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The Spur-Thigh Group

One of the most difficult and regularly debated subjects amongst tortoise experts over the world is the accurate taxonomy of the Mediterranean Spur Thighed tortoises. It seems apparent that for over two centuries any tortoises that inhabited countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea which also possessed large tubercles on their rear thighs were deemed to be Testudo Graeca or a sub species of. However, recent studies have provided enough sufficient evidence to prove this original classification is considerably flawed, although most texts still refer to these subspecies, namely: Testudo Graeca Graeca (the nominate species described by Linneaus in 1758), Testudo Graeca Ibera, Testudo Graeca Zarudnyi, and Testudo Graeca Terrestris.

Scientifically there are far too many genetic differences between these assumed subspecies to warrant them to be of the same family. It is a far more likely conclusion that they are of an entirely separate species to one another. Testudo Graeca Ibera was once described as a completely separate animal – Testudo Ibera – by Pallas in 1814, before being reclassified in 1947 as the subspecies T.G.Ibera. The actual existence of another subspecies – T.G.Terrestris – is doubtful, as this race has been classified and reclassified by several different people over the years, with each description being entirely contradictory to one another.

Despite the confusion it is an absolute certainty that some subspecies do exist, although some of which scientifically deserve to be a species in their own right. For example, Testudo Graeca Ibera and Testudo Graeca Zarudnyi should be Testudo Ibera and Testudo Zarudnyi respectively.

Instead of referring to the inadequately taxonified Graeca subspecies usually found in most literature, the following tortoises are listed in a manner which is commonly agreed upon by most tortoise experts of today.

North African Graeca

This group of North African tortoises – along with most other spur-thighs – display many different morphological features from one geographical location to another; although as a whole they are easily distinguishable from the rest of the Spur-thighed group. Their captive requirements are extremely similar to one another, although they should only be kept in groups consisting of animals belonging to the same race.

All spur-thigh tortoises have a prominent spur on each upper rear thigh, but lack a spur upon the tail. They usually have five claws on the forelimbs and adult females possess a slightly flexible lower plastron. The supracaudal scute can either be divided or undivided (though most are undivided). The head shape of North African Graeca is more elongate and snake like in appearance than other species, and their eyes are smaller and more “slit”. They also possess a rounder frontal vertebral scute, and usually have a higher and more domed overall carapace shape.

The “true” T.G.Graeca as described by Linneaus in 1758 originates from Morocco and Southern Algeria. They are a fairly small race with males attaining little more than 14.5cm and females 18cm. The skin colouration is normally light brown/yellow and the head sometimes displays a few very light yellow scales to the rear of the snout. The carapace is often a fairly drab light brown without any dark patterns. However, the specimens which live on the reddish soils around the Atlas Mountains can have orange-red coloured skin and carapaces. There are also regional variations found within this Moroccan group as darker and larger specimens can be found at the most northerly point of their range – these displaying the usual central-dot scute markings and dark bands around the scute perimeters. The overall carapace shape is slightly elongated but has no serrated scutes or marginal flaring.

The plastrons of the North African races, along with all the spur-thighed tortoises, display random dark blotches which cannot be used as a positive identification feature.

Gender Diversity

Males are smaller in overall size and have a more elongated body shape with a narrower “waist”. Male tails are longer and thicker, normally carried upwards and towards one side, whereas females have short stubby tails which point straight down. Again, the male’s plastron is concave whereas the female’s plastron is flat.

Identification in Brief

  • Large single spur on each upper rear thigh
  • No horny tip on the end of the tail
  • Flexible lower plastron in adult females
  • Snake like head shape and narrow eyes
  • High, domed carapace
  • Round frontal vertebral scute

Requirements

Housing

Both Indoor and Outdoor/Greenhouse accommodation

Substrate

Sand and Soil Mix (50/50) plus Gravel and Rocks

Diet

Herbivorous

Planting

Coarse Shrubs, Thicket, Cacti, Grasses & Weeds

Hibernation

Yes

Other

Cannot tolerate damp ground