Care Statistics in Regions of the United States with Notes on the Recognition of Possible Subspecies
Originating out of Greece, Italy and the Balkans in southern Europe, Testudo marginata or better known in the United States as the Marginated Tortoise is considered to be the largest of all the European tortoises belonging to the genus Testudo. This beautiful, dark shelled chelonian with light highlights and an impressively flared marginal skirt is an honor for any keeper to maintain. Fairing well in captive environments, Marginated Tortoises are being propagated by a handful of breeders from the East Coast to West Coast and in between. Although care is generally the same, there are divergent husbandry methods and techniques needed concerning regional variants like elevation, temperatures and precipitation levels in a given area. For decades T. marginata and others belonging to the genus Testudo have remained some of the most prevalent of all species in American collections. Their adaptability to various climates within this country in combination with their gregarious personalities and relatively prolific nature has rooted them deeply into the hearts of enthusiasts. Year after year countless importations of some Testudo tortoises still occur and this has been the main cause for major mix ups. Species complexes found within this group of European tortoises are comprised of not only subspecies but of geographical variants as well. Commonly referred to as locales or strains, these particular populations in nature have evolved to exhibit precise phenotypic traits. Some locales appear more distinct than others and this along with genetic findings has led to the classification of valid subspecies. Some of these previously accepted subspecies have been downgraded back to being embraced as geographical variants but their persona and traits remain important in understanding the variation in nature. The Marginated tortoise is a prime example of this. In the following piece, we outline the care requirements and differences between keeping them on the east coast of the United States versus the west coast while sharing some data on the very few known subspecies of T. marginata currently in this country.
Marginated tortoises are best suited for outdoor keeping especially as adults even in the Northeastern portion of the United States. 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 April through October and possibly later depending on the timing of seasons in states like New Jersey and New York to name a few. In New Jersey, winters can be quite snowy and extremely cold during the mid to late part, usually February and early March. Summers are typically very hot with some thunder storms but droughts are not uncommon. Spring and Fall are the problematic seasons for these tortoises because they are very unpredictable. During the year 2015, New Jersey experienced “The Summer of the Tortoise” where spring showed up a bit early and very warm to extremely hot temperatures reined over the state well into the fall. In fact, record breaking warmer autumn temperatures allowed for extended activity patterns and higher reproduction rates for this area. However, even without an abnormally warm year, Marginated tortoises seem to do rather well in this part of the country.
A larger enclosure at least 16x16 feet and 2 feet high will house a pair or trio but more spacious areas will of course be beneficial. 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 but landscaping timbers made from pressure treated wood have proven to hold strong against the elements including dampness. They are cheap, very strong and attractive. By staggering them and bolting or screwing them together, a reliable wall that resembles a sort of “log cabin” effect is constructed. Other materials that have worked well for the construction of outdoor pens in the Northeastern United States are pressure treated planks (just as good as timbers), decking products and stone or bricks. We opt against the use of stones and bricks because the tortoises may scrape their shells against it at times. This is especially noted when gravid females begin pacing the entire perimeter. The substrate for the outdoor enclosure is important because parts of this area are prone to flooding or excessive moisture. Although they are usually a rather hardy species of tortoise, they can be susceptible to respiratory infections more so than Testudo hermanni ssp. or some Testudo graeca ssp such as T.g. ibera. 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. If need be, removing the existing soil inside the new pen and replacing it with a mix of clean top soil, gravel and sand helps to create a safe terrain. 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 are added wherever possible. Making a wide sloping area on a south facing part of the pen and jamming slates into the sides of it depicts a sort of scrubby hillside for them to easily maneuver. Small shrubs such as Heather can be planted around this slope. Fountain grasses, maiden grasses, sedum, spirea, hosta, knockout rose, hibiscus and stone crop (to name a few) are excellent choices for planting the pen.
Water is important for drinking especially during the hot Northeastern summers. Two inch deep stainless steel dishes work very well and are sunken into the substrate for easy access. T. marginata will often become active during or just after rain in Northeastern summers. Warm thunderstorms prompt males to begin breeding females especially after periods of excessive dryness. Of course exposure to wet situations for prolonged periods is not recommended hence the possible need for replacing the substrate in the outdoor pen but rain is important. It triggers natural behaviors, offers additional hydration and allows for regrowth of plant life within the enclosure. With weather overall sometimes being unreliable and unfavorable for T. marginata, the use of cold frames or mini greenhouses for the tortoises to enter on certain days is recommended. Although rains are beneficial, this species does need to be able to easily escape it and dry off. Cold frames undoubtedly allow for this. Situated 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 cold frames or “warm beds” 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 for even cooler days/nights. Although cold frames offer the tortoises a safe refuge on less than desirable days, it’s important that they be ventilated and aired out during the summer. Scorching temperatures can quickly take the lives of tortoises that may get stuck inside them. In a properly planned out enclosure equipped with appropriate decor and refuge, Marginated tortoises will comfortably inhabit this given space for a good portion of the year in New Jersey. Much like other Testudo of temperate regions, they become increasingly active in the warming temperatures of spring, breed readily in late spring/early summer and continue to reproduce throughout the summer months. Their black shell enables them to absorb the sun’s warmth better than other species which may be lighter in color and they can remain active even on cooler days around 65F if the sun is prominent. Typically, this species is most active on sunny days between 75 and 82F. Their daily activity patterns carry out longer during these preferred degrees and when mid summer hits, the tortoises will be active only in the morning and again in early evening as they hide from the day’s hottest peak.
These robust, dark colored tortoises are great at conserving radiant heat from the sun and are able to live outdoors year round in cooler winter temperatures and even in extreme heat. The Southwestern region of the U.S. like Arizona and California experiences 20-30F temperatures swings daily. When daytime temperatures are around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, night time lows are in the 60's to 50's. This is even true during the hottest summer months when temperatures reach over 100 degrees during the day.
Adequate enclosures for T. marginata need multiple hiding areas in order for them to self- regulate their body temperatures. Staying true to their naturalistic behaviors, they will emerge in the early morning hours from their sleeping quarters and will bask in the morning sun. After a short period they start to move around their enclosures foraging. Before the hotter afternoon temperatures set in, they will retreat back to their night time structures or underneath hedges or bushes to get way from the heat. Fountain grasses, and small shrubs such as Sages, Wild Rosemary, Honey Suckles, Rose bushes and many other suit the marginata as areas to take refuge and feel content. Large shade trees such as Mulberry and Desert Willows planted throughout the enclosure ads an additional canopy layer and falling leaves and blossoms are welcomed by the tortoises. Enclosure walls for adults need to be at minimum of 12 inches high. Perimeter redundancy is a good idea as well. Sometimes Marginateds will use other tortoises in the corners of the enclosures as a stepping stone and then can easily climb out. Capping or topping the corners will help combat these escape attempts. Many times in the early mornings we find the tortoises pressed up against the side enclosure walls soaking up the extra heat being retained by the wooden perimeters. The larger the enclosure for this species of tortoise the better as they are quite active and move at a good pace. If multiple tortoises are housed together, letting them have room to get away from each other is needed. During breeding season, this especially is true. For further self regulation of body temperatures, a large water area for the tortoises is needed in this region of the United States. T. marginata will take full advantage of these water sources by drinking from and also soaking in them. While the Southwest region is not well known for heavy moisture, when rains do occur, heavy flooding is possible. A well sloped enclosure with proper drainage is needed. Marginated tortoises, being a strong, thick limb tortoise, can easily navigate this type of terrain. This also helps the tortoises stay active and gain strength. If extreme summer temperatures set in, they will go underground for a short aestivation to escape the heat. This generally only lasts a couple weeks in July/August and before we know it, they will be back foraging and basking again. Ideally most of their diet is from the natural plants in their enclosures, but a clean food plate or eating surface is offered for them when supplemental foods are offered. These surfaces as well as their water sources are cleaned almost daily to proactively prevent health issues. Being housed in large enclosures, using a few different types of surfaces or ground cover in the enclosure is also a great way for the tortoises to have more temperature options. An area of clover and grasses will create a cool retreat, as where sandy or rocky areas will be warmer. This is also true with moisture and humidity levels. During the Fall and Winter months, water usage is dramatically cut back due to cooler temperatures setting in. At this time, increased “dry” areas for the tortoises to nestle in, are offered. This lowers the risk of any possible respiratory infections attributed to the changing of the seasons. Instinctively the tortoises start to slow down with feeding and breeding in which case overall activity levels decrease before hibernation starts. Overall this species does well living outdoors in captive environments in the Southwest and can adjust to the different seasons.
T. marginata brumates in nature from October or November to March or AprilI in nature. New Jersey’s annual cycle somewhat replicates this. In autumn, the first trigger of brumation is the decrease in nighttime temperatures. While the days may still linger in higher numbers, at night, the drop initiates the first sign of the approaching season for the tortoises. Cool nights cause the animals to recognize a change and soon the days will follow this trend. When this happens they begin to experience a decrease in appetite. Autumn in New Jersey can be full of surprises. One week may be cool and rainy while the next may feature days that resemble spring as they climb into the 75F range and occasionally higher. During these temperature spikes, T. marginata may feed on nearby vegetation on their own but the offering of food on our part as keepers has concluded. The tortoises no longer need additional feeding from us as they press on with the changing season.
As October moves forward, Marginated tortoises will readily bask both outside in the sunlight even on cool days and inside the cold frames. They will defecate as they empty their systems of any leftover food. As always, access to water is very important singularly during this time as it aids in flushing out the tortoises’ systems. Occasionally throughout this time, females may lay one last nest of fertile eggs before entering a period of dormancy. This is not necessarily natural to the species but in this region, this has happened more than once with various tortoises. By mid-November, colder daytime temperatures become more consistent and this cues the tortoises to dig into the substrate inside the cold frames or in another part of the outdoor pen. It is crucial to locate any tortoise that may decide to begin digging outside of the cold frame so as to protect them from being stuck out there when dangerous winter temperatures set in. Restricting them to the cold frame once cold factors are dominant keeps the animals safe and offers the keeper piece of mind. It is imperative that the tortoises are not forced to stay inside the cold frame if warm days still occur to avoid bringing them to a more active level prematurely. In this region, we have noticed that T. marginata will basically cease all activity and remain partially burrowed once daytime temperatures do not exceed 50F even when the sun is out. However, inside the cold frames, the temperature can still rise which may cause at least some activity. This “greenhouse effect” can work against the tortoises for the duration of the “cool down” period. Paying attention to temperatures is key because warmth can promote hunger. The intermittent nibbling of vegetation here and there will not harm the animals as they prepare for winter but a heavy consumption of it can result in too much food in the gut. This can cause major health problems during dormancy and even death in extreme cases.
Although Northeastern annual patterns follow the classic spring, summer, winter, fall regime, certain portions of winter may not always be acceptable for allowing T. marginata to brumate or hibernate exclusively outdoors. High regional snowfall and precipitation altogether can make for too wet of a situation even in the most well-drained substrates. Marginated tortoises occur in “warm spots” like many Testudo in the wild and these sun drenched locations create an ideal environment for them year round. Without being in these sites, we cannot completely recreate them. There have been success stories of keepers leaving their T. marginata outdoors year-round in the Northeast but we have not chosen to do this in all the years of keeping and breeding them. Two methods have worked well for us in New Jersey. Allowing the tortoises to completely cool down on their own while being subjected to the natural changes of the season and then removing them from the pen once they have become inactive to finish out brumation in a more controlled setting is one way. Sometime in late December when the animals have burrowed in and no longer move about or bask, we remove them at night and place them in large, black containers filled with adequate substrate. A combination of 70% moist (not wet!) organic potting mix and 30% play sand fills the container half way. The tortoise is placed on top of the substrate and then a thick layer of dry straw is placed on top of it followed by the lid with air holes punched in. The animal will dig into the substrate as it sees fit. The containers are placed side by side in an unfinished basement or crawlspace (preferable) where the temperature remains between 38 and 52F for the remainder of winter. The tortoises sleep, undisturbed by anything in this dark, cool room. Even on relatively warm days when the outside temperature causes a slight rise in the crawlspace/basement temperature, the tortoises may only moderately move about but this does not concern us and based on our observations, little to no weight is lost all the way through. It is unacceptable to think that there is no fluctuation in nature during any season and so, a rise or fall in temperature should not bring about any problems as long as it is not extended. Our T. marginata remain in these brumation containers usually until late March or early April when they are brought up from their slumber. Depending on the year and the timing of spring will determine when the tortoises are put back outside. Once temperatures steadily reach the high 60s daily and do not fall below 45F any longer, they can be reunited with their outdoor enclosures. For this time period of somewhat uncertainty, the 250 watt infrared lights are turned on for 24 hours a day until the temperatures rise into the 70s. At that point they are only left on at night. By mid-May the lights are usually no longer needed at all and the tortoises can enjoy the warm season to its fullest extent. Come early fall, the infrareds are turned on again at night mostly on sun deprived days in order to allow the animals to warm themselves adequately so they can empty their systems for the encroaching period of dormancy. The second method which has worked quite well in New Jersey is to allow the animals a brief cooling period and no true brumation. With T. marginata sometimes being a bit more sensitive to cooling situations, we have found it effective to remove them from the outdoor enclosure before the true winter elements set in. Some may argue with this practice saying the animals are being deprived but we have experimented with various species concerning this subject and to date, the following method has never been the cause of any issue short term or long term for that matter. Allowing the tortoises to naturally cool down throughout the course of autumn enables them to become semi-inactive and even inactive for a short period before they are subjected to anything too harsh. Once winter is apparent and temperatures threaten to fall to extremes, the animals are removed from the outdoor setting much like described in the first method but are woken up to resume activity instead of being kept asleep in an artificial hibernaculum. The tortoises are brought inside our heated external building where other species that do not brumate spend the winter until spring. They are gradually warmed up to a desired temperature for the allowance of normal activity patterns and are kept this way until the weather shapes up in April. They are then placed back outside just like in the first method. Both methods have proven effective and have allowed the tortoises to behave naturally and normally during the active season. The only difference noted is the frequency of egg laying using the second method. Without a true brumation, T. marginata will continue to lay eggs throughout the year even in months such as January and February. The use of both methods has spanned more than a decade and we have not come into any fertility problems or health issues whatsoever. It seems that brumation is truly just a way for this species to cope with unfavorable conditions and so when this act is not needed, the animals continue to thrive and reproduce without consequences. Males will readily breed females and females will become gravid in which case they will deposit multiple fertile clutches at any given time. In the case of the first method, female tortoises will usually only nest in May, June or July and possibly one last time in October. We have not observed any differences in clutch size or viability between the two methods.
With relatively mild winters, hibernation only occurs through the months of November to January and depending on a particular annual cycle, it may last from December to February. During these few months, freezing night time temperatures will only be seen a few times for about a week stretch. With T. marginata naturally being a hibernating species, allowing them a period of dormancy seems to prove well for longevity of life and reproduction in this region. When day time temperatures average in the 60's and the nights do not increase above 40, this sets the signal for Marginated tortoises to start to go down for the winter. One by one they will leave there favorite sleeping areas throughout the enclosures and head into the main wintering structure. Providing any type of simple structure for the tortoises to reside in, be it a wooden home with a hinged lid or even a rubber maid tub flipped upside down with an access hole for the tortoises to go into will work as opposed to more substantial structures needed in the Northeastern United States. They will instinctively take refuge from the elements and start to nestle or dig down below the ground within them. Adding additional layers of bedding such as hay or dried grass clippings, will further insulate the tortoises from moisture or frost during hibernation. Keeping the tortoises dry is important during this process. If any of the tortoises are showing signs of health problems before hibernating, they are then housed indoors and kept awake for the winter months. As outdoor temperatures decrease, the tortoises that are now in the structure’s substrate will dig further down. On average, hibernation depths are about 10-12 inches, with additional 4 inches of Hay or bedding layered on top. The location of the wintering quarters are positioned at the highest point of the terrain, against a perimeter wall. This ensures proper drainage if any winter rains come through the area and also shelters it from potentially cold drafts or winds. Another from of dormancy which Marginated tortoises utilize in the Southwest is aestivation. Here, summer temperatures are extreme and the intensity of sunlight is excruciating. With July being the peak of this extreme, the tortoises will again dig down below the substrate, but this time to keep cool. The soil is much cooler then the ambient air temperatures and also allows the tortoises to get out of the dry hot wind. They use the same areas as their winter quarters but no hay is needed and if moisture gets into these areas, there is no concern of health problems. Every week or so, the tortoise will emerge to drink in the mornings and will return to there underground areas. When the tortoises dig down they do not create burrows, they simply dig in and completely cover themselves in the soil. The soil above the tortoises is loosely packed and if the tortoises stretch out their necks, they will be able to break the ground surface. Suffocation is not a concern due to the way tortoises take in oxygen. Their breathing is so slow that enough air will filter through the soil but not enough to cause any problems with fluctuating air temperatures. After a period of aestivation, allowing the tortoises access to extra water and moisture is important to get them re-hydrated. With the natural instincts of T. marginata, they will be able to thrive through a period of dormancy in most any climate, especially the Southwestern part of the United States.
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. Cold winters and unpredictable spring weather in New Jersey are many times too much for neonates to handle. Outdoor keeping at this stage of life does work well but can pose problems especially for an inexperienced keeper. Rubbermaid containers for the indoor set up while they are very young will suffice. For 2 to 3 hatchlings, a container roughly 2x3 feet is suitable. Overly large enclosures while they are so small is not always the best choice because they may become “lost” in the environment and you will find yourself constantly digging around to find them. As T. marginata grow, the size of the container can be increased to accommodate them.
An acceptable substrate is clean top soil mixed with coconut coir or peat moss and a splash of sand. Organic potting mix works well also. Using only coconut coir or peat moss can cause issues in the nasal passages of the tortoises. In the United States, using one of these items alone without anything else mixed in is an unfortunate but common practice. Baby tortoises which have perished from previously unknown causes exhibited a build up of these substrates in the nasal cavity according to necropsy. Both coconut coir and peat moss dry out rapidly creating nothing more than a dust and this is not natural for T. marginata. In nature, neonates congregate in “nursery” type settings where they remain together many times under debris or vegetation. They subject themselves to a microclimate that is very humid and moist while borrowing into the ground. This promotes natural, smooth growth while offering significant refuge. It’s important to replicate this in captivity, therefore, the selection of appropriate substrate is crucial. The use of sand promotes a more naturalistic occurrence and helps to break up the ground for them. Using sand excessively can be dangerous because ingestion of high amounts may cause impaction but a small amount will cause no harm. The substrate should be at least 4 to 5 inches deep to allow for burrowing. Burrowing is normal behavior and they should be allowed to do this whenever they feel the need to. A commonly encountered issue is when keepers feel the need to dig up the resting hatchlings in fear they are wasting away. They are in fact not wasting away but are comfortable as they securely rest under the substrate as they would in nature. Adding cypress mulch as a 2 inch top layer aids in keeping moisture within the substrate but this is not mandatory. The substrate should never be left to dry out completely. Only the surface should remain dry. A common misconception regarding tortoise keeping in the United States is the assumption that they must be kept 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 even in very arid regions such as on the Peloponnesus where a “dwarf” version of Testudo marginata occurs. In the evening after the lights are turned off, I place the lid on any 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 is also provided to the babies so that they have constant access to fresh water. Drinking is crucial for baby Marginated tortoises.
Half logs, upside down tupperware with an entrance hole cut in, drift wood and cork bark make for excellent hide aways. These are used frequently by the occupants. Fake plants or edible weeds may be grown in the indoor unit as well. For lighting, a 10.0 UVB emitting fluorescent bulb is fixed across the top of the enclosure. A 75 to100 watt basking light is then 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 but instead choose to burrow down directly under it. The fact is that they know they are vulnerable and instinct tells them to hide as much as possible. Ambient room temperature hovers around 80-85F during the day and can be allowed to drop into the low 70s at night. T. marginata are capable of withstanding much cooler nighttime temperatures even while so young. Additional heat sources like heat pads or rocks are terrible for tortoises and are never used. Overnight heating sources such as ceramic heat emitters or infrared bulbs must not be used unless the indoor temperature consistently drops below 65F when the tortoises are very young. This is yet another mistake made by various keepers in the United States. Many feel the need to “pamper” their animals and the end result can actually be a harmful one. The tortoises should be subjected to a nightly cool down where soaring temperatures break for hours until the next day begins. Keeping a heat source on at night does not replicate nature to any extent because the use of heat emitters or bulbs creates a basking area. Tortoises may then expose themselves during the night to this source instead of hiding or burrowing. This can and does lead to extreme dehydration and the formation of a lumpy carapace thus concluding with deformation later in life. Our objective as responsible keepers should be to replicate nature in any way we can even though we cannot completely copy it. Promoting natural behavior is key. In situations where the ambient room temperature does continuously fall to below acceptable degrees, a ceramic heat emitter should be placed further away from the enclosure so that it warms the surrounding air but does create a basking area. The tortoises should not experience a basking area until the morning when the lights are turned back on. Space heaters are another, more practical option for warming a room overnight if the need arises.
While on the subject of naturalistic keeping, raising T. marginata outdoors from hatchlings is possible in the Northeast as mentioned earlier and it does have its benefits. Because we are discussing a species that is prone to improper growth especially when kept too dry indoors, much of this can be eliminated by subjecting the animals to a natural, annual cycle. Making small versions of the adult style outdoor enclosure works quite well. The same substrate should be used with leaf litter or straw added in areas for the neonates to hide under. Small terra cotta saucers serve as a water source and small pebbles or rocks are placed in them in case a baby were to flip over. The rocks help the animal to pivot and safely right itself. Babies all the way up to 6 inches or so are easily preyed on by nearby animals if they are not protected. Our pens for outdoor rearing are equipped with lids that lock and latch made from wooden framing and strong wire or metal mesh. In the Northeastern United States, predators such as raccoons, skunks, mink, birds, rats, fox, coyote and feral cats will not hesitate to eat baby tortoises. In the case of raccoons, they can wipe out an entire group in just one night. In combination with these strong lids, electric fences are active and traps are set each night in the event that an intruder is on the prowl. Spring, summer and fall are very active seasons for this region’s wildlife of all types so precaution must be taken. Inside the hatchling pen, small sized cold frames can be used, similar to what is offered to the adults. It is extremely important that the enclosure is placed in a sun drenched area. Morning sun in particular is important to T. marginata at any stage in life. Being sure that this is provided helps to rid most potential problems with outside keeping. The sun dries any moisture that may linger too long otherwise. The exposure to the great outdoors results in smooth, regular growth and a better chance at normal coloration for this species when it is done right. Well-thought out construction and placement of enclosures goes a long way. Babies and juveniles are safely kept outside in New Jersey from May until early October. They are then brought inside to spend the winter indoors. We have not attempted to brumate or hibernate any Marginated tortoises under the size of 4 inches. Autumn and spring can be severely unpredictable sometimes and so we do not take a chance with youngsters by letting them experience it. An artificial, controlled brumation would work well of about 8 weeks for hatchlings and 12 to 16 weeks for juveniles.
Low protein, high fiber and calcium rich are major components in keeping Marginated tortoises stable and healthy anywhere they are housed. This is true through all life stages of the tortoise. In nature, much of their day is comprised of grazing or browsing for edible vegetation. In the Northeastern part of America as well as the Southwestern it is possible to allow tortoises to naturally graze on edibles in spring and summer depending on the particular location. Variety and moderation are two keys factors to keep in mind when feeding. Over feeding of one or two foods items can cause certain build ups that could become harmful, for example, spinach with its high levels of Oxalic acid. Unfortunately, many uninformed keepers turn to supermarket produce which is generally lacking in acceptable fiber levels and is too high in sugar. This is sadly common in American collections. 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, lance leaf and broad leaf plantain, catsear, thistle and vetch make for excellent food items and are readily available along with the leaves of mulberry trees. Phorbs or flowering plants provide a wealth of key nutrients necessary for good health. Mazuri tortoise diet (original blend) is offered 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 many species of tortoise have been raised 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 from companies. This method comes in handy during the winter months when weeds are really inaccessible. Routine blood work and level checks reveal excellent results from this feeding regime. With the availability of weeds and other edibles naturally growing and the addition of high quality commercial diet in moderation, the tortoises are subjected to varied and healthy diet. Growing additional items for feeding can be done as well, if a keeper feels the need to. Sometimes, supermarket produce may be the sole option during the peak of winter. Whenever possible, purchasing only organic greens is highly recommended. Fruit is almost never offered to T. marginata. We only find it acceptable to offer watermelon rinds sparingly in the peak of summer when rain is scarce so the tortoises can use them as an extra source of hydration. The animals swiftly consume them and the high water content they contain. Marginated tortoises seem to not be interested in consuming animal matter of any kind. While this has been observed with T. hermanni taking advantage of the occasional garden snail, T. marginata seem to be uninterested and almost unaware of any small organism moving in their enclosure such as a slug, snail or worm. For calcium intake, it is not forced 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. In the spring and summer, all outdoor enclosures should be supplied with cuttlebone strewn about for the tortoises to take when they feel the need to.
Marginated tortoises are easily be bred within our region and have proven to be quite prolific. Males are relentless and make for excellent, aggressive breeders. It is necessary to separate males from females at times because they can inflict serious injury if left to “have their way” constantly. Females can also become severely stressed out from excessive advances from the males and will hide a high percentage of the time. In extreme cases, the will ignore food and waste away. Males will also fight one another but 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 common practice in American tortoise keeping is the hoarding of females. A lone male is sure to “burn out”, become bored and disinterested in due time. Depending on how many females exist in a group will determine how many males can be handled. 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. Cool nights in spring and fall followed by warm to hot days help to trigger breeding behavior.
This is something we have in our favor in the Northeast. Fluctuations in temperature and rainfall help mimic certain times in T. marginata’s natural range which prompt courtship. 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 in New Jersey. 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. The record for the Northeast is a total of 13 clutches produced by just a single female here at my facility in New Jersey. This may be the record for the species as a whole at least in the United States. Egg viability was near 100% in total. 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. They do tend to favor elevated areas with well drained but moist soil. Some of our females will dig into the base of a grass or next to a large rock while some will nest inside their cold frame. Fountain and maiden grasses which thrive in New Jersey are favored. Females will scrape around them and back into the base to begin digging the nesting chamber. Once the 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. We have noted that Testudo marginata completes the entire act of oviposition quicker than Testudo hermanni and Testudo graeca. In some areas, the eggs of T. marginata may incubate naturally in the ground and successfully hatch but usually this is not possible here due to rainfall and moisture issues. However, in the summer of 2015, baby Testudo hermanni hermanni deriving from Tuscany, Italy were found to have naturally hatched in the ground inside the cold frame. We simply missed the nesting of the female and the eggs went undetected. These eggs incubated on their own here in New Jersey and produced healthy hatchlings. Based on similarities between T. hermanni and T. marginata, it may be safe to assume that the eggs of marginata can successfully incubate in the ground as well, depending on circumstance. Here, like all tortoise species we breed, the eggs are typically dug up and placed into artificial incubation. Deli containers with a few small holes punched into the sides or lid are filled with dry to only semi-moist 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 air humidity level of 70-80%. 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.
In 2014, a female Testudo marginata of ours nested indoors in an artificial setting during January after experiencing a brief cooling period outdoors for Autumn. We removed the eggs for artificial incubation at 87.8F and they all hatched at between 61 and 69 days.In early March, a single egg was unearthed in the nesting box from this previous clutch which we accidentally missed when removing them. The heat lamp over the nest box had since been turned off as the enclosure was not being occupied after this particular female deposited her eggs. The temperature of the soil in the box was only 62F. This single egg showed absolutely no signs of developing at all yet and was subjected to this cool temperature for roughly 5 weeks. Upon finding this egg, it was placed in artificial incubation at 88F, developed to full term and hatched at 60 days exactly. A perfect, robust hatchling emerged. Although a diapause and cooling duration is not what is normally required of the eggs of T. marginata, clearly the species is capable of withstanding it and possibly even benefitting from it long term. More research will need to commence in order to understand this better.
Propagation of the Marginated Tortoise outdoors in the Southwestern part of the United States is achieved nearly year round. When it comes to nesting, they are very elusive with their choice of location. They like feeling secure during this process and are normally found next to shrubs or underneath some type of an over hanging structure. They will begin nesting with their hind limbs by digging a shallow hole. Depending on the female and the size of the clutch, T. marginata seemingly dig down, just enough to hold all the eggs packed in tightly with 2 to 3 inches of substrate covering the chamber. Clutch sizes can range from 1 to10 eggs depending on the age of the tortoise. Nesting occurs in the Southwestern part of the U.S. just a few weeks out of hibernation in late February early March and will carry on until mid-June. Around the later part July, aestivation will start to occur due to the hot summer days. At this point the tortoises’ breeding, eating and activity levels will come to a stand-still, other than the occasional drink or soak. After this time and up until hibernation they are capable of laying additional clutches. Depending on the individual female, an average of three to four clutches will be laid throughout the year. Each female, with regards to having their own personality, may have unique nesting patterns and set nesting times per individual. Younger females tend to do more test holes or false nesting before they actually lay, while mature females normally accomplish nesting in a more timely manner. Creating areas in the enclosure by churning up the soil and adding sand or peat moss will allow nesting females to take advantage of these soft areas and lay their clutches comfortably. Just like other species of tortoise, female Testudo marginata will sometimes lay new clutches in the same area, if not on top of previous nests. This can be damaging to the original nests and sometimes digging up the eggs and artificially incubating them is needed. On average most of the clutches laid in spring to early summer will hatch out towards late September. Clutches laid in early fall will hatch before the winter temperatures set in, but for the clutches laid right before hibernation, these will over winter and hatch in early summer. Artificial incubation is fast around 60-70 days. Males of this species are very sexually aggressive during the Spring and also somewhat during the Fall months. Male Marginated tortoises are able to crack or chip the sides of the shell on females from constant ramming. Some limb or neck scaring can also occur from males biting at the females. If a female is not stationary, the male will try to circle her and in an attempt to stop her. By biting at the female’s limbs, this gets her to withdraw her arms and legs, in turn stopping the chase. At this time the male will then mount the female and start to breed. Larger males have an easier time holding down the females while finishing copulation. Some breeders house males separately from females due to this sexual aggression and only introduce the males from time to time throughout the year. Rather than pulling the males from the enclosures, having a female heavy group can help prevent breeding injuries and give other females a break from them for a bit. Also having different objects such as rocks, large downed branches or shrubs to break up the tortoises’ line of sight helps provide females with ways of escape from the males. If any injuries occur, simply housing the wounded in a separate enclosure until healed, then returning them to the main enclosure works well. Breeding and keeping T. marginata is full of daily excitement, with continuous learning and is undoubtedly an awesome species to enjoy.
When raised in optimal conditions with all major requirements met, this species thrives and grows accordingly regardless of where they are kept in the United States. The vast majority of available specimens in this country are in fact captive bred which is attributed to success being had by serious keepers and other factors. Testudo marginata has never been imported into the United States in as high numbers as Testudo hermanni boettgeri and Testudo horsfieldii as well as some Testudo graeca subspecies. Only occasionally these days we will we see some smaller, barely sexable animals come in from Europe. For the most part, the founder animals which came into our country decades ago, are responsible for the crop that is produced each year along with offspring grown up, now producing as well. This is a fairly prolific species and clutches vary between 6 and 12 eggs usually. They also lay multiple clutches in a season and produce just fine without brumation as fertility remains near 100% at all times of the year when they are kept awake. The biggest issue we encounter with this species is improper growth leading to discoloration and even deformity which can be rather severe in many cases. Marginated tortoises are by far one of the easiest species of tortoise to distort if care is not taken early on in the development of hatchlings By nature they are known for a large, elongated carapace beautifully covered in jet black with cream to orange centers on each scute. The flare of the marginal scutes creates an impressive skirt or bell at the back and this is intensely pronounced. The wild look of this tortoise is very unique, showy and unmistakable. In captivity we rarely see this. We see lighter colored animals with a heavy influx of mahogany or brown that may or may not turn to black over time. Of course this lighter "cleaner" look is because the animals are captive bred and raised. This abnormal coloration in combination with bad growth distorts the animals often leading to complete misrepresentation of the species. Commonly, the shell saddles in the middle and the flaring is either minimal or completely irregular to where it is unattractive. Sometimes the entire marginal rim of the carapace grows faster than the rest of the shell creating a total inaccurate appearance. I believe this is one of the reasons why this tortoise hasn't reached the popularity of some of the others here in the states. Enthusiasts sometimes simply do not realize what a Marginated tortoise is supposed to look like! When you glance at a properly grown specimen and then an improperly grown one, you will see a great difference, almost as if two separate species are being displayed. Seeing as this species can easily suffer from deformation, it is imperative that neonates are started off correctly as early as possible.
There is no doubt that in the last few years the chelonian community has paid more attention to detail than ever before on a global scale. These details cover not only husbandry methods but physical traits as well. Understanding phenotypic traits and even genetics has become a focal point for some and the surfacing or resurfacing of subspecies has reached an all time high. Even localities which in some cases are easily defined by particular characteristics are now receiving major recognition. In the case of animals belonging to the Testudo hermanni and Testudo graeca species complexes, division of valid subspecies and locales or strains has attained the mainstream level more so than Testudo marginata. In the United States it has been a very unfortunate practice for dealers and keepers to pay little attention to these details and the inevitable outcome has ended in the unveiling of hybrids or mixed animals. The importation of tortoise species does not stop and dealers carelessly move animals in and out without any regard to their origins or genetic makeup. The loss of paperwork tied to the tortoises aids in the mass confusion as this is one of the few ways to salvage anything concerning an animal’s past. Hybrid tortoises are a very real problem and are even a major threat to valuable bloodlines. This is often the case with Testudo hermanni but measures have been taken here in helping the serious network of tortoise keepers to only maintain pure specimens.
When it comes to the Marginated tortoise, little if anything is known about the origins of the originally imported stock into the United States. Only a small handful know where their animals actually came from and whether or not they can be assigned to a precise subspecies or locale. The truth is that Testudo marginata holds no true subspecies at the time of writing this. While subspecies may not be validated in the eyes of taxonomists, some keepers, researchers and conservationists strongly disagree. Currently, 3 separate subspecies of Testudo marginata are recognized by the private sector and other parties: the Greek Marginated tortoise (Testudo marginata marginata), Sardinian Marginated tortoise (Testudo marginata sarda) and the dwarf Marginated tortoise or Weissinger’s tortoise (Testudo marginata weissingeri). These subspecies may appear morphologically different but they cannot be differentiated by mtDNA cytochrome b and nDNA ISSR sequence analysis. In the United States of America, the entire captive population is more than likely made up of both T. m. marginata and T. m. sarda based on their usual size. Only a small handful of individuals have bona fide history on their animals and in these rare cases, separation of subspecies is able to occur. We choose to use nature as a model in as many aspects as we can when it comes to maintaining any chelonian species at Garden State Tortoise, so we do keep any and all subspecies or locales separate from one another as they would be in the wild. The presence of the dwarf Marginated tortoise (T. m. weissingeri) in the United States is highly questionable as only two parties have claimed to have them, one being myself. Ours were imported many years ago from the Peloponnesus as such and they remain isolated in their own breeding group and are kept away from our other T. marginata colonies. These tortoises are smallish when compared to the larger examples we have which derive from Greece and Sardinia respectively. The adults measure between 8 and 9 inches in length which is significantly smaller than the 11 to 15 inch animals present in our other groups. We have also noted that the females will lay both oblong and spherical eggs whereas the larger animals only ever lay spherical eggs. The eggs are also on average larger than other T. marginata. The hatchlings are very light in color with highly contrasting dark markings on the shell and parts of the skin. They are also a bit more elongate in shape and less round. Clutch size is always small with 3 to 4 eggs being the average and up to 6 maximum. Incubation statistics and durations are the same as they are for the larger animals. These proposed T. m. weissingeri are susceptible to runny nose syndrome and we are sure they are never subjected to overly wet or cool conditions at any time. Because these tortoise occur only on the southwestern coast of the Peloponnesus where it is very arid, care is taken to prevent respiratory infections that could escalate to a severe level quickly. Much like the form of Testudo hermanni boettgeri also found in this area in nature, they stay rather small compared to their northern counterparts. Testudo marginata weissingeri has not been bred in high numbers at all in the United States so we are still learning about growth rates, maximum dimensions and other behaviors concerning them. It is very possible that this subspecies is actually just a local form and displays its characteristics including size because of the harsh environment they live in. Currently, hatchlings grow at a very similar rate when compared to those from the larger groups and adapt well to their surroundings. They do seem to be a bit more sensitive to wet conditions however. Even neonates can rapidly come down with a respiratory issue if attention is not paid to elements, temperatures and other factors. Of course hydration along with humidity is important for regular growth but constant wet situations are a sure death sentence. Surprisingly enough, T. m. weissingeri in the wild seem to avoid pyramiding of the carapace scutes which is otherwise commonly associated with extremely dry conditions and lack of hydration or humidity. Perhaps the wild tortoises are capable of locating a consistent water source even as babies or it is quite possible that the air humidity holds high enough while the ground remains dry since the locale is on the coast. An experiment to keep neonate T. m. weissingeri in more humid conditions like other T. marginata may agree with the assumption in regards to the arid environment. Maybe the proposed weissingeri will grow faster and attain larger dimensions than they would in nature thus placing them into the acceptance of a local form or geographical variant rather than a valid subspecies. Several more years of studying these tortoises is required in the United States before a final verdict on the opinion concerning the validation of the subspecies can be reached.
Hybrids between tortoises on the full species rank do occur in the United States. Crosses between various types exist but are nowhere near as common as those between subspecies and strains. Pertaining to Testudo marginata, known hybridization with Testudo graeca ibera is the more commonly encountered issue but occasional hybridization with Testudo hermanni boettgeri has surfaced. Typically these hybrids are easy to detect seeing as they grow larger but lack definition or clarity in their markings and may exhibit characteristics of both species in the mix. They become robust and brawny animals. The best way to reveal if a tortoise proposed as a Marginated is in fact pure is to simply look at the plastron. Any and all pure Testudo marginata will have the dark chevrons arranged on the plastron even on freshly hatched neonates and elderly adults. Only viewing the animal from above to see if the rear marginal scutes flare out like a bell or skirt is unacceptable since many forms of Testudo graeca may feature this as well along with similar coloration. In the case of many male T. g. ibera and T. g. anamurensis this marginal flaring can be well defined and apparent. This is yet another common misconception in American tortoise keeping. Misidentification remains a real issue even today.
Coloration of T. marginata seems to change as the tortoise matures being raised outdoors in the Southwest which coincides with outdoor keeping overall. Younger animals such as juveniles and young adults have more of a cream and light brown to blackish color throughout the carapace. As they mature, their carapace darkens and becomes a strong black with light highlights. Seemingly when Marginated tortoises are younger, this is when some will confuse them with Testudo graeca or even Testudo hermanni. Keepers clearly over look the tell tale sign of the black triangle markings or chevrons of the plastron on T. marginata. This species is well known for their distinct marginal skirting, strong, hooked beaks and thick scaling on their limbs. Captive bred specimens are some of the hardiest tortoise species but are still prone to poor husbandry and improper diets. When poor husbandry is practiced, deformations happen in the tortoise's shell growth as mentioned earlier and this also leads to the misclassification of the species. In turn, some T. hermanni or T. graeca with deformed shells and overgrown beaks are falsely thought of as T. marginata. Marginated tortoises hatch out at a relatively small size, slightly under an inch to 1.5 inches usually. Even at this age they are excellent climbers and can easily go unseen if hatched outdoors naturally. Predation in the Southwest region can occur by different birds of prey as well as ground Squirrels, Skunks and Coyotes getting into an enclosure. Neonates and nest sites are especially vulnerable to these predators. Once young adulthood is achieved, they are less vulnerable. Males seemingly mature quicker then females of this species, although growth rates are normally the same with those raised in the Southwest. Males will start mounting at just a few years of age, long before the females start producing their first clutches. Most first clutches result in low fertility and progressively become more successful with higher fertility as the animals grow.
Testudo tortoises continue to be an important and popular choice for American keepers. The Marginated tortoise, although less common in the states, is a remarkable species with one of the most unique appearances in the tortoise world. They have proven to be an adaptable species able to settle in to two regions that remain on the complete opposite end of the spectrum in climate and annual changes. As knowledge of tortoise keeping in the United States progresses, we hope to reveal the true nature and characteristics of Testudo marginata to the general public by providing further information on their proper care and propagation. To date, few Americans have witnessed the beauty and impressiveness of a properly grown T. marginata but efforts to put an end to inadequate husbandry information are in effect. Poorly raised and even deformed individuals still pass from one keeper to the next often surfacing on “for sale” sections of popular reptile websites. Sadly these animals often give enthusiasts a false depiction of what Testudo marginata should look like. This has resulted in a decrease in their popularity and the abandonment of what is otherwise an extremely hardy and personable tortoise species. From the west coast to the east coast this species has been successfully kept and bred for many years but only in recent times has a new light been shed on sufficient diet, hydration and other environmental requirements. There is no doubt that the Marginated tortoise is capable of withstanding harsh situations and can provide the keeper with decades of pure enjoyment. In terms of subspecies, the authors choose to recognize a definitive difference in T. marginata deriving from particular regions or locales. Whether or not the validation of any proposed subspecies is accepted or ignored, animals with historic lineage or any ties to their origin remain isolated in their own colonies just as nature would have it. There is already enough mass confusion surrounding the proper identification and purity concerning the tortoises of the genus Testudo but if we use nature as a model, we just may have a chance at helping to clear it up.
Chris Leone & Andrew Hermes