The Egyptian Tortoise: its natural history, its captive care, its beauty, its lore. . .
Life in the coastal desert . . .
kleinmanni home | golden beauties | desert life | climate's role | captive needs | unique diet | Captive Habitat 1: basics | Captive Habitat 2: habitat development | Breeding | hatchling care | when something goes wrong | natural and un-natural history | All in the family | captive behaviors | tortoise links | references

This diminutive tortoise, the second smallest terrestrial species of Chelonian in the world, teaches us much about the fragility of native spaces, natural terrain, and the impact of human beings and their modern ways on nature's fragile balances. Humans have been impacting the environment inhabited by kleinmanni for centuries. In the 20th century, only habitat loss to human development outstripped collection for the pet trade as T. kleinmanni's most destructive nemesis. As though life in the desert were not harsh enough, we seem bent on taking even that away from them.

Photo by WG Dever
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AT EL ARISH, WHAT HAD BEEN TORTOISE HABITAT HAS BEEN REPLACED BY AN ORCHARD

KLEINMANNI HABITAT VARIETY IN THE WILD

At El Arish east of the Nile delta (photo above), this experimental orchard was installed in the 1970's on much of what had been primary tortoise habitat. The orchard later became infested with an Asian pest wasp and eventually was uprooted, but the tortoises had already been displaced.

A larger modern problem throughout the Egyptian tortoise's range is overgrazing by domesticated herd animals. This has been further complicated in the age of mechanized travel, in that it allows herdsmen to overgraze one area with large herds of sheep or goats, then herd them onto the trucks and rush them to the next area to overgraze it. This continues in round-robin fashion until they get back to the first grazing area, not yet recovered from the first grazing, to be munched down yet again. This activity leaves no food and precious little cover for the diminutive tortoises.

The daily pattern of this tortoise is to rise early to bask and forage, to retreat from the heat of the day to shade or shelter at the base of a bush or clumping grass. It seems to take most of its water metabolically from the dew it finds on food sources, though it is known to drink copiously from puddles that form in sudden desert downpours. There is some evidence that it shares the burrows dug by other desert dwelling animals, though kleinmanni are not themselves burrowers. Through the heat of summer they will go into aestivation to conserve resources, and emerge as temperatures cool in the autumn, coming to their most active when temperatures in the desert fall to a comfortable daytime highs of around 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Their peak of activity falls during the winter months.

Kleinmanni habitat is a widely varied thing (Baha el Din, 1994). Most of those sites where kleinmanni have been reported in recent years on the North Coast of Egypt are described either as rocky plain, or mixed gravel/sand plain or plateau, sometimes an escarpment. The dominant plant type is commonly reported to be a shrub of the genus artemisia. Though clumping grasses occur as part of the flora of the area, this is by no means a "grassland." There are of course kleinmanni sites where the habitat verges into salt marsh, blends into lusher coastal strip, or places where it is cut through by the ubiquitous Middle Eastern Wadi.

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Photo by WG Dever
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THE TERRAIN AT WADI DIGLA: TOO OVERGRAZED TO SUPPORT TORTOISES

KLEINMANNI IN THE WADIS

The wadis are the great dry creek beds of the Middle East. Completely parched 99% of the time, they can in a flash become a roaring flood in the middle of a sudden thunderstorm. This presents special risks to any animals that inhabit them or their environs. At the same time, those wadis that reach the coast act as a natural draw for the daily moisture cycle of the coastal marine layer (described on the climate and weather page), extending its influence inland a few extra kilometers. This allows a comfort zone for creatures who would otherwise be restricted to the coastal strip to extend their range more deeply into the desert.

The terrain of the Middle Eastern Wadi is unusually formidable, not the sort of thing one envisions tiny tortoises clambering about. Deeply cut by erosion of desert wind and winter rain, these fantastic landscapes are home to the most remarkable desert creatures. Most have been terribly overgrazed (if there were grazing resources in them at all), eliminating precious grasses and broadleaf grazing materials that T. kleinmanni would have relied upon. Nevertheless, local residents report having once seen these tiny tortoises in exactly these locations, sometimes atop the escarpments themselves, as those pictured above in Wadi Digla.

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ROMAN ERA SPHINX: ANCIENTS ALSO DISTURBED HABITAT
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Photo by WG Dever


"You can't trample infidelswhen you're a tortoise.I mean, all you could do isgive them a meaningful look."

-- Terry Pratchett, "Small Gods"

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The Egyptian Tortoise: its natural history, its captive care, its beauty, its lore. . .
Fred L. Erwin, Jr., 2004 - 2005 C.E.