Last updated 24 June 2000

Tortoises and Turtles of Europe

There are actually very few chelonians native to Europe, although the genus Testudo (Mediterranean tortoises) is obviously well represented. About half of the animals listed here are actually marine turtles that visit European shores from time to time. Please note that all of these animals are either completely protected or under threat in the wild, and that CITES certificates are required for most tortoises.

Scientific Name Common Name Distribution Size Notes
Testudo hermanni Hermann's Tortoise


Popular but threatened tortoise that favours low-laying, dry habitats but sometimes lives on the seashore itself. T. hermanni is mainly herbivorous but will occasionally take offal, faeces and slow invertebrates. Hibernation lasts usually from October until March, the duration being dependent on the local climate. Egg-laying is April-June, when the female lays 2-5 eggs according to her size. Incubation time is temperature dependent but usually 8-12 weeks. THESE TORTOISES ARE PROTECTED IN THE WILD.
T. h. hermanni S. Italy, Balkans, SE Rumania
T. h. robertmertensi S. France, E. Spain, C. Italy, Corsica, Sardinia
Testudo graeca Spur-Thighed Tortoise E. Balkans S. of Danube to Macedonia: European Turkey & islands of Thasos, Euboa and poss. Samothrace: Sicily and neighbouring Italy: Balearic islands, S. Spain & poss. Sardina: N. Africa, Asia Minor and M. East as far as Iran 10" This tortoise is very similar in appearance to T. hermanni but can be distinguished by the obvious spurs at the back and often coarser scaling on the legs. There may be a slight difference THESE TORTOISES ARE PROTECTED IN THE WILD.
Testudo marginata Marginated Tortoise SE Greece 14"  .
Testudo horsfieldii Horsfield's Tortoise Caspian Sea area, Eurasian steppes 8-12" This tortoise marginally makes the European list by virtue of its distribution on the extremes of Europe and also because of its Testudo relations. Horsfields come from an area that is freezing cold for three months of the year and stifling hot in summer. They therefore are adept at digging long tunnels for themselves to shelter in from these climactic extremes. One thing they cannot tolerate for long is humidity, as their habitats are very dry even in winter. Although distributed over a wider area than many Testudo species, they are treated indifferently or even killed by the natives, so must be considered threatened.
Emys orbicularis European Pond Terrapin NE Europe inc. S. Baltic; S. Europe; E. to Aral Sea; N. Africa, SW Asia 10-12" One of only two European freshwater chelonians, although with a widespread distribution. Emys is a timid inhabitant of warm still water, slow rivers, irrigation canals and marshes. It likes dense aquatic vegetation. Males have a concave plastron and wider carapaces at the posterior than females. Females lay up to 15 eggs in a pit up to 6" deep in sandy soil near the water, after which they cover the hole and compress the soil. Incubation is 3-4 months and needs fairly warm summer temperatures for the embryos to develop at all. In C. Europe the young hatch in Aug-Sept. They have soft carapaces and are barely 2 cm long. They usually hibernate in their hatching place, whereas adults hibernate in the mud at the bottom of a body of water, much as N. American freshwater species do.
Mauremys caspica caspica Stripe-Necked Terrapin, Caspian Turtle Caspian Sea 10-12" The other European freshwater turtle has a fairly disjointed distribution. Its carapace is a lighter brown and lacks the narrow yellowish lines or flecks of Emys. It is fairly catholic in its habitats, at home in mountain streams, still water or brackish river mouths.
M. c. caspica  
M. c. siebenrocki Iberia
M. c. ventrimaculata S. Balkans
M. leprosa   Spain, Portugal: North and West Africa 25cm Formerly considered a subspecies of M. caspica.
M. rivulata   S Balkans 20-25cm Considered by some authorities still to be a subspecies of M. caspica.
Dermochelys coriacea Leathery Turtle Worldwide: oceanic 6½' A huge maritime reptile weighing up to several hundred pounds, the Leatherback is more common in the tropics but has been encountered in the Atlantic and occasionally the Mediterranean. However, they do not land on European coasts to lay their eggs. Unlike most other chelonians the carapace is not fused with the vertebrae and the ribs, and there are a few rudimentary teeth in the edges of the upper jaw. Leatherbacks feed mainly on fish, jellyfish, crustaceans and molluscs.
Caretta caretta Loggerhead Turtle Mediterranean, Black Sea and Atlantic 4-5' The most northerly distributed of marine turtles, having sometimes been caught off Great Britain. The nominate subspecies C. c. caretta is actually the European one: the other, C. c. gigas, lives in the Pacific and Indian oceans. This latter subspecies has two claws on its forelimbs. Unlike the Leatherbacks, Loggerheads will also breed in the Mediterranean as well as in the tropics. Females come ashore at night and dig a pit about 2' deep into which they lay up to 150 eggs at the rate of 12 a minute. They then cover the hole with sand and return to the sea. Incubation takes 1-2 months: the hatchlings are darker than the adults and have long flat flippers. Upon hatching the young make immediately for the sea. Both young and adults feed on molluscs, crustaceans and some fish. Unlike other marine turtles they have not suffered terrible predation at the hands of man.
Lepidochelys kempii Kemp's Ridley Gulf of Mexico 2½' This is the smallest marine turtle. Its inclusion in this section is only justified by the rare sightings of young specimens (about 12" long) off the European coast. It is omnivorous, favouring mainly seaweed, crabs and shrimps. Unusually, these turtles lay their eggs during the daytime. Females lay and conceal 100 eggs in a pit.
Chelonia mydas Green Turtle Mediterranean and Atlantic 3½-4' Like the Loggerheads, there are two subspecies of this turtle, only one of which (C. m. mydas) is found in European waters: the other, C. m. japonica, inhabits the Indian and Pacific oceans. These are true oceangoing swimmers, being clocked at up to 24 mph and being capable of operating at depth for up to an hour without breathing. Like all marine turtles, Green Turtles only leave the sea to lay their eggs. The female produces 75-200 eggs a year, but these are divided between 2-5 clutches. The eggs are laid in a sandy pit and buried. Incubation time is 6-10 weeks, and the young head straight for the sea.
Eretmochelys imbricata Hawksbill Atlantic 3' Again a turtle of two subspecies, the nominate form (E. i. imbricata) being the Atlantic dweller while E. i. bissa lives in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Hawksbills prefer warm waters, but have occasionally been spotted off the UK or in the Mediterranean. They like shallow waters such as lagoons, bays and river mouths. Prey is mainly molluscs and crustaceans but dead fish may also be scavenged. The Atlantic subspecies lays its eggs mainly on the Panama coast: 150-200 eggs are laid. The Hawksbill had the misfortune to be the producer of 'tortoiseshell' (the material from which its carapace is made) and was nearly hunted to extinction before being saved by the advent of artificial plastic substitutes.

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