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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Hello all,

I have kept lizards for over several years. For the last couple of years I've been increasing interested in keeping tortoises. So after a couple of years of reading and planning I finally bought a small group Testudo h. hermanni. So since their first hibernation has just ended and they are currently up and about I thought it would be a nice time to reflect and get some opinions on what I've done so far. I've tried to not only provide a good habitat for my tortoises, but also for frequent visitors to the garden.

The enclosure:

So, the enclosure is about 20 square meters and is facing south. It's build on south facing slope with a mostly sandy soil. The back of the enclosure has a thin organic soil layer with a PH of around 4.5, with more sand underneath. The entire enclosure will be contained by a bamboo fence. You can't see through it, it's durable, cheap and about 50 cm high. Concrete slabs that run 30 cm deep into the ground will hopefully makes the enclosure escape proof.

I choose this spot because of the long sunlight hours (about continuously in high summer and from about nine hours in very late fall/winter. Further, the sandy soil drains really well, while the PH of soil is perfect for growing native flora (read weeds). There are drawbacks however. There is an apple tree nearby so I might have to be watchful in how the wind blows the apples from the tree. The soil is pretty poor in calcium too.

All plants in the enclosure are picked based on information provided by the tortoise table plant database (Link)



So the big hiding hole was made from a large plant pot that 'accidentally' fell. I used to create a burrow inside the hill and a dry hiding spot for rainy days.



The purple plant on the left side of the shot is Erica cinerea and should remain a bit of a ground dwelling species. The white one is Empetrum nigrum, which will grow more upright. Which is excellent since this species apparently sprouts (edible albeit very foul tasting) berries. These will mostly grow out of tortoise reach, but is a favorite among birds. Both species are frequently visit by a range of insects and are part of the heather family, so edible but not very tasty.



The greenhouse is about 2 square meters and is constructed from 18 mm concrete plywood (I think that's the correct in English term). I've chosen for this material since it's epoxy covering is weatherproof and safe to use with animals. It isolate's pretty well and it's dark surface warms up quickly in the sun. It also generates some shade in the greenhouse. The top is made from polycarbonate and will be completely removed once average temps hit suitable levels. The top is switchable too, it can be exchange for an half open top of a completely mesh one.

The plant with purple flowers is Lavandula angustifolia (Lavender). The logs are cut from birch or apple tree and provide sight walls and shelter for a range of bugs.



The row of bricks at the corner of the greenhouse separates the hatchlings from the main enclosure for now. When the tortoise are outside a cage is secured on top of the stone to protect them from predators. This area is quite small for now but will continue to grow larger until they reach appropriate sizes to be released in the full enclosure. This give the plants time to settle in and grow. Currently I’m thinking that once their plastron is over 10 cm long I’m giving them full range of the enclosure. But I would love to hear other people opinions about this.



The big stone on the right should be climbable. Unfortunately I didn't have a dark colored one, but it still soaks up warmth quite well. I've noticed one of my tortoises seems to enjoy sitting on high objects and watch what is happening. So hopefully this will be right up his alley. Their is a short drop on the other side, but since it's a slope any animal that fell of should be able to right himself easily. Like any healthy tortoise should.



The other half of the plant pot has been put here. I've knockout the bottom part of this one so it acts like a tunnel between grazing meadows.

The plant in the lower-left corner of the shot is called Campanula addenda (the ground variant), this one is mostly picked to outcompete some naturally growing weeds in this meadow. Most notably the Glechoma hederacea growing on the left part of the shot. This plant is poisonous, but quite difficult to eradicate in the garden. Though the tortoises shouldn't eat them I'd like to reduce the size of the population anyway.



The plant on the left with the purple flowers is **** addenda. This one should grow till a nice shrub that should provide some shelter. As a bonus it's swarmed by bees and other insects and grows attractive flowers.
 

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Discussion Starter · #2 · (Edited)
Their diet:

The bulk of their diet consist of wild weeds and herbs. All of those are found growing around the house. Since I live on the country side near a proteced nature preserve I'm sure no pesticdes are used. I've listed the species that I tend to use below:

The meadow in the enclosure contains about ten different edible weeds, just to name a few different groups:
Trifolium (Clovers both red and white)
Plantago (Fleaworths about two different species)
Crepis (Hawk's-beard)
Taraxacum officinale (Common dandelion)

This is supplemented by about twenty other different weeds and plants that grow around the yard like:
Carduus (Thistels, about two different species)
Urtica dioica (Stinging nettle)
Hosta
Lonicera (Honeysuckle)
Alchemilla (Lady's mantle)
Potentilla (Silverweed)
Matricaria chamomilla (Chamomile very sparsley though)
Zea mays (Corn/Maize, but only young leaves and from a pesticed free plants)
Achillea millefolium (Common yarrow)
Viola (Violets)
Geranium (Cranesbills)
Stellaria media (Chickweed)
Hypochaeris radicata (Cat's ear)
Hieracium (Hawkweed)

Unfortunately I can't remember everything I feed from the top of my head, but it'll do as an indication. Anyway, I'm thinking of adding a small part with some small pebbles. Wild tortoises have been observed to swallow small stones, supposedly to aid in digestion just like crocodilians are known to do. Has any keeper observed this kind of behavior?

From what I've read from research papers on their natural diet, they also consume a small number of invertabres. So I've tried feeding some earthworms I found in the garden. I've captured their reaction in the video below.


I'm still getting used to their 'hunting' behavior, quite different from what I'm used to seeing from my monitor lizards, who can cross long distances in a blink of an eye.

I supplement with sepia and a vitamin supplement from reptivit.

I generally don't feed store produced greens or vegetables, since I've got a perfectly good supply of food items growing around the house. Though they do occasionally get some endive.
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
Hibernation:

I've read some discussion about the 'need' to hibernate. It seems that some people prefer to skip hibernation, especially when young. Some source hibernation can be entirely skipped for the western species, without any effects on fertility. Wild animals do however experience hibernation, even when young. Since recreating wild conditions is a critical to maintain healthy animals, I hibernated my animals as well.

They've hibernated for eight weeks this season. The warm winter over here made it difficult to hibernate then naturally since temps rarely dipped around 5 degrees Celsius here so they were kept in a refrigerator to keep temperatures down.

Each tortoise was separated in a plastic box filled with a soil/sand mix and a bit of sphagnum moss taken from a nearby marsh. The sphagnum has antibacterial functions and the soil was taking from a patch of unused land and is uncontaminated by pesticides or fertilizer. I was worried about bacterial and fungal infections, so that's why I used a substrate already filled with bacteria and fungi.

That might seem a bit counterproductive. But despite what soap commercial will make you believe; bacteria and fungi aren't bad. In fact most micro-organisms are essential for live on earth. An old professor of mine once claimed that only 1% of all bacteria are pathogens to animals (causes diseases), 95% is completely harmless. Not only do bacteria tell immune systems what bacteria to fight, they also compete with each other and get rid of each other. A large part of our immune system functions because bacteria tell it what to clean up. So if you place an animal in a 'sterile' substrate, any harmful bacteria you accidently introduce to the environment will have plenty of room to thrive. Since there is nothing competing with them, they will reproduce much faster. This applies to 'poop' bacteria that are expelled through feces as well.

I'm not sure how alike a tortoise immune system is like ours. But I think it's beneficial expose a young animals to a wide range of bacteria as well. It's immensely helpful for a human immune system to be exposed to as much bacteria as possible when young. Immune systems can build up a nice 'library' of know bacteria in children which will help prevent illness later in life. I’m not sure if this applies to tortoises in the same way, but I'm hoping this is an common evolutionary trait.

The substrate was not damp, but held together well when pressed together. The sphagnum was slightly damp. Some animals preferred the dry end, while other burrowed just below the sphagnum. Some even switched sides at a point. A glass of clean water inside the refrigerator helps keeps humidity levels stable trough out the refrigerator. Temperature inside ranged from 6 to 7 degrees Celsius.

Preparation for hibernation started about a month before they moved inside the fridge. I do like to mention that the natural cycles of the season already slowed them down quite a bit. I started feeding less until completely stopping over the course of two weeks. The amount of light decreased gradually until it went out completely a week before they moved inside the fridge. I didn't bath the animals before moving them into the fridge. Wild animals don't get a warm bath before hibernation either. The sudden increase in temperatures might offset the slowdown of the animal. Not to mention put their circularity systems under stress.

Waking the animal up from hibernation went over far quicker. Since the temperature of the ground takes significantly longer to warm up then the air, air temps will most likely be significantly higher. Waking up the tortoise when temperatures are already in an acceptable parameter. This would be beneficial for the tortoises, since they can quickly reach suitable body temperatures for feeding this way. So I've slowly increased the temperature back to 'normal' of the course of three days. I didn't bath the animals, since a couple of them where still recovering from the long rest. I was afraid that they were not able to keep their head above water level. When the animal where properly warmed up I 'bathed' them which prompted them to drink. Soon after the animals all started to eat ravenously.



During the hibernation no weight loss was recorded by the weekly weightings. There was even an animal that increased his weight with 16%. Something that absolutely astonishes me. There was no sign of any bacterial or fungal infection in any of the animals.
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
The animals themselves:
The subject I could find the least information about, were ironically the animals themselves. Herman’s tortoise is an incredible broad name for several populations of tortoises that frankly differ greatly from each other. It's been suggest several times to split the species up. For the sake of space (I’ve written quite enough already) I will limit myself to the (sub)species T. (h.) hermanni.

Also known as the ‘Western’s Herman’s tortoise, has ‘suffered’ from a great number of confusing name changes over the past years. This is not only caused to the large range this species exhibits (Mainland Italy, several Italian islands, Spain and France), but also the variability found in the T. hermanni complex. Identify one (sub)species from another is a great mess of looking for different features that might or might not be there based on the locale. Even the difference between locales can be significant, making it quite difficult to proper identify an animal. Especially when young.




It’s however commonly suggested that T. hermanni has two wide black bands running across their plastron, and high contrasting yellow/black markings running over their carapace. A ‘keyhole’ or ‘mushroom cloud’ is often visible on the fifth vertebral scute. There are several other indicators but I don’t want to get into that too much.




The locality these animals (supposedly) originate from is Tuscany. Which holds a population that shows characteristics from both Eastern (T. h. boetergi) as Western Herman’s. Since it impossible to confirm if these animals are truly ‘pure’ without any DNA testing, I don’t really concern myself too much if my animal fits all the ‘key identifiers’. I do however, purchased only animals from the same subspecies and same locale from different breeders. To breed responsible and keep bloodlines ‘pure’.



So far the animals have proved to be interesting and surprising captives. They have a surprising knack for climbing seemingly unclimbable surfaces. I’ve found animals climbing near vertical surfaces twice their plastron. I’ve also noticed they are surprisingly ‘social’ as reptiles go. They seem to prefer to eat in ‘packs’. Once one starts eating all others will immediately start eating too. Sleeping arrangements are made quite effectively, every animals has a private spot to sleep. I presumed that once an animal finds a location favorable, others would join it there. Finding it attractive for similar reasons. This isn’t the case however, every animal has its own private space. Have other keepers noticed similar behavior?
 

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Love your thread. Enjoyed reading it :2thumb:

Your question about sleeping, in my indoor enclosure my two sleep together and eat together (even though I put the food in separate places lol) and bask together. I'm sure they have moments in their own space though, just mostly when I see them they are together.

But when I put them outside they separate and find them totally apart when it's time to bring them in :D
 

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Discussion Starter · #7 ·
Wow that is very impressive - i love your enclosure it is really inspirational.:)
Love your thread. Enjoyed reading it :2thumb:
Thank you. To be honest the enclosure was mostly put together with old stone and materials that where discarded. It's surprising how much old stuff people are willing to part with if you explain that you're building a tortoise enclosure. I get the weirdest looks sometimes if I explain I keep lizards as an hobby. Most people are very enthusiastic if I tell them I keep tortoises however.

The plants were by far the most expensive and cost me a lot of effort. I made several trips to the garden center to see what they had in stock and made sure it wasn't poisonous. I purchased one species without checking (the common name suggested it was a species of heather), turned out to be extremely poisonous. Even its nectar was considered to be dangerous. While I'm not overly worried that the animal would come to harm. Wild tortoise sometimes eat poisonous plants, presumably to 'self-medicate' against parasites. But it's better to be safe than sorry.

Your question about sleeping, in my indoor enclosure my two sleep together and eat together (even though I put the food in separate places lol) and bask together. I'm sure they have moments in their own space though, just mostly when I see them they are together.

But when I put them outside they separate and find them totally apart when it's time to bring them in :D
I think tendency to eat together is form of competing with each other. They see a competitor eat and they feel compelled to start eating to, to prevent 'falling behind' a competitor. This is very useful, it makes it easy to get them to eat after hibernation. If one starts eating the rest will quickly follow. Still not sure about the sleeping though.
 
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