We know that animals mark their territory to control resources and increase their chances of survival, but what about tortoises? They are such sweet and docile creatures, do they also share this instinct of protecting their surroundings?
Do tortoises mark their territory? Tortoises do mark the territory but not with urine. They assert their dominance over other tortoises (and possibly other reptiles) by butting heads rather aggressively and by biting. Tortoises bang heads and bite to claim superiority and win food and mating rights.
These interactions occur both in the wild and in captivity. You may see your tortoises behave this way especially if they are kept in the same enclosure. A smaller enclosure may lead to more opportunities for aggression, whether your pets are male or female and/or of different species. Read on to learn how we keep pet tortoises safe from marking territory on each other.
Why Do Tortoises Mark Territory?
As we learned, tortoises do indeed mark their territory! Why? They wish to claim stake to resources that other tortoises are trying to take.
These natural tendencies are key for tortoises in the wild. Because they are not given shelter, food, or a mate but must seek it out, marking their territory is key to survival.
Tortoises are not naturally social animals. They interact socially specifically for mating and combative behaviors. In many instances, you will not see tortoises “hanging out” for enjoyment. They tolerate each other to great extents, but they are also fine by themselves.
Territory marking can occur between (in order of occurrence):
- Males and males
- Males and females
- Females and females
Dominance is most commonly asserted between male tortoises. They will act very aggressively toward one another in order to crown an alpha male. Once the male has been determined superior, the dominated tortoises may often act defensively when they encounter it. Larger tortoises are more likely to win battles.
Females will also exhibit this behavior within their gender, but it is less common. It most likely occurs when a female is gravid, or pregnant. A pregnant female needs to assert itself for the protection of her future offspring.
Aggressive, territory-marking behavior will also occur between sexes. This is mostly male driven attempts at mating. This is another form of territory marking. Males will stalk and essentially assault the female into mating with them. Injuring the female into submission is common for males to “claim their territory” over specific females to mate with.
This usually occurs more commonly after hibernation, between spring to mid-summer. You may experience similar behaviors if a male and female are housed together.
In captivity, tortoises will become very territorial over food, basking spots, and space. Captivity raises a greater risk of injury as there is nowhere for a tortoise to escape from the other.
This will not only cause bodily injury, but stress and potential changes in behavior. It may prevent one from eating, cause increased hiding, and impact sleep patterns.
How Tortoises Mark Their Territory
Tortoises mark their territory in fairly unique ways compared to other animals. You usually hear of animals leaving their scent in places to stake claim, but tortoises take a more combative approach.
Tortoises will most commonly assert their dominance and mark their territory in three main ways:
- Head butting
- Banging shells
To do this, the tortoise will extend their head from their shell with force to a rhythm of various speeds. You will often see them change their posture as well. They will become bigger and more pronounced in their legs and chest.
Making themselves bigger puts them in the greatest position to overwhelm and overpower the other. They will push each other back and forth and if successful, flip one of them on its back. This puts them in an incredibly vulnerable position and often times determines the “winner.” Tortoises have difficulty getting themselves out of this situation, but successfully do so by pushing their snout against the ground.
This is even easier if they are not completely centered on their back but at more of an angle. There are many videos online of tortoises head butting objects in their enclosures as well as their owners!
Tortoises will also bite if put into aggressive and territorial situations. Males will commonly head butt and bite each other to determine the alpha male of the group.
The male mating process is very violent and includes head butting and biting as well. The male will head butt the female with force and bite her as needed for submission. This often leads to blood being drawn and potential for great injury if the female does not easily submit to the male.
Males will often approach other tortoises and sniff them to determine their gender and the species. Males will not often mate with tortoises outside of the species. Head banging tendencies are also dependent on species.
Some are more aggressive than others. For the most part, tortoises tend to be very relaxed and compliant pets, unless two males are living together.
In a captive environment, tortoises will be seen head butting against walls, rocks, branches, and anything accessible to them in their enclosure. This happens even when a tortoise is housed by itself.
Many times, this will be exhibited by a male who still produces hormones that trigger aggression. Even greater risk is posed with housing multiple tortoises together.
What Happens When Two Tortoises Are Placed In the Same Enclosure?
You can expect similar behaviors to ensue if two tortoises are placed in the same enclosure. Not all will be aggressive with one another but it is within their natural tendencies.
Related article: Are tortoises better in pairs?
Introducing two tortoises to each other should be done with supervision to prevent injury or harm to either of them. Plenty of tortoises live well together, but there is always risk that they will not coexist peacefully.
Two male tortoises living in the same enclosure pose the greatest risk for aggression and dominance-showing behaviors. This is especially dangerous if the enclosure is small. They can be very aggressive with one another and cause damage to each other’s eyes or legs. Head butting and biting will continue until one has asserted themselves as the alpha.
Putting a male and a female together can also pose a great risk for the female. With the very aggressive behavior exhibited by the male, your female tortoise could become injured. This is especially true during mating season.
In the wild, a female tortoise has the opportunity to escape the male, in an enclosure, there is no such possibility.
Rules For Housing Tortoises Together
- Do not house two males together
- Do not house just one male and one female together
- Female tortoises usually live well together
If you want your tortoises of multiple sexes to live together in an enclosure, outnumbering the male with multiple females works best. This way a male cannot be overly aggressive with just one female.
There is even risk posed with just two females and having three or more often works better to preventing bullying.
If you start to notice problems between your tortoises being housed together, you may have to keep them separate from one another. Tortoises live best alone and still may show these head butting and dominance asserting behaviors in their own enclosure.
A crucial step in putting multiple tortoises together is determining their sex. Often times, they can be incorrectly sexed which may lead to unnecessary aggressive encounters. The tail, stomach shape, and shell notches are key indicators of sex. Females will often have significantly smaller tails than males.
You can look on the underside of the tortoise to further determine sex. There are notches on the underside that differ between sexes. Males tend to have V-shaped notches while females are more U-shaped.
These factors need to be used together to determine sex as all tortoises vary. The best way to be sure of sex is to have an expert determine it. A breeder should be able to tell you (although accidents occur) or your veterinarian. Your veterinarian should be able to tell you on your next visit!
Tortoises can make great pets, but not always together! Be sure you are safely putting tortoises together if you choose to! Remember to avoid males with males!
After all, they are just playing off their natural inclinations to get the most resources and be the strongest! It is also important to make sure that separate enclosures are secure if they are near each other.
Tortoises can smell each other and may try to break through their enclosure to get to the other one. Separate areas of a yard are best but this often does not make much sense logistically speaking.
Just make sure that the enclosures are very secure and that these animals, especially males, will not have access to each other given a loose board or wall.