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Russian tortoise

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Russian tortoise
A Russian tortoise in Kazakhstan
A Russian tortoise in Kazakhstan
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Testudines
Suborder: Cryptodira
Superfamily: Testudinoidea
Family: Testudinidae
Genus: Testudo
T. horsfieldii
Binomial name
Testudo horsfieldii
Gray, 1844
A. h. horsfieldii
  • Testudo horsfieldii
    Gray, 1844
  • Homopus burnesii
    Blyth, 1854
  • Testudinella horsfieldii
    — Gray, 1870
  • Testudinella horsfieldi
    Gray, 1873 (ex errore)
  • Homopus horsfieldii
    Theobald, 1876
  • Testudo baluchiorum
    Annandale, 1906
  • Medaestia horsfieldi
    — Wussow, 1916
  • Testudo horsfieldi
    — Wussow, 1916
  • Agrionemys horsfieldi
    Khosatzky & Młynarski, 1966
  • Agrionemys horsfieldii
    — Młynarski, 1966
  • Testudo horsfieldii horsfieldii
    Iverson, 1992
  • Agrionemys horsfieldii horsfieldii
    Welch, 1994
  • Agrionemys horsfildii
    Rogner, 1996 (ex errore)
  • Testudo horsfieldi horsfieldi
    Highfield, 1996
  • Agrionemys baluchiorum
    — Vetter, 2002
  • Agrionemys horsfieldii baluchiorum
    Artner, 2003
T. h. kazachstanica
  • Agrionemys horsfieldi kazachstanica
    Chkhikvadze, 1988
  • Testudo horsfieldii kazachstanica
    — Iverson, 1992
  • Agrionemys horsfieldii kazachstanica
    — Welch, 1994
  • Testudo horsfieldi kazachtanica
    Highfield, 1996 (ex errore)
  • Agrionemys horsfieldii kazakhstanica
    Borkin, 1998 (ex errore)
  • Agrionemys kazachstanica
    Perälä, 2002
  • Testudo horsfieldi kazachstanica
    Ferri, 2002
T. h. rustamovi
  • Agrionemys horsfieldi rustamovi
    Chkhikvadze, 1989 (nomen nudum)
  • Agrionemys horsfieldi rustamovi
    Chkhikvadze, Amiranashvili & Ataev, 1990
  • Agrionemys horsfieldi rustamowi
    Chkhikvadze, Amiranashvili & Ataev, 1990 (ex errore)
  • Testudo horsfieldii rustamovi
    — Iverson, 1992
  • Agrionemys horsfieldii rustamovi
    — Welch, 1994
  • Testudo horsfieldii rustomovi
    Das, 1995 (ex errore)
  • Testudo horsfieldi rustmovi
    Highfield, 1996 (ex errore)
  • Testudo horsfieldii rustamov
    Paull, 1997 (ex errore)
  • Agrionemys rustamovi
    — Perälä, 2002
  • Testudo horsfieldi rustamovi
    — Ferri, 2002

The Russian tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii), also commonly known as the Afghan tortoise, the Central Asian tortoise, the four-clawed tortoise, the four-toed tortoise, Horsfield's tortoise, the Russian steppe tortoise, the Soviet Tortoise, and the steppe tortoise,[3][4] is a threatened species of tortoise in the family Testudinidae. The species is endemic to Central Asia from the Caspian Sea south through Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and east across Kazakhstan to Xinjiang, China.[5][6] Human activities in its native habitat contribute to its threatened status.[5]

Two Russian tortoises were the first Earth inhabitants to travel to and circle the Moon, on Zond 5 in September 1968.



Both the specific name, horsfieldii, and the common name "Horsfield's tortoise" are in honor of the American naturalist Thomas Horsfield. He worked in Java (1796) and for the East India Company and later became a friend of Sir Thomas Raffies.[7][3]



This species is traditionally placed in Testudo. Due to distinctly different morphological characteristics, the monotypic genus Agrionemys was proposed for it in 1966, and was accepted for several decades, although not unanimously.[5][8][full citation needed] DNA sequence analysis generally concurred, but not too robustly so.[9][full citation needed] However, in 2021, it was again reclassified in Testudo by the Turtle Taxonomy Working Group and the Reptile Database, with Agrionemys being relegated to a distinct subgenus that T. horsfieldii belonged to.[5][10] The Turtle Taxonomy Working Group lists five separate subspecies of Russian tortoise, but they are not widely accepted by taxonomists:[5]

  • T. h. bogdanovi Chkhikvadze, 2008 – southern Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan
  • T. h. horsfieldii (Gray, 1844) – Afghanistan/Pakistan and southern Central Asia
  • T. h. kazachstanica Chkhikvadze, 1988 – Kazakhstan/Karakalpakhstan
  • T. h. kuznetzovi Chkhikvadze, Ataev, Shammakov & Zatoka, 2009 – northern Turkmenistan, southern Uzbekistan
  • T. h. rustamovi Chkhikvadze, Amiranschwili & Atajew, 1990 – southwestern Turkmenistan



The Russian tortoise is a small tortoise species, with a size range of 13–25 cm (5–10 in). Females grow slightly larger (15–25 cm [6–10 in]) to accommodate eggs. Males average 13–20 cm (5–8 in).

Russian tortoises are sexually dimorphic. Males are usually smaller than the females,[11] and the males tend to have longer tails generally tucked to the side, and longer claws; females have a short, fat tail, with shorter claws than the males. The male has a slit-shaped vent (cloaca) near the tip of its tail; the female has an asterisk-shaped vent (cloaca). Russian tortoises have four toes. Coloration varies, but the shell is usually a ruddy brown or black, fading to yellow between the scutes, and the body is straw-yellow and brown depending on the subspecies.

The male Russian tortoise courts a female through head bobbing, circling, and biting her forelegs. When she submits, he mounts her from behind, making high-pitched squeaking noises during mating.[12]

On average, Russian tortoises will hibernate for about 8 weeks to 5 months throughout the year, if the conditions are right.[13] The species can spend as much as 9 months of the year in dormancy.



Russian tortoises thrive in dry, open areas. They keep to sandy locations, where they can get around easily and burrow. Despite preferring arid environments primarily, Russian tortoises can survive well where humidity is 70 percent, and actually need some rain to soften the soil so they can dig their burrows.[14] These burrows can be as deep as 2 meters (6 ft 7 in), where it retreats during the midday heat and at night, only emerging to forage at dawn or dusk when temperatures drop. These tortoises are quite social, and they will visit nearby burrows, and sometimes several will spend the night in one burrow.[5]


A Russian tortoise at the Milwaukee Public Museum

Russian tortoises are popular pets. While they are a hardy species, they do have some specific needs. Russian tortoises requires a very dry, well-drained cage in an indoor enclosure.[15] They can be kept indoors or outdoors, but outdoor tortoise enclosures generally require less equipment and upkeep, and are preferable if the keeper lives in an appropriate climate. Indoor enclosures should measure 8'L x 4'W x 2.5'H (2.44 m × 1.22 m × 0.76 m), or otherwise offer 32 square feet (3.0 m2) of floor space. Indoors, specialized equipment is required to maintain moderate temperatures and moderate humidity, with UVB light available in an appropriate strength.

In captivity, Russian tortoises' diet typically consists of lamb's lettuce, plantains and various other dark leafy greens. The Russian tortoise's natural diet consists of herbaceous and succulent vegetation including grasses, twigs, flowers and some fruits.[14] The diet should be as varied as possible to reduce the risk of imbalanced nutrition. Water is important for all species; the tortoise, being an arid species, will typically get water from their food, but they still need a constant supply. Young Russian tortoises should be soaked 1-2x/weekly in lukewarm water no deeper than their elbows to keep hydrated. Tortoises typically empty their bowels in water to hide their scent; this is an instinct, and it also helps keep their enclosure cleaner.[16]

Russian tortoises can live up to 50 years, and require annual hibernation.[citation needed]

Russian tortoises do not require a CITES Article X certificate.

1968 Moon flight


In September 1968 two Russian tortoises flew to the Moon, circled it, and returned safely to Earth on the Soviet Zond 5 mission. Accompanied by mealworms, plants, and other lifeforms, they were the first Earth creatures to travel to the Moon.[17]


  1. ^ Tortoise & Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group (TFTSG) (1996). "Testudo horsfieldii ". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 1996: e.T21651A9306759. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.1996.RLTS.T21651A9306759.en. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  2. ^ Fritz, Uwe; Havaš, Peter (2007). "Checklist of Chelonians of the World". Vertebrate Zoology. 57 (2): 301–302. doi:10.3897/vz.57.e30895. ISSN 1864-5755. S2CID 87809001.
  3. ^ a b Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. xiii + 296 pp. (Testudo horsfieldii, p. 126).
  4. ^ Rhodin, Anders G.J.; Iverson, John B.; Roger, Bour; Fritz, Uwe; Georges, Arthur; Shaffer, H. Bradley; van Dijk, Peter Paul (3 August 2017). "Turtles of the world, 2017 update: Annotated checklist and atlas of taxonomy, synonymy, distribution, and conservation status (8th Ed.)" (PDF). Chelonian Research Monographs. 7. ISBN 978-1-5323-5026-9. Retrieved 4 October 2019.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Species Testudo horsfieldii at The Reptile Database www.reptile-database.org.
  6. ^ Lee, David S.; Smith, Katrina (2010). "Testudostan: Our Post-Cold War Global Exploitation of a Noble Tortoise" (PDF). Bull. Chicago Herp. Soc.: 45(1):1–9. Retrieved 16 April 2023.
  7. ^ Crumly, Charles R (1988). "A Nomenclatural History of Tortoises (Family Testudinidae)". Smithsonian Herpetological Information Service (75): 1–17. doi:10.5479/si.23317515.75.1.
  8. ^ Khosatsky & Młynarski (1966)
  9. ^ e.g., Fritz et al. (2005)
  10. ^ Rhodin, Anders G.J. (15 November 2021). Turtles of the World: Annotated Checklist and Atlas of Taxonomy, Synonymy, Distribution, and Conservation Status. Chelonian Research Monographs. Vol. 8 (9 ed.). Chelonian Research Foundation and Turtle Conservancy. doi:10.3854/crm.8.checklist.atlas.v9.2021. ISBN 978-0-9910368-3-7. S2CID 244279960.
  11. ^ "Russian Tortoise Care & Information". Cascade Kennels. 20 July 2016. Retrieved 16 April 2023.
  12. ^ "Breeding Russian Tortoises". The Russian Tortoise. Retrieved 22 February 2017.
  13. ^ "Do Russian Tortoises Hibernate?". Pet Russian Tortoise. 7 May 2021. Retrieved 16 April 2023.
  14. ^ a b Bauer, Thomas; Reese, Sven; Koelle, Petra (3 April 2019). "Nutrition and husbandry conditions of Palearctic tortoises (Testudo spp.) in captivity". Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. 22 (2): 159–170. doi:10.1080/10888705.2018.1453814. PMID 29609473. S2CID 4563883.
  15. ^ Nowakiewicz, Aneta; Ziółkowska, Grażyna; Zięba, Przemysław; Stępniewska, Katarzyna; Tokarzewski, Stanisław (1 April 2012). "Russian tortoises (Agrionemys horsfieldi) as a potential reservoir for Salmonella spp". Research in Veterinary Science. 92 (2): 187–190. doi:10.1016/j.rvsc.2011.03.019. PMID 21486674.
  16. ^ "Russian Tortoise Diet". russiantortoise.org. Joe Heinen. 2002. Retrieved 7 January 2017.
  17. ^ Madrigal, Alexis C. (27 December 2012). "Who Was First in the Race to the Moon? The Tortoise". The Atlantic. Retrieved 22 February 2017.

Further reading