Spain is home to two species of tortoises: the Spur-thighed tortoise, Testudo graeca, (La Tortuga Mora) and Hermann’s tortoise, Testudo hermanni (La tortuga mediterránea). The Spur-thighed tortoise has three separate populations in southwestern Spain (Parque Nacional de Doñana), southeastern Spain (provinces of Murcia and Almeria), and northwestern Mallorca. Hermann’s tortoise inhabits the northeastern corner of the country (Catalonia), the southern part of Mallorca, and most of Minorca.
Habitat destruction and the pet trade
Populations of tortoises in Spain have been severely impacted by human activities such as uncontrolled urban development, road construction, and reservoirs, which encroached on their territories. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of turtles were collected for the pet trade over the decades. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until 2015 that collecting turtles for personal pets or selling them was finally banned, despite the obvious and significant negative impact on their populations in Spain.
There are various re introduction and protection projects for both the Spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca) and Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni) and they are listed below in the “further reading” part of this article
Spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca) and Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni)
The Spur-thighed tortoise is a relatively small species, measuring 13-16 cm (5-6 in) in length and up to 30 cm (12 in) in length (or more) with a maximum weight of approximately 6 kg (13 lb). Its carapace is brownish-yellow with black patches, and it has a spur on either thigh.
Hermann’s tortoise is a medium-sized tortoise, with adults usually ranging from 13-20 cm (5-8 in). Adults may reach up to 28 cm (11 in) in length, weighing 3-4 kg (7-9 lb). Hermann’s tortoise has an arched, rounded carapace with intense yellow coloration against a dark background. The plastron has two connected black bands along the central seam, and the coloration of the head ranges from olive to yellowish with dark patches.
Habitat, diet and breeding
In terms of their natural habitat and diet, both species of tortoise are primarily herbivorous and eat succulent and herbaceous plants. Hermann’s tortoise appears to favor legumes and clovers over grasses. However, they are opportunistic omnivores and will occasionally eat invertebrates, such as worms and snails, and carrion.
Both the Spur-thighed tortoise and Hermann’s tortoise are found in arid areas from sea level to higher altitudes. They prefer areas with gentle slopes and low vegetation selecting shady spots in these areas. Although in some areas densities can exceed 10 tortoise per hectare, the average does not exceed 5 individuals, and in many places, there may be only one specimen per hectare.
As ectothermic animals, tortoise significantly reduce their activity during the winter period, which is occasionally interrupted on days with better weather. They emerge from this hibernation in late February or early March when the temperature reaches around 20°C, and their activity gradually increases with rising temperatures.
Mating begins in late March, but the peak activity occurs in mid-April, gradually decreasing during the month of May.
In late May or early June, the female seeks a flat patch of not-too-soft soil sheltered by a plant, preferably facing east. This way, the eggs receive gentle morning heat and mid-day shade provided by the protecting plants.
As a general rule, each female lays between 3 and 7 eggs, with an average size of 33.21 x 26.84 mm. Incubation takes place between the months of July, August, and September. The hatchlings are born in late August or early September.
During summer, lack of food and excessive heat cause turtles to significantly reduce their activity to the early hours of the day and late afternoon, sometimes remaining almost completely motionless for many days, sheltering under rocks, bushes, or abandoned animal burrows. Changes in temperature and the first autumn rains will restore activity to the turtles.
Telling the difference between the Spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca) and Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni) in Spain
One of the main differences between the Spur-thighed tortoise and Hermann’s tortoise is the size and shape of their heads. The Spur-thighed tortoise has large symmetrical scales on the top of its head, while Hermann’s tortoise only has small scales on its head. Similarly, the Spur-thighed tortoise has large scales on its front legs, whereas Hermann’s tortoise has small scales on its front legs.
Another distinguishing characteristic between these two species is their shell shape and markings. The Spur-thighed tortoise has an oblong rectangular shell with widely stretched spinal plates, while Hermann’s tortoise has an oval shell shape with small spinal plates. The Spur-thighed tortoise also has notable spurs on each thigh and undivided carapace over the tail, while Hermann’s tortoise has no spurs and a tail carapace that is almost always divided. In addition, the Spur-thighed tortoise has isolated flecks on the spine and rib plates, with a dark central fleck on the underside, while Hermann’s tortoise has isolated flecks only on the spinal plates and two black bands on the underside.
Finally, there are some differences in the tail structure between these two species. The Spur-thighed tortoise has movable posterior plates on the underside and no tail spur, while Hermann’s tortoise has fixed plates on the underside and a tail that bears a spur at the tip.
Overall, these differences make it relatively easy to tell the two species apart, and can help in identifying them in the wild or in captivity. In the wild, of course, your geographic location is a key to help with identification.
Further reading and contacts
Projects and reintroductions in Murcia
ANSE. Asociación de Naturalistas del Sureste. This association has a Center for the recovery of the Spur-thighed Tortoise and other Reptiles in Cartagena. This includes a facility for rehabilitating tortoises from captivity for release into the Association’s reserve. The facility also provides care for individuals that cannot be released due to belonging to different subspecies than those found in the Southeast or having physical defects or other impediments that require them to be kept in captivity.
Address: Plaza Pintor José María Párraga, 11. Bajo. 30002 Murcia. Spain. Tel. 968 966 407: https://www.asociacionanse.org/proyectos/proyecto-testudo/
Centro de Recuperación de Fauna Silvestre El Valle. The El Valle Wildlife Recovery Center continues to operate as an essential service, recognizing the importance of veterinary clinical centers and animal care facilities in monitoring and controlling diseases as part of the Wildlife Health Surveillance Program. Additionally, these facilities play a crucial role in safeguarding our protected species. (Address: Carretera del Valle, 62, 30150 Murcia): https://murcianatural.carm.es/web/guest/fauna1/-/journal_content/56_INSTANCE_0MbI/14/3963542
Fundación TRENCA. Following the observation of three specimens of the Mediterranean tortoise (Testudo h. hermanni) in the Vall Major de Bovera (Les Garrigues region, Lleida), originating from the nearby reintroduced population in the Montsant Natural Park (Tarragona), the TRENCA association proposed to the CRARC (Center for Amphibian and Reptile Recovery of Catalonia) the possibility of consolidating this incipient population.
The existence of TRENCA’s own properties as well as others with custody agreements, in addition to the suitability of the habitat, facilitated the initiation of the Mediterranean Tortoise Reintroduction Project in Les Garrigues in 2016.
After preparing the properties by reinforcing the existing fencing along the entire perimeter to prevent the escape of adult specimens, the first release was made in June 2016 (52 specimens), the second in September 2017 (30 specimens), the third in November 2018 (30 specimens), and so on in the following years until reaching a total of 256 tortoises.
Since 2016, young tortoises and evidence of reproduction (nests and eggshells) have been found every year, which highlights the suitability of the area to host a viable population of the species.
Address: Fundación Trenca, C/ La Palma, 6-10, 25002 Lleida
In Doñana national Park
The population of spur-thighed tortoises (Testudo graeca) in Doñana National Park is one of the healthiest in the Iberian Peninsula. The Doñana tortoises have been studied for over 20 years, and their distribution, as well as many data on their biology and ecology, are known. The distribution of Testudo graeca in Doñana is limited to the interior of the National Park, La Vera and the surroundings of the peridunal lagoons.
- The Bicheando website has some great photos of species in their habiat https://bicheando.net/2020/06/quelonios-de-la-peninsula-iberica-tortugas-de-tierra-volumen-1/?cn-reloaded=1
- The Hermann’s tortoise European Life+ project (France) has some good information in English about Hermanns tortoise: http://www.tortue-hermann.eu/home.php
- Wikipedia entry states that In Spain we have in fact T. g. graeca and 20 subspecies are now recognised across Europe and Asia. Its complicated!: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_tortoise
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