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(207) 846-6515

RUSSIAN TORTOISES

YVCipedia REPTILES
RUSSIAN TORTOISES

BIOLOGY

  • Testudo horsfieldii
  • Also know as Afghan, Steppe, Four-toed, and Horsfield's tortoise
  • Found naturally in southeast Russia, Azerbaijan, southern Kazakstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Ira, Afghanistan, northwest China, and Pakistan
  • Preferred habitat is dry steppe, areas with sparse vegetation up to 2500 meters in altitude
  • Live naturally in conditions where food is scarce; thus, they are opportunistic feeders
  • Herbivores, with a natural diet of grasses, flowers, and leaves
  • Adult size 5 to 8 inches; juveniles up to 4 inches
  • Lifespan 50 to 100 years; often much shorter in captivity
  • Carapace (upper shell) is broad, rounded and flattened; it may have a ridge. This tall shell allows the tortoise to escape deep into the shell. It is greenish brown to black, fading to yellow between the scutes. 
  • Distinguished from other members of Testudo genus (Meditteranean) by a lack of a hinge in the lower shell and four, instead of five, toes on each front foot
  • Spur at the end of the tail; enlarged scales on the sides of the tail and thighs
  • Are adapted to live in very hot summers and very cold winters; some wild RTs will hibernate for up to 6 months. They dig very long, deep burrows to hibernate. 
  • Sexual maturity is generally reached around 10 years of age; this varies with enviromental factors.
  • Up to three clutches, consisting of up to five eggs each, can be laid each year. Egg incubation ranges from 56 to 84 days.

SEXUAL DIMORPHISM (MALES LOOK DIFFERENT FROM FEMALES)

  • Males usually have longer tails that they hold curled to their side
  • Males have a concave plastron (lower shell), which facilitates mounting females
  • Vent is relatively closer to the back edge of the carapace in females; in males it is relatively closer to the tip of the tail
  • Females are usually larger over-all, and broader and heavier than males
  • Females have flared edges on their upper scutes

DIET

  • In general, should be high fiber, calcium-rich, and low protein
  • Capable of producing vitamin D3 by exposure to unfiltered sunlight or UVB bulbs; also can utilize vitamin D2 from plants
  • Should be allowed to graze on grasses and weeds whenever possible
  • The diet should contain foods with high levels of carotenoids, especially beta-carotene; found in dark leafy greens as well as orange and yellow vegetables
  • Offer food blended to reduce selective feeding
  • Human-grade calcium supplement should be blended into the food mix
  • Fruits should be given in small amounts or not at all
  • If commercial dried or pelleted tortoise diet is fed the first ingredient should be grass hay
  • Food should be placed on tiles or dishes to prevent ingestion of the enclosure substrate
  • Place food at the brighter end of the enclosure; illumination can stimulate appetite
  • Do not place food under the heat source to prevent it from drying out

WATER

  • Water, available all the time, should be provided in a shallow, sturdy pan, to allow bathing as well as drinking
  • Soaking and bathing encourage drinking, urinating and defecating
  • Allow 10 to 20 minutes bathing once weekly for adults and daily for hatchlings
  • Bathing tortoises should not be left alone, as they can upend and drown, even in shallow water

ENVIRONMENT
TEMPERATURE

  • Day 70 - 90 degrees
  • Night drop by 5 degrees
  • Basking spot 5 degrees higher than highest daytime temperature
  • HUMIDITY
  • Relatively low, no higher than 70%
  • Ideally a gradient in the enclosure from 40% to 70%
  • Juveniles may require higher humidity to prevent shell pyramiding
  • Provide a humidity box, to simulate a humid underground burrow; a dark plastic container with a cut entrance and moistened paper towels or moss

LIGHTING

  • Unfiltered sunlight is the ideal lighting for Russian tortoises. UVB is almost completely filtered by normal glass and plastic; UVB transmissible glass and plastic is necessary
  • It is not known whether Russian tortoises absolutely require full spectrum UV light when adequate vitamin D3 or D2 is eaten. But UVB lighting improves metabolism and various activities and behaviors for tortoises kept indoors, and we consider it a necessity.
  • Light intensity decreases by the distance squared, so the UVB source must be close, usually within 12 to 18 inches of the reptile.
  • The UVB source must be positioned so that the tortoise will be frequently exposed to it; for example, if the light is close to a shelf, but the pet rarely uses that shelf, then the light is inadequate.
  • Types of UV lights include fluorescent tubes, compact fluorescents, flood lamps and mercury vapor spot lamps; we think mercury vapor spots are best because they produce light and heat.
  • UV output decreases long before visible light decreases, so bulbs must be replaced every 6 to 12 months, or when UV output drops below 70% as determined with a UV tester
  • Daily exposure should be 10 to 12 hours minimum. 

ENCLOSURE

  • Russian tortoises will thrive if housed outdoors, if temperature allows. If temperature falls below 40 degrees they should be housed indoors.
  • Outdoor enclosures should be at least 12 square feet, and preferable 24 square feet (the range of wild RTs is measured in square miles)
  • RTs are good burrowers and will dig beneath fencing, so fencing must be buried deeply to prevent escape.
  • An outdoor alternative is to dig hollows in the ground and cover them with boards.
  • An outdoor enclosure must provide protection from predators, and offer both sun and shade; ideally, it should also offer the opportunity to forage
  • Fences and walls of an enclosure should be opaque or solid, and enclosure accessories should break up the line of sight, because tortoises will try to move through or over a wall they can see through or over
  • An opaque Rubbermaid storage container is an inexpensive indoor pen that is easy to clean. Minimum 50 gallons for one tortoise
  • A clear glass or plastic aquarium or vivarium is not a suitable enviroment for a tortoise
  • Multiple options for hiding should be provided, distributed throughout the temperature gradient of the enclosure
  • An enclosure measuring 2' x 4', by 1' to 2' high is preferable

SUBSTRATE

  • Select a friable, malleable substrate that allows the tortoise to right itself. 
  • Suitable substrates include alfalfa or grass hay pellets, large bark chips, hemp, newspaper, shredded paper, indoor/outdoor or reptile carpeting, and peat or soil mixtures (sterilized topsoil, coconut earth).
  •  There is no one perfect substrate so research pros and cons of each to find one best suited for a specific habitat. 
  • Due to risk of ingestion and intestinal blockage, avoid sand, cat litter, crushed corncob, or walnut shells. The depth of the substrate should enable burrowing.
  • RTs should be provided with enough substrate in their pen that they can burrow.

SOCIAL STRUCTURE

  • RTs are extremely territorial. We do not recommend housing them together, or with members of other species of tortoise.
  • Small groups of females only might be successfully kept together. New additions should be quarantined for a minimum of 3 months. 
  • Larger RTs will monopolize food, water and shelter. Only tortoises of very similar size should be housed together.
  • Amorous males will upend females and other males, and this can be fatal. Males should be housed separately.

HIBERNATION

  • It is difficult, close to impossible, to duplicate the natural conditions for hibernation indoors.
  • We recommend maintaining indoor RTs at a moderate temperature year-round, and not allowing hibernation
  • Hibernation is sometimes called brumation, estivation, or aestivation; they are essentially the same thing.
  • For more information on hibernation, please see our article in the YVCipedia at yarmouthvetcenter.com

MEDICAL PROBLEMS

  • Herpesvirus
  • Upper respiratory infections (Mycoplasma, Chlamydia, others)
  • Lower respiratory infections (pneumonia)
  • Urinary tract stones
  • Urinary tract parasites (hexamita)
  • Conjunctivitis and other eye problems
  • Nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism (metabolic bone disease)
  • Chronic debility secondary to inadequate care
  • Debility secondary to attempt to hibernate
  • Chronic kidney disease and kidney failure
  • Pyramiding of the shell
  • Cloacal prolapse
  • Paraphimosis (penile prolapse)
  • Low vitamin A
  • Internal parasites
  • Hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease)
  • Dysecdysis (improper shed)
  • Beak overgrowth

PREVENTIVE HEALTH CARE

  • We recommend an exam and fecal test soon after purchase or adoption.
  • We recommend an annual exam and fecal test. 

Yarmouth Veterinary Center
2015, updated 2016

Office Hours

DayOpenClose
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Tuesday7:306:00
Wednesday7:306:00
Thursday7:306:00
Friday7:306:00
Saturday8:0012:00; Also, 4 pm Boarding Pick-up
Sunday4:00pmBoarding Pick-up
Day Open Close
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
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6:00 6:00 6:00 6:00 6:00 12:00; Also, 4 pm Boarding Pick-up Boarding Pick-up