Hermann’s tortoises (Testudo hermanni ssp) have been regarded as one of the most popular tortoise species in the history of herpetoculture. Their adaptability to various environments has landed them a number one spot in the hearts of keepers across the globe and their general ease of care has only strengthened this. For more than a century they have remained a favored garden pet throughout Europe and are now major subjects in serious tortoise collections in multiple countries. Vacationers have even made it a point of interest to experience them in the wild when traveling to areas such as Greece or the Balearic Islands, for example.
Systematics & Recognition
Their beauty, tranquil personality and hardiness have gone far from unnoticed. Small to medium sized, Testudo hermanni ssp are marked by a yellow to ochre carapace with black borders of varying degrees. With a moderate to significant dome, it is oval or trapezoid in dorsal shape. The unhinged plastron is broad featuring black patches which may or may not be fused together along the mid suture. The gular scutes are rounded and do not protrude like those seen on species like Chersina angulata. The modest sized head exhibits a hooked upper jaw with a rounded to slightly pointed snout. The posterior area of the head is typically lighter colored than the anterior section and the general coloration of the skin is dark gray to brown or yellow. Large and small frontal scales with small granular scales cover areas of the forelimbs and thick, strong claws numbering 4 or 5 are present on each front foot. Sometimes a fifth, less developed and hardly noticeable claw is existent. The rear feet always sport 4 claws each and are equipped with large scales on the heel. Males can be distinguished from females by a concave plastron in mature individuals, a smaller size and a blatant trapezoidal shape when viewed from above. Of course there are exceptions to this rule and a more obvious trait is the large, impressive and thick tail which is carried to the side. Males also have a supracaudal shield which is conspicuously bent inward toward the anal scutes of the plastron. This protects the prized, immense tail. As the larger sex, females have an expansive, usually oval shaped carapace and a flat plastron. The small, stout tail is marked by a puckered vent. At the tip of the tail on both sexes, a horny nail is found. This feature has enabled a second but much less used name for Testudo hermanni, the Mediterranean spur-tailed tortoise. It is believed that this hardened tip is used by males to stimulate the female’s cloacal region and to then guide his penis into the her cloaca during courtship but its purpose on females is unknown. The only difference between the sexes concerning the horny tail tip is that with males, it is often longer than the claws while in females it is shorter.
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At present, the taxonomic state of Hermann’s tortoises is debatable as science rests at minimal differentiation within the species group. The Testudo hermanni species complex is currently recognized by two unmistakable subspecies. Although sometimes similar in phenotypic appearance, the two are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of availability and their status in nature. They are also easily differentiated morphologically and illustrate unconnected branches of evolution genetically. The eastern subspecies, Testudo hermanni boettgeri is the larger, more robust and abundant while the western, Testudo hermanni hermanni is smaller, more colorful and rarer. At the time of writing, the eastern is listed as near threatened while the western is listed as endangered by the IUCN. Both subspecies were proposed for elevation to full species rank and to be placed in the genus Eurotestudo, Lapparent, 2006. This would have labeled the western as Eurotestudo hermanni, the “Italian tortoise” and the eastern as Eurotestudo boettgeri, “Boettger’s tortoise”. Various data agrees with this proposed elevation but for now it has been tentatively rejected until further research is completed. A better understanding of the relationships between Hermann’s tortoises, Russian tortoises and other Testudo species is needed as some current data lacks in supporting the proposed elevation.
Recently, a third, once accepted subspecies of Hermann’s tortoise known as the Dalmatian tortoise (Testudo hermanni hercegovinensis) has been dropped and is now merely considered a geographical variant of T. h. boettgeri. This small tortoise has been said to be sort of a “merge” between the eastern and western subspecies in terms of appearance. It exhibits physical attributes that may be found on either of the other two such as having more contrast and a small size like T. h. hermanni but with a blunt snout . and drabber coloration like T. h. boettgeri. Various field data and captivity observations do help in supporting the recognition of the Dalmatian tortoise as something clearly different but as of today, genetic analysis has yet to agree. This “step backward” in nomenclature is what we hope to avoid in the future concerning many of the Testudo tortoise species and several, including myself, feel as though the Dalmatian tortoise deserves to be resurrected as a valid subspecies. Perhaps the continuation of bastardized, impure Hermann’s tortoises around the globe will only allow for more downgrades in current taxonomy and so it is imperative that the community be properly educated on the truth behind the Testudo hermanni species complex.
Holotype, Strasbourg Zoological Museum
Holotype, Strasbourg Zoological Museum
The taxonomic predicament of Hermann’s tortoise has been revised and revisited throughout their natural history on numerous occasions. Dating back as far as 1789, German naturalist Johann Friedrich Gmelin dubbed this European tortoise “Testudo hermanni” after seeing it in the collection of Johann Hermann, a French naturalist. This same animal was previously described in 1783 by Johann Gottlob Schneider, also a German naturalist, but it was left unnamed. Johann David Schoepff then described it as Testudo graeca, Linnaeus, 1758 in 1792. This specimen, known as Gmelin’s holotype, still exists in the Strasbourg University Zoological Museum in Strasbourg, France. It wasn’t until 1833-1835 that Testudo graeca and Testudo hermanni were taxonomically divided by Gabriel Bibron, a French zoologist, but his nomenclature was incorrect as he labeled Hermann’s tortoise as Testudo graeca. This unfortunate classification remained for nearly a century. During this time, all Testudo hermanni tortoises were referred to as Testudo ibera, Pallas, 1814. Finally in 1925, Stanley Flower, British zoologist, resurrected the name Testudo hermanni. The revisiting of the nomenclature surrounding Hermann’s tortoises did not stop then. Circumstances such as the 2005-2006 discovery of T. hermanni being part of a clade in which Agrionemys, Indotestudo and Malacochersus exist through molecular analysis, led to the proposal of possibly placing it in the genus Agrionemys alongside the Russian tortoise. This was the projected solution to this paraphyly. As of 2016, the subspecies are still widely accepted as Testudo hermanni hermanni and Testudo hermanni boettgeri. However, in 2014, the synonyms Chersine hermanni hermanni and Chersine hermanni boettgeri were listed as acceptable in the Turtles of the World, 7th Edition: Annotated Checklist of Taxonomy, Synonymy, Distribution with Maps, and Conservation Status by the Turtle Taxonomy Working Group. Chersine dates back to Blasius Merrem’s “Essay on the Systematics of Amphibians” 1820, where the German herpetologist listed it as a replacement name for Testudo. Merrem incorporated Testudo (Chersine) graeca and then included Testudo hermanni as a synonym to it. Quite possibly the most familiar outdated taxa regarding Hermann’s tortoises is the literature published before 1987 where Testudo hermanni hermanni actually refers to the eastern subspecies while Testudo hermanni robertmertensi refers to the western. This was later revised accordingly but the reason for this taxa being so well-known is because many authors did not apply this new nomenclature after 1987. Therefore, it is sometimes uncertain as to which subspecies they may actually be referring to in their writings. To this day, although rare, a small few will still refer to the western subspecies as T. h. robertmertensi. Various taxonomic drops, elevations and synonyms have transpired over time as is the case with all chelonians and as additional research surfaces, more changes will inevitably become apparent. Conceivably, resurrecting the idea of elevation to full species rank but with newly described subspecies is what is on the horizon for the eastern and western Hermann’s tortoises.
Testudo hermanni hermanni -GMELIN 1789- currently accepted
Testudo hermanni -GMELIN in LINNAEUS 1789
Testudo graeca bettai -LATASTE 1881
Testudo graeca — BOULENGER 1889
Testudo hermanni robertmertensi -WERMUTH 1952
Testudo hermanni robertmertensi — WERMUTH & MERTENS 1977
Protestudo hermanni — CHKHIKVADZE 1970
Testudo hermanni robertmertensi — FORMAN — & FORMAN 1981
Testudo hermanni — ENGELMANN et al. 1993
Eurotestudo hermanni — LAPPARENT DE BROIN et al. 2006
Testudo hermanni boettgeri -MOJSISOVICS 1889- currently accepted
Testudo hermanni boettgeri- MOJSISOVICS 1889
Testudo graeca var. boettgeri- MOJSISOVICS 1889
Testudo hermanni boettgeri — ENGELMANN et al. 1993
Testudo hermanni boettgeri — KUYL et al. 2002
Eurotestudo boettgeri — LAPPARENT DE BROIN et al. 2006
Testudo boettgeri — BONIN et al 2006
Eurotestudo boettgeri — ROULIN et al. 2013
Testudo hermanni hermanni -GMELIN 1789
Testudo graeca var. hercegovinensis- WERNER 1899
Testudo enriquesi -PARENZAN 1932
Testudo hermanni hermanni — WERMUTH 1952
Testudo hercegovinensis — PERÄLÄ 2001
Testudo hermanni hermanni — KUYL et al. 2002
Testudo hercegovinensis — VINKE & VINKE 2004
Testudo hermanni hercegovinensis — ROGNER 2005
Testudo hercegovinensis — BONIN et al 2006
Testudo hermanni hercegovinensis — PAWLOWSKI & KRÄMER 2009
Testudo hermanni hercegovinensis — WIRTH 2010
Testudo hermanni hercegovinensis — WIRTH 2012