Species group: Tortoises
Other common names: Horsfield’s Tortoise, Central Asian Tortoise, Steppe Tortoise, Afghan Tortoise
Scientific name: Agrionemys (Testudo) horsefieldii
Despite their immense popularity, tortoises are delicate captives, and not recommended for the inexperienced keeper. The plucky Russian Tortoise, however, while not an “easy pet”, is a good choice for serious folks with some experience keeping other terrestrial turtles under their belts.
The Russian Tortoise ranges over much of central Asia, from Russia’s Caspian Sea south and east through Kazakhstan to northeastern Iran, Afghanistan, northern Pakistan and northwestern China.
They inhabit rocky deserts, hillsides and steppes, often near oases or springs.
Appearance / health:
The domed carapace is light to yellowish-brown in color and bears dark brown blotches. Adults measure 6-8.8 inches in length.
Well-cared-for Russian Tortoises are quite hardy, with captive longevities approaching 50 years. Metabolic bone disease is common in animals that are not provided with ample calcium and/or UVB exposure. Females without access to a suitable nesting site may retain their eggs. Respiratory tract infections and ear abscesses are common in damp habitats, or in very dry conditions if a moist retreat is not available. The lack of a moist retreat may also result in irregular shell formation, usually in the form of lumps, among hatchlings. Fiber-poor diets cause digestive disorders, and a diet rich in fruit will lead to colic-like ailments. Other possible problems to be aware of include swollen eyes (Vitamin A deficiency), overgrown beaks, and obesity.
Behavior / temperament:
Russian Tortoises take very well to captivity and quickly learn to “beg’ for food when their owners appear. They are alert and aware of their surroundings, and feed readily from the hand. Like most turtles, they dislike being handled and carried about.
Russian Tortoises are quite active and need spacious enclosures. Glass aquariums are unsuitable. Adults do best in custom-made enclosures measuring at least 4 x 4 feet, but preferably larger; outdoor maintenance is ideal. Plastic-based rabbit cages, large plastic storage boxes, and cattle troughs can also be modified as turtle homes. Drinking water should be available, and the animals should also be soaked in a tub of shallow water for 15-20 minutes, 1-2x weekly.
A 6-8 inch deep mix of sand and soil is the best substrate. The substrate should be of a depth that allows the tortoise to create a shallow depression for night-time use.
Exposure to UVB light is essential. Mercury vapor bulbs broadcast UVB over greater distances than do florescent models, and provide beneficial UVA radiation as well. Temperatures should range from 70-80 F, with a basking site of 90-95 F and a dip to 62-65 F at night. Provide your pet with the largest home possible, so that a thermal gradient (areas of different temperatures) can be established. Thermal gradients, critical to good health, allow turtles to regulate their body temperature by moving between hot and cooler areas.
Females and youngsters often co-exist, but must be watched as dominance hierarchies develop. Males fight viciously, and usually harass females with near-constant mating attempts.
Russian Tortoises consume 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. High protein foods such as beans and dog food should be strictly avoided. Fruit is not necessary, although a few berries can be given as a weekly treat during the summer.
In the warmer months, native grasses, weeds, and flowers should, if possible, comprise the bulk of your tortoises diet (learn to identify toxic species). The following are readily accepted by most individuals:
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.)
The balance of the diet should include seasonally available greens such as kale, endive, Swiss chard, mustard/collard greens, 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 can be provided once weekly. Commercial grassland tortoise diets may be added to your pet’s salad, but should not be used as a mainstay.
Most meals provided to growing animals should be powdered with a calcium source. Vitamin/mineral supplements should be used 2-3 times each week. Both can be reduced to once weekly for well-nourished adults. A calcium block or cuttlebone may be left in the terrarium for “as needed” use (not all individuals will consume calcium in this form).
Wild Russian Tortoises become sexually mature when approximately 10-12 years old, but pets may reproduce at age 4-6, or earlier. Mature males may be distinguished from females by their longer, thicker tails. Breeding usually occurs without the need for temperature manipulation, although a hibernation period of 2-3 months at 38-42 F has also proven effective. Pairs must be watched closely, as males bite during courtship, and may injure non-receptive females.
Gravid (egg-bearing) females usually become restless and may refuse food. If the home enclosure is not suitable for nesting, they should be removed to a large container (i.e. 5x the length and width of the turtle) provisioned with 8-10 inches of slightly moist soil and sand. Gravid females that do not nest should be seen by a veterinarian as egg retention invariably leads to a fatal infection (egg peritonitis). It is important to note that females may develop eggs even if unmated, and may produce 3-4 clutches each year; a single mating may result in fertile clutches years later. The 1-20 eggs may be incubated in a mix of 1 part vermiculite to 1 part water (by weight) at 84-89 F for 60-90 days. Males are produced at low incubation temperatures and females at high; 86 F yields both sexes.
Written by Frank Indiviglio
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