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Distribution area

In the Mediterranean, European tortoises are exclusive to regions with calciferous soils and those offering favourable climatic conditions. Varying with the species and subspecies, this typically applies to lower altitudes near the sea with sandy soils, but also valleys that stretch farther inland. The latter are often marked by sandy, rocky, calciferous soils or deposits of calcium that has been washed down from the mountains. The tortoises furthermore live in adjacent hill chains up to high plateaus and mountainous regions. Even though their natural habitats are therefore rather variable in general appearance, they have in fact some features in common:

They are principally areas with a bedrock of limestone, often with a thin layer of topsoil, very rocky, poor soils that store heat well and are fully sun-exposed due to their being south-facing.

The composition of the soil depends heavily on the exact locality. While pure sands, sandy rock surfaces, or rocky sandy soils predominate near the coast or along rivers, sandy arable lands are often found more inland. The ground is always rich in calcium, poor in nutrients, and water permeable, though.

The habitats are typically strewn with a multitude of empty snail shells of varying size. Fragments of eggshells of birds and bones of perished wild animals and sheep and goats also feature prominently.

After the once-expansive hard-leafed forests were chopped down completely, especially near the coast, throughout the Mediterranean, the original natural habitats of Mediterranean tortoises had ceased to exist. Today, the animals usually live in areas vegetated with low brush (garrigue), bush forests (maquis), and, in places, open forests.

The tortoises consume the snail shells and chew on the scattered bones just like domestic dogs.

A stream, river, or another body of water is often to be found more or less nearby, but sometimes the tortoises also have to wander quite a distance to reach it. It is here that they drink, always while bathing with the head deeply submerged.

Overgrazing has led to mountain slopes that are heavily stripped of the vegetation in Greece in particular. Here, tortoise population densities are on the decline because the animals cannot conceal themselves sufficiently from predators anymore.

 

In some places, tortoises can still be encountered in cultivated lands such as olive groves, vineyards, crop fields and their marginal vegetation. It is not that the tortoises have immigrated into these cultivated areas, though, but rather do they represent relicts of populations that used to live where agriculture has now taken over. These survivors are those animals that have not yet been killed under ploughshares, beaten to death by people who think of them as vermin, or that died as a result of poisoning from toxic substances. It is therefore merely a matter of time until these tortoises will have disappeared as well.

European tortoises are no commensals. Adult tortoises are in fact so tightly attached to their individual home ranges that they cannot leave them and go look for new areas in which they can live in peace. Therefore, if maquis is turned into pastures and crop fields, these become the new habitats in which those tortoises that survive the process of this transformation have to try and continue their existence.

© Manuel Wegehaupt