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In search of little-known tortoises in southern Turkey.

A C Highfield

This author has previously reported upon the appearance, behaviour and distribution of the 'normal' Turkish tortoise of the Spur-thighed complex Testudo (graeca) ibera PALLAS 1814 (Highfield, 1992 and 1993). Subsequently, it was decided to undertake a further two expeditions to Turkey with the objective of resolving certain taxonomic problems posed by earlier publications. During the four expeditions now completed, some 275 individual animals were photographed, measured and recorded. There were two specific problems which our investigations hoped to resolve;

1. The alleged occurrence of Testudo (graeca) terrestris FORSKAL 1775 in Turkey

There have, in recent years, been a number of published reports identifying tortoises in the extreme South of Turkey as belonging to the alleged subspecies 'Testudo graeca terrestris'. For more on the unusual systematic and nomenclatural problems posed by this alleged taxon see this writer's comments published elsewhere under 'Testudo graeca'. In the present context it should be noted that the criteria employed by the various authors assigning Southern Turkish tortoises to it may be summarised as follows;

The S. Turkish tortoises are alleged to possess unusually light or yellowish carapaces; These tortoises are also said to possess yellowish skin and feature a yellow head 'mask'; The same tortoises are also said to be somewhat smaller than is normal for Testudo ibera as found in the Northern and Central parts of Turkey.

The taxonomic significance of these particular characters can, of course, be argued. Numerous tortoises in North Africa, Southern Turkey/Syria, Libya, Lebanon and Israel are relatively small, possess bright yellow head "masks" and have pale to bright yellow carapaces. These include both 'true' Testudo graeca graeca in Morocco, Algeria and Spain and the Testudo ibera related tortoises as discussed here. Insofar as "Testudo graeca terrestris" is concerned this is a proposed sub-species I do not and never have recognised and is one that I consider to be erected upon extremely shaky foundations indeed. Contrary to what is reported in John Iverson's "Check-list with Distribution Maps of Turtles of the World" (1992) I most certainly have not at any time suggested that "the currently accepted subspecies... terrestris should be elevated to full species". Quite the reverse. I am on record, clearly and unequivocally as suggesting that it is confused, ill-defined and on the present evidence does not deserve any kind of recognition - certainly under that nomenclature.
Nonetheless the various published accounts (Eiselt & Spitzenberger, 1967; Basoglu & Baran, 1977;Herrn, 1966) of these unusually coloured tortoises in Turkey have proved a source of much confusion and controversy among 'graeca' researchers with no seeming resolution in sight. The situation was not helped by a lack of published high quality photographs of the tortoises in question. It was partly with the objective of obtaining such photographs and of examining these tortoises in the field that in September 1993 I made my way to Antakya (the ancient city of Antioch) to begin my search for these Turkish 'terrestris'.
The tortoises at first proved elusive. Many of the sites mentioned by earlier authors are now so developed and degraded that the presence of tortoises seemed highly unlikely. One site, Samandag beach, mentioned by J. Eiselt and F. Spitzenberger in their 1967 report, now turned out to resemble nothing so much as a rubbish tip surrounded by scruffy concrete blockhouses. Youths on motor cycles tore up and down it in rapid succession - and I feared not only for any surviving tortoises but also for the marine turtles said by some locals still to frequent the beach on rare occasions. The sand-dunes mentioned by these earlier authors were almost destroyed and contaminated by large quantities of effluent and litter. After a fruitless day searching this depressing site our hopes of finding these mysterious tortoises were becoming ever dimmer.
The intense heat of September did not make the search any easier - any sensible tortoise would undoubtedly be in retreat. So it proved for 2 days of unproductive searching. However, on the third day our luck began to change and we found the carapace of a recently deceased juvenile tortoise in a deserted olive terrace some distance along the well-cultivated Samandag valley. Close examination revealed this to be identical to similar sized carapaces found in other locations in Turkey. It was slightly (no more than that) lighter in colour than normal for Testudo ibera, but was otherwise unremarkable. Its presence did however confirm that tortoises were to be found in the locality. An intensification of the search for the rest of that day failed to reveal any further evidence, however.
The following morning the search was resumed. The day was considerably cooler and slightly overcast. At approximately 11am the skies opened for a rare (and welcome) downpour that lasted for barely 15 minutes. The rain had an immediate effect upon the reclusive tortoises however, who evidently found the downpour as welcome as we humans, for in the next hour no less than 6 specimens were found in the same locality that had earlier produced the juvenile carapace.

The most immediately striking feature of these animals was their bright yellow head colouring. The carapace and plastral colouration were much more variable, with one male in particular exhibiting a high degree of melanism. All the tortoises however, displayed distinctly yellower head and limb colouration than is typical of 'normal' ibera. One very significant fact quickly emerged from my examination: these tortoises were in no way similar to comparably coloured North African tortoises. They share the yellow head and limb colouration, but that is all. In other respects, their structural morphology was undoubtedly that of Testudo ibera and not that of the North African 'graeca' complex. This has important implications for their nomenclatural status, as the alleged 'terrestris' race is also supposed to occur in Libya in North Africa and in Israel. The tortoises I was examining in Southern Turkey were far removed morphologically from anything to be found in Africa but were, apart from their reduced size and yellow colouring, otherwise identical to the ibera inhabiting the rest of Turkey. To attempt a written differentiation that would prove truly meaningful would be a difficult task; the differences are principally those of colouration and size alone and this is best conveyed by illustration. Certainly, I could determine no physical characteristic other than colouration or size that seemed to me to be of potential taxonomic significance or which separated them from 'normal' T. ibera as found elsewhere in Turkey. As a final observation, the last female located (specimen F3 ) possessed a divided supracaudal shield.
My tentative conclusion is that this region sustains a population of tortoises that are differentiated from the typical ibera of the region at large if - and this is a fairly significant 'if' - one accepts that sharply defined regional colour characteristics are sufficient to warrant separate taxonomic recognition in tortoises. If one does accept this criterion, then these Southern Turkish tortoises should be admitted as a subspecies. They would not, however, in my opinion be a subspecies of North African 'graeca', but rather a geographical race or subspecies of Testudo ibera. For reasons stated elsewhere, neither should they be burdened with that universally confused and ill-defined name 'terrestris'.
Basoglu and Baran (1977) have also suggested that intergrades between T. (g). ibera and the alleged T. (g). terrestris race occur in Turkey. In the summer of 1992 I examined tortoises at one site where these supposed intergrades occur, the coastal town of Kas. Investigations at that site revealed nothing remarkable. It should be noted that Kas is several hundred kilometres from the Southern area discussed previously, where the yellow coloured tortoises alleged to be "terrestris" do occur. This only reinforces the conclusion that Basoglu and Baran (1977) were mistaken in their conclusion that intergrades are present in this locality.

2. Testudo (graeca) anamurensis WEISSINGER 1987

This tortoise was described and named in a short paper published by the late H. Weissinger in 1987, since that time little further data on its appearance, habitat or ecology has emerged. Weissinger's original rather sparse description is unfortunately accompanied only by very poorly reproduced photographs. It was with the intention of clarifying the status of this interesting proposed 'new' subspecies that my Southern Turkish itinerary of September 1993 included a visit to the type locality of Anamurem, an ancient ruined city located on the hills above an attractive bay and situated approximately halfway between the modern tourist city of Antalya and the industrial port of Mersin.
My search for Weissinger's anamurensis initially began near Antalya itself. From there, several excursions were made to the North, to the villages of Finike and Kemer, almost approaching Kas where I had - a year earlier - examined the alleged 'terrestris/ibera intergrades'. Particularly careful searches were carried out near Finike as cited by Weissinger and these proved successful. The ruined site of Phaselis was an especially alluring - although excruciatingly hot - habitat. Several tortoises were located, although save for one specimen found wandering across a shaded forest track all were well dug in to avoid the extreme heat. The Kemer region was of special interest, as the map reproduced by Weissinger in his original paper indicated that anamurensis was still to be found this far north. The tortoises that we found and photographed in the region however were absolutely normal T. ibera, and could in no way be distinguished from those studied in great detail earlier in the year in the Fethiye area. My earlier doubts about the validity of anamurensis were growing.
These doubts seemed to be confirmed by searches in the imposing ruins of Aspendos and in the agricultural region of Gebiz, where we photographed and carefully measured 20 specimens in 2 days of intensive searching. Without exception, these tortoises exhibited nothing even remotely unusual despite Weissinger's map indicating the presence of anamurensis nearby. The 20 tortoises we found were both dimensionally and in terms of colour entirely unremarkable and we could not distinguish any feature that suggested they might be anything other than perfectly normal Testudo ibera.
From Antalya - where we also prevailed upon a local tortoise enthusiast to show us his locally gathered (and again perfectly normal) collection - our expedition made its way South.
The modern town of Anamur is not especially inviting to the average tourist. To the turtle enthusiast however, an interesting feature is the old fort on the road to Bozyazi which is surrounded by a moat containing the highest density of Mauremys caspica any of us had ever seen. Standing on the bridge leading to the courtyard, one can count dozens of these Stripe-necked terrapins peering fearlessly out of the water. Nearby, but much less frequently, Emys orbicularis can also be found in the drainage ditches surrounding the fields.
The ruined site of Anamurem itself is located on the other side of town, and just behind the beach lies an area of sand dunes. This is the precise type locality described by Weissinger in his original paper. Following our earlier results, we did not begin our search with any great expectation of finding anything unusual.

Our first tortoise immediately caused us to revise our preconceptions, however. This was an old male of considerable size (222mm SCL and weighing 2.2kg). The plastron was unusually mottled or speckled in appearance, just as Weissinger described for his proposed anamurensis. The most striking feature was the very elongate body form, and considerably expanded rear marginal scutes. This tortoise was followed shortly afterwards by another male, this time even larger at 230mm. A third male of 218mm was then observed walking across the sand. A young female of 146mm was also quickly located. This female (F1) showed evidence of severe fire damage to her carapace, but was otherwise in fine health. Due to the damage, her rear marginal measurement was not taken. Again, the plastron was very mottled - quite unlike any other tortoises I have observed in Turkey. Finally, our search of the site yielded a mating pair - located by sound, in a scrubby thicket. The female of the pair measured 218mm whilst the male measured an impressive 235mm. The female appeared to be of considerable age.
The dimensions of the males recorded at this site are highly significant. They are very much larger than is typical of ibera observed elsewhere in Turkey. In addition, their elongate body shape is highly reminiscent of Testudo marginata and again is very different from anything I (or any of my colleagues) have observed in T. ibera at other locations - both in Turkey and in Greece .
In terms of ecological interest, this population was inhabiting a particularly sandy beach area; numerous 'tortoise tracks' could plainly be seen leading between the sand-dunes. This is certainly an unusual habitat for land tortoises in Turkey.....
My own opinion of the tortoises observed is that probably they do form a localised race or geographical subspecies and in that conclusion I find myself in full agreement Weissinger, their author. As with the 'terrestris' type tortoises located in the far south however, their affinity lies with Testudo ibera and not with the North African graeca.
I confess to remaining very puzzled indeed by Weissinger's published map and reports of anamurensis in the Finike-Antalya region, however. As reported earlier, our results specifically contradict this. The tortoises we studied most certainly were not the same thing as we later found at Anamurum. These latter tortoises are indeed most distinctive, and it seems very strange they in Weissinger's report they are confused with the absolutely normal tortoises that in fact occur in the region.
Southern Turkey offers a fascinating variety of habitats, and herpetologically is poorly studied compared to central and Northern parts of the country. The research trip undertaken by the Tortoise Trust team demonstrated that much of interest is to be found there, and we hope to discover more of this regions secrets in subsequent expeditions.