T. h. hermanni, Sardinia, female and baby.


The Mediterranean island of Corsica has been one of the 18 regions in France since the year 1768 yet it maintains an Italian culture. Interestingly enough, its native tortoises have Italian influence as well. Genetically and morphologically, the Testudo hermanni hermanni found here are of the same lineage as the Italian islands Sicily and Sardinia, but they do stand alone in that they are more distantly related. This is another larger form with dimensions similar to Sardinian animals. At one time, literature firmly stated that Corsican tortoises nearly always have 4 claws on each front foot which contrasts the typical 5 claws on each front foot of Varoise populations. We now know this to be untrue as Corsica's T. h. hermanni can have 4+4, 5+5 or even 4+5 on the front feet. The true way to separate them from Var hermanni and any other continental form is to simply take in their morphological characteristics as a whole. Like all insular forms, they are significantly different animals, and DNA agrees. 

Corsican Testudo hermanni hermanni follow all traits commonly associated with Italian insular forms. Little can be said about how to properly externally differentiate them from Sardinian and Sicilian specimens, however in our own collection, we have noted that Corsican hermanni often have 4+4 claws on the front feet more so than the others.

T. h. hermanni, Corsica, showing the large subocular spot and yellow scales on the head.

T. h. hermanni, Corsica, having 4+4 claws on each front foot. This is not always the case.

T. h. hermanni, Corsica, exhibiting the broad carapace typically found on insular forms.


There is usually little difference between insular populations but when they are compared to mainland animals, the distinction comes to life. More often than not, the shape, color and markings of the carapace alone show us a true differentiation, but so do some other characteristics. One worth mentioning is the shape of the front of the second vertebral scute (highlighted in red). In insular tortoises, this scute dips forward usually rather conspicuously while in most continental animals it is straight edged or not as exaggerated. 

Sardinia, Insular Italy 

Calabria, Peninsular Italy 

The carapace morphology of Italian insular Testudo hermanni hermanni differs from continental forms by the shell being broader, larger and often with less of an arch. The highest point tends to be situated toward the back or in the middle, while continental forms reveal the highest point at the middle or toward the front. In addition to this, the ground color of the carapace is altogether a lighter yellow, sometimes with a greenish hue, as opposed to the richer golden or orangish color of continental tortoises. 

T. h. hermanni, Madonie, Sicily.

T. h. hermanni, Tuscany, Italy.

T. h. hermanni, Stintino, Sardinia.

The markings found on the carapace of Italian insular populations may either appear as striped and frayed or in some cases extremely bold, covering the majority of the surface area. This darker look is commonly associated with the smallish tortoises hailing from Mount Etna. It is possible that the environmental factors this form has been subjected to over time have caused them to become this way. Etna T. h. hermanni can be extremely small with males never reaching a carapace length of 4". Some specimens are nearly entirely black. These traits are not necessarily the standard for this locale, and variation is no stranger, even here. 

T. h. hermanni, Mount Etna

On average, insular populations are larger than continental ones. The largest examples of the western Hermann's tortoise originate from these very islands. 

Male T. h. hermanni, Corsica.

Female T. h. hermanni, Sardinia.

Female T. h. hermanni, Corsica.

As nature would have it, variation persists and that cannot be said enough. While the islands of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica retain the largest exemplars of T. h. hermanni, at least Sicily may also retain some of the smallest.

Female T. h. hermanni, Corsica.

Female T. h. hermanni, Sardinia.

Male T. h. hermanni, Mount Etna.

The head of Sicilian, Corsican and Sardinian Testudo hermanni hermanni is unmistakable. While it corresponds perfectly with what is classic for the western subspecies, it is particularly narrow with a pointed snout and sometimes a very hooked upper beak. The subocular cheek spot is conspicuous and large, more like a patch. The head may be littered with yellow to green scales and around the nostrils we tend to see the same coloration. 

There appears to be little variation between insular forms when it comes to the head shape, color and markings. Even on excessively dark specimens like those from Mount Eta, we typically still see a head marked by a large subocular spot and yellow scales on the top. Of course, some animals, usually very old ones, will have a less conspicuous subocular.

T. h. hermanni, Madonie, Sicily.

T. h. hermanni, Corsica.

T. h. hermanni, Sardinia.

Insular populations are known for having what we refer to as the "gular mustache". As mentioned earlier, this is when one to two black stripes or smudges are found on the inner sides of the gular scutes on the plastron. This is located underneath the throat. It is noticeable on hatchlings right out of the egg but can also turn up later in life. This trait does show up in continental forms on occasion, but it is not normally associated with them. Characteristics typically tied to certain forms that sometimes show up in others could very well be the result of introgressions between forms overtime. 

All Italian insular populations may have this trait including the tortoises in the eastern portion of Minorca (Balearic Islands). This is no surprise since the eastern population of Minorca ties back to insular lineage. 

T. h. hermanni, Mount Etna.

T. h. hermanni, Sardinia.

T. h. hermanni, Madonie.

Thigh Spurs?

Interestingly, some insular forms of T. h. hermanni appear to have tubercles or thigh spurs, just like what we see on Greek tortoises (Testudo graeca ssp). While it's uncertain if they are actual spurs, they are rather conspicuous on some animals. Most commonly seen on adult females in Sicily (particularly those from Madonie), they sometimes protrude quite a bit. One thing is for sure and that's the fact that these animals are in no way a hybrid with Testudo graeca. They are pure T. h. hermanni. 

While some males may have these spurs or raised thigh scales, it is mostly encountered on females. They are not visible on hatchlings but we have seen them begin to appear on females as young as 4 years of age.

T. h. hermanni, Madonie.

T. h. hermanni, Madonie.


Baby Italian insular Testudo hermanni hermanni are recognizable at hatching. They are larger on average than continental and Balearic Island forms and usually more colorful. The yellow-green ground color of the shell is visible and seems to glow on many hatchlings. The head is littered with yellow scales and the skin is yellow as well. They are typically round and robust. They may or may not bear the "gular mustache" at an early stage. 

While hatchlings are usually brightly colored, some may be dark. Babies produced by adults with heavy black pigment such as those from Mount Etna may be considerably darker than other insular forms.

T. h. hermanni, Ragusa, adult male and baby.

T. h. hermanni babies, Mount Etna (left) and Ragusa (right).

Italian insular babies emerge from their eggs with bright colors, even on the limbs. As they age, the black pigment intensifies creating contrast on the carapace. 

T. h. hermanni, Madonie, Sicily.

T. h. hermanni Corsica.

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