Marginated Tortoise

The Marginated Tortoise, Testudo marginata, is a species of Mediterranean tortoise found in southern Greece, from the Peloponnesus to Mount Olympus. They are also found in isolated zones of the Balkans and Italy, with a somewhat broader range in northeastern Sardinia. They prefer mountainous regions in elevations over 5,250 feet high.

It is the largest European tortoise, reaching a weight of up to 11 pounds and a length of 14 inches. Its shell is oblong and has a notable thickness around the middle of the body. The posterior end of the shell has a saw-like formation, flanged outward like a bell. The carapace of adult specimens is almost completely black, with yellow highlights. The ventral shell is lighter colored and has pairs of triangular markings with the points facing the rear of the animal. The front sides of the limbs are covered with large scales.

In old female specimens, the rear flaps of the underside of the plastron are somewhat moveable. The tail is notable for a lengthwise marking and for an undivided carapace over the tail. Males have a longer tail, which is thicker at the base than the females. Their underside is more strongly indented. Males are also often larger than the females.

The black color of the carapace is helpful for survival in this environment, as it allows the tortoise to absorb a great deal of heat in a short time, helping it maintain its body temperature. Similarly, the lighter colored underside slows the radiation of body heat into the cold ground. Early in the morning, Marginated Tortoises bask in the sun to raise their body temperature, and then search for food. After feeding, the tortoises return to their shelters in the hot midday hours, leaving them again in the late afternoon.

Immediately after waking from hibernation the mating instinct starts up. The males follow the females with great interest, encircling them, biting them on the limbs, ramming them, and trying to mount them. During copulation, the male opens his mouth, showing his red tongue and making loud cries. The tone of the copulation cry is almost sobbing with long, deep tones. During mating, the female stands still and holds her head to the side, looking up to see the opened mouth of the male. It appears that the red tongue serves a signaling function. The female moves her head from left to right in the same rhythm as the male’s cries.

Afterwards the female seeks out an adequate location to lay her eggs. Once such a place is found, the female stands still propping both front legs firmly against the ground. Then she digs out a hole with her hind legs, alternating between left and right, beginning with simply scratching the ground but eventually moving large quantities of soil which are piled up beside the hole. The depth of the hole is determined by the length of her hind legs. If the ground is too hard to dig, the female releases water from her anal gland to soften it.

Once the hole is dug egg laying begins. Each egg is gently rolled back into the hole. After the last egg the female immediately begins refilling the hole, again using her hind legs. Finally, she stamps the opening closed with her feet so that the ground regains its natural hardness. Larger animals may lay eggs as many as three times per summer, with about 15 eggs per clutch.

Marginated Tortoises are very strict herbivores and the food source consists primarily of plants from their native Mediterranean region.