Are Tortoises Aggressive? with Checklist

Are Tortoises Aggressive? Recognizing Aggression (with Checklist)

On the whole tortoises are friendly, approachable reptiles and as such, they make for good pets. If you have a pet tortoise or are thinking about getting one, you will want to do a little investigation into their temperament. Read on so you’ll know what to expect and care better for your tortoise friend.

So are tortoises aggressive? Tortoises are not aggressive creatures. They don’t normally show aggression to humans, animals or other tortoises. Like other animals, tortoises can be territorial and moody but with the right care, the potential for aggression can be significantly reduced.

Let’s look at what might make certain tortoises aggressive, how you should react, and what you can do to improve your handling techniques to avoid aggression or minimize it in future.

Why Do Tortoises Become Aggressive?

Tortoise aggression is nothing to get overly worried about as there are things you can do to help make your tortoise more comfortable and as a result, less aggressive.

What triggers aggression in tortoises? There are several scenarios where a tortoise may show aggression. Some of these scenarios and situations are as follows:

  • Gravid females (females that are carrying eggs)
    Egg-carrying females can sometimes feel threatened and wish to protect their eggs. This often shows in various forms of aggression. Females will acquire an aggressive stance (legs high, neck extended). They may also hiss, bob their heads, and bite if deemed necessary.
  • Two male tortoises are kept in the same enclosure
    We have mentioned this before (such as in this article called “Are Tortoises Better in Pairs?” Two male tortoises can become territorial and will so fight or show aggression towards one another in an attempt to show dominance. Two male tortoises will also show aggression if they wish to mate with the same female.
  • The tortoise is hungry
    A hungry tortoise can surprisingly be an angry tortoise. They can also become fussy eaters, choosing to eat only things that they like and not simply to get the nutrition they need. If there is not enough food provided or if it does not like the selection of food, a tortoise can become aggressive.
  • Incompatible species kept in the same enclosure
    Tortoises tend to keep to their own species. In fact, one tortoise species will very rarely mate with tortoises of a different species. Keeping different species in the same enclosure does not always lead to aggression, but sometimes it can. Experts do not recommend keeping vastly different species in the same enclosure.
  • There is no stimulation provided inside the enclosure
    A bored or under stimulated Tortoise can appear frustrated and aggressive. A tortoise enclosure should include balls and “toys” to help relieve stress and keep them semi-occupied. We have written about this extensively in this article called “Do Pet Tortoises Need Toys?”
  • Having one solo male tortoise
    As male Tortoises get older, they may experience hormonal aggression. Males are naturally territorial and develop an urge to mate. Keeping a male Tortoise alone could therefore result in frustration, which can look like aggressive behavior.
  • People keep going inside the tortoise enclosure
    Imagine someone keeps coming in and out of your home all the time. That’s how a tortoise feels when it comes to her private space. Of course it depends on the individual tortoise, its enclosure and its relationship to the owner. Generally speaking, however, it is better to limit your interactions with your tort inside her own enclosure.

How Tortoises Show Aggression

So how can you tell if your tortoise is aggressive? Are there any tell-tale signs that a Tortoise is being aggressive to handlers or other tortoises (or other animals)?

Tortoises usually communicate how they are feeling with each other by means of a variety of different stances or postures. Aggression and dominance are typically communicated by displaying a posture with an elevated head and body.

It is also important to note that the way in which you handle your tortoise can be misconstrued by the reptile as aggressive or threatening (to some tortoises). For instance, a shy tortoise may find it threatening to be turned upside down. Ramming, biting, urinating, and chasing are common displays of tortoise aggression.

Typical signs of tortoise aggression

Head Banging

A head banging Tortoise is usually a sign of the reptile being assertive. It can bang or knock its head on just about any object, even the object of its aggression.  This is also a way of marking territory or warning other male Tortoises off. A Tortoise that is head banging is most likely trying to assert dominance.

Biting or Snapping

In a fight with another tortoise, it is normal for a tortoise to bite or snap. These reptiles have powerful beaks that can inflict quite a lot of pain. In some captive situations, tortoises may bite handlers as a sign of aggression and this is usually due to frustration or the tortoise feeling threatened. If you inadvertently stick your fingers into the tortoises mouth, it will most probably bite you.

We wrote extensively about biting in this article: “Tortoises Can Bite: Here’s What You Need To Know”

Ramming

While any tortoise can ram into another as a show of aggression, ramming is often seen in gravid females that are feeling particularly territorial. This behavior also happens where they feel there is a competition for food. In some instances, tortoises might run towards and ram tortoise owners when they bring food or try to interact with them.

Chasing

Many first time tortoise handlers think that their pet is chasing them aggressively. While tortoises can chase in an aggressive manner if they are feeling territorial, often this behavior is simply misunderstood. If your tortoise is hungry, it may run at you or chase you because she’s just excited and eager to see you (and the food you bring)!

Are Male or Female Tortoises More Aggressive?

Just how aggressive or non-aggressive a tortoise is, really comes down to the species as well as the individual tortoise. Just like humans and other animals, tortoises all have their own personalities and character traits. Both female and male tortoises can be aggressive, males are typically more so especially around other male tortoises.

Which Tortoise Species are Most Aggressive?

It’s interesting to note that different tortoise species have different temperaments. Let’s compare these 5 very interesting species:

Are Sulcata Tortoises Aggressive?

The Sulcata Tortoise species is prone to aggression in certain situations. In most instances, it is males that show the most aggression although females with eggs may ram or snap at perceived threats. In males, they will fight by ramming into each other. The more dominant tortoise will flip the other over and proceed to inflict sometimes serious damage/injury. A well socialized and comfortable Sulcata Tortoise will show very little aggression.

Are Russian Tortoises Aggressive?

Russian Tortoises are friendly and do well in small groups. They are the most readily-available Tortoise species. Russian Tortoises do not get along well with other species and the males are particularly aggressive with other males. However, Russian Tortoises show less aggression when they have their own hiding spot and have room to burrow and retreat.

Are Desert Tortoises Aggressive?

In the wild, Desert Tortoises are considered particularly aggressive. Studies show that hierarchies are present among Desert Tortoises and any threat to the hierarchy or territory is dealt with aggressively. While these tortoises like to show dominance through postures and chemical signals instead of physical contact, they are known to bite. These tortoises have an extension to the lower shell in the form of a gular horn. It’s typically used as a weapon of defence during male-on-male fighting.

Are Gopher Tortoises Aggressive?

Gopher Tortoises are not often domesticated and kept in enclosures. An enclosed Gopher Tortoise may become aggressive if it feels threatened. While these Tortoises generally show very little aggression, they can become aggressive when competing for mating partners and burrows.

Are Galapagos Tortoises Aggressive?

Galapagos Tortoises are considered giant tortoises. They can be extremely aggressive when territorial or wanting to assert dominance around other male tortoises. The males can also be quite aggressive prior to mating as they are known to bite the female’s legs and even ram her shell. What can we say? They like it rough!

Recognizing Aggression: A Checklist

Sometimes tortoise keepers confuse normal behavior with aggression. For instance, head banging and bobbing can look like aggressive behavior but sometimes it’s just the prelude to mating. A male ramming and biting a female can also appear rather aggressive but this is thought to spur on ovulation in the female and so it’s just part of the process, so to speak.

To determine whether your tortoise is truly being aggressive or simply behaving normally, always consider the situation that the tortoise is in. Ask yourself:

  • How many tortoises are in the group? How many are males and how many are females?
  • Is it mating season?
  • Are any of the female tortoises carrying eggs?
  • Is there sufficient food and an interesting selection of food?
  • Is the enclosure big enough and does it provide some stimulation for the tortoises?
  • Are there different tortoise species in the same enclosure?
  • Is the tortoise being handled too much (touched, turned over, tapped)?

What to do When Pet Tortoises are Aggressive

You cannot really train a tortoise to turn off their aggressive instincts. However you can make your tortoise more comfortable and this will reduce or even eliminate aggressive behavior.

Here are a few things you can do to minimize the potential for aggressive behavior:

  • Don’t keep 2 male tortoises together. If you have to, introduce them to the enclosure at the same time so one does not feel the need to protect space that he has “owned” for longer.
  • When possible, do not keep a male tortoise alone. Add some female/s to share the enclosure with him.
  • Do not leave 1 female in an enclosure with 2 males that might want to mate. Come mating season, they will start to fight over her.
  • Don’t mix different tortoise species in one enclosure.
  • Make sure there is plenty of space to roam and burrow and ensure the enclosure has sufficient substrate. If the enclosure is too small and there is insufficient space to roam, your tortoise may show aggression.
  • Provide plenty food selection and water so there is never a need to compete for it.
  • To reduce pre-mating aggression, you can lower the temperature of the enclosure which will make them think that it is not mating season just yet.
  • Do not over-handle the tortoise. Avoid picking up and turning the tortoise over or upside down. This can make any tortoise uncomfortable. Some tortoises simply do not like to be handled, especially if they have not been well-socialized.
  • Avoid trying to spend time with your tortoises inside their enclosure. Rather let them out of move them to a mutual area, so that their territory does not feel imposed on. This is especially important if you got your pet tortoise as an adult.

Conclusion

When kept in a good, comfortable environment, tortoises are friendly and will not often display aggression. While we cannot ‘turn off’ our pets’ instincts, we can provide sufficient space, food and stimulation and ensure that the tortoise never feels threatened. This will minimize the potential for aggression and you can rest assured that you can live with a very happy and friendly tortoise long term.

If you enjoyed this article, you’ll also love these:

Can Tortoises Live Safely With Other Pets?”

“How Much Space Do Pet Tortoises Need?”

“The 6 Best Tortoise Species That Make Wonderful Pets (with Basic Care Tips)”

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