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Captive Care of the Russian Tortoise Testudo horsfieldii

The Horsfield's tortoise: Testudo horsfieldii (GRAY) 1844 - History in the pet trade, ecology and biology, captive breeding, misunderstood and some challenges in captivity.

This article describes the captive breeding, diet and housing requirements of Testudo horsfieldii (GRAY) 1844, a species which was first imported into the UK in considerable numbers during the late 1960's. The largest importation at that time occurred between 1965 and 1971 when a total of 119,319 Horsfield's tortoises were received at U.K. ports. The species is not easy to maintain successfully and the vast majority of those early imports have not survived in the long-term, though the Tortoise Trust is aware of one female example imported in the early 1960's that is still alive today (2024). This animal was kept outside in a sheltered, walled garden in southern England, with access to a dry greenhouse. It brumated itself every year by digging down inside the greenhouse and although it was "quite small" when purchased it is now 18cm (7") and the growth is very good, without any deformities.

Following those initial large-scale imports, they were rarely seen in the pet trade for many years, but following the collapse of the Soviet Union large scale exports of wild-caught and allegedly 'captive-bred' or 'ranched' animals again appeared on the international market. Today, the US, Japan and Europe are the main importers of the species. Precise numbers are hard to assess as not all countries that export them are parties to the CITES convention (e.g., Tajikistan and Turkmenistan), and therefore no reports of export quantities are filed. Furthermore, there is and was a lively degree of 'laundering' taking place, with Ukraine one such source of allegedly 'captive bred' and 'farmed' tortoises - despite having no history in this regard and no credible infrastructure to allow for the production of such huge numbers (approximately 80,000 animals in just six years according to TRAFFIC). Other countries have meanwhile continued to export vast amounts individually each year - with Uzbekistan alone exporting over 100,000 tortoises in a single year. Some are labeled as wild caught, but others are described as 'captive bred' or 'ranched'.

As Traffic note, "It is likely that a large proportion of those labelled as captive bred are actually wild caught".

Regrettably, the majority of these animals will die within a very short time, a few years at most, because of a lack of education on the part of their new keepers. Inappropriate housing and diets are most often to blame. No small part of the responsibility for this must lay at the doors of the pet stores who sell these animals, usually with the added bonus (for the store), of additional sales of glass aquariums, heat mats, and various artificial 'reptile substrates'. Unfortunately, most of this equipment only benefits the seller and is positively determental to the health and welfare of the tortoise. Given the huge numbers of individual tortoises involved, it is very clear that we are dealing with a truly massive welfare probem here.

Initial triage and examination of just a few of a shipment of over 700 juvenile Testudo horsfieldii seized by the authorities due to paperwork irregularities and subesquently cared for and rehomed by the Tortoise Trust..

A shipping crate of tortoises arrives from Uzbekistan.

Testudo horsfieldii


The carapace is rounded, and sometimes is almost as broad as long; the tortoise has an overall 'stocky' appearance; the powerful forelimbs have well developed claws with 4 toes per foot (hence of of it's vernacular names the 'four-toed tortoise'). It is very well adapted for digging burrows. The head and limbs are coloured a yellowish brown; the shell is a greenish or olive brown with darker brown, diffuse patches. The plastron is usually dark brown to black (this may assist with infra-red back-radiation radiation into substrates); there is no movable hinge on the plastron, which is rigid and inflexible; the tail possesses a terminal claw similar to, but not quite as pronounced as Testudo hermanni.

Plastron and tail of a young female Testudo horsfieldii

Females are typically larger than males, the largest verified specimens having been recorded as attaining 22cm Straight Carapace Length (SCL). Terentjef and Chernov (1949) report a specimen of 286mm SCL which is said to be deposited in a Russian Museum. Unfortunately, the whereabouts of this specimen is now uncertain. In 1956 a specimen of 300mm was reported (Paraskiv), though the provenence of this is doubtful. Most are far smaller, The plastron of males is barely convex, but males do possess a much longer tail than females and hence may be readily identified. The carapaces of males are also generally flatter than females, though not invariably so.

Classification and subspecies

No article on T. horsfieldii would be complete without reference to the controversy surrounding this tortoise at generic (Genus) rank. Khozatsky and Mylnarski (1966) have suggested that Testudo horsfieldii be removed from the Testudo genus and have proposed including it within the monotypic genus Agrionemys. The key characters relevant to this separation include the immobile plastron, the anterior and posterior claw configuration and the suprapygal format (metacarpals). The authors of the proposed genus take the view that this combination of primitive characters and advanced specialisations indicates that Testudo (or Agrionemys) horsfieldii is conclusively distinguished from all living and fossil testudines. They are undoubtedly correct in drawing attention to the inconsistent diagnostic criteria for Testudo, in particular the fixed plastron (which horsfieldii shares with hermanni) is significant. The fact that horsfieldii can hybridise with other Testudo species, however, is also important - and tends to suggest that they are not as distant as suggested. While there is no universal consensus on this, we continue to regard them as a Testudo species. There is further controversy over several proposed subspecies. These currently include:

  • T. h. bogdanovi (Chkhikvadze, 2008) – southern Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan

  • T. h. horsfieldii (Gray, 1844) – Afghanistan/Pakistan and southern Central Asia

  • T. h. kazachstanica (Chkhikvadze, 1988) – Kazakhstan/Karakalpakhstan

  • T. h. kuznetzovi (Chkhikvadze, Ataev, Shammakov & Zatoka, 2009) – northern Turkmenistan, southern Uzbekistan

  • T. h. rustamovi (Chkhikvadze, Amiranschwili & Atajew, 1990) – southwestern Turkmenistan

 As with all Testudo species while there are certainly morphological differences from one region to another, knowing where to 'draw the line' in taxonomic terms is highly challenging. Some recognise these proposed subspecies, others do not. There is no general concensus on the matter.


The Horsfield's tortoise is an Asiatic species of wide zoogeographic distribution, albeit at low individual population densities. In a one study conducted in Southern Turkemen, Makeev, Bozhanski and Frolov (1986) provide estimated density figures of 308 animals per square kilometre, or 3 animals per hectare. In other parts of its range the density is considerably considerably lower (0.2 animals per hectar or lower). In a study by Michel & Stock (1996) the densities recorded were between 0.45 (dune area) and 18 (on loamy, sandy soil with woody Artemisia species as main vegetation) specimens per hectare. These authors found more females than males and the sex-ratio was 1:1.25 to 1:1.57, depending on the biotope. Juveniles were seldom found, 3 year-old specimens had a weight of about 63 grams, and 5-6 year old specimens between 77 and 180 grams, which indicates that the tortoises grow very slowly in the wild. The reported range includes Baluchistan, Pakistan, Eastern Iran, Afghanistan, Western China to the Caspian Sea in the former USSR.

Habitat and Ecology

Kuzmin (2002) describes the tortoise as "a dweller of dry open landscapes" and "clay and sandy deserts covered with rarified low grasses and bushes". In Pakistan, Minton (1966) found T. horsfieldii exhibited a preference for grassy areas close to springs in generally rocky and hilly terrain. In many parts of its range is is found on highly sandy substrates. This species is well known for its digging abilities; tunnels up to 2m long with widened chambers at the end are frequently excavated in steep hillsides or under overhanging stones (Mylnarski and Wermuth, 1971). The disused burrows of rodents are also colonised and adapted: the burrows of the marmot and hedgehog appear to be particularly favoured (similar behaviour has been observed by this author in relation to arid South Moroccan habitats of T. graeca graeca where abandoned mammal burrows are used by aestivating tortoises). This tortoise is reported not to occur in coastal areas, preferring instead the mountains inland. In much of its range the species is active for only 3 months of the year, usually March, April and May. From late May onwards activity sharply decreases and the tortoises spend most of their time hidden in their burrows. T. horsfieldii brumates in winter deep within its burrow. In many parts of its range aestivation occurs in summer (Ernst and Barbour, 1989). In Pakistan, captive tortoises were observed to bury themselves from October to March and aestivation occurred from June to August (Roberts, 1975). This tortoise is also found at unusually extreme altitudes: Minton (1966) found them at between 1,600 and 2,300 m. A more typical altitude in the former soviet sector of their range would appear to be between 800m. and 1,600 m.

This species is most active in the wild at ambient temperatures of between 18-27 Celsius, typically in two periods per day, in the mornings between 9-10 a.m, and then in the late afternoon between 5-6pm. As summer approaches and temperatures rise, activity tends to begin earlier and later respectively - this is exactly the same pattern of seasonal behaviour that the present author observes with Testudo graeca graeca in Southern Spain.

In Turkmenia, brumation occurs in abandoned rodent burrows to a depth of 20-50cm where the surrounding soil temperature ranges from 6-10 Celsius, and the tortoise's body temperature varies from 5-11 Celsius (Atayev, 1985).

The diet is the wild includes a range of over 80 plant species from 27 families (Mambetzhumaev, 1972), however this varies substantially from region to region and habitat type to habitat type. Some insect parts from beetles has been noted in the diet of tortoises in certain localities, but it is unclear if such consumption is deliberate or incidental. Tortoises are invariably highly opportunistic feeders and if presented with something edible they will take advantage of it, however, so reports of tortoises attempting to eat a dead bird, or dead rodent, are certainly credible. It is abundantly clear that the vast bulk of their diet is herbivorous, however, despite this. It is also clear that Testudo horsfieldii in the wild consumes many plants that contain toxic substances. It is possible that their slow, fermetation-based digestive tract provides a degree of protection, preventing a sudden 'rush' of toxins being absorbed rapidly. It has also been speculated that they might be self-medicating to reduce parasite loads.

The growth of juveniles in the wild is extremely slow. For example, Chernov (1959) reports that females of nine years old only slightly exceed 10cm in size. Sexual maturity is generally achieved between 10-15 years of age, though this varies with body size and location. This slow growth should be contrasted with the vastly accellerated growth so commonly observed in captive animals. This has, as we shall see, extremely negative health consequences for the latter, specifically the stunningly high rates of metabolic bone disease observed in captive-grown examples of this species.

Unfortunately as noted, large-scale exploitation of Testudo horsfieldii continues to this day.

Sadly, most of these tortoises find themselves offered for sale in totally unsuitable conditions with developing health problems already clearly evident even before they reach their new 'owner'.

If we look closely at this image of recently imported Testudo horsfieldii being offered for sale in the EU, it is very revealing. Without exception, they are already all displaying dangerously high rates of recent growth - while simultaneously being maintained on a grossly unsuitable and cacium-deficient diet. The smaller tortoises on the right also exhibit severe carapace deformities due to poor diet and an innapropriate environment. Obviously, the woodchip substrate used here is also entirely unsuitable. A further danger however, is that in the container on the right there are what appears to be African hinge-back tortoises (Kinixys sp.) mixed in with the Russian tortoises. In the light of what we know about chelonian herpes-virus and Testudo horsfieldii, this is a disaster waiting to happen. Unfortunately, scenarios like this are in no way unusual. They are normal and everyday occurrences in the pet trade.

It is a forgone conclusion that if just one of these tortoises was carrying herpes-virus all would have been infected. Further, we see (yet again) very rapid and unhealthy rates of growth that will undoubtedly have already initiated irreversible MBD or Metabolic Bone Disease.


Dietary management is as for other Testudo species, with a low protein, low carbohydrate, low sugar, high calcium, high fibre diet the primary key to successful and deformity-free growth. However, as with all tortoises, diet and environment are essentially inseparable. Nowhere is this more extreme than in the case of the Russian tortoise. For more on the detail and background we have a series of specialised and highly focussed articles on this. For example 'Avoiding Dietary Disasters', the importance of dietary fibre, and what Metabolic Bone Disease looks like internally, All of these are highly relevant to Testudo horsfieldii. So too is our separate article on why fruits are entirely innapropriate for arid-habitat species from desert-type environments.

Because this species is only active for such a short period every year, it is 'programmed' to eat as much as possible during that short period in order to build up reserves to survive the 'barren' and innactive remainder (the majority) of the year. "During such a limited time period, the tortoises must meet the energetic requirements of maintenance, reproduction and growth, and they must store sufficient body reserves to fast through the long aestivation-hibernation period." (Legard,et. al, 2003).

It is highly efficient at achieving this. In captivity, however, this behaviour and physiology essentially 'backfires' causing severe damage when confronted by such an unnatural and continual abundance of food,

The inevitable consequences are:

  • Excessive rates of growth resulting in MBD (Metabolic Bone Disease)

  • Obesity and fatty infiltrations of vital organs

  • Renal problems and bladder calculi due to elevated serum urea levels

  • Premature mortality

The wild diet of Testudo horsfieldii is highly cyclic. As noted by Legarde, et. al, (2003): "Compared to endotherms, ectotherms are characterised by low metabolic rates, low energy requirements, and low food intakes" and "Typically, the periods favourable for activity are greatly reduced in desert-dwelling animals that are subject to extremely harsh climatic conditions." Testudo horsefieldii is one of the very best examples of this in practice. Other species that are similar in this respect, and where many of the exact same problems are encountered are Centrochelys sulcata (African Spurred tortoise) and Testudo kleinmanni (Egyptian tortoise). It is no coincidece that all occur in very barren, true 'desert' habitats.

Whereas in nature, this species may only feed for a maximum of ninety days out of every three hundred and sixty five, and even then, spend only fifteen minutes grazing each day, in captivity they are often confronted by an endless supply of (typically unsuitable) food provided every day of the year without a break.

It is hardly surprising therefore, that 'turbocharged growth syndrome' is such a common, massive and ultimately fatal health issue for this species in captivity.

How do we recognise this?

With tortoises it is not that difficult. In addition to shell deformities, the 'growth area' is usually very evident and obvious.

The wider that 'pale area' is the more rapid the growth is. Let's look at some examples.

Left: Here we can clearly observe the scute size at acquisition (the darker, duller areas towards the centres of the scutes) compared to the very wide, pale area of extremely rapid new growth. It is virtually impossible to sustain growth rates like this and achieve healthy bone growth. Without exception every tortoise that we have examined via x-ray or post-mortem with growth like this has advanced metabolic bone disease, typically nutitional secondary hyperparathyroidism. Centre: It is a common misconception to assume that if obvious 'pyramiding' is not present this must mean that the tortoise is healthy in terms of nutition and bone development. This is categorically not true. This young Testudo horsfieldii had advanced bone demineralisation as a result of a very high growth rate and a severely calcium-deficient diet. Again, the lighter areas indicate excessively rapid new growth. Right: An advanced case of metabolic bone disease. Once again there is evident massively accelerated growth and classic bone demineralisation. The subcutaneous 'red tinge' is not due to sepsis in this case, but to due bone and other tissue breakdown resulting in subcutaneous bleeding. The primary diet was lettuce and fruit with some commercial 'pellet' feed. This tortoise was treated by the Tortoise Trust and surprisingly made a good recovery. I think it fair to say that no-one, including our excellent veterinary surgeons, were more surprised than we were. Most such cases at this stage end in death sooner rather than later.

Another - sadly typical - example. Here, as previously, we can clearly identify the very pale, lateral wide 'band' of new growth. Meanwhile, the anterior of the carapace has been raised and distorted by the action of the pectoral muscles and limb girdle, whereas the posterior is depressed by the forces exerted by the pelvic muscles. This is a classic presentation of a tortoise subjected to accelerated rates of growth combined with a deficient diet and environment. Internally, the bony tissue of the carapace will be porous, fibrous and weakened. Ultimately, conditions like this lead directly to premature mortality.

The basics of the diet are, as noted above, relatively simple. Natural, cyclic grazing where possible, and if supplementary feeding is required (often it is not), then keep it as close as possible to natural graze. There is no role whatever for items such as dog food, boiled eggs, bread, cheese or any of the other bizarre things that some ill-informed pet keepers seem to believe are 'helpful' or are 'treats'. Quite the opposite. To a species like this they are lethal.

We have also noted that diet and environment are inseparable. One very common error that pet keepers make is to think that the tortoise needs to be 'warm' every day and 'warm' overnight. This is categorically untrue and can be positively damaging.

Tortoises not only cope very well indeed with periodic cold periods (though beware of cold-damp with T. horsfieldii) but also need a diurnal temperature cycle. This is really important and is often overlooked. If they are heated continually, the digestion and metabolism continues working at full efficiency around the clock. No wonder we see so many cases of tragically accelerated growth and metabolic bone disease. In the case of Testudo horsfieldii they are perfectly fine with overnight temperatures in the +4C to +5C range (39 degrees F to 41 degrees F). Indeed, they can cope with even less, but that range is quite effective at providing a 'rest period' from digestive energy extraction overnight. We also have another articles that you can read on some real-life overnight temperatures for wild Testudo species.


  • This species needs 'breaks' or 'rest periods' from feeding. In nature, these are predominantly provided by both brumation and aestivation. This can be succesfully replicated in captivity. Without them dangerously exessive rates of growth are unavoidable. With a juvenile you will see the 'growth line' expand rapidly, With an adult, this will not be so obvious but instead is most likly to manifest as obesity and fatty infiltration of the internal organs, especially the liver and heart. Obesity is a huge problem with captive Russian tortoises, once again is a result of their adaptions to the barren habitats that they are found in when compared to the completely unnatural, often year-long round daily feeding that they are so often subjected to in captivity. In nature, this ability to build up fat reserves quickly in spring serves them well. In captivity, on a grossly over-generous diet, it can be lethal.

Over-feeding can result not only in excessive rates of growth, but large accumulations of fat which is typically most visible around the 'shoulders' and hind-limbs. Over time, some of this fat infiltrates internal organs with seriious implications for health and survival.

  • The base diet is as for Testudo graeca. Plant based, with the focus on ultra-high-fibre, low protein, low carbohydrate items. No fruit.

  • Enclosed vivarium systems with a small floor area, constant exposure to artificial light and heat, a lack of cyclic temperatures and food availability are disastrous for Horsfield's tortoises. Far from being 'optimal' they are lethal. Few survive more than single-digit years in such housing systems.

  • Even when the tortoises are active, too much 'good food' is just as likely to prove damaging as 'bad food'. Remember, they typically graze for just 15 minutes per day for around 90 days per year. More than this is very probably likely to lead to the various problems that we describe here.


This species has a high tolerance of both extreme heat and extreme cold, and in the wild survives these conditions by brumating and aestivating. In captivity, it is essential to provide a very secure pen as these tortoises are exceptionally agile and persistent escapers, capable of burrowing underground tunnels several metres long. They are also excellent climbers. External pen walls should ideally be 'dug in' with at least 30cm of concrete or wire mesh set into the ground. In summer, T. horsfieldii is active outdoors throughout Britain and most of Europe, but should be provided with good protection from persistent rain and damp, to both of which it has a poor tolerance. A cold, dry Horsfield's tortoise can survive for some considerable time; a cold, damp Horsfield's tortoise is likely to succumb to respiratory problems or fungal shell infections very quickly. In prolonged spells of cold and wet weather, T. horsfieldii is best removed to an indoor open-topped terrarium equipped with a basking lamp, a source of UV-B and dry substrate or into a dry greenhouse type outdoor unit. Short episodes of rain, followed by sunshine, are much appreciated, however, and encourage activity and the 'flushing' of urates.

A secure arid-habitat type enclosure suitable for the outdoor maintenance of Testudo horsfieldii or Centrochelys sulcata. The texture of the substrate and infiltration of plant roots permits such species to engage in natural behaviours such as burrowing.

The most successful form of accommodation in cooler climates for this species (in our experience) is based around our 'Climate Frame' design with a low-level 'mini-greenhouse' covering part of the enclosure (using UV-B transmitting plastics) and also a landscaped, 'desert-like' outdoor area with a very well-drained substrate capable of allowing for burrowing. This is not flat, but hilly and rocky - and is infiltrated by the roots of various shrubs, Lavender, Rosemary, Cistus, etc. This helps to bind the substrate together making it more suitable for excavation. Temperatures in the covered section are typically +15C above the ambient outdoors, and can rise so high that the tortoises aestivate naturally inside them over summer. Again, the substrate in that section is suitable for burrowing and has both 'open' and shaded areas. The substrate remains dry all year round, and a semi 'natural' brumation also occurs. This combination of semi-natural brumation and aestivation is extremely important in preventing dangerously excessive rates of growth.

This species originates, as noted previously, in sandy, arid desert habitats. Heavy, wet, clay soils or similar substrates must be avoided. All is not lost if you do have such a soil type, however. Simply excavate a large pit to a depth of at least 30 cm (12") and partially fill with gravel. On top of this, fill with a 15 cm (6") layer of fine, sandy soil. This will dramatically improve drainage and will produce a much safer, more arid habitat better suited to this species . The addition of a few 'hills', or mounds, some rocks and some scrubby vegetation will produce a basic outdoor environment that will create a very good basic enclosure.

Another highly successful option is based upon an arid 'polytunnel' unit. Even in very wet climates such as the UK, it is possible to create near-desert type aridity inside such a unit. In addition, temperatures inside will be very much greater than outside - all achieved with zero additional energy inputs. We used exactly this unit to both brumate and aestivate Testudo horsfieldii for many years. There were zero losses and the tortoises consistently emerged in very good condition.

Brumation and aestivation area for Testudo horsfieldii inside an arid polytunnel unit. The entire unit measured 15M X 4M and was subdivided into separate internal pens.

By providing a dry, well-drained and sandy substrate many health problems can be prevented and by planting the enclosure with suitable wild-flowers, tortoises not only are able to access a genuinely suitable and healthy diet, but it also promotes excercise and an environmentally enriched habitat.

The outside area is, in addition, seeded with an 'edible wildflower mix' which produces a natural 'flush' of lush vegetation in early spring, drying to a coarser graze area as the season advances. No supplemental food is provided. This is another important strategy in preventing excess growth. The tortoises housed in this way always manage to sustain a perfectly healthy weight, however, without becoming overweight or obsese as so often seen with this species.

Burrows are a critical part of how this tortoise lives and an opportunity to burrow should be provided in captivity. Here, one of the author's males emerges from the burrow he excavated in his outdoor enclosure.

Enclosed 'tank type' vivaria are not well tolerated by this species and they do not provide the necessary opportunities to burrow which is such a major part of this tortoise's lifetyle. They have numerous other drawbacks, despite being heavily promoted by the pet trade to uninformed owners.

  • Tortoises tend to do very badly in confined, poorly ventilated spaces. About the only way to obtain anything like adequate airflow in a typical 'tank' type vivarium is to employ forced-air circulation using fans. Without this, the air rapidly becomes stale and foul. As the tortoise urinates and defecates, humidity within the unit also rises to unacceptable levels (this problem is further exasperated by under-floor heat pads). There are very high occurrences of serious respiratory diseases and both bacterial and fungal infections of the skin and keratin scutes with tortoises kept in this kind of enclosure.

  • Lack of microclimates. It is very difficult to provide adequate microclimates for tortoises in a relatively small tank-type vivarium. These animals require a substrate depth of at least 10 cm (4") in order to be able to construct a pallet (used at night, to escape from excessive temperatures, and to reduce fluid loses via skin evaporation). A layer of 'reptile bedding', carpet, wood chips or newspaper is simply inadequate. Where a suitable depth of substrate is not available, anticipate problems with bladder calculi (stones) and kidney problems over the long term. This is greatly amplified by the necessity of relying upon intensely dehydrating artificial heat sources rather than natural solar warmth.

  • Inadequate temperature gradients.

  • Reliance upon prepared foods and human-provided 'salads' or even hand-picked 'weeds' is inevitable in an indoor setting. This is very far from a self-selected diet of natural graze as is possible in a well-designed outdoor pen.

  • Inadequately-sized basking zones.

  • Despite manufacturer's claims, artificial heat and UV-B lamps fall far short of the visible light, UV spectra and IR radiation from unfiltered sunlight.

  • Lack of exercise. All tortoises require space. If kept in restricted conditions they become bored, out of condition and stressed. Even the largest indoor vivarium is entirely inadequate - and in our opinion, they are inhumane for full-time use.

The sad fate of far too many Testudo horsfieldii sold as 'pets'. A short life in a 'vivarium' that fails to provide any kind of suitable, stimulating environment and no oppportunity to express their natural behaviour.

A large, landscaped outdoor terrarium situated in a sunny position, with a slope for basking purposes is ideal. As noted previously, these tortoises are prodigious and industrious excavators: the enclosure must be checked regularly for 'escape tunnels' - keeping Horsfield's tortoises secure is no easy task. They are proficient in the art of escape and are extremely agile.


Male T. horsfieldii are noted for their unusual pre-nuptial display. This consists of the male circling the female and biting at her head and legs, followed by a strange head movement made with the neck fully extended and semi-rigid. The head is jerked up and down in rapid succession whilst staring the female in the eyes. This behaviour (minus the biting) is very similar to that observed in Chelonoidis carbonaria. Mating is accompanied by high-pitched vocalisations by the male

During the mating period males are mutually antagonistic and may fight viciously.

In the former soviet part of their range, Terentjef and Chernov (1949) report that mating commences in March and lasts until June, with deposition in May and the first weeks of June. Hempel (1988) notes that mating commences almost immediately upon emerging from brumation.

Terentjev and Chernov (1949) note that two to three clutches of eggs may be laid per season, and this observation is confirmed by the behaviour of T. horsfieldii maintained by present author. In the former Soviet Union, Sergeev (1941) reported 4 clutches per year. Hempel (1988) records that a captive female laid several clutches of 2-4 eggs per clutch and in the USA, Slavens (1989) observed a large captive female lay 2 clutches of 7 and 9 eggs at the end of August and another clutch of 3 eggs in September. According to Mylnarski and Mertens (1971) an individual female may lay as many as 20 eggs per season in 3 or more clutches.

Reported egg dimensions appear to vary considerably. Werner and Werner (1980) observed eggs which measured 43 X 30mm and 42 X 30 mm. Three eggs incubated by the present author incubator measured 41 X 30 mm, 41 X 29. 5mm and 40.5 X 30 mm respectively. An earlier clutch laid by the same female produced eggs measuring 47mm long X 34mm wide (Highfield, 1990). Typical egg weight (at deposition) ranges from 22-25g.

Juvenile at 5 years of age captive-bred by the Tortoise Trust in the UK, next to elderly wild-caught male in the image on the left. The main difficulty with this species is achieving slow growth and good bone density. This juvenile was brumated from the beginning and provided with an aestivation period. No overnight heating was ever used. Great care was also taken to avoid generalised over-feeding.

The eggs hatch under artificial incubation conditions identical to those found suitable for other circum-Mediterranean Testudo species: 30-31° C at circa 80% relative humidity (we normally employ a vermiculite substrate in an electronically controlled incubator). In these conditions, hatching may be expected at between 61-75 days. Of three eggs laid by the present author's female on 20th July 1991, one hatched on the 5th of September and a second on the 14th September. The third egg was infertile. The incubation temperature in that instance was maintained at a very constant 30.5°C (Highfield, 1991).

At emergence, hatchlings typically measure some 42-50 mm in carapace length and weigh between 18-23g. The hatchlings may remain within the egg for some time. Indeed, in the wild (as with Testudo graeca graeca) tortoises that hatch in September may not finally leave the nest until the following March or April.

Health Problems

A high proportion of animals that are sold via the pet trade are severely traumatised, stressed and suffer from a variety of traumatic injuries and contagious diseases. The shipping conditions frequently leave much to be desired, and most animals are subject to faecal contamination and extreme temperature variations in transit. Of particular note is Hexamita parva, a highly damaging parasite of the renal and urinary system. This organism has been identified frequently in T. horsfieldii and if untreated leads to rapid weight loss, dehydration and terminal renal failure. It responds to oral dosing with Metronidazole (Flagyl) at 260mg/kg. Other symptoms include thick or slimy urine which often smells strongly of ammonia. It is imperative that hydration is maintained in affected animals and that precautions are taken to prevent contagion of adjacent stock. Routine urine tests should be carried out on all suspect animals. It should also be noted that Horsfield's tortoises have proved susceptible to epidemics of viral disease (Lange, et. al. 1989, Kabisch & Frost, 1994, Marschang, et al., 1999 ) and should be regarded as potential high risk carriers of Herpes-type organisms. Tortoises with this disease are highly contagious and if allowed contact with others, especially in the context of a large 'collection' or group, an outbreak can easily result in 100% mortality. The Tortoise Trust is aware of many such cases, including some where dozens of tortoises died as a result of introducing just one new Testudo horsfieldii without adequate testing, quarantine and barrier protocols in place. Keepers should not underestimate the risk.

Various shell infections (both bacterial and fungal) are common in Testudo horsfieldii that are kept in too-moist conditions. Never forget that this is a true DESERT SPECIES from incredibly arid environments (myths that this species requires 'high humidity' are exactly that. Baseless myths that are entirely disconnected from reality). A typical symptom of a fungal shell infection is a chalky-white buildup on the scutes of the keratin, combined with keratin softening and degeneration, scute separation from the underlying tissue, and in some cases, ulcerous exudations. This can usually be treated with prompt application of anti-fungal agents, but if untreated, will ultimately prove fatal. Prevention is easier than cure.

This is not an 'easy' species. It arises from a highly specialised, challenging environment and in no way 'adapts' easily to captivity. The global pet trade paints an entirely misleading and deceptive picture of them. Why? Because huge profits are at stake. As usual, money and human greed surplants any genuine concern for nature, or for the suffering of these unique, intelligent and very sensitive animals.

Dedicated to the memory of Karen and Astrid Lonsdale


Ateyev, C. (1985) The Reptiles of the Mountains of Turkmenistan. Ashkabad Ylym Pub. 344pp.

Ernst, C. and Barbour, R. W. (1989) Turtles of the World. Smithsonian Institution Press., Washington, D.C. and London. 313 pp.

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