The Russian tortoise, Horsfield's tortoise or Central Asian tortoise Agrionemys horsfieldii, is a species of tortoise that is a popular pet. It is named after the American naturalist Thomas Horsfield.
The Russian tortoise is a small tortoise species, ranging from about 13 to 25 cm (13–20 cm for males, 15–25 cm for females). They are sexually dimorphic in that the females grow slightly larger, males tend to have a longer tail that is generally tucked to the side, and females tend to have flared scutes on their shells, while males do not. Males have a concave bump on the bottom half of their shells so that they can mount females during intercourse while females have flat bottoms. Coloration varies, but the shell is usually a ruddy brown or black, fading to yellow between the scutes, and the body itself straw-yellow and brown. They have four toes. They live such a long time (about 50–75 years), that people who keep them as pets often leave them in their will. They are usually rather social with humans. They are a popular pet.
This species is traditionally placed in Testudo. Due to distinctly different morphological characteristics, the monotypic genus Agrionemys was proposed for it in 1966. Today, Agrionemys horsfieldii is currently being accepted. DNA sequence analysis generally concurs, but not too robustly so. Some sources also list three separate subspecies of Russian Tortoise, but they are not widely accepted by taxonomists:
- Agrionemys horsfieldii horsfieldii (Gray, 1844) – Afghanistan/Pakistan and southern Central Asia.
- Agrionemys horsfieldii kazachstanica Chkhikvadze, 1988 – Kazakhstan/Karakalpakhstan.
- Agrionemys horsfieldii rustamovi Chkhikvadze, Amiranschwili & Atajew, 1990 – southwestern Turkmenistan.
Distribution and ecology
The Russian tortoise ranges from Afghanistan to north-western China, through the countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, and Pakistan. It usually lives in dry areas with sparse vegetation.
Russian tortoises hibernate during winter and estivate during the summer when temperatures are high. They are avid burrowers and can dig large burrows that might be two meters (six feet) long. They are herbivorous, and active grazers when the temperature is right, consuming a wide variety of weeds and grasses. In captivity, suitable foodplants include:
- Lactuca sativa lettuce, especially Romaine and green and red Looseleaf cultivars
- Dandelions, a favorite
Relationship with humans
In the wild, the Russian Tortoise is considered vulnerable to extinction in the mid-long term. Human construction encroaching upon its habitat is the main cause of endangerment; it is also hunted locally for use in folk medicine. Trade in wild animals is restricted, and captive-breds should be preferred as pets as they are hardier. They also tend to be less shy than other tortoises and have an appealing, pugnacious temperament.
Russian tortoises are popular pets primarily because of their small size, and they are also an extremely hardy species. While captive breeding is becoming more commonplace, large retailers rely on wild caught specimens to sell as pets. These are sometimes in poor health because of the stress of capture and transport. Russian tortoises can be kept indoors and outdoors, but they can be eaten by animals, so be careful in outdoor habitats. They are extremely talented diggers, so be wary of this and build outdoor pens deep into the ground. Russian tortoises kept as pets readily consume a wide variety of greens and weeds. Many of them like to eat lettuce such as Romaine. They sell vitamins specially made for them at many pet stores. While they will also eat fruit, it should not be given, as excess sugars can cause bacterial blooms in their stomachs. They need exposure to UVB lighting to metabolize food.
First tortoise in space
The first tortoise in space, and one of the first animals of any kind in deep space was a Russian Tortoise, sent by the Soviet Union (along with wine flies, mealworms and other biological specimens) on a circumlunar voyage from September 14 to September 21, 1968.
- The European Studbook Foundation maintains a stud book for Russian Tortoise.
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- Khozatsky & Mlynarski (1966)
- e.g. Fritz et al. (2005)
- TFTSG (1996)
- da Nóbrega Alves et al. (2008)
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- da Nóbrega Alves, Rômulo Romeu; da Silva Vieira; Washington Luiz & Gomes Santana, Gindomar (2008): Reptiles used in traditional folk medicine: conservation implications. Biodiversity and Conservation 17(8): 2037–2049. doi:10.1007/s10531-007-9305-0 (HTML abstract, PDF first page)
- Fritz, Uwe; Kiroký, Pavel; Kami, Hajigholi & Wink, Michael (2005): Environmentally caused dwarfism or a valid species - Is Testudo weissingeri Bour, 1996 a distinct evolutionary lineage? New evidence from mitochondrial and nuclear genomic markers. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 37: 389–401. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2005.03.007
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- Tortoise & Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group (TFTSG) (1996). Testudo horsfieldii. 2006. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2006. www.iucnredlist.org. Retrieved on 11 May 2006. Listed as Vulnerable (VU A2d v2.3)
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