Russian Tortoise Introduction
The Russian tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii) is one of the most popular amongst pet owners. It’s upper shell or carapace is rounded, and is almost as wide as it is long, and its color ranges from light brown all over, to yellowish-brown but with extensive markings of dark brown on each scute, with a lower shell or plastron of black with yellow seams. This species differs from all other Testudo tortoises in that it has four, not five toes on its forelimbs, which gives it a further common name, the ‘four-toed tortoise’.
Names: Russian Tortoise, Afghanistan tortoise, steppe tortoise, central Asian tortoise, four-toed tortoise, and Horsfield’s tortoise.
Lifespan: Between 40-50 years in captivity
Size: Russian Tortoise Females tend to be on the larger side of things with a carapace between 7”-9” in length. Males are on the smaller size only reaching a carapace length of about 5” maximum.
Russian Tortoise Behavior and Temperament:
The Russian tortoise has a short period of activity, sometimes just three months per year in its natural environment. It comes out of hibernation in spring, usually in March, and actively forages and engages in mating until mid-June. Throughout much of its range, it will hide during the intense summer heat, coming out briefly at summer’s end to feed before hibernation. The burrow it digs may be as deep as 5’-6’, where it retreats during the midday heat and at night, only emerging to forage at dawn or dusk when temperatures drop. The depth of its burrow also helps to insulate the tortoise from the cold of winter. These tortoises are quite social, and they will visit nearby burrows, and sometimes several will spend the night in one burrow. Its natural habitat is arid, barren places such as rocky hillsides and deserts, sandy steppes and grassy regions close to springs. The winters in these areas can be particularly cold and harsh, with temperatures well below freezing.
With that said in their natural environment they would normally hibernate during the winter, but if being kept as pets it’s not recommended to do so unless absolutely sure of your animals’ health and safety from the elements and or predators while in their enclosure.
**These Tortoise are a great beginner species for both adults and children, but are a lifetime commitment**
Housing Russian Tortoises:
Russian tortoise live to burrow and climb: as such they are natural Houdini escape artists. They will retreat to their burrows during the intense heat of the day and at night for protection from their many predators. Leaving then to venture out during the cooler times of the dawn before temps get too high and as temps cool down just before dusk. The fence of their outdoor pet enclosure must be at least 18”-24” below as well as above the ground with some sort of netted or caged top to help protect from predators. This species tolerates a wide range of temps, but does not tolerate damp weather well, so a dry, arid and warm retreat is necessary.
Russian tortoises don’t tend to do well if indoors all the time. Provide a larger enclosure, at the very least it should be 2’x4’, with sand/soil as a substrate, ideally deep enough to allow burrowing and tall enough to keep from climbing out. Weather permitting you can carefully take them outside to graze (non-treated areas), walk and sun bathe as it is better for them to be in natural light to get the proper amounts of both UVA/UVB rays needed for healthy living. Be sure to keep an eye on them as they are much faster and sneakier than most think or expect.
Heating and Lighting:
Daytime temperatures should probably range between 80-87 degrees F during the day with a place for them to escape the heat, if need be. A temp drop at night if kept outdoors should be fine, but brought into an indoor enclosure during the winter to ensure safety and health. For an indoor set up a basking spot at about 90-95 degrees F should be provided, with temperature gradient down to about 72 F. A hide box should be placed at the cooler end of the temperature gradient. A UVB producing bulb is necessary.
Humidity and Hydration:
A shallow water dish should always be provided for both indoor and outdoor enclosures. Water should be changed out daily to ensure fresh and clean water is available for drinking and/or bathing. As mentioned before this species does not do well in wet environments and humidity should be kept between 45-55 percent or as close as possible to ensure the health of your animal.
Food and Water:
The diet of Russian tortoises is herbaceous which includes natural grazing grasses, vegetation and flowers from non-poisonous plants and weeds, leafy greens are ideal. If not available a variety of greens such as Dandelion greens, endive, mustard greens, romaine, collards, and timothy hay. Fruits and grains are not generally recommended, but some do offer fruits to them very sparingly as they can be rich in vitamin C and sugars which can complicate nutrient absorption. Supplementation of calcium and vitamin D3 powder is recommended. Fresh water should be offered in a shallow dish and changed out daily to avoid any bacterial issues as some tortoise like to relieve themselves in water dishes/bowls.
Selecting Your Russian Tortoise:
As with most exotic pets, there’s no way to know if a wild-caught animal has been exposed to parasites or other potential infections. It’s always recommended and best to get your Russian tortoise from a reputable breeder. Always do your research and be ready to ask a lot of questions of any prospective seller to ascertain the quality of the animal and seller. Ask if you can watch it eat before committing to buying, if possible, to observe any appetite issues. Some other things to observe are if its eyes are cloudy or there’s any mucus around its mouth or nasal passages, these may be signs of a sick tortoise. If it has pointed or pyramiding scute on its shell may indicate a problem with lighting and/or diet.
Common Health Problems:
Be sure that you have a veterinarian that is familiar with reptile anatomy and issues before you’ve chosen a tortoise, then be prepared to take your new pet in to have them seen any issues or concerns and to check for parasites. This isn’t a condition that will necessarily be obvious. Like many reptiles, tortoises are also prone to respiratory infections from bacteria, low temps, as well as stress. You may notice a mucus type discharge and or wheezing from your animal. Calcium and vitamin A deficiency, which comes from a poor diet, can also be common. Some other common issues are going to be cuts or abrasions, cracked or broken beaks, long toe nails and males could experience penile prolapse. Shell rot is a bacterial or fungal issue that will need to be addressed by your veterinarian before it leads to septicemia. This should be treated by a veterinarian with exotic reptile experience, but most cuts and abrasions can be treated at home with proper cleaning of the wound with luke-warm water and a mild soap.
MBD (Metabolic Bone Disease), a result of insufficient UVB light, is another common condition among tortoise and other reptiles. They may appear to have wobbly legs, or become lethargic and have a poor appetite. This is another condition that is treatable if caught early enough, but consult your veterinarian; a low appetite is a sign of many possible conditions including a parasitic infection.
Fun Facts for Kids
Russian tortoises dig a lot and disappear underground.
Being land animals, they do not much like being in water.
Russian tortoises are docile in nature and so are great for children.
A ‘creep’ is the word for a group of tortoises.
Tortoises inspired the armies of ancient Rome. During sieges, soldiers went into testudo formation, so-named because of the Latin name for tortoise. They formed rows and held their shields above or in front of them to completely cover the unit.
“Testudinal” has the meaning of “resembling or pertaining to a tortoise or the shell of a tortoise.”
Tortoises have both an exoskeleton as well as an endoskeleton. A shell is in three main parts: the carapace on the top, the plastron on the bottom, and the bridge that joins these pieces together. Every tortoise has ribs, a spine, and a collar bone inside its shell.
It can’t swim, but a tortoise can hold its breath for a long period. It is very tolerant of carbon dioxide, which is fortunate, as it must empty its lungs before it can go into its shell. You can hear it exhale when it is startled and decides to hide .