Russian Tortoise Caresheet (Testudo horsfieldi)by Ken Meyer
Russian Tortoise Taxonomy
© Richard Mayer
Common Names for Russian Tortoises
Afghan Tortoise, Steppe Tortoise, Central Asian Tortoise, Four toed Tortoise and Horsfields tortoise
Introduction to Russian Tortoises
The multiple names of this tortoise cause a great deal of confusion when attempting to obtain information regarding proper care and husbandry. The Russian tortoise is the easternmost of the tortoise family that are known as the Mediterranean tortoises.
They range from southwestern Russia through eastern Iran, northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan, occupying dry rocky deserts and hillsides, usually near a water source where grasses and other vegetation are present.
The Russian tortoise grows to 6-8 inches in length and has a rounded oval carapace, which is distinctly flattened along the vertebral scutes. There colors vary from yellow-green to olive to light tan with brown and black markings on the largest scutes.
They can be located throughout Russia, Afghanistan, Western China, Pakistan, Eastern Iran, and Baluchistan.
This species likes to burrow and will create large burrows allowing them to completely turn themselves around. They are often located in the close vicinity of water such as streams located near grassy, hilly or rocky areas.
Housing Russian Tortoises
While most pet stores will recommend basic aquariums, these are really not suitable for a Russian tortoises needs. They tend to be long and narrow with poor air circulation and harder to maintain proper temperatures. If an aquarium is to be used, a 75-gallon tank should be the minimum.
The best option is an outdoor pen, which will allow the tortoise sunshine for vitamin D3 synthesis. These pens are easy to build but care must be taken in construction. Russian tortoises are good climbers and ferocious diggers. The pen will contain them best if walls are a foot high with an "inverted" lip. This will keep any potential climbers from successfully clearly the wall. It is also a good idea to make sure that if the soil is soft, the walls delve deep enough so they cannot dig their way out (8" deep recommended). Care must also be taken to keep out predators. Another option is an indoor, custom-built cage. Here is a link describing how to build an indoor land turtle table. How to Build an Indoor Land Turtle Table
Indoor enclosures should be well ventilated and kept in a relatively dry area of the home. This is important due to the extreme susceptibility of shell rot that Russians have.
Russian Tortoise Substrates
Noted and debated by many reptile websites and enthusiasts, granular substrates run the risk of impaction. The Russian tortoise is not immune to this and is not an exception. Therefore, it is recommended that paper towel, cloth, repticarpet, or reptibark be used.
An all-natural setting may also be used if the tortoise will be kept in an outdoor pen or large vivarium. This will include clean soil with a lot of live plants that your tortoise can nibble on, making sure the plants are included in it's acceptable diet. We also place a hay pile on the cool end for burrowing (do not use alfalfa hay, the protein content is too high for tortoises).
Russian Tortoise Diet
Russian tortoises are free range grazers and enjoy a diet of large leafy plants and weeds, along with an occasional flower. We stick to basic greens we get at the grocery store. Romaine lettuce, red and green leaf lettuce, mustard greens, collard greens, turnip greens, endive, radicchio and dandelion. Ones to avoid completely are iceberg lettuce and bok choy, as these are basically all water with minimal nutritional value.
In general, a diet of low protein, high fiber, and high calcium content with be a sufficient, nutritional diet.
Flowers are an added treat and our Russian will gladly eat any he can straight from your hand or the garden when we let him wander the yard.
Water should be changed daily and should not be chlorinated. Chlorinated water needs to be purified prior to use.
Temperature - Russian Tortoise
This is a critical area as with all reptiles. Russian tortoises require a thermal gradient (a cool and warm end of its vivarium/enclosure) to properly thermo-regulate. The cool end should remain in the low 70's. The opposite end of the vivarium/enclosure should contain a basking spot of 90-95.
Evening temperatures can go as low as the mid 60's for the entire vivarium, providing he has a hay pile to burrow in. We use an UTH on one end along with a basking light, both on a temp regulator to maintain the proper temperature and set on a timer to go off at night.
Russian Tortoise Lighting
Like all reptiles, a proper photo-period should be created. Simply put, there should be a day and night.
In addition to a 12 hour night and day period, it is advisable that your Russian tortoises have access to UV lighting. This can be maintained by subjecting the tort to natural, unfiltered sunlight or by using artificial UV lighting.
Humidity - Russian Tortoise
Wild Russians environment is fairly arid. There enclosure should reflect this, but not to the point of a dusty cage. That will cause respiratory problems as will excessive humidity. Remember that its burrows will maintain a humidity level of close to 60%. We use only its water dish in the vivarium, with no other precautions, and maintain a 40-45% humidity range.
If the tortoise wants more moisture, they will utilize the burrow.
We also bathe our Russian every other day or so in lukewarm water that almost reaches its neck while extended. They seem to enjoy this, but do purge quite a bit of waste in the process.