Golden Greek Tortoises
Golden Greek tortoises (Testudo graeca ssp.) are a fairly recent addition to herpetoculture. Before they entered the U.S. reptile market in significant numbers, the typical Greek tortoise available from importers was heavily patterned, and it often had a dark shell and skin. These varied considerably in size, 4 to 8 inches in straight line plastron length, and to a lesser degree in shell shape depending on the country of origin. But to the average tortoisekeeper, the various Middle Eastern races of Greek tortoises were otherwise all rather similar looking.
Thus, the sudden appearance of these nearly solid-yellow tortoises caused quite a stir in 2001. Only the sporadically available and notoriously delicate Egyptian tortoise (Testudo kleinmanni) was comparable in looks. Compared to Egyptians, the newly arrived golden tortoises were much larger, brighter colored and much less demanding in their care needs. This made them very popular in the pet market, and more importations quickly followed.
Shades of Greek
The first groups of golden Greeks to arrive were tentatively dubbed Testudo graeca terrestris, but their country of origin was never really verified. They had relatively high-domed shells, straw-yellow skin and shells, and individual scutes of their carapaces either lacked the dark central spot and dark scute margins, or they were greatly reduced. Many males had plastron lengths of 6 to 7 inches, and females were 2 to 4 inches longer. Specimens matching this description are currently referred to in the pet trade as Syrian or Lebanese golden Greeks, but their actual taxonomic status is still in flux.
Unfortunately, with every subsequent shipment their looks seemed to change. The next large group to enter the U.S. had identically sized and shaped shells, but most had a pattern much more typical of the common Greek tortoise (Testudo graeca graeca). Many also had noticeably darker skin and overall grayer shells. You’d have been hard-pressed to justify calling them “golden,” yet they still entered the pet trade under that name. That trend has continued to this day. No significant importation since that original large group, dubbed T. g. terrestris, has yielded the high-domed, clear-yellow, nearly patternless specimens that were originally termed “golden Greeks.”
Photo by Douglas Dix
A colony of golden greek tortoises eating.
The next truly significant group arrived several years later within a large shipment of Libyan Greek tortoises (T. graeca cyrenaica). These were an even deeper golden color than the original group, and many had a distinctly pink tint to their skin and scute margins. Many also had black beaks on an otherwise clear-yellow face and head. These specimens were also noticeably smaller, slightly flatter-shelled, and tended to display more sexual dimorphism in their size and color than the original importation of golden Greeks. Seemingly mature males were markedly smaller in size; had flatter, pinker shells; and were noticeably brighter-colored and less-patterned overall than the females arriving with them. Males were seen breeding at 41⁄2 inches in plastron length, and 6-inch-long females laid eggs. These specimens have since come to be referred to in the pet trade as Jordanian golden Greeks (T. graeca floweri), but, again, this taxonomic designation is strictly for the pet trade and may prove to have no scientific validity. Only one or two shipments of these tortoises arrived before being supplanted by much less colorful, darker specimens clearly from some other locale.
Currently, Greek tortoises that outwardly appear to meet the general characteristics of either T. g. terrestris or T. g. floweri, but possess dark skin, grayer shells or highly patterned shells, are referred to in the pet trade as common golden Greeks. Whether they are all just variable members of the same species or distinctly different subspecies is open for debate. Various authors have suggested that many of these similar-looking specimens are likely reproductively incompatible, and only pairing specimens from the same locale will result in viable eggs.
Unfortunately, the notion that most people can actually determine the true origin of any of these tortoises is unreasonable. Even importers rarely know where their animals were really collected. The best you can do is to try to pick similar-looking individuals. Luckily, considering most of these specimens arrived in mixed groups and have gone on to breed for most people, it’s likely that most of the tortoises coming in under the name “golden Greek” are in fact reproductively compatible. Yet because at least the Jordanian group and the Lebanese-Syrian groups are reasonably easy to tell apart from the others, it makes sense to at least try to keep these two unique-looking populations as pure as possible in captivity.
Golden Greeks require slightly different housing and care conditions than the more common Greek tortoises. They come from hot, dry regions and do not tolerate high humidity or cool temperatures well. Also, constant exposure to morning dew on the grass can lead to plastron shell-rot issues.
In most regions of the U.S. they require indoor housing. At the very least, most must be brought indoors at night year round and maintained indoors continually during the cooler months.
Ideally, daytime ground temperatures should be in the upper 80s (degrees Fahrenheit) throughout most of the habitat. A flat basking area should reach the mid-90s. Nighttime temperatures are best kept above 75 degrees to even the low 80s. Do not let them get cooler than 65 degrees unless you plan to breed them. Try to keep humidity levels well below 50 percent. They can tolerate a little more humidity as long as you keep the bedding dry and cage temperatures never fall below the preferred ranges. But even slightly cooler than ideal temperatures, coupled with either damp bedding or high humidity, invariably leads to respiratory issues. For all practical purposes, unless you live in the desert Southwest, consider these tortoises to be primarily indoor animals.
Retaining This Gold
If your goal is simply to maintain them as pets, individuals and pairs will do fine in any solid-walled, open-topped tub measuring at least 48 inches long, 24 inches wide and 8 inches tall. Good ventilation is critical, so leave the top as unobstructed as possible. Glass aquariums make poor tortoise habitats, but if you use one anyway, it must be low, wide and have the lower portions of the sides covered with some opaque background.
Cover the bottom of your chosen habitat with an inch layer of dry, chunky (one-fourth-inch cubed) coconut husk fiber for bedding. Pile a deeper layer off to one corner to allow them to bury themselves when resting. Dry Bermuda- or timothy-grass hay is also an excellent bedding. Note that these can be a fire hazard if you’re careless with your basking light, so use them with caution. Washed playground sand is OK but tends to get dusty, so it is not a bedding I prefer. Rabbit and alfalfa pellets tend to mold from the moisture in the tortoises’ urates and fecal pellets, so they are unacceptable.
Golden Greeks’ lighting needs are fairly simple. The primary purposes are to heat and to dehumidify the cage. The bulb wattage needed to accomplish these purposes varies on your ambient room temperatures. Purchase a good thermometer — ideally an infrared but at least a digital — to monitor your cage temperatures, so you can adjust the bulb wattage accordingly. Deer Fern Farms prefers to use a UVB-producing mercury vapor bulb over the basking site. In conjunction with any moderately bright full-spectrum fluorescent, this bulb is all you should need for lighting.
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If you don’t wish to breed your Greeks, then run these lights 11 to 13 hours a day year round. Do not leave the lights on through the night. If your ground temperatures routinely drop below 75 degrees at night, use a ceramic heat emitter or undertank heating pad to supply additional heat.
It is also advisable to give golden Greeks a hide box in which the substrate is kept slightly moist, but you must be diligent in monitoring it. Something at least twice a tortoise’s length and width, and 11⁄2 times its height is appropriate. Chunky coconut husk fiber works best as a substrate within this shelter, but sand cut 50-50 by volume with peat moss is also acceptable. The hide simulates the slightly higher humidity conditions wild tortoises experience in their burrows, and the extra humidity aids in maintaining the proper hydration of their shell scute margins, so their shells grow evenly, limiting the potential for excessive pyramiding. Don’t overdo the moisture levels, or you’ll end up with respiratory problems or shell rot in the plastrons.
The key to keeping these tortoises is the proper environment. Your venture will be short-lived if you do not keep them appropriately hot and dry.
An Herbivore’s Diet
Strictly herbivores, golden Greeks generally won’t seek out or consume animal-derived proteins. The ideal diet consists of edible weeds, such as dandelion and plantains, and live grasses, such as Bermuda and timothy. If you’re restricted to foods available from the local grocery store, a daily offering of dampened mixed leafy greens, such as endive, bok choy, romaine and various loose-leaf-type lettuces, make a good base diet. Opuntia cactus pads, fruit, raw shredded squash and chopped peppers are excellent additions.
I feed these tortoises daily. They tend to be most active early in the day and late in the afternoon, so offer their food early in the day if possible. I dust the greens daily with a very light sprinkling of a calcium-mineral mix. Weekly I lightly dust with a tortoise-specific vitamin mix. Adding a couple of softened tortoise pellets to the greens every few days is also recommended.
Contrary to the suggestions of most published care sheets, I don’t advise routinely leaving a water bowl in the cage. Golden Greeks don’t have regular access to water in the wild, and if fed properly, they do not need it in captivity. Unless you live under true desert-humidity conditions, water bowls pose a health hazard to the tortoises. The smaller the habitat, the greater the risk.
Deer Fern Farms uses small water dishes called “chick waters.” About 8 inches in circumference, they have a 2-inch-wide and 1-inch-deep water-access slot to offer the tortoises water. One to two days at most per week, these are placed in each pen, and they are removed at the end of the day. Tortoises can dip their heads into the water for a drink, but they can’t climb in and defecate into or spill the water. Once every two weeks tortoises are also removed from their pens and given a supervised 15-minute soak in a bathtub filled with 1 to 2 inches of warm water. Even with this infrequent access to water, they rarely choose to actually drink more than once per month.
As long as the primary diet is fresh greens dampened with water before feeding, this regiment supplies all their moisture needs. Exceptions are if they begin refusing food, become ill, or need to go on antibiotics or wormers. Under those conditions, offer water daily but only during the early morning hours, when they are most active and more likely to drink. Remove the water bowl before noon each day.
Pet to Appreciate
Although the golden Greek tortoise is still relatively uncommon in captivity, captive-born hatchlings are beginning to show up more regularly on online reptile dealer websites and at trade shows. Slowly but surely they are gaining a foothold in the North American reptile hobby.
If properly cared for, these golden tortoises make a long-lived and rewarding companion animal. The brighter morphs can be truly stunning, and most individuals are very personable, social creatures.
Douglas Dix, Ph.D.,has worked with more than 14 Uromastyx species. He holds or shares the first North American captive-breeding records for ornate, Indian and yellow Saharan uromastyx. He and wife Kim own Deer Fern Farms, specializing in uros, chuckwallas, spiny-tailed iguanas and tortoises.