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Tortoise Diets: Mediterranean Species and Russian (Horsfield’s) Tortoises

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here. Judging from recent questions posted on this blog, there is a great deal of conflicting information available as regards the feeding of tortoise. The Greek or spur-thighed (Testudo graeca), marginated (T. marginata) and Hermann’s (T. hermanni) tortoises, collectively referred to as Mediterranean tortoises, and the popular Russian or Horsfield’s tortoise (T. horsfieldi) require a vastly different diet than do desert or rainforest adapted species.

While there is some flexibility as concerns diet, there are some general rules that should be followed. The following protocol has worked well for me in zoos and at home, and will hopefully help you in caring for these responsive and interesting reptiles.

Protein and Natural Foods

Mediterranean and Russian tortoises have evolved to process a diet that is high in fiber and calcium and low in protein and fat. In the wild, they feed almost exclusively on grasses, herbaceous plants and flowers, with fruit only sporadically available.

In captivity, high protein foods such as beans and dog/cat food should be strictly avoided. Fruit is not necessary, although a few berries can be given as a weekly treat during the summer.

Native Plants

In the warmer months, I use native grasses, weeds and flowers for 75-85% of the diet, with such accounting for nearly 100% of some specimens housed in outdoor zoo exhibits. In addition to wild grasses, the following are some native and introduced plants that can be offered to tortoises:

Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)

Dandelion (Taraxacum spp.)

Hawkweeds (Pictis spp.)

Clovers (Trifolium spp.)

Cat’s ears (Hypochoeris spp.)

Mallows (Malva spp.)

Sedums (Sedum spp.)

Chickweed (Stelaria media)

Hedge mustard (Sisymbrium sp.)

Bramble (Rubus fruticosus)

Plantains (Plantago spp.)

Please see the article on Toxic Plants referenced below for a list of species that may be potentially harmful to tortoises.

Produce

The balance of the diet is comprised of seasonally available greens (stems and leaves) such as kale, endive, Swiss chard and romaine. Other produce can be added as available, but avoid spinach and iceberg lettuce and use bok choy sparingly. Small amounts of yam and carrot are provided once weekly.

Commercial Diets

Zoo Med’s Grassland Tortoise Diet  is specifically formulated for Russian and Mediterranean tortoises, and can comprise up to 50% of the diet in winter or summer.

Winter Diet

During the winter, the diet of tortoises under my care typically consists of 70-75% commercially available greens and 25-30% Zoo Med Grassland Tortoise Diet. Grated yams and carrot can be offered once weekly as a treat. Some native plants freeze well, and can be stored for winter use.

Supplements

I add Reptocal and Repti Calcium with D3 to all meals provided to growing tortoises, and 3x weekly for adults. A cuttlebone is always available as well .

Water should always be available, or the tortoises can be soaked on alternate days, during which time they will drink heavily.

Light and Heat

Russian and other tortoises will not be able to properly metabolize calcium or digest other nutrients unless provided with a warm basking site and high levels of UVB (I suggest either the Zoo Med 10.0 or a mercury vapor bulb).

Further Reading

For more information on tortoise care, toxic plants and growing food for reptiles, please see The Russian Tortoise, Reptile Gardens  and Toxic Plants .

Please write in with your questions and comments. Thanks, until next time, Frank Indiviglio.

Testudo image referenced from Wikipedia and originally posted by B kimmel.

10 comments

  1. avatar
    Nancy Marquardt

    I have a Herman Tortise for about 4 years and would like to know how to tell if it is a male or female.

  2. avatar

    Hello Nancy, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest in our blog. The plastron (lower shell) of the male will have a depression that makes it look “caved in” (to help him balance on the female’s shell during mating. The female’s plastron is flat. Also, the male’s tail will be longer and thicker than a females, as the sexual organs are housed within the tail (hard to tell unless you have 1 of each sex to compare).

    If the tortoise is only 4 years old, you will likely not be able to determine its sex yet (all will look like female) as they usually do not become sexually mature until age 5-7 (longer in wild).

    Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    Hi we just got my son a Russian tortoise we keep it outside in a tortoise box we have a basking lamp for it and he seems to be doing great my question is how much food is enough, I have been giving him about 4 leaves of romaine and red leaf lettuce daily, and put supplements in his food twice a week is this enough?????? He always seems so hungry?

  4. avatar

    Hello Monica, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest in our blog. It’s important to note that a diet comprised of romaine and red leaf lettuce is not adequate – the tortoise may grow and appear fine, but nutritional deficiencies will take hold over time and lead to severe health problems; supplements are not a substitute for a varied, high-fiber diet as described in the article; please let me know if you have further questions.

    Amounts are very hard to set, as so many variables are involved – age, activity level, size of enclosure, UVB exposure, temperature, origin of animal and so on. Hunger will increase as temperatures rise…daily feedings in the amount you describe might suffice if you add high fiber items with greater nutritional value. Fast days should be included 1-2 times weekly as well.

    Exposure to natural sunlight, assuming you are guarding against overheating, is ideal; however, when sunlight is not available a UVB-emitting bulb is critical to your tortoise’s health. Please let me know if you need further info on this.

    Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  5. avatar

    What would you recommend to add to his food that would be high in fiber, and i have a water bowl in his box big enough for him to get in and a covered part so he can get out of the sun is this suffice?

  6. avatar

    Hello Monica, Frank Indiviglio here.

    The items mentioned under “produce” in this article are excellent, and you can experiment with other greens (carrot tops etc). Lettuce is generally low in nutrients, but red leaf etc can be used as part of the diet. The native plants listed should be added – clover and dandelion are easy to ID, most grasses are good as well; please see section on commercial diets and supplements as well.

    Covered area should be fine, but take temps there at hottest part of the day to be sure; if in direct sun for too long even a sheltered area can be too hot (i.e. 90-95F +).

    Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  7. avatar

    Thank you so much for your help, just a few more questions for now. We have the zoo meds grassland tortoise food but were told by the pet store to only give it to him 2 times a week but I see in your blog that it can account for 50% of the tortoises diet i have been mixing say about 4 pellets with his greens twice a week should I be offering him more? I am also going to go get him some kale to add to his diet as well. I am also planning on going and getting some dandelion plants to put in his box these can be found at any hardware store in the garden section. I just want to make sure it is your everyday variety flower and i can put the whole plant in his box, I am worried about any pesticides that might be on the plant?????? Thank you again for all your advice it really is helping

  8. avatar

    Hello Monica, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for the feedback, glad to be of help. 50% has worked, but in zoos I’ve generally stayed with appx 10% pellets 3x weekly; this is just a guideline – a wide variety of greens, with pellets as a supplement, has worked well with many species.

    Kale is fine, any seasonal greens also – collards, mustard etc. Frozen ok as well. Yes, typical dandelion, and many native grasses are great foods – dandelion flowers in season also. Pesticides are inescapable on foods grown for human use, except perhaps re some organically grown produce, or collected plants. Rinsing well, as you would for your own use, should be fine. Certain ornamental plants may be injected with pesticides, and can harbor these for some time, but this seems not to be the practice with food products.

    Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  9. avatar

    I Am Not Able To Provide My Tortoise UV light is that bad Or Dangerous?

  10. avatar

    Hello,

    Tortoises need exposure to UVB light in order to produce Vit D3 in the skin; this allows them to utilize the Calcium that they consume. Without proper UVB exposure, they will develop metabolic bone disease, developmental deformities, immune system problems and other serious/fatal health conditions. Depending upon the species, time of year and where you live, you can provide your tortoise with UVB by exposing it to unfiltered sunlight (direct, not through glass or plastic); much less time is needed in sun than under UVB lights, due to the sun’s high output. Overheating is a concern, however..please let me know if you need more info.

    Unfortunately, there is no way around this – they need lots of UVB, on a near-daily basis. Please see this article for further information. If you cannot provide this, I suggest you find a more suitable home for your tortoise. Please let me know if you need help in locating rescue/adoption groups.

    Best, Frank

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About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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