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Habitat Enrichment for Tortoises - Do we underestimate their real needs?

Updated: Dec 10, 2023


Testudo graeca graeca habitat, Southern Spain



There is a trend in some places to keep tortoises (and other reptiles) in entirely 'artificial' conditions. We have fairly strong views on this, and we'll tell you why. You can certainly keep them ALIVE using these 'intensive' methods, though there are serious questions about long-term impacts upon health. The same, incidentally, applies to intensively-kept animals in agriculture (although they kill most of them before long, while tortoises are expected to survive for decades). Our main objection to this approach is on fundamental humane and welfare grounds, however. What these methods (including enclosed 'boxes' and featureless vivaria) ignore entirely is the very real issue of environmental enrichment.


Current research suggests that this is far, far more important to these animals than many realise (or are prepared to accept). Unfortunately, this aspect of their lives has often been swept almost entirely into the background. There is a growing, and convincing, body of research, however, that explores this area in detail and in our opinion keeping these animals in 'sterile', featureless and highly restricted conditions should no longer be considered acceptable. More and more research is emerging that demonstrates not only the physiological importance of suitable, varied and environmentally-suited captive habitats, but also their 'psychological' and behavioural importance. We now know, for example, that many tortoises have quite a developed ability to communicate with vocalisations. We also know that problem-solving and even play occur in these species. It is not in the least anthropomorphic to say, therefore, that keeping them for years on end in highly restricted and 'boring' enclosure systems where none of these natural instincts can be expressed can in no way be regarded as humane or acceptable. There is more to life than merely continuing to function: Quality of life is just as important to a tortoise (or any other reptile) as it is to ourselves.


The reality of captivity for countless hundreds of thousands of tortoises purchased online, in pet stores or from self-professed 'breeders' is THIS:




And THIS:



We need to ask ourselves... what are we doing, why are we allowing this? These are not rare examples, they are - sadly - typical examples.


Specialist reptile veterinarian Douglas Mader, DVM, notes that denial of these factors can also have serious consequences for physical well-being:


"Reptiles that would normally live for 2 or more decades under natural conditions often

languish in captivity and succumb at an early age. This is largely because the diet,

ambient or environmental temperature, relative humidity, and lighting (appropriate

wavelengths and photoperiods) provided to captive animals often do not parallel those

that the animals have evolved to require. This dearth of environmental essentials is

sufficient to induce stress and ultimately overwhelm the animal’s natural immunity to

disease. Stressed animals rapidly become immunocompromised, predisposing them to

opportunistic infections, ulcers, and disease." (Mader, D., 2015)


We are posting a few habitat photos here. The first is typical mountain habitat in South Africa where species such as Leopard tortoises, Angulate tortoises and Tent tortoises occur.



Habitat of tortoises in South Africa


The second photo shows habitat in France populated by Testudo hermanni hermanni, and the final images are typical Testudo ibera habitat in Turkey. Not only do these habitats offer a very wide range of stimulating environmental options, and a wide range of natural graze, but they also offer challenges to be overcome and 'things to discover'. This is important. While none of us might be able to quite match the natural habitat in all its variety, we can at least TRY to meet the 'psychological' as well as merely the physiological needs of these highly sensitive animals.


Habitat of Testudo (graeca) ibera in Turkey.

Tortoises use their sense of smell, extensively, for example. In nature they experience a continually changing ´smell-scape´ of wild flowers, many strongly scented herbs that fill the warm air almost like incense. Anyone who has walked in tortoise natural habitat will know this... it is a 'sensory feast'. They also experience a vast array of textures both in terms of substrates and carapace stimuli, and of course, they dig into various substrates to create microclimates that they need in order to thermoregulate and control homeostasis, They experience slopes and rocks which they actively use to position themselves for optimal angles when basking. We are not entirely certain about how their visual percection functions, but it is clearly quite highly evolved. It may extend into areas that we humans cannot begin to understand, yet, we keep them under artifical lights that do not even begin to replicate 'real' sunlight.


An extremely elderly female Testudo (graeca) ibera in Turkey lays her eggs on a mountain slope surrounded by wild flowers as she, and her ancestors, have done for countless millenia.


As the world-famous Smithsonian Institution notes:

'Unlike other reptiles, turtles and tortoises have very good vision and are drawn to bright colors. They are quick to notice bright hues that resemble edible flowering blooms, like on the cacti that thrive in the desert environments some tortoises call home'.

When deprived of these things, is it any suprise that we see so many ´depressed´, bored and sick animals in captivity?


We can compare the difference to being able to roam in a fascinating landscape vs. being locked in a featureless prison cell, without parole. A totally unnatiral substrate. An enclosed 'box' similar to thar inflicted upon battery chickens. Tortoises, and animals in general, are not 'objects', but living, thinking, feeling versions of 'us'. That might sound somewhat anthropomorphic, but it is certainly something we seriously need to think about. We have a responsibility to take this subject far more seriously than has typically been the case. Try to engage your own imagination and inate sense of empathy. How would YOU feel in such restricted conditions... unable to function as you would if free, and cut off totally from everything that makes life worth living. That is, we propose, more than merely being fed and 'kept alive'....


We put these thoughts out to provoke reflection and discussion. So often it is all about 'our' wants and needs. What about theirs?



Further reading:

Mader, D. (2015) Environmental Enrichment for Reptiles. Clinicians Brief, February. 27-30.

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