The Marginated tortoise is the largest of the Mediterranean species belonging to the genus Testudo. Males may surpass 14” while most females top out between 10 and 12”. Its latin name Testudo marginata literally means “Marginated tortoise” which derives from the pronounced rear marginal scutes that form a “skirt” or “bell” shape. The carapace is oblong or elongate with a moderate dome. Adults typically exhibit a strikingly black colored carapace with cream-yellow highlights or centers on each scute. The supracaudal shield is not divided and this sets them apart from many tortoise species. The plastron is cream colored with two rows of longitudinally arranged triangular shaped markings (chevrons), another unique trait. The dark grey to black head is large with a pointed snout, strong jaw muscles and big black eyes. The limbs are usually dark and feature impressive, large scales with thick, sharp nails. The soft parts are sometimes lighter colored. Hatchling and juvenile Marginated tortoises sport an attractive cream (almost white) shell color with mahogany-brown borders on each scute. The skin is also light with dark markings around the head and beady eyes. The plastral chevrons are noticeable at birth. Males are larger, have a more impressive flare to the marginal scutes, a concave plastron, a bigger head and a larger, longer tail with a “slit” for a vent. The smaller females have a flat plastron typically, a narrower head and a very small tail with a puckered vent.
Marginated tortoises are currently found throughout Greece with disjunct populations found in Italy and the Balkans. T. marginata is also found on the island of Sardinia where it is said to have been introduced. Some consider this locale to be its own subspecies sometimes referred to as Testudo marginata sarda. It shows less serration of the rear marginal scutes when compared to specimens found in Greece. A second possible subspecies occurs in the Peloponnesus (Greece) known as Testudo marginata weissingeri or “Weissinger’s tortoise-dwarf Marginated tortoise”. These tortoises grow to considerably smaller dimensions when compared to their Sardinian and Greek cousins. To date, neither of these proposed subspecies have been accepted as valid taxa.
Testudo marginata is found on rocky hillsides, fields and meadows, Mediterranean scrub land and forest. It is found at impressively high elevations, some over 5,000 feet in mountainous regions where its black carapace helps it to quickly absorb heat from the sun. These tortoises are subjected to hot, dry summers and cold, sometimes snowy winters. This species typically hibernates in nature but length is dependent on geographical location.
Hatchling Testudo marginata are suitable for indoor keeping and by choosing this method in the beginning we are protecting them from harsh elements and possible predation. Outdoor keeping at this stage of life does work well but can pose problems especially for an inexperienced keeper. I highly recommend using Rubbermaid containers for the indoor set up while they are very young. These can be purchased from Walmart and other stores at low prices. For 2 to 3 hatchlings, a container roughly 2x3 feet will suffice. Do not go too big while they are so small because they may become “lost” in the environment and you will find yourself constantly digging around to find them. As the marginata grow, the size of the container can be increased to accommodate them. A suitable substrate is clean top soil mixed with coconut coir or peat moss. This can be up to 4” deep to allow for burrowing. Burrowing is 100% normal! Do not be alarmed by his behavior while they are this young. They are babies after all and babies sleep. I also recommend adding cypress mulch as a 2” top layer but you can also mix it in to the existing substrate. The mulch aids in keeping an adequate humidity level which should be around 70%. Do not let the substrate dry out entirely by keeping a spray bottle filled with water on hand to mist the enclosure. A common misconception regarding tortoise keeping is thinking they must be kept very dry. This is in fact not true and we now know that pyramiding (unnatural, lumpy growth of the carapace scutes) is directly linked to improper humidity levels along with insufficient hydration. In nature, baby tortoises spend a great deal of time burrowed into the ground, under leaf litter or jammed under debris. There, it is humid, moist and dark. They are programmed to hide and typically do not venture out anywhere near as much as older specimens. By doing this they are constantly subjected to a higher level of humidity than one might assume. Although wild tortoises can sometimes appear lumpy or pyramided, this is only in extreme cases where severe droughts are common. Most exhibit beautiful growth and smooth shells. In the evening after the lights are turned off, I place the lid on the rubbermaid containers that house our baby tortoises. This helps to mimic the dark, humid refuges the neonates confide in when in nature. The humidity builds up overnight and in the morning it is released when the lids are taken off. I do not doubt for one second that this method has something to do with the natural, smooth shells our tortoises attain as they grow. A very shallow water tray (0.5”) can also be provided to the babies so that they have constant access to fresh water. Drinking is crucial for baby Marginated tortoises and additional soaks for 15 minutes in luke warm water, 3 to 4 times weekly is also wise. Half logs, upside down tupperware with an entrance hole cut in, drift wood and cork bark make for excellent hide aways. These will be used frequently by the occupants. Fake plants or edible weeds may be grown in the indoor unit if you wish to do so. For lighting, a 10.0 UVB emitting fluorescent bulb should be fixed across the top of the enclosure. A 100 watt basking light should also be placed at one end only to offer the tortoises a basking site of around 95F. The tortoises should be subjected to 12-14 hours of light each day. They may however not use the basking area too frequently if they are newborns. Remember, they know they are vulnerable and instinct tells them to hide as much as possible. Ambient room temperature should hover around 80-85F during the day and can be allowed to drop into the low 70s and even 60s at night. T. marginata are capable of withstanding much cooler nighttime temperatures but while they are so young, it’s wise to not let it drop that low just yet. Additional heat sources like heat pads or rocks are terrible for tortoises and should never be used.
Housing larger juveniles indoors is possible especially during the winter. By using the “tortoise table” method, an 8x4 foot rectangular enclosure out of ply wood can easily be constructed. This will house up to 6 tortoises in the 4 to 6” range for part of the year but as always, going as big as possible is best. Adults are not recommended for indoor keeping unless you can go very big. This species is considered to be on the larger scale especially for males. If you have a basement with a lot of extra space or a room, you can possibly construct a large indoor enclosure for a few adults. Cypress mulch 4 to 6” deep works best for juveniles but you can also use the same combo that I described above for hatchlings. Large pieces of cork bark or drift wood make for excellent decor inside the enclosure. Larger rubbermaid containers turned upside down with an entrance hole cut into it can be made into a “humid hide” for young Marginated tortoises to help keep up with smooth shell growth. The container can be filled with moistened sphagnum moss. Change the moss frequently because it can become a breeding ground for harmful bacteria. A stainless steel water dish no more than 2” deep should be set into the cypress mulch so that the animals always have fresh water to drink and soak in. This must be changed frequently because the tortoises will defecate in it often. Lighting should be similar to what is described above for hatchlings but I prefer to use 150 watt Mercury Vapor bulbs on older animals for basking. They are powerful and emit both UVA and UVB with heat. Depending on the size of the enclosure, you may want to use more than one basking light to offer the tortoises multiple basking areas. Keeping with the desired temperatures of 80-85F ambient and 95-100F basking in combination with 60-70% relative humidity, you can have success with Testudo marginata in a variety of sizes and ages.
Undoubtedly, Marginated tortoises are best suited for outdoor keeping especially as adults. They are built to withstand harsh environments and are at home in the sun. Their larger size alone makes it only fair to house them in an outdoor situation whenever possible. These animals can be successfully kept in an outdoor pen May through October in most parts of the country, if not longer. A larger enclosure at least 16x16 feet and 2 feet high will house a pair or trio. If you can go bigger, by all means do so. T. marginata are active tortoises as adults and they will move around utilizing every inch of a given space. Several materials are suitable for building the retaining wall and I find that landscaping timbers or planks are best. They are very strong, pressure treated and attractive. By staggering them and bolting or screwing them together, you can make a reliable retaining wall. The substrate for the outdoor enclosure is important especially in areas that experience heavy rainfall. Although they are usually a rather hardy species of tortoise, they can be susceptible to respiratory infections more so than Hermann’s. Keeping them off excessively damp ground such as wet soil or a grassy lawn is important. It’s crucial for the ground to be well drained. I remove the existing soil inside the new pen and replace it with a mix of clean top soil, gravel and sand. The mix drains well and provides the tortoises with a more natural appeal. Flat ground is not recommended and boring for the inhabitants. Marginated tortoises spend a great deal of their time climbing hillsides and moving about stony slopes or ridges as they graze for edibles. Sloping areas and uneven terrain offer the tortoises a variety of basking or nesting sites and force them to exercise. Decor and plant life are very important for the outdoor home as well. Boulders, slate, river stone, drift wood, logs, cork bark and other natural pieces should be added wherever possible. Fountain grasses, maiden grasses, sedum, spirea, hosta, knockout rose, hibiscus and stone crop (to name a few) are excellent choices for planting the pen. Just like indoors, they should always have access to fresh water. The 2” deep stainless steel dishes mentioned above work great outside too. In areas where weather isn’t very reliable, I recommend using cold frames or mini greenhouses for the tortoises to enter. These can be ordered online and are relatively inexpensive. I situate them onto a base that is slightly sunken into the ground. An entrance is made for the animals and inside, a thick bed of straw is available. Testudo marginata really make use of these green houses as they seek the warmth inside them on days when temperatures are not optimal. A heat lamp with a 250 watt infrared bulb can be installed inside them for even cooler days/nights. I’ve also had a great deal of success when using dog houses filled with straw as shelters. The tortoises seem to find them very comfortable and will choose them over the greenhouses on very hot days.
Low protein, high fiber and calcium rich are crucial points to keeping Marginated tortoises stable and healthy. In nature, much of their day is comprised of grazing or browsing for edible vegetation. Unfortunately, many uninformed keepers turn to supermarket produce which is generally lacking in acceptable fiber levels and is too high in sugar. A diet rich in protein will eventually cause renal failure and offering too much fruit will bring on diarrhea or even an outbreak of internal parasites. Pesticide-free weeds grown in the yard such as dandelion, clover, plantain, catsear, thistle and vetch make for excellent food items. Mulberry leaves are also recommended. Here, we make sure our tortoises get Mazuri tortoise diet (original blend) several times a week. This commercial diet aids in keeping a healthy weight on the animals, enables hatchlings to grow steadily and rapidly replenishes nutrients lost in females who have recently deposited eggs. For years we have raised many species of tortoise by using this diet in combination with appropriate weeds and the outcome is more than satisfactory. We also mix the Mazuri diet with organic dried herbs which can be purchased online. This method comes in handy during the winter months when weeds are really inaccessible.Sometimes, supermarket produce may be your only option. Whenever possible, purchase only organic greens and stay away from lettuces. Collard greens, mustard greens, radicchio, endive and turnip greens will suffice in moderation.
For calcium intake, I choose to not force it on the tortoises. The all too familiar practice of dusting each meal with calcium powder can cause long term problems down the road. Instead, a constant supply of cuttle-bone is kept in every enclosure with tortoises of all ages. The animals will nibble the bone as they feel the need. Only occasionally will we dust the food items with powder. In the case of growing youngsters and gravid females we do this twice weekly. Phosphorus free calcium powder and cuttle-bone can be purchased at most pet stores or in bulk online.
Marginated tortoises can easily be bred in captive situations and have proven to be quite prolific. Males are relentless and make for excellent, aggressive breeders. It may be necessary to separate males from females at times because they can inflict serious injury if left to “have their way” constantly. Males will also fight one another and this is a healthy part of tortoise breeding behavior. Keepers are sometimes all too quick to keep few males or keep males completely separate from one another. While it is crucial to keep a watchful eye on males, it is only normal for them to encounter conspecifics of the same sex several times in a season. The competition of another male enables stimulation and helps to lessen the chances of “boredom”. Single males can certainly get the job done for a while but I truly feel that one of the keys to very long term breeding success with any Testudo is to have more than one male. There’s no reason to be “female greedy” if you don’t have enough “bull males” to do the job. A lone male is sure to “burn out”, become bored and disinterested in due time. Depending on how many females you have in a group will determine how many boys you can handle. Keeping extra enclosures or pens is a common practice for us here so we can accommodate multiple males, especially since they will cause issues if left together or with the females for too long. During courtship, a male Testudo marginata will corner the female and bite at her front legs and face. He will also ram hard and throw all of his weight into it. He will circle the female and then attempt to mount her from behind. During copulation he will gape his mouth, stick out his tongue and emit a series of deep, extended moans. Males may mate with several females in one day.
Nesting can take place at any given time but the soonest it will commence is roughly 6 to 8 weeks after successful copulation. Females that have been mated during the prior season may still lay fertile eggs for some time. Typically, 1 to 3 clutches of hard shelled, spherical eggs are deposited in a given season but more are not unheard of. A particularly fertile and “busy” female of ours produced 13 clutches of eggs in 2014. Clutch size for Testudo marginata varies from as low as 3 eggs to as many as 12 eggs. Commonly, 6 to 8 eggs in a given clutch is seen. When ready, the gravid female will become restless. She will pace the perimeter of the enclosure while sniffing ground or pushing around debris. She may root around shrubs and other plants and may show a reduction in food intake. Some females will cease feeding entirely while carrying eggs. Usually a sun drenched area on a south facing slope is chosen for a nest site. Some of our females will dig into the base of a fountain grass or next to a large rock while some will nest inside their greenhouse. Once an appropriate spot is selected, the act of nesting begins. She anchors herself in with her strong front limbs and then carefully digs a flask shaped nesting chamber with her rear legs. The first egg usually takes the longest to pass with the rest quickly following. Once all the eggs have been deposited, the nest is covered and oviposition is complete.
In some areas, the eggs of T. marginata may incubate naturally in the ground and successfully hatch but usually this is not possible. Here, like all tortoise species we breed, the eggs are carefully dug up and placed into artificial incubation. Deli containers with a few small holes punched into the sides or lid are filled with dry vermiculite. The eggs are then put on the vermiculite in little depressions made by first pressing a finger down. Once set in place, they should not be moved or turned. The containers are placed inside an incubator of choice and set at between 86 and 89F. Like many species, Marginated tortoises are temperature sex dependent, with the higher number resulting in females. During the incubation period the eggs are only lightly misted with warm water occasionally. A bowl or two of water is maintained inside the incubator at all times to help achieve a desired humidity level of 70%. It’s important that the vermiculite does not stay damp for extended periods because the eggs of Testudo marginata are highly susceptible to cracking or splitting caused by moisture. This is the reason for placing them on dry vermiculite. At the end of the expected period, the eggs are misted to replicate fall rains which hatching is usually timed with in nature. At between 60 and 75 days the tiny neonates begin to pip and emerge from their eggs. They are left in the containers inside the incubator until they straighten out and absorb the remnants of the yolk sac. Then they are soaked and placed in the hatchling rearing units.