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South France


One of Testudo hermanni hermanni's most endangered populations occurs in the south of France. They are found to inhabit the Massif des Maures and Massif de Massif de l'Esterel, both being mountain ranges in the department of Var (Varoise). At one time they also occupied the commune of Roussillon, only to disappear in the 1960s. A notably homogenous population, Var T. h. hermanni tend to follow a rather distinct phenotype, more so than most other forms. Fires, poaching and the release of non-native pet Testudo hermanni boettgeri threaten them with both extinction and impurity. The tortoises of South France are more closely related to those found in Peninsular Italy and resemble them physically while they greatly differ from any Italian insular population. There are morphological similarities between them and the specimens occurring on the island of Mallorca (also the western population of Menorca) which is not necessarily a surprise considering Mallorcan and Menorcan T. h. hermanni were introduced and genetically tie back to continental origins historically. Var, peninsular Italian and continental Spanish populations are believed to share a common ancestor somewhere in their historic time line according to studies (Zenboudji et at 2016), and although Var may have possibly been originally colonized by Italian mainland tortoises, they form a clear genetic differentiation.

Varoise tortoises are the northern most form of the western Hermann's tortoise in areas with permian substrate and dense maquis vegetation. They are subjected to an annual cycle of spring, summer, fall and winter. 

Var Testudo hermanni hermanni are rare in collections especially in the United States where fewer than 50 individuals are produced annually. 

Var Testudo hermanni hermanni feature an oval carapace with only minimal rear marginal scute flaring in males. A rich golden ground color (sometimes orangish) is covered by 50% or more black markings. A rather consistent observation is the nearly "blacked out" fourth coastal scute on each side of the carapace. These coastal scutes border the fifth vertebral scute. In all other populations, these same coastal scutes are typically more striped (see below). 

Var specimens exhibit a very clear keyhole symbol on the fifth vertebral scute. The second vertebral scute is typically straight edged and does not dip forward in a strong "U" or "V" shape. 

The top of the head is dark and features little, to no yellow-green scales like what is often found on Italian specimens. 

Below, the fourth coastal scute on each side of the carapace can be viewed with the content and shape of the black pigment highlighted in red. This near "black out" of these scutes is something I have personally observed on countless tortoises. Var specimens tend to feature a higher content of black pigment while Italian specimens typically exhibit a striped look with more of the yellow ground color bleeding through. In addition to our own Var tortoises having this, a high volume of photos of wild French animals reveal the same thing, across the board. It seems that only a very small percentage (less than 15% in my opinion) of animals will bear the "Italian look". This is simply speculation and is in no way a definite identification tool for separating these tortoises. 

Varoise (South France)

Apulia (Italy)

Varoise (South France)

The head of Var Testudo hermanni hermanni is distinct in itself. It is mostly dark colored with regular contours. The subocular spot on each side of the head is vibrant in young animals. As the tortoises age, the spot begins to fade from a conspicuous yellow to a dull green. By the time the animal is elderly, the spot is reduced to a small triangular, temporal patch. 

The shape of the head and snout on males is more pronounced and pointy while in females, the snout tends to be blunter, on average. This contrasts the typical snake-like, sharply pointed head and snout of its island cousins in Corsica and other insular populations. 

Below, various animals are shown giving several examples of the head of Var T. h. hermanni. 

There is a bit of debate in older literature concerning the amount of claws Testudo hermanni hermanni from Var can possess. It has been boldly stated that these tortoises always feature 5 claws on each front foot and never just 4. In order for this to be considered true, the entire wild population of south France would need to be sampled. Some field researchers report that animals possessing 4 claws on each front foot are in fact rare, but do turn up. Photos as proof have been observed. In our own experience, we find that less than 20% of Var animals exhibit only 4 claws. Considering how their closest genetic cousins on the Italian mainland may have 5+5, 4+4 or 5+4, it seems acceptable that these tortoises can display the same combinations. 

The below images reveal both the color and number of nails on both wild and captive Var T . h. hermanni. 

Captive Var T.h. hermanni with 5+5 claws.

Wild Var T.h. hermanni with 4+4 claws.

Captive Var T.h. hermanni with 5+5 claws.

Southern French tortoises display nearly symmetrical markings. The Testudo hermanni species complex is highly variable with its color schemes, markings and sizes in general but Varoise T. h. hermanni are possibly the most homogenous examples there are. Of course we find animals a bit darker than others but their morphological characteristics jointly reveal an animal that is not all that difficult to identify to the trained "Testudo eye", and maybe even for some of the less experienced. 

It is believed that the suture between the first and second vertebral scute of the carapace is straight edged on Var specimens while on insular populations such as Corsica, this same suture dips forward in a distinct "U" shape. This does seem to be accurate to some extent however, no suture on a tortoise is a perfect straight edge. It should be said that while this trait is helpful, one must understand that there is variability here. This same seam or suture can be a bit rounded on Var specimens, it just tends to not dip forward so drastically as in Corsican, Sardinian or Sicilian tortoises. 

Var T. h. hermanni

Corsican T. h. hermanni

The indicative black stripes on the plastron of Testudo hermanni hermanni are very clear, unbroken and usually thick on Var specimens. They extend from the humeral scutes to the anal scutes in the formation of 2 solid bands. They are always separated from each other along the mid suture except for areas where spikes of black point at each other. This is most noticeable  at the suture between the pectoral and abdominal scutes and again at the suture between the abdominal and femoral scutes. Often the plastral bands butt right up against the gular scutes but do not extend onto them. Any spots of black pigment are only occasionally encountered on the undersides of the gulars. Furthermore, this form normally lacks any black on the inner sides of the gular scutes while it is rather common in Corsican and other insular locales. Some Var tortoises (small percentage) may have a faint stripe on the inner sides.

Looking at an array of photos revealing the indicative plastral bands of T. h. hermanni, we can see on Var specimens that they are notably thick and unbroken. Note the ratio of the femoral scute suture to that of the pectorals and that the femoral suture is always longer.

Varoise Testudo hermanni hermanni commonly lack any markings on the inner sides of the gular scutes but as variation would have it, there are the occasional specimens that feature at least one stripe. 

Var T. h. hermanni lacking black on the inner sides (typical).

Var T. h. hermanni having one stripe of black on the inner sides (atypical).

Insular (Sicilian) T. h. hermanni exhibiting noticeable black on the inner sides (typical).

As stated above, Varoise Testudo hermanni hermanni exhibit a carapace covered by 50% or more of black pigment. While there are generally no extremely light individuals like what we see on the Italian islands, there are rather dark ones.

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