Russian tortoises (Testudo [Agrionemys] horsfieldii) are one of the most readily available tortoise species. Unfortunately. most Russian tortoises are imported into the United States. Compared to the number of imported tortoises, captive propagation of this species is relatively low. It can be assumed that most adult or subadult Russian tortoises for sale are wild-caught (imported).
It is common for newly purchased tortoises to have various parasites, herpesviruses, upper respiratory infections, and other problems. In contrast, captive-bred babies are very hardy and rarely develop problems if their husbandry is good.
Originally described by Gray in 1844, the Russian tortoise was originally classed as a Testudo horsfieldii but recently was given its own genus Agrionemys (Ananjeva et al. 1998). More recent studies place it back in the Testudo genus.
Call it whatever you want, but not late for dinner. This retile is has many names. It is also known as the Steppe tortoise, central Asian tortoise, Afghanistan tortoise, Four-toed tortoise, and even Russian box turtle.
The Russian Tortoise inhabits dry, barren localities such as rocky deserts and hillsides and sandy or loamy steppes, often at elevations of 5,000 feet or higher. In these arid regions, the tortoise is frequently found near springs and brooks where grasses and other vegetation are relatively abundant.
The Russian Tortoise Is Not From Russia?
THe Russian tortoise can be found in the extreme south of Russia. More likely you will find the species in Afghanistan, Northern Pakistan, Northern and Eastern Iran, North Western China and the Soviet territory Kazakhstan. Just about all of central Asia. Most Russian Tortoises found in the pet trade are from the territory of Uzbekistan.
Its habitats are dry open landscapes. It is most commonly found in sand and clay deserts with sparse grasses and bushes. Russian tortoises are rarely found in dense grassy areas or cultivated fields.
The Russian tortoise, in some portions of its habitat, has been heavily exploited for food by local peoples as well as for exportation by the pet trade.
In other areas, habitat destruction due to warfare, farming, livestock grazing, and development have all contributed to the decline of this species. The future of the species in the wild is uncertain at best.
The tortoise is said to get its common name during the Desert Wars. Soldiers from Russia would bring back a tortoise they had caught during battle. It is said that so many soldiers brought them back it was far easier to call them Russian tortoises rather than a Horsefield tortoise, which is what the world called them previous to the wars.
Russian Tortoises Can Live More Than 40 years… Up To 75!!…
No worries about housing this animal in the long-term. Because they are small, making them easy for most people with limited space to keep. They are also feisty, eager to eat and more active than some other tortoises. Russian tortoises also have one of the highest tolerances for temperature extremes. They are one of the few species that can be kept outdoors in Las Vegas, Nev., year round. These factors make Russian tortoises attractive for new tortoise keepers and a fun tortoise for seasoned veterans.
Russian tortoises are burrowers. They tend to dig into corners and against objects. Placing large rocks under the soil in the corners helps prevent tortoises from digging out. In higher or lower temperatures, they attempt to go underground to insulate themselves from the extremes.
Building Russian tortoises underground hide boxes that maintain more stable temperatures helps to keep them from borrowing too much. Shaded grassy areas that get regular water help to keep smaller tortoises cool.
Russian Tortoise Diet
The diet of the Russian tortoise in habitat consists entirely of herbaceous and succulent vegetation, including grasses (green and dried), twigs, flowers, fruits, and the flesh leaves and stems of native and cultivated plants. During a rainstorm, the tortoise will drink from the puddles which form. It will usually pass urine at this time, as water is available for replenishment. During the dry season, and in the aridest portions of its range, the tortoise relies on metabolic water in order to supply its needs.
The captive Russian tortoise will feed on various cultivated vegetables and ornamental plants. These include lawn grass, squash, corn, leafy greens, apples (with seeds removed), common backyard “weeds” such as dandelion and the leaves and flowers of non-poisonous trees and shrubs such as Morus (Mulberry) and Abutilon(Chinese Lantern).
The widest possible variety of suitable foods, meaning high in fiber and low in protein, is important for the tortoise’s health. Foraging in an area uncontaminated by horticultural chemicals is preferable to a diet consisting solely of “juicy” supermarket produce. Fruit should be offered sparingly, as excess sugar can lead to digestive problems.
We recommend Mazuri® Food products. They have a grassland species formula that is ideal for the Russian tortoise. Another excellent choice is Mazuri® Herbivorous Reptile LS Diet-Small
Sexing Russian Tortoises…
As a general rule, a male Russian tortoise will not tolerate another male in the same enclosure. It may also harass a female so many breeders end up only keeping the male with the female for brief periods of time during the breeding season.
Females are typically tolerant of each other but some can become bullies and cause the subordinate females to hide a lot and become sick from stress.
Unlike in the other species of tortoise where the shell of the male and female appear different, in the Russian tortoise both the female and male tortoise have the same shell shape and color of the shell. It’s thus practically impossible to tell the difference between the two by observing their shells.
So, how can one tell the difference between a Russian female and male tortoise? By their tails. This is the common way used to determine the sex in these species of tortoise.How do the tails differ? It is important to note that during their young age the two sexes appear the same, but the different sets in when they reach maturity and are above 5 inches long.
You can distinguish a male tortoise from a female through a little craw at the end of the tail. All male tortoises tend to have a small craw at the end of their tail while most females do not have. This method is not always accurate, though since there are reported cases of some female tortoise having the claw too
Another common feature of identifying the sex of a Russian tortoise is by their size. Females are considerably larger in overall size.
You may also find the male plastron is slightly concave whereas the females are completely flat. However, this is not always dependable.
The Russian tortoise can be distinguished from other members of genus Testudo by:
- Lacking the movable plastron hinge between the femoral and the abdominal scutes
- Possessing a horny claw or spur at the end of its tail as well as tubercles or enlarged scales on the sides of its tail and thighs (see left)
- The presence of only four, instead of five, toes on each forefoot
- A tall bridge and lateral scutes, which makes it easy for this species to defend itself by retreating deep within its shell
They Live Where It Is Hot Hot & Cold Cold!…
In its natural habitat, the Russian tortoises have adapted to very hot summers and very cold winters. They are active only a few months of the year. It comes out of hibernation in mid-March and actively forages and mates until mid-June. During the hottest parts of summer, it arouses. In Uzbekistan, it hibernates from October through March.
It is most active in the early morning and early evening, retreating to its burrows during the hottest portion of the day. Russian tortoises are most active when the temperatures range 20-32°C
The Russian tortoise remains active until June or July when activity slows. Summer temperatures exceeding 85° F (29° C) can be problematic; so, the tortoise generally emerges from its burrow only at dawn or at dusk in order to forage when temperatures are lower.
Their ephemeral food plants are gone by this time as well. Many tortoises spend the summer in estivation, emerging briefly at the end of summer to feed on dried grasses and twigs prior to hibernation.
Winters in their arid highland habitat can be very harsh and cold. The temperature in much of the tortoise’s range is well below freezing. Scientists speculate that the body fluids of the Russian tortoise contain a substance like antifreeze to help it survive frigid temperatures.
Records indicate that it is able to withstand a body temperature as low as 3.3° F (-4.8° C). The depth of its burrow (up to 6.5 feet/2 m) also helps insulate the tortoise from the extremes of winter.
In habitat, hibernation occurs once the surface air and soil temperatures of 32° F (0° C) or less. Inches below the soil surface, the temperature is 59° F (15° C). Wild tortoises use this temperature gradient in order to find their ideal body temperature during hibernation, 39 to 41° F (4-5° C).
At these temperatures, the animal is completely inactive, consuming body fat to fuel its much-reduced metabolic process. When its body temperature rises to 46-50° F (8-10° C), the tortoise awakens and digs its way to the surface.
Hibernation in captivity should not be attempted with a newly-acquired tortoise whose health is in question. (This guideline applies to all chelonians, not just the Russian tortoise.) Every effort should be made to diagnose and treat injuries, disease and parasite problems prior to hibernation.
Not only is the animal’s metabolic rate reduced during hibernation, it immune system function is depressed, disease will progress during hibernation but at a reduced pace. A tortoise going into hibernation with a major disease will invariably deteriorate and may not survive.
Temperature control is a factor in disease control. At 39° F (4° C), most disease organisms will cease to grow and multiply. However, at 45° F (7° C) disease organisms can reproduce quickly, causing the disease to progress rapidly.
Avoidance of hibernation should be considered only as an emergency measure employed to deal with a potentially life-threatening condition. It should not be viewed as a matter of course. While there are no known short-term consequences to the lack of hibernation, it has several potentially lethal long-term consequences.
Anorexia and kidney disease threaten adult tortoises not allowed to hibernate; hatchlings develop dietary problems. Breeding abilities can also be affected. (For an extended discussion of hibernation issues and techniques, see Pursall’s “Mediterranean Tortoises”, pages 18-22.)
One must be careful. There is a difference of being cold and hibernating in the winter. When kept cool or damp for an extended period of time, you can expect this tortoise to begin showing respiratory problems.
The early signs are puffy eyes, runny noses, etc. You should strive to maintain an enclosure that is warm and dry to avoid these health issues. This tortoise is also prone to skin complaints.
Russian Tortoises can be prolific when well fed the previous year and then provided with a good cool down period.
Their hibernation usually lasts for about 3 to 5 months. This winter cooling followed by hot days triggers almost immediate breeding in these tortoises. Males become very active and start looking for females, while the females become restless and have a reduced appetite.
Captive Breeding Helps Releive The Need For Wild Caught Animals!
The first nesting will occur about 6-8 weeks after the end of hibernation. A healthy, active pair can produce about two clutches of 1 to 5 eggs each season, depending on the size of the female.
The female will bury the clutch between 3/4 – 2″ deep in the ground. Eggs hatch in as many as 77 days when incubated between a 86 to 95 F range of temperatures.
WIld populations of the Russian tortoise are listed on CITES Appendix II and are described as “vulnerable” by the International Union on Conservation of Nature (IUCN).