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Fussy feeders:

What to do if you have a tortoise who demonstrates 'addictive' dietary patterns

A C Highfield

Tortoises in the wild typically consume a range of over 150 different plants; the precise diet varies on a seasonal basis, as the plants come in and out of season. Tortoises are grazing animals, and feed not only upon the leaves of plants but also upon flower heads and (to a very limited extent) upon fallen wild fruits. Here's some observations made by a Tortoise Trust field-research team recently in Turkey:

"Several members of this expedition concentrated upon observing the feeding habits of Testudo ibera. This brief summary details their results. By far the most popular food plant was a low growing yellow flower which is still awaiting final identification: however, it was most probably either Mediterranean Cats Ear Hypochoeris achyrophorus or Beaked Hawksbeard Crepis taracifolia. This plant was particularly popular during morning feeding periods and was taken in some quantity by both adults and juveniles alike. Very young tortoises (less than 35mm SCL) were frequently observed to employ a novel and effective technique for reaching the most favoured part of the plant, the yellow flower head. If they were unable to each the flower by 'neck stretching', they would walk along the stem, pressing it to the ground until the flower came within grazing height. After the yellow flower, the most popular fodder plants were a low growing small plantain and a cudweed (possibly Filaginella uliginosum or Bombycilaena sp.). These plants were the favourite graze in afternoon feeding sessions, for by this time the yellow flowers had closed up. Feeding was typically accomplished 'on the move', with the tortoises snapping at individual flowers and leaves as they went. Rarely would a tortoise remain grazing in a single place for long. The role of tortoises as an agent of seed dispersal has been pointed out previously (Cobo & Andreu, 1988) based upon studies conducted in Spain. In Turkey, dung-beetles were seen to descend on fresh tortoise droppings almost immediately. Examination of tortoise droppings revealed that they were well formed, contained a very high proportion of fibre, and large seeds appeared to be entirely unaffected by their passage through the animal."

In captivity the story is often very different! Some foods are notoriously addictive -and most of these also turn out to be the most damaging (see our other article 'Feeding Your Tortoise'). If you do have a 'problem' tortoise which is seriously addicted to a narrow-range diet there is nothing for it but to break the habit as soon as possible and get the animal back onto a more natural - and healthier - diet.

Some tortoises are very resistant to change and will refuse to feed for quite a long time unless offered 'their' food - don't give in to this! In the wild tortoises regularly go for long periods without feeding (most 'domestic' tortoises are seriously over-fed compared to their wild counterparts). Offer only healthy foods. Eventually, when hungry enough, the tortoise will take these.

(c) 1993-2002 Tortoise Trust