With tortoises becoming such popular pets, we believe it’s imperative that people know everything they can about these unique creatures. One of the toughest things to understand about tortoises is how they communicate. Not only with us, but with each other and other animals. Understanding this will go a long way in helping you bond with your pet and provide a great environment for her.
So, how do tortoises communicate? Tortoises use a combination of vocal, visual clues, and smells to communicate with other tortoises. They may also communicate through touch, either by exploring with their mouths, bumping into something, or stepping on it to feel under their feet.
Tortoise communication is incredibly complex. Scientists study wild tortoises to help tortoise-keepers communicate with and understand their pets better. It is believed that pet tortoises aren’t truly domesticated; they are more like wild tortoises, including how they communicate, so understanding the wild side of your tortoises can be a huge help in making them happy.
Read on to find out how!
Solitary Tortoises Are Still Social Creatures
Not long ago, people believed that tortoises were completely solitary animals. They thought tortoises kept to themselves unless it was mating season.
While this is partially true, it turns out that tortoises are actually incredibly social creatures. In fact, they need social interaction to feel fulfilled and happy. Sure, they still primarily live in solitude, but wild tortoises have shown scientists and reptile-keepers some of their secrets to social prowess.
We’re still trying to unravel the whole mystery of tortoise communication, but now we’ve got a pretty good idea what’s going on.
Tortoises Can Make Friends
It’s not likely you’ll see any wild parties breaking out in your tortoise tank, but don’t be surprised if your torts spend a lot of time near one another. These nearly silent critters aren’t simply existing in the same general location.
As seen in wild tortoises, captive torts often grow attached to their tank mates or pals from other enclosures. They enjoy spending time near one another, but it’s more than simply being close.
Every small movement means something to tortoises. Even if you can’t understand what a stretched neck or a subtle movement of the tail means, your tort’s best buddy sure does. It seems like tortoises basically ignore one another or just tolerate the presence of their tank mate, but that’s simply not true.
All those subtle movements, the head bobs, the shifting in place… these are all tortoise signals. In fact, your tortoises might even have created a body language all their own. This is especially true for tortoises who have grown up together and who were introduced very young.
Tortoises Have Personalities That Can Clash
As tortoise lovers, we know that each tortie has a personality all his own. It’s part of why we love them so much. Yet, many non-reptile lovers insist that torts don’t have feelings, emotions, desires, or personalities. But we can prove that wrong right now.
Have you ever introduced your tortoise to a new friend? Or maybe you’ve tried to let your tort meet your friend’s tort. Did they get along right away?
Some tortoises are naturally outgoing, social, and curious. Some, on the other hand, are shy and reserved. Others are just plain cranky and want to be left alone. Just like in people, those three personalities in tortoises simply do not mix!
So, if tortoises didn’t have personalities and they didn’t communicate, why wouldn’t they all simply get along right from the start? The fact that tortoises can be picky about who they share their space with shows that tortoises do have individuality and that they do have a preference for which other individuals they spend time with.
Tortoises Grow Relationships Over Long Periods of Time
Tortoises have incredibly long lives. They move slowly in pretty much everything they do. This includes making friends and developing bonds. They also have incredible memories, so if their tort buddy slights them in some way, they may actually hold a grudge for a while.
Tortoises are in no hurry to make changes, so their relationships develop at a snail’s pace, as they say. They take time to get to know one another. They will each watch the other, see how they behave, sniff out the marks they leave, and even listen to their vocalizations that humans may not be able to hear at all.
In the wild, tortoise populations even develop their own hierarchies. If they couldn’t communicate, there is no way they’d be able to have these complex social structures. This is demonstrated in many ways, but the most obvious is between males.
Tortoises that fight will remember the outcome of each battle. If a smaller, younger, weaker tort is beaten by a bigger, stronger male, he’ll respond in one of two ways. He will either cower in a submissive or hiding pose when the victor comes around again, or he’ll run away. If tortoises couldn’t communicate or develop relationships, none of this would happen.
The Dance of Love – Mating Signals in Tortoises
Some humans say that dancing is the language of love, but did you know that it’s the same for tortoises? Their mating rituals are complicated and show a level of communication that’s surprising.
Everything starts with that sexy little head bob. Well, at least he hopes his head bob looks sexy to his lady friend. He’ll stick his neck way out to impress her and bob his head up and down. It’s a little like, “Hey, baby! Hey, look at me!” He also adds in an intense stare, pleading with his eyes.
Whether female torts think this is sexy or they simply like getting a good laugh, we may never know. For whatever reason, this nonverbal invitation works! Once courtship really starts, things can get a bit crazy-looking, but this is just what tortoises do. No reason to be alarmed. Believe it or not, that old girl can hold her own. If she’s not into him, he’ll find out pretty quickly.
And that is, once again, another way we know tortoises can communicate quite well without words.
We should probably add here that the mating dance isn’t all quiet. Some males will resort to moaning and grunting to get the female’s attention. This isn’t something all males will do, but it’s just another example of the wide range of communication tortoises are capable of.
The Boop (Tortoise Nose Touching)
Many tortoises will display what we like to call the boop, but scientists just call it nose touching. This is a gentle touching of snouts which we like to announce with a softly spoken “Boop!” when we see it happening.
Sometimes the participants will stay in the boop position for a while and other times it’s just a quick touch and off they go. Don’t let the quickies fool you. The boop is never accidental.
Touching noses is a familiar touch, one that signals a number of feelings and intentions too complex for silly humans to work out completely. However, it’s clear that the nose boop is not an aggressive act. It’s likely akin to a quick hello or a sweet peck on the cheek before you head off to work. Or maybe it’s more like a handshake if you’re not much of a kisser.
Whatever the true intention, the boop is reserved for peaceful times and between two torts who are getting along. That’s not to say the day can’t start with a boop and end with a crazy fight over the water dish. Tortoises are prone to cranky moods just like humans!
Since tortoises noses are so sensitive, they use them to touch everything and everyone. Sometimes it’s to introduce themselves, other times it’s to check the other tortoise’s intentions. Believe it or not, curious and social butterfly-type torts are more likely to touch noses frequently. More reserved, shy, or timid torts will often try to avoid it.
Raising the Shell is a Sign of Tortoise Dominance
If you had an awesome suit of armor on your back, you’d probably show that sucker off every chance you had. Tortoises do this all the time. Part of their communication comes in the form of raising their shells as high as possible. This helps show their size and strength. It’s often accompanied by elongating the neck and tail, too.
This is usually a show of dominance. It’s almost a dare to another tortoise, taunting them to “Come at me, bro!” Sometimes this posture is simply an act of curiosity. Your tort might be trying to get a better look at something far away.
How to Communicate with Your Tortoise
Now that you know some of the standard tortoise communication methods, you can use that knowledge to get better acquainted with your little buddy. To do so, you should adopt some of his behaviors. Why? Because it’s pretty unlikely your tort will ever learn to speak human language, so the communication gap needs to be bridged by you.
- Be gentle with shy tortoises. If you tap on your tortoise’s shell, pick her up unexpectedly, or flip her over, she’s going to see this as an act of aggression. This is how a rival would treat her in the wild, so don’t be that guy.
- Use slow movements. Fast movements usually indicate aggression to tortoises. A charging male will come at his rival quickly, ready to flip him over. Take your time approaching your tortoise and move slowly.
- Breathe steadily. Tortoises pay attention to breathing; it’s a normal part of their communication. If you’re breathing heavily, it may sound like a hiss to them which is often a sound of fear or submission. If you’re breathing heavily and your body is heaving, your tort may misinterpret this as a challenging posture and become defensive.
- Do the boop! Make this a soft, gentle touch on your tort’s shell, legs, or head. It shows curiosity and gentleness. You may be surprised with a sweet little boop back. Just don’t touch your tortoise’s nose without an invitation. Her nose is sensitive and you could inadvertently hurt her.
- You can bob your head, too. Bobbing isn’t just a mating ritual. Tortoises often slowly bob their heads when they are relaxed. You can show this to your tortoise to express relaxation and friendliness. If your tort is looking at your face, you can bob your head. If your tort is more interested in things down on his level, you can still mimic the head bob by using your fist or your thumb. It’s seriously adorable when they bob back—give it a try!
You Can Talk to Your Tortoise
Though it’s not likely your tortoise will learn a lot of verbal commands, you can still talk to him and he’ll probably understand you. Since torts use their own audible communications, such as vocalizations and breathing, they can definitely hear you.
If you want to talk to your tort, you can start to slowly acclimate them to human language by using tortoise language from the list above while also saying human words. You can teach a tortoise their name and they may even learn some simple commands like “come” or “here” to get them to stand still.
The important thing to remember is that tortoises are slow and steady animals. Keep talking to them and they will listen. You can’t force them to respond, but don’t get frustrated if they don’t seem to care. They really are listening to you; they just don’t have a lot to say back!
Tortoise communication is so complex that scientists are still uncovering their secret language. They’ve come a long way in understanding tortoise communication by watching wild tortoises. You can reap the benefits of all those studies by following the guide above. Showing your tort that you understand and can speak some of their language will help them feel safe with you. It may even help speed up the bonding process. And who knows? Maybe one day soon, your tortoise will boop your nose when you least expect it.