[The physique]The shell
The most noticeable about a tortoise is it’s shell. However one shouldn’t mistake the use of the word “shell”, as the shell of a tortoise is very sensitive. It consists of lots of living material that is very vulnerable. The shell covers a capsule of bones, where there are openings at the front and the back for the head, neck, legs and tail. The “upper” shell is usually arched and is known as the back armour, the lower part is usually flat and is known as the floor armour. Both parts are grown together at the sides. The shell consist of parts of the bones of the spine, ribs, shoulder blades and lots of bony skin. Therefore the whole of the shell is very sensitive. Only the horny skin is insensitive, similar to the finger nails of a human. You can see growth rings in the shell, these give information on growth spurts, however not on the age of a tortoise.
The skin consists of an upper skin and a leather skin of collective tissue. This upper skin protects the tortoise with it’s waterproof horn layer from dehydrating. It also protects against injury. The skin of a tortoise does not possess any adenoids. This is also a reason for tortoises avoiding the hot midday sun, as they cannot emit sweat secretion.
Tortoises do not have any teeth. They only possess a beak, that has a well developed upper and lower jaw. These are needed for biting off vegetable nourishment and for catching prey.
The front feet of tortoises are shaped like spades and therefore are ideal for burying. The back legs are more a reminder of small elephant feet. They are flat and can therefore be placed on the ground well.
[Digestive Tract]Beak and Mouth Cavity
As tortoises do not have any teeth, the beak is very well designed. The upper and lower jaws are covered with a horn sheath and similarly to birds, the horn beak takes over the function of the teeth. The beak is designed differently for each different type of tortoise. Tortoises can move their tongues in all directions. However the tongue of a land tortoise is comparatively small and does not come very far out of the mouth. Movement of the head during feeding serves the purposes of a fast advancement of the food towards the throat.
Food reaches the stomach through the oesophagus. It can be widely stretched, so that tortoises can swallow larger chunks of food.
The stomach of a tortoise is similar to that of a mammal. The placement, shape and stretching is similar. Depending of the fill quantity, it looks either like a sack or a hook. The stomach is on the left hand side of the body.
The intestines are split into large intestine, small intestine and appendix. Tortoises have a shorter large and small intestine than mammals and it is less sidled. The appendix is the connection piece between the large and small intestines. Tortoises and crocodiles are the only reptiles that possess an appendix, with other reptiles it is only implied but does not have a function. The end part of the large intestine is known as the rectum. This then ends in the cloacae. Excrement is released through the cloacae.
The pancreas is light orange to light pink. It lies near to the spleen and has a long shape. It ends in the small intestine. The pancreas secretes a digestion enzyme.
The liver is the largest organ of a tortoise. It is light to dark brown. The colour is based upon age, the quantity of blood and the nutritional values of the reptile.
[Breathing and Senses]Achievements of the Senses
Tortoises have very distinct senses. They orientate themselves with their eyes. They can additionally use the position of the sun for additional orientation. They recognise their partner, find food and recognise danger with their eyes. They are often supported by their good noses. Tortoises search for colourful fruits and leaves in Spring. This is the reason that tortoises also eat tomatoes and strawberries. They recognise snails and insects by their movement. The ears however are not very distinct. People thought for a long time that tortoises are deaf, but this is not quite true. They just don’t hear very well. Tortoises perceive frequencies up to around 1000 Hertz. Lower tones between 200 and 500 Hertz they hear well. Tortoises cannot communicate with noises. Only when mating, the males expel noise (peeping). A further sense is the seismic sense. As soon as the ground shakes just a little, the tortoises feel it and can recognise nearing foe quickly and protect themselves.
Because of the rigid shell, it is impossible for a tortoise to breath by moving it’s chest up and down. That’s why other devices within the body have to assist with breathing. Tortoises have special lung muscles that are actively pressed together. Thus the oxygen poor air is pushed through the windpipe and out through the mouth. Through the relaxation of the lung muscles, fresh air flows as the wings of the lung spread. Breathing is normally silent. Should tortoises make a noise when breathing, then it is highly possible that they have an airway illness and you should visit a vet.
It is very difficult to judge whether a young animal is either male or female. You can differentiate the sexes by the size and age. Male tortoises have a longer, thicker tail, as the penis is integrated in the tail. With young animals, the whole body including the tail is still growing and therefore it is very difficult to know exactly if it’s a male or a female. If you want to breed, you should buy several babies and hope that a pair is present, or you buy adult animals. However, adult tortoises are very expensive.
Growth and Weight
The growth and weight of a tortoise must be checked regularly (after hibernation, around April / May and shortly before hibernation). It is especially important to measure the weight and size of young animals. As soon as the weight reduces, you should see a vet, this could be a sign of illness.
Way of Life
Due to their heavy shells, tortoises are not especially good at hunting, this is why they mainly eat vegetation, but they also feed on insects, snails and worms.
Temperature and Activity
The activity of a land tortoise is dependant upon the temperature. If it’s too hot, most tortoises look for a cool place in the shade. Some types even bury themselves into the ground and others hide under cliffs or in caves. Should it be too cold, then most tortoises look for a sunny place in order to heat themselves to their “operating temperature”. Only once this temperature has been reached do tortoises move, feed and are able to digest.
Why do tortoises need their winter sleep?
Animals from temperate zones need their winter sleep in order to survive the winter. In the cold season there is little food available and the sun shines seldom. Tortoises warm themselves in the sun, they would otherwise freeze to death in winter. That’s why they fall into a winter fix. During this fix, the heart frequency, breathing, movement and metabolism are driven down. They have gathered reserves of fat for enough provision, so that they get through the winter. It is important for tortoises to hibernate. It is unavoidable for fertility. It should take from around October to the end of March. For young tortoises is doesn’t need to be this long, 1 - 2 months is normally enough. Hibernation can be increased at any age. If a tortoise is ill, it shouldn’t hibernate until the illness has been healed.
How do I know when my tortoise wants to hibernate?
In October, the activity of a tortoise becomes less. It doesn’t eat as much and moves slower. They mostly hide themselves in a shelter, or bury their heads in the ground. This is exactly the time to act and to prepare the tortoise for hibernation.
It is wise to stick to the following rules:
Have a vet do a health check around September
Light and sources of heat in terrariums should be switched off and the room temperature regulated at under 18 degrees Celsius.
If the tortoise does not settle down with 8 - 10 days after this procedure, then it is probably ill and should be checked over.
How can I best winter my tortoise?
Before the tortoise is put into a suitable box, it needs to be weighed. The weight should be noted so that you can check it better.
During hibernation, tortoises should be measured every 5 - 6 weeks. Should it have lost too much weight, you must interrupt hibernation immediately and have the tortoise checked. 10% weight loss for adult animals and 15% for young animals is completely normal.
The winter box:
The box should be around 70 x 70 x 80 cm. It should consist of a strong material. The cover should have holes or slits so that the tortoises get enough air. Or you don’t use a lid and fill the box with enough leaves or hay. The floor of the box should be around 10 cm high with earth, clay balls or other material suitable for tortoises. The leaves or hay is then put on the top.
The ideal room temperature should drift between +5 degrees and +8 degrees.
IMPORTANT! The tortoise should not be fed during hibernation.
Awaking from Hibernation
After 3 - 4 months hibernation, the tortoise awakes automatically, if not, get it out of the box. First of all, this tortoise should be kept separate from the rest. You can also leave it in the box and move the box to a warmer room. The room or terrarium temperature should be between 20 and 22 degrees Celsius. As soon as the tortoise awakes and moves, follow the next steps: - The animal must be bathed. Water temperature between 24 and 26 degrees Celsius. During this procedure, the tortoise will drink a lot of water. Once this has happened, place it back into the terrarium or the box. Switch the lighting on as normal. You should then offer the tortoise plenty of fresh food. It is possible that it eats very little, or nothing at all within the first few days. This is normal.
If your cellar doesn’t cool enough, you can let your tortoise hibernate in the garden. Just sink the box into the earth. As a safety measure, you should put around half a meter of straw or leaves on the top, to stop the frost from getting down to the tortoise. In order to protect against rats or other animals, you will need to put tightly woven wire fence over the box before burying it.
Hibernation in the Fridge
Another alternative, is hibernation in the fridge. Here you should follow the same instructions as for hibernation in the cellar. The fridge should be large enough for the boxes. Furthermore, it should not be used for cooling foodstuffs or similar. You should be careful that the boxes do not touch the back wall of the fridge, as this wall is often too cold. Simply close the fridge door. The door should be opened once a day, so that enough air can flow in. Otherwise it should be opened as little as possible, so that the tortoises can hibernate in peace. The temperature should lie between 7 and 10 degrees Celsius.
1. The animal must be bathed. Water temperature between 24 and 26 degrees Celsius. It will drink a lot of water. Once it has done so, place the tortoise back into the terrarium or box. Switch on the lighting as usual.
2. You should then offer the tortoise plenty of fresh food. It is possible that it eats very little, or nothing at all within the first few days. This is normal.
Nutrition is the most important thing to observe for the correct keeping of a land tortoise. If healthy nourishment is not given, then the tortoise will usually become ill and often die as a result of the illness.
Tortoises are vegetarians. That’s why they mainly eat plants and flowers. In exception cases, they also eat worms, snails and insects. This normally happens unintentionally. In the home of the tortoise there is a wide range of food. Therefore, people must take care that they have a large choice of plants and flowers, so that the tortoises get enough vitamins and minerals. The large choice of food is not only important for the mineral intake, but also for the tortoise itself. Tortoises get used to their main foods very quickly and then do not want to eat anything else. One sided nutrition is, as for humans, not healthy for reptiles. Fruit and vegetables are often soiled with fertiliser and pesticides in Germany. This is not healthy for tortoises and should be avoided. Also salad from a greenhouse should only be eaten seldom.
The Opine Family
The opine family consists of angiosperm plants (magnolia) that belong to the saxifrage (used to be Rosales). The plants in this family are able to store water in their thick leaves and are therefore relatively without competition in dry areas. They therefore belong to the leaf succulents. Succulents means plants that store water (Latin “success” = “juice”). Source: Wikipedia.
Which food should I not, or not often, give to my tortoise? All cooked or otherwise prepared foodstuffs such as pasta, rice and bread, do not belong in a tortoise cage. Dog or cat food is also unsuitable. This food has been especially prepared for these animals and contains too much protein for tortoises. Fruit should also not be fed as it contains a lot of sugar. Fruit may be fed occasionally. The specially manufactured tortoise food also contains lots of animal proteins. You should therefore not feed it very often. Incorrect nutrition does not only lead to illness, but the tortoise grows too quickly whereby the shell becomes uneven and the tortoise usually gets too fat.
Tortoises absorb all vitamins from the plants in their own country. This is sometimes not possible here. That’s why you should include additives occasionally.
The cuttlebone is the lime skeleton of a small type of squid. This is known as lime food additive for canary birds. You can often find the bones on the beach during your summer holiday. It can also be bought in specialised shops. They deliver a lot of lime for tortoises and are therefore very healthy. Instead of cuttlebone, you can also feed mussel and snail shells. Only the soft shells from some snails are suitable.
Please consider the following steps:
Unfortunately we also have to think about theft today. Land tortoises are mainly stolen because of their high purchase price. That’s why you should consider how this can be prevented when buying a tortoise.
1. A photo documentation for every tortoise should be available, so that you can prove ownership. The documentation is compulsory anyway.
2. Your land should be protected with a good fence.
3. Furthermore, you should build a high barbed wire fence around the cage. It should not only be protected from the sides, but also from the top.
4. Another alternative, is the installation of halogen flood lights with movement detectors. This should shock thieves.
5. If necessary, you can also install video cameras and an alarm system on your property.
Should an animal be stolen, regardless of your prevention measures, inform the Police. You can prove ownership with your photo documentation.