Egyptian Tortoise

The Egyptian tortoise (Testudo kleinmanni), also known as Kleinmann’s tortoise or Leith’s tortoise, is the tiniest tortoise species found in the Northern Hemisphere and the second smallest in the world, only after South Africa’s speckled padloper.

Scientific Classification

T. kleinmanni
Testudo kleinmanni

Table Of Content

Scientific Classification

T. kleinmanni
Testudo kleinmanni

These reptiles are known for their small size, tiny heads, and limbs covered by a hard, yellowish carapace with a remarkably high dome. The species name kleinmanni is in honor of Edouard Kleinmann, the French stockbroker who collected the specimen in 1875.

They were once thriving in large numbers in countries like Egypt and Libya, extending to Israel and Palestine, but their population has drastically reduced due to overexploitation for trade and deteriorating natural habitats.

Egyptian Tortoise



Length: Body – 8 to 10 cm (3 to 4 inches); Carapace – 14.4 cm (5.7 inches)

Weight: 150 to 350 g (5.2 to 12.3 oz)

Body and Coloration:

They are the smallest species of the genus Testudo, with a notably high-domed shell compared to its tiny body size. The carapace is light-colored, ranging from brown and gray to ivory and pale golden, and contains dark brown marks on the sides of each scute. The lower surface of the shell (plastron) is primarily light yellow, with two dark, triangular notches (chevrons) on the abdominal scutes. Their head and limbs are usually tinged with pale brown or ivory, keeping parity with the shell color.

These tortoises are dimorphic, with the females being larger than the males, while the latter have relatively longer vents and tails.

Full Grown Egyptian Tortoise
Egyptian Tortoise Male vs Female


These tortoises were once abundantly found along the Mediterranean coastline of African countries like Libya, Egypt, and Israel, extending to Palestine. However, they are now an isolated group in Libya found in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, while in Egypt, they are on the verge of extinction.


They primarily inhabit deserts and semi-desert areas with sand plains, scattered rocks, and gravel. However, they are also spotted in salt marshes, shallow wadis, scrub forests, and dry woodlands.

Egyptian Tortoise Habitat
Kleinmann’s Tortoise


In captivity, they feed on grasses and plant parts like leaves, flowers, and fruits. Their diet has a high calcium-to-phosphorus ratio and abundant greens like lettuce, turnip greens, grape, and hibiscus leaves. 

Though little is known about their food habits in the wild, reports suggest they primarily feed on saltwort and sea lavender. These tortoises also need constant access to water bodies due to minimal rainfall in their range, which they meet by consuming plants with high water content, like cacti and other succulents.


They are sensitive to temperature stress and thus prefer foraging at moderate temperatures (neither hot nor cold.) During summers, they forage actively around dawn and dusk, while in winters, they browse for food during mid-day when the surroundings are warm. They usually prefer hiding in burrows or staying under shade for the rest of the day.


Egyptian tortoises, like all other species of tortoises, have a high average lifespan of about 50 years. However, they can live up to 70-100 years with proper care.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

The mating system of these tortoises is mostly polygynous, with the males mating multiple females, but they could also demonstrate polyandry, where the females have more than one male partner. The individuals mature at about five and usually mate around March. In captivity, they were found to reproduce around April and again between August and November.

Unlike most Mediterranean tortoises, these males have a striking mating call resembling a pigeon or a mourning dove that attracts the females. The males strike the females violently with their hard shells and chase them into mating.

They lay about five eggs in early summer, but the eggs are large compared to the female’s body thus, only a few can mature at a time. These eggs are stored in hollow nests dug in sandy soil or in existing burrows, followed by an incubation period of about three months. The hatchlings remain inactive throughout the summer, taking refuge under shade and feeding less until the mercury drops in the fall when they come out to forage.

Egyptian Tortoise Enclosure
Baby Egyptian Tortoise


Their greatest predator, undoubtedly, is humans, but they are also preyed upon by monitor lizards and some birds of prey like ravens.


  • Due to their small size, these tortoises can quickly lose heat, preventing their bodies from overheating in arid habitats. Besides helping them camouflage against sandy backgrounds, their pale gold coloration helps them bounce the sun’s scorching rays back into the atmosphere.
  • Being desert-dwellers, Egyptian tortoises are uricotelic, expelling waste as concentrated uric acid to prevent water loss.
  • The caudal third of the plastron forms a flexible hinge-like arrangement, helping the tortoise withdraw its hindlimbs for safety.

Conservation Status

Egyptian tortoises are listed under the ‘Critically Endangered’ (CR) category of the IUCN Red Data List and Appendix I of CITES. About three generations ago, the average population of these tortoises was around 55,000 but has now dropped significantly to about 7,500, with only 5,000 mature individuals alive. 

Since the Egyptian subpopulations were nearly wiped out, these tortoises have been illicitly collected in Libya for international and national trade despite legal prohibitions since 1994. Apart from this exploitation, they face the constant pressures of rapid urbanization and interspecific competition from other grazers, like camels and goats.

Since Egyptian tortoises are a long-lived species with low fecundity and poor recovery capacities, they are more prone to succumb to these adverse conditions. Hence, urgent conservation measures, like captive breeding, are being undertaken to improve their dwindling population.

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