© 2017 Chris Leone/Garden State Tortoise LLC.

Testudo hermanni hermanni

Also known as "The Italian Tortoise", this is the nominate subspecies of Hermann's tortoise and has not yet elevated to full species level even though efforts have already been made (Eurotestudo hermanni, 2006). It is the rarest form of the three currently recognized subspecies, especially in USA collections. Today it is found in the south of France, including the island of Corsica, the Balearic Islands (Spain), south and central Italy and the Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Known for its bright coloration and sharp contrasts, the western Hermann's tortoise is typically a small, attractive animal with a rich, golden yellow shell. There is much variation with this subspecies as with any other Mediterranean tortoise, including a diversity of colors, sizes and other external features even within a specific locality. The following is a list of the key characteristics and widely accepted traits typically found in these animals:

 

  • A smaller size of 5 to 6" for females and 4 to 5" for males (very large examples exist)

  • A carapace with the highest point usually situated toward the center or front

  • A divided supracaudal shield

  • The usual presence of inguinal scutes on both sides of the bridge

  • A narrow and sleek shaped head with regular contours

  • A rounder overall appearance with minimal flaring at the back

  • The pectoral scute seam on the plastron is shorter than that of the femoral

  • A vibrant, rich, yellow or golden ground color on the carapace and plastron

  • Well defined and sharply contrasting black markings on the carapace

  • A visible "key hole" or "mushroom cloud" symbol on the fifth vertebral scute

  • Two longitudinal, continuous, jet black bands, running parallel on the plastron, along the mid-line or suture.

  • Gular scutes are either free of any black pigment or have markings separated from the general black bands in the form of small spots/patches

  • Anal scutes accompanied by black pigment sometimes separated from the general black bands

  • Skin and nail color typically light or yellow to gray 

Little Big Tortoise

 

You may hear tortoise keepers or enthusiasts refer to a "dwarf Hermann's tortoise". This is what some call the western Hermann's. This is a false statement. There is no such thing as a "dwarf Hermann's" and although T. h. hermanni are typically labeled small, some do reach a considerable size. In our collection, most of our adult females are fully grown at 5 and 6" but we do have some that are much bigger. We also have some males that have surpassed the usual 5" maximum size for this sex. The truth is, there are small examples of all the Hermann's tortoise subspecies. Take the eastern Hermann's (T. h. boettgeri) that are found in the south of Greece in the Peloponnesus. These animals are known to be as small as T. h. hermanni. Some western Hermann's found on the islands of Sardinia and Corsica attain impressive dimensions with specimens being larger than their eastern counterparts on average. On the other end of the size spectrum, the T. h. hermanni native to Mount Etna on Sicily, Italy are usually the smallest with our adults reaching only 4 to 5". Variation prevails in nature and just when we think we've got it figured out, we are thrown a curve ball. Localities or forms of course have something to do with these different sizes but even within a population you can find variety.

Lookin' Good

 

These tortoises feature a significant dome to the carapace in that it slopes up with the highest point typically siutated in the middle or towards the front. Usually the peak can be found around or between the second and thrid vertebral scutes but sometimes as far up as the first. This can and does vary and some localities may feature a peak toward the back of the carapace much like that of the eastern subspecies. When veiwed from above, the western Hermann's tortoise may appear rounded with less flaring than their Eastern counterparts. From here the gorgeous, rich, yellow-golden ground color can be seen accompanied by highly contrasting black bars, blotches and/or rays. These markings are extremely vibrant and well defined especially when the tortoise has been wetted down. Even in elderly specimens, the color usually still "pops" and shows through nicely. This is one of T. h. hermanni's most recognizable traits. While some localities are known for a more "yellow" look and others for a more "black" look, again variety even within a population holds true. Both very light and dark individuals can be found in all groups. In some cases the yellow of the ground color may be a different shade or tone.

The Keyhole

 

On the fifth vertebral scute, Testudo hermanni hermanni features a symbol that is reminiscent of a "keyhole" or "mushroom cloud". This important detail is what helps distinguish this variety of Hermann's tortoise from the others. However, this symbol is not always easily noticed especially since the other subspecies can exhibit something similar. Like most traits of the western Hermann's, this keyhole marking is rather well defined due to the drastic change between the yellow and black of the carapace. In other Hermann's tortoises, this marking is less defined, wider, distorted or completely lacking. All westerns have a keyhole or mushroom cloud to some degree. You should also take note that in T. h. hermanni, the supracaudal shield (the plate or scute just above the tail) is typically divided. While both the eastern and Dalmatian Hermann's may or may not have a divided suprecaudal shield, the Western always does. This is noticeable even in newly hatched babies.

On the Bottom

 

Quite possibly on the plastron is where Testudo hermanni hermanni exhibits its most characteristic feature. Two unmistakable black stripes run parallel along the midline and are completely separated from each other. They are also usually unbroken except for sometimes on the anal scutes or gular scutes. Of course this can vary and the stripes can occasionally separate in areas like the pectoral scutes. The formation of the stripes is important in that they start pointed in at each other, widen out towards the middle and taper back toward each other at their ends. They sometimes resemble the look of when a woman puts on lipstick and blots her lips on a napkin. Most believe that black bands on the plastron of a Hermann's tortoise automatically means it's a western. This is again not true. Almost all Hermann's tortoises show some degree of black on the plastron and some individuals belonging to both the eastern and Dalmatian form can have a lot of it. Some Greek populations of T. h. boettgeri may have close to an entirely black plastron and some T. h. hercegovinensis can have bands that closely depict that of the western. More than often, the black on either of these subspecies remains broken, faded, unclear or "spotty". Even when solid bands are present, they will not have such a well defined formation and will appear straight, boxy or blotchy. The intensity of the black pigment is usually not as contrasting as in the western form. The presence of black on the gular scutes is found less often in the western Hermann's but can and does happen. One or both gulars may show a simple spot or smudge of black. Some localities even have what is referred to as a "gular mustache". This is when one or two black stripes are found directly under the neck of the tortoise on the inner part of the gulars instead of on the bottom. This is classically found on insular (island) populations of Testudo hermanni hermanni and not so much on continental (mainland) ones.

It is believed that a true way to separate the three subspecies was by viewing the ratio between the suture of the pectoral scutes and that of the femoral scutes on the plastron. The western Hermann's features a femoral scute seam that is longer than that of the pectoral seam. In the eastern subspecies this is reversed and in the Dalmatian form they appear to be even in length or close to it. While these are still accepted traits and should be for that matter, one must take note that here is where variation really stands out. The truth is that eastern and Dalmatian tortoises will have scute seams of different lengths and ratios when compared to one another and especially in hatchlings/juveniles who have not fully developed yet. While again the Western tends to remain very constant with its features and this is no exception, there are individuals that "break the mold" and stray a bit from what is typically seen.

One other trait that should be pointed out when speaking of the bottom of these tortoises is the presence of inguinal scutes. Just in front of each rear leg a small triangular shaped scute is found where the bridge joins the plastron and carapace. This is a feature also found in the eastern subspecies but is usually lacking in the Dalmatian. Yet again I have to stress that there is an exception to every rule. Both eastern and western Hermann's have been found to be missing inguinals. This is of course rare, but it does happen on occasion and in the case of the western, it is normally isolated to insular populations such as Sicily, Italy for example.

Those Yellow Cheeks

A bright yellow spot or patch is found on either side of the western Hermann's tortoise's head just under and behind each eye. This subocular spot can be noticeable from a distance especially in specimens who have a darker overall skin color. It is easily seen in young individuals but is present in all ages. With some elderly animals the spot has faded while others carry it with them for their whole lives. The spot is also more abundant in specific localities while it is commonly absent in others.

The western form is also known for a pointier head with regular contours that is norrower than its eastern counter parts..

Skin & Nails

 

Much like the ground color of the shell, the skin color of Testudo hermanni hermanni can be quite striking. It is usually a vibrant yellow or pale color with greenish hues. At times, the head may be quite dark like in most Mallorcan hermanni or can have bright yellow flecks and scales on the top like in some Italian localities.

The nails on the forelimbs usually match the light color of the skin but very occasionally may be black. The nails on the back feet are typically dark.

Local Forms

 

Testudo hermanni hermanni is recognized by having several known local forms or "locales" in nature. Some of these forms are morphologically different while others are extremely similar. There are also marked genetic differences in which case certain populations form genetic clusters. This has allowed for management units based off conservation initiatives but it also enables us to better understand how to separate them under captive conditions. For a tortoise so gravely threatened with impurity, management units shed a positive light for both scientist and enthusiast in moving forward with conservation and preservation. For a closer look at the populations of T. h. hermanni, please check out our Population Map.