Greek Tortoise in Danger of Extinction

It walks slowly but covers great distances, during mating season it even runs, and no matter what you might think, the tortoises in Israel do not hibernate in the winter. It prefers to eat plants, is able to fast for months, and people are very fond of it but also cause it a lot of harm. The Greek tortoise is an endangered species.
Female Greek Tortoise being followed by two potential male suitors. Credit: Mai Haimovich-Bernheim
Female Greek Tortoise being followed by two potential male suitors. Credit: Mai Haimovich-Bernheim
Orli Leker Cohen, Halon Yarok, KKL-JNF educational website for youth
Professional consultant: Mai Haimovich-Bernheim 
In all honesty, how many times in your life have you encountered a Greek tortoise; that small, slow creature that wanders around alone in a field, in a grove or even in your backyard? Not too many, right? And it is no accident, because these small armored animals, which until a few decades ago could be seen in any green area in Israel, have disappeared from our landscapes, both urban and rural, and have become a protected species under the wildlife protection law. Whose fault is it? Ours. What have we done to them? Well, quite a bit.
But before we tell you how we caused the Greek tortoise to disappear from our landscapes, let us get to know it a little better.
The Greek Tortoise: ID
The Greek tortoise, Testudo graeca, also known as the spur-thighed tortoise, is a member of the Testudinidae family and is classified as a reptile. The Greek tortoise family is large, including about ten types and about forty species, and it can be found in a number of regions in the world - Southeastern Europe, North Africa (except for Egypt and Libya), Western Asia (even in Iran) and, of course, in the entire Mediterranean region including Israel, mainly in dwarf-shrub, garrigue and maquis terrains, all the way to Beersheba. The Greek tortoise can also be found, of course, in KKL-JNF forests and open spaces.
The foods preferred by the Greek tortoise are plants (such as vetches, friar’s cowl and chicory), but it will sometimes opt for a meal that also includes snails and worms. The Greek tortoise is a solitary species that meets its own kind only during mating seasons, in the fall and in the spring. In a master’s degree research study undertaken by Mai Bernheim, who investigated the Greek tortoise in the vicinity of Ramat HaNadiv in the Carmel region, it was found that the species is actually active in the winter, which is not an extreme season in Israel (unlike European countries, where it ceases its activities in that season), and in Israel, the tortoise actually ceases its activity during the hot summer, when food and water are not available. On the other hand, when it is active, it can walk many kilometers in search of food or a mate.
The tortoise shell is curved and thick, brown or yellowish. Its head is covered with scales. It got its English name, spur-thighed tortoise, because it has two spurs on its hind legs near its tail. Mature tortoises are not threatened much by predators, except for the striped hyena, which is able to crush its shell with its strong jaws, and a number of daytime raptors, such as the golden eagle, which scoop up the tortoise, fly upward with it and throw it down in order to shatter its shell and enjoy its soft flesh. Young tortoises, however, are threatened by many predators such as jackals, crows and cats.
The Tortoise in Numbers
The length of the female Greek tortoise reaches up to 25 cm, and the male is smaller. And how can you tell the difference between the male and the female? The female is larger than the male, its belly is flat, and its tail is short and blunt, while the male has a curved belly shell and a long pointy tail. It lives to quite an old age, around 60 or 70 years.
The tortoise shell has thirteen main plates surrounded by smaller plates, and in each plate there is a black mark. How can you tell the age of the tortoise? According to folklore, you can count the rings around the shell, but this is not really so. Since we do not know what an individual tortoise ate in the course of its life, and what happened to it, we do not know its rate of growth, so this is not an appropriate method for assessing the age of individual tortoises. One can roughly presume that the larger the individual is, the older it is, and that the secondary genitals appear only after about five years.
Between the middle of April and the end of June, the female lays up to three eggs at a time. Sometimes the females lay eggs in two nests in one season. The nest is dug in the ground about 8 cm deep, and the nests, according to research done by Bernheim, are constructed in partly shaded areas.
How the Tortoises Proliferate
All tortoises, including those that live in the water, lay their eggs on land. The mating process of our tortoise, the Greek tortoise, starts with courtship, of course, which is an interesting performance in itself, as we shall elaborate further. There are females that can store sperm for several months or years, and when the female is about to lay eggs she fertilizes them. There are types that lay eggs several times per season, others only once, which also depends on the physiological state of the female. The nest is dug in the ground, and sea or swamp tortoises need wet soil, since the eggs do not have a hard shell, unlike those of the Greek tortoise. Like most reptiles, turtles have no parental concern, so their nests remain unguarded.
The eggs remain in the warm incubator created by their mother for about three months, and then it is time for them to hatch. The baby tortoises emerge from the eggs and start eating—sand, which is the initial food they encounter around them, and which apparently also provides them with the single cell organisms they need.
The Mating Performance of the Tortoise
Toward the end of the winter (in Israel it happens in the summer), the tortoises begin their main mating season—there is an additional one in the fall. The female tortoise, evidently, likes to play hard to get, so the male tortoise has to activate more than a little personal charm and uses traditional courtship rituals (for tortoises), finds himself a female, starts following her, and then, when he reaches her, he throws himself on her, their shells clash, and it is very noisy. The female tries to escape, and the male carries on until he subdues her. Then he climbs on her back and fertilization is done. The function of the hollow in the underbelly of the male is to steady it when it climbs onto the shell of the female.
Not a House Pet!
The Greek tortoise is not a house pet! If you want one, get a cat or a dog, and leave the tortoise alone. In Israel, it is forbidden to keep tortoises in homes, yards or gardens. It is one of the animals protected under the wildlife protection law.
We humans, also in Israel, have caused the Greek tortoise to dwindle, and this has happened for several reasons. One is by damaging its habitats, whether by destroying or reducing open areas for the sake of residential development or agriculture, or by driving ATVs off the main roads. Habitat fragmentation, by constructing highways and so on, also damages their living areas, since they cannot cross those areas, and sometimes we see tortoises run over. Another reason is gathering tortoises to raise them privately, in homes or in yards, or gathering them for trade. Another cause for the slow disappearance of the Greek tortoise in our country is the proliferation of dogs, which lurk near inhabited localities, and the growth of the crow population, which depends on humans. These two animals are predators of the tortoises, especially the small ones.
So how do you protect the tortoises? Simply do everything to prevent the danger. Do not collect tortoises, it is against the law. Do not think of ‘saving’ a tortoise if you find one. If it is there, it has apparently been managing to survive without you thus far. Do not drive in open terrains -they are the habitats of the animals. Reduce the crow population, which depends on human communities, reduce the number of stray dogs, and increase supervision and enforcement for the prevention of tortoise trade and collecting.
The Greek Tortoise – the Desert Version
Israel, as stated, has been blessed with tortoises, and so, while the Greek tortoise can be found in northern and central Israel, the Negev tortoise, Testudo werneri, lives in southern Israel, in the Western Negev. This tortoise is also critically endangered -there are only about three thousand of them left in the whole world, most of them in Israel. The Negev tortoise is active in the winter, and it rests in the summer. It subsists on plants only, and its search for provender is also its main activity. Before it goes to sleep through the summer, the female lays one to three eggs in a pit, two or three times per season, and the baby tortoises hatch after three months to begin their independent lives.
How do you know if you have found a Greek tortoise or a Negev tortoise? The main difference is the size—the desert tortoise is smaller, no more than 13 cm long, the edges of its shell stick up and back, its posterior shell has no black marks, and its anterior shell is pale with brown triangular marks.
And who likes to eat the Negev tortoise? Mainly the desert monitor lizard that, fortunately for the tortoise, is active mainly in the summer, when the tortoise is busy sleeping.
So, if you happen to see a tortoise, simply do not touch it. If it is in its natural environment, leave it alone. If it seems to be in danger—too close to a highway, for example—move it to a safer place nearby. And if it is injured, or you are not sure what to do with it, contact a veterinarian. In any case, the tortoise is not a house pet. Your house is yours—the tortoise has already found his.