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Tortoise Trust Online Course

In 2002 the Tortoise Trust launched the world's very first online course on tortoises and turtles. It is now 2024 - and it's back! Fully updated and taking advantage of the numerous advances in technology that now exist.

The information presented in these lessons is based upon more than 40 years professional experience of working with tortoises, turtles and their owners, and covers all major aspects of environmental requirements, accommodation requirements, dietary management and health issues. There is also a substantial amount of background information on tortoise and turtle anatomy, function and behaviour.

One thing may become obvious immediately. There is a lot of conflicting, and frequently inaccurate, information out there - especially in ‘pet care’ books and on the internet. This can be very confusing indeed if you are new to keeping tortoises or turtles. Some of this information is excellent. Some of it is absolutely lethal. During these lessons you will learn to discriminate between good and bad advice. You will also find it advantageous to join the Tortoise Trust Facebook Group. There, you can enjoy contact with hundreds of other keepers, many of them highly experienced, who will be only too pleased to answer any specific questions you may have.

Going by Tortoise Trust records, it is very instructive to note the kinds of problem that are by far the most frequently encountered.. These may generally be broken down into the following groups:

1) Environmental problems

Typical examples: Keeping the tortoise in poorly designed vivaria, provision of inadequate lighting and heating systems, insufficient attention to humidity control or microclimate requirements, poor filtration for aquatic species, etc.

2) Nutritional problems

Typical examples: Calcium and D3 deficiencies, renal problems, excessive growth, gout and fatty liver, dietary ‘addictions’ and provision of incorrect foods.

3) Infectious and contagious diseases

Typical examples: Herpes virus infections, flagellate and other parasites, over-crowding and mixing species, inadequate attention to hygiene, isolation and quarantine.

Between them, these problem categories account for the vast majority of the many calls for help the Tortoise Trust has received over the last 40 years. The sad thing is that almost all of them are entirely and completely avoidable. One of the objectives of these lessons is to ensure that you do avoid these problems, and do not make the mistakes so frequent among less informed keepers.

This series of lessons is designed to provide you with a broad-based understanding of what tortoises and turtles are, how they function, and how you can meet their needs in captivity. We also hope that by taking these lessons you will come to appreciate what amazing and fascinating animals these truly are, and that as a result you will feel motivated to ensure that wild populations and their habitats are protected. Tortoises and turtles have been on this earth for millions of years, but never have they faced such serious threats as they face today. It is therefore essential that keepers act responsibly, do not endanger threatened species, and provide those animals that are already in captivity with the best possible care.


The aim of this first lesson is to give you a brief overview of the anatomy and basic functions of tortoises and turtles. You will use this material as a source of reference in future lessons. Some of this material may seem a little daunting at first but it will make sense eventually. Do not be intimidated by terms that you may not recognise. A glossary is provided.

You are not expected to commit all of this information to memory at once. As these lessons progress, you will soon see how relevant an understanding of this basic physiology is to your captive husbandry practices. Many tortoises and turtles are injured and die because people fail to understand even the most basic facts about how these animals function, or why certain things are critically important to them. Only by gaining some knowledge of their anatomical background can many of these mistakes be avoided.


As we noted in the previous lesson, the structure and function of tortoises and turtles reflects the environments that they originate in, and can survive successfully in. These differences are at their most obvious when comparing moist rainforest species to semi-arid and savannah species; in other words, when we compare extremes of habitat. Such differences manifest in very many ways; size, coloration, shape, skin structure and in terms of overall metabolism and chemistry (uric acid vs. ammonia excretion, for example). There are many ‘in between’ habitats where differences, though not so obvious, also exist.

Environmental pressures are also behind many other aspects of a tortoise or turtle’s life. In some cases, environments require the animal to adopt particular survival strategies or behaviours. The most obvious of these are hibernation/brumation, aestivation (a strategy to escape extreme heat and lack of food and water), and different modes of thermo-regulation and water conservation strategies. There are also many particular patterns of behaviour that are specific to individual species or groups of species that may have evolved in response to purely local conditions. In this lesson, we will look at chelonian behaviour in general, and examine what the implications of this are for practical captive husbandry.


Following on from the basic biology, ecological and behavioural aspects of tortoises and turtles covered in the previous two lessons, in this lesson we look at some practical implications of keeping these animals in captive situations and some factors to be considered when considering which species to keep.

A turtle or tortoise is a very long-lived animal, and great thought should be given before taking on the responsibility of keeping one. If cared for properly, some species will easily outlive their owners. They will need daily care and periodic veterinary treatment, and both the time and expense of caring for an animal needs to be considered before the decision is made. Turtles and tortoises are considered ‘exotic’ animals, because of their highly specialised environmental and dietary needs. They are not animals to be taken on unless you can guarantee to provide them with what they need to live a long, healthy and enjoyable life. In this lesson we look at preliminary health checks, habitat size and environmental requirements, and the implications of keeping males and females.


In this lesson we will examine some of the most common species that you might encounter. Some of these species are relatively straightforward to care for, others are far more demanding.

In the wild, chelonians have access to a wide range of natural foodstuffs and without exception they live in an environment which is climatically perfectly suited to their biological needs. They also use specific behaviours to moderate the effects of locally occurring temperatures and humidity upon their metabolism. The particular combination of natural factors within which a species evolved and lives naturally includes such variables as climate, vegetation, diurnal temperature fluctuation, photo-period (day length), light intensity and soil texture, humidity, precipitation, etc. All accommodation must therefore be designed with the natural requirements of the particular species it is intended to house very firmly in mind. In each case their basic needs in captivity are similar to those in the wild, and keepers must be prepared to invest time and effort to ensure that all accommodation is of the highest possible standard and meets their critical biological requirements.


In this lesson we examine habitat and enclosure design factors in detail. Meeting UV-B requirements, for example, and making sense of the wide range of artificial heating and lighting systems now available. We also look at microclimate provision, substrate choices and properties, safety requirements, making use of natural light and infra-red, indoor and outdoor shelters and many other practical aspects of accommodation design.


It is important that you understand the basic principles of aquatic turtle maintenance, even if you do not intend keeping them. This group of animals is often the subject of rescue and rehoming efforts, and you never know when you might encounter a turtle in need of help. For this reason, the Tortoise Trust feels that it is vital that all keepers should understand what is involved in looking after them. In this lesson we explore the differences between temperate and tropical aquatic species, their varying dietary needs, maintaining water quality and filtration systems, lighting requirements, habitat design and practical construction methods, transport and handling.


The question of what to feed tortoises and turtles, how much, how often and how to obtain suitable foods is one that gives constant rise to concern among keepers. There is invariably a lot of debate on this issue among keepers; some of this debate is sensible and well-informed, some not so. Except in very, very few cases, it is not going to be possible for most keepers to provide an absolutely authentic diet for their animals. The only exception may be if you live in the natural zone of distribution for that species (or in a closely approximate climatic zone) and allow the animals to browse over a very large (but secured) area of indigenous vegetation. For obvious reasons, most keepers will not be able to achieve this and instead will be seeking a reasonable compromise. In this lesson, we will review the basic principles of good dietary management, and examine some examples of captive diets that have proven themselves in practice over a long period of time. We also look at the unfortunate consequences if we get this wrong.


With good diet and husbandry, many of the most common problems that afflict captive tortoises and turtles can be avoided. In these lessons we have discussed the metabolic needs of these animals, and looked closely at how environment and behavioural factors must be considered when developing husbandry methods. If this approach is adopted, the risk of serious disease is massively reduced. It is instructive to note that, on average, more than 60% of tortoises that require veterinary treatment are ill because of poor diet or avoidable errors of husbandry. Hopefully, the previous lessons in this series will help you to avoid this type of situation. The ability of keepers to recognise or eliminate these possibilities is all part of good husbandry, so you should very definitely familiarise yourself with the basic symptoms of these common health problems.

The diagnosis and treatment of a sick tortoise or turtle requires a good deal of logical detective work on the part of both the owner and veterinary surgeon; these animals often do not display very obvious indications of what is wrong, and some familiarity with them is essential if the cause of the problem is to be correctly identified. In this lesson we look in detail at common health problems and how early detection is vital if the correct treatment is to be obtained in good time. This lesson includes discussion of bacterial, viral and parasitic diseases, as well as trauma injuries, the prevention of contagion, and appropriate handling practices.

The course is fully online and can be taken at your own pace. A certificate is provided to those who complete it successfully, The total cost is only 199 Euros, or this can be paid over 12 monthly instalments. Our objective was to make this as affordable and accessible as we possibly could.


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