(These comments are geared to people in Britain keeping tortoises as pets. In Montenegro, tortoises are wild animals and are protected species, so keeping them in captivity is illegal.)
The tortoise is a living fossil having survived since the dawn of the age of reptiles, 200 million years ago. Collection for exportation and habitat destruction have dramatically reduced populations in their native countries around the Mediterranean like France, Spain, Italy, the former Yugoslavia, Turkey, Greece and northern Africa.
The species of Mediterranean tortoise most commonly imported into Britain have been the Spur-thighed Tortoise (Testudo graeca) and the Hermann’s Tortoise (Testudo hermanni). The Spur-thighed Tortoise is further divided into sub-species with a main division between Europe and northern Africa. They are in an active state of evolution and not fully understood. The Hermann’s tortoise, with two recognised sub-species, exists in the south of France, on the coastlines of Italy and the former Yugoslavia and on islands in the Mediterranean. The Spur-thighed Tortoise has a spur on either side of the tail, whereas the Hermann’s Tortoise has a single horny claw at the tip of the tail (see diagram). In both species. the male can be recognised by the longer, narrower and more pointed tail (see diagram): some males have a concave plastron.
A tortoise’s body is surrounded by a protective shell with an upper part (the carapace) and a lower part (the plastron), both of which are made up of individual bony plates and horny scutes. The upper and lower parts of the shell are joined by bridges between the fore- and hindlimbs.
Tortoises, like most reptiles, are ectothermic and rely on an external heat source (the sun) to raise their body temperature sufficiently for them to be alert, feed and digest their food. They are inactive in cold weather.
Contrary to belief tortoises do drink, especially on waking from hiberation, when a warm bath is usually appreciated . A shallow dish about 10 cm (4 ins) deep, should be sunk into the ground to allow the animals to submerge their heads Into the water. Allow for easy access into and out of the dish.
Tortoises need a diet which is high in dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals, but low in fat and proteins and feed mainly on green leaves. If your tortoise has the run of a garden it will forage quite successfully for itself on charlock, chickweed, clover, dandelion, groundsel, plantains, sow thistle and vetches and the leaves of plants and bushes like buddleja, ice plant, lilac, rose and bramble. Beware of weedkillers and slug pellets.
In the wild, tortoises are opportunistic feeders and they will on occasion tackle carrion and dung. Their digestive systems are, however, geared towards the digestion of leaves, including cellulose, so a wide variety of greens must be offered and the diet should be as varied as possible with leaves, vegetables and fruits as well as proprietary vitamin and mineral supplements such as Vionate or the Vetark range (Arkvits, Nutrobal AceHigh) obtainable via most veterinary surgeons or via the British Chelonia Group.
The following foods can be tried: beans (leaves and pods), broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, cucumber, endive, lettuce, kale, spring greens, watercress. Beetroot, carrots, cauliflower and parsnips may be grated or offered cooked. Sprouts of the pulses are excellent.
Of the fruits, try apples, apricots, blackberries, currants, gooseberries, grapes, mandarins, melons, peaches, pears, plums, oranges, raspberries, strawberries and tomatoes. Tinned or defrosted fruit can be offered as an alterative. After feeding on sticky fruit, wipe the mouth with damp tissue.
A varied diet is recommended and one guided by the wild situation. Avoid excess of one food type. High protein items like dog and cat food and peas are not natural and can be harmful in excess, especially in juveniles.