Basic Information Sheet: Russian Tortoise

Russian Tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii)

Russian Tortoise

Testudo horsfieldii. Photo credit: “Futureman1199” via Wikimedia Commons.

Natural history



The Russian tortoise, also known as the Afghan, steppe, four-toed, or Horsfield’s tortoise, is found in southeastern Russia, Azerbaijan, southern Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Afghanistan, northwestern China, and Pakistan. This tortoise’s habitat consists of dry steppe and it prefers dry areas with sparse vegetation up to 2500 m in altitude. Testudo horsfieldii are usually found near water; their environmental preferences include grasslands, forests, and savannah.

Conservation status



Free-ranging populations are listed on CITES Appendix II and are described as “vulnerable” by the International Union on Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Taxonomy



Class: Reptilia

Order: Chelonia/Testudines

Family: Testudinidae

Genus: Testudo

Testudo horsfieldii

There are many subspecies, those common in the pet trade include:

T. h. horsfieldii horsfieldii

T. h. kazachstanica

T. h. rustamovi


Physical description



Russian tortoises are one of the smaller species of genus Testudo, measuring up to 20 cm (8 in) in length. Adult size ranges from 12-20 cm (5-8 in). Russian tortoises are sexually dimorphic, with females slightly larger than males.

The carapace is broad, rounded, and “stocky” or dorsoventrally flattened. The shell is generally greenish-brown to black, fading to yellow between the scutes with a yellowish-brown body. This characteristic shape may also possess a dorsal ridge.

The Russian tortoise can be distinguished from other members of genus Testudo by:

  • Lacking the movable plastron hinge between the femoral and the abdominal scutes
  • Possessing a horny claw or spur at the end of its tail as well as tubercles or enlarged scales on the sides of its tail and thighs (see left)
  • The presence of only four, instead of five, toes on each forefoot
  • A tall bridge and lateral scutes, which makes it easy for this species to defend itself by retreating deep within its shell

Females are slightly larger with flared scutes on their shells while males have a longer tail, which is usually tucked to the side.


Diet



The free-ranging diet consists of grasses, flowers, and leaves. Water can be provided in shallow bowls, like plant saucers, for soaking and drinking. See the Mediterranean Tortoise Basic Information Sheet for additional information.

Housing


Temperature Day Basking spot Night Source
21°C -32°C (70°F -90°F) Generally 5°C (9°F) greater than the highest daytime temperature Drop by approximately 5°C (9°F) Gibbons 2012
21°C -27°C (70°F -80°F) 30°C (85°F) 18°C -24°C (65°F -75°F) Franklin 2007
15°C -30°C (60°F -85°F) 5°C -25°C (40°F -75°F) 5°C -25°C (40°F -75°F) Divers 2003
Humidity Humidity must be kept relatively low (no higher than 65-70%) with an ideal gradient of 40-75%.
Lighting Artificial UVB lighting is recommended for captive specimens. See the Mediterranean Tortoise Basic Information Sheet for additional information.
Cage size and design Outdoor housing is best if temperatures allow. Russian tortoises are especially good burrowers and will dig beneath fencing.  Therefore fencing must be buried deeply to prevent escapes.If temperatures fall below 4°C (40°F), Russian tortoises should be housed indoors. An opaque storage container (e.g. Rubbermaid) can serve as an inexpensive indoor pen as they are easy to clean. At minimum this container should be 50-gallon (189-L) for one tortoise, however an enclosure measuring at least 1.2 m (4 ft) by 0.6 m (2 ft) and 30-36 cm (12-14 in) high is preferable.
Substrate Russian tortoises are excellent burrowers and should ideally be provided with enough substrate in which to construct burrows. An alternative is to dig hollows in the ground and cover them with wooden boards,  under which burrowing tortoises will choose to hide. See the Mediterranean Tortoise Basic Information Sheet for additional information.
Social structure Russian tortoises are extremely territorial and generally do not mix well with other species of tortoise. House Russian tortoises separately from other individuals of the same species as well as different species.
Hibernation/ aestivation Free-ranging Russian tortoises can hibernate for sometimes more than 6 months at a time as they are adapted to very hot summers and very cold winters. The recommended length of hibernation is approximately 3 months for a healthy adult captive tortoise. This species will dig long, deep burrows to protect them from weather extremes. Standard hibernation temperatures range from 5-10°C (40-50°F) (Divers 2003). Of course it is difficult to replicate conditions for safe aestivation in captivity, and for this reason some herpetologists elect to maintain tortoises at moderate temperatures that allow normal activity year round.


Anatomy/ physiology



Although the age varies with environmental factors, sexual maturity is generally reached around 10 years of age. Up to three clutches, consisting of up to five eggs each, can be laid annually. Egg incubation ranges from 56-84 days (Gibbons 2012).

See the Mediterranean Tortoise Basic Information Sheet for additional information.


Restraint



See the Mediterranean Tortoise Basic Information Sheet

Venipuncture



See the Mediterranean Tortoise Basic Information Sheet

Preventive medicine



See the Mediterranean Tortoise Basic Information Sheet

Important medical conditions


  • Herpesvirus: Tortoise herpesvirus 1 (TeHV1) genotype appears to be very common in Russian tortoises and in fact, Testudo horsfieldi is the predominant host species for TeHV1. Clinical disease associated with TeHV1 is more common in the spring; and although this genotype is associated with low morbidity and mortality in Russian tortoises, who are often carriers. Tortoise herpesvirus 3 (TeHV3) infection causes particularly severe disease and high morbidity and mortality in Testudo horsfieldi.
  • Upper respiratory tract disease or rhinitis caused by Mycoplasma spp., Chlamydophilosis, etc.
  • Pneumonia
  • Urolithiasis is also a relatively common disorder in Testudo horsfieldi
  • Nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism (metabolic bone disease)
  • Renal failure
  • Hexamita parva (renal or urinary parasite)
  • Eye infections

Note: Unlike other members of genus Testudo, picornaviruses (“virus X”) are not regularly detected in Testudo horsfieldii.

See the Mediterranean Tortoise Basic Information Sheet for additional information.


Quiz


Click here to access LafeberVet’s Testudo Tortoise Fast 5 Quiz.

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References and further reading