When dogs, cats, or people are pregnant, it’s pretty easy to see. When it comes to reptiles such as tortoises, however, things get a little more complicated and a lot more mysterious. As tortoise-keepers, it’s our responsibility to understand tortoise reproduction and to provide the right environment, food, and care for the parents, the eggs, and those adorable little hatchlings. Unfortunately, the internet is rife with bad information and dangerous lies. We’re here to set things straight!
Read on to find out all you need to know about tortoise reproduction. We’ll cover how to tell if your tortoise is pregnant, what to do with a pregnant tortoise, and how to care for tortoise eggs and hatchlings, and much more all in one spot. There’s a lot to cover, so let’s get to it before your torts “do it”.
What you should know about tortoise reproduction
We don’t want to bog you down with all the tiny details of reptile reproduction, but it’s important to have a basic understanding of how your tortoises’ bodies work. The down and dirty bits are pretty complicated, but we’ll give you a nice overview of the parts that matter to you most. With this information, you’ll be able to help them live longer, happier lives by knowing what to expect when they’re expecting little ones of their own.
Of course, it also helps to know how those babies came about in the first place. Don’t worry; this isn’t your typical and awkward birds and the bees talk from a nervous mom and dad. Think of us more like your silly uncle and auntie giving you the scoop on tortoise dirty doings.
It takes two
Tortoises make new tortoises by sexual reproduction. That means there needs to be more than one tortoise involved, one of each sex. Asexual reproduction, on the other hand, means only one parent is needed. Since tortoises need two parents, you won’t need to worry about babies if you’re keeping males and females apart. And obviously, if you want cute tortoise babies, you’ll need to get those little love birds together at some point.
Nature will do the rest from there and you don’t really need to intervene. Letting nature take its course is the simple part. The hard part is understanding sexual maturity, fertility, and mating behaviors, as well as having a solid understanding of egg laying and incubation.
Lots of well-meaning but misinformed tortoise owners have ended up hurting their torts and their babies simply because they didn’t know any better.
Do tortoises go into heat like a cat or dog?
No, reptiles don’t go into heat. Not in the same way that some mammals do, at least. However, there is a fairly predictable tortoise mating season, and that’s what you need to pay attention to.
In general, the mating season starts around April and ends in June. This is highly dependent on temperatures, daylight length, and location. Some indoor tortoises will never see or feel the mating cues from nature, so it’s up to you to keep a close watch on that. If you want to mate your torts, you’ll need to reproduce the weather, temperatures, and even the humidity of mating season to help your torts get in the mood for love. The closer you get to natural, the better.
This is also one place that species will play a big role. Depending on where your tortoise species was originally from, mating season for them could be sooner or later than mentioned above. This is where it really pays to learn all you can about your tortoises’ species as possible.
The specific times, temperatures, and humidity levels for each species go beyond the scope of this article. It’s also not feasible for us to list the exact mating season for every species here. What we can say in this article is that the spring and summer months are the usual mating times for tortoises.
What is the age of sexual maturity in tortoises?
Tortoises generally reach sexual maturity around seven to ten years of age, and some between ten and twenty. This is variable, of course, based on species, so be sure to check the details of your favored breed. A pretty decent indicator of impending sexual maturity is carapace length.
Since tortoise mating is actually pretty brutal, the torts need to be big enough and strong enough to handle the ordeal. A carapace length of about six to eight inches is usually a good sign that your torts are old enough for the deed. Once again, we can’t stress this enough, species matters! Smaller species may be ready much sooner than the super big guys, so do your homework.
That also means that the really small tortoise species may never reach the general six to eight-inch carapace length mentioned above. If you have the teeny tiny torts in your care, be sure to find out their specific age and size requirements. It’s also wise to keep your males and females in separate living quarters until you are very familiar with the details.
Can I force my tortoises to mate?
No, and you really shouldn’t try to force tortoises to mate. It’ll end up in frustration for you and could actually harm your torts. Don’t interfere with Mother Nature’s design, folks. Just provide a healthy, safe, and suitable environment and let your torts decide when it’s time.
Why aren’t my tortoises mating?
Tortoises aren’t just love machines on this earth to make more babies. They actually have individual personalities, likes, and dislikes. They also have their own body rhythms. There’s the age factor to consider, health, and the environment you’re providing.
All of these points factor into whether two tortoises decide to make babies or not. If you’re sure you’ve done everything right, provided the best food, have the best environment, and you’re sure your torts are the right age for their species… well, they just might not be in the mood.
The best thing you can do at this point is to give them time and space. They’ll work it all out on their own. Hands-off is your best approach to tortoise reproduction. This isn’t an issue that a little candlelight and soft music can fix. Let your torts get to know one another and develop their own bonds.
It’s worth noting that tortoises have a social structure. They also are very long-lived creatures, so their bonding and social climbing takes much, much longer than that of mammals. Just let them do things their way.
Some final tortoise reproduction basics
- Females may lay between 2 and 12 eggs, but species matters and some can lay up to 40 or more over several clutches
- Mating season is usually between April and June but can vary
- Males are aggressive to one another during mating season
- Females can be overbred and injured by males, so watch them closely
- Mom will want to bury the eggs, so make sure she has a good place to dig
- Females can store sperm inside their bodies for a whopping three years after mating
- Tortoise mating rituals look rough, with lots of biting and what appears to be fighting—do not interfere unless one of the torts looks hurt
- Tortoise mating is very noisy—maybe warn the neighbors about the hisses and squeaks
- Females do not lay eggs immediately after mating—they will need time to grow the fertilized eggs inside their bodies before they are laid
How to tell if your tortoise is pregnant
Since tortoises are stuck inside relatively unmoving and non-elastic shells, there isn’t going to be a noticeable baby bump. Although that might be kind of funny to see, rocking back and forth on a big tummy, little legs swimming in the air.
That said, there are still some ways to tell if your tortoise is pregnant. This guide can be especially handy if you’ve inherited, adopted, or purchased an older female tortoise who may have had contact with a male.
Palpate is a fancy word for feeling, so in this technique, you just feel your tort’s tummy to see if there are growing eggs inside. Since a tortoise’s belly is covered by the plastron, you’ll have to be creative in coping a feel.
Here’s how to do it safely, but do see a vet for verification.
- Gently lift your tortoise.
- She will kick her legs and resist. When she does, move your finger to block one back leg and gain access to the inside portion of her abdomen nearest the leg opening.
- With very gentle pressure, feel the side of your tortoise’s abdomen. If it is soft and squishy, she is likely not pregnant. If you can feel a firm, roundish object, that’s an egg. Congrats!
We talk about this like it’s so easy to tell. But let’s be honest. If you’ve never done this before, you’re really not going to know what you’re feeling.
It does take some practice to use just your hands to feel for eggs. That’s why we suggest a visit to the vet to be sure. Your vet should be able to show you the proper technique and help you do it the first few times.
Just be sure you don’t do this too often. Tortoises don’t really enjoy being picked up, handled, or groped. Since this is a new and strange type of touching for your tortoise, she may become very stressed, and stress during pregnancy isn’t good for any creature.
In addition to the physical aspects of pregnancy, you can sometimes see a difference in your tort’s behaviors when she is expecting. She’s not going to suddenly start reading baby magazines or decorating the nursery, but some of her signs are just as obvious… if you know what to look for.
Aggression often increases during tortoise pregnancy. This is usually toward other females, but may be toward her human companions, too. Basically, she’s feeling a bit cranky and protective. She knows that something is going on and that she needs to protect her babies. Keep her away from other tortoises and try to limit your physical interactions with her during this time.
Since tortoises bury their eggs, you may notice a pregnant tortoise searching her enclosure and testing out some dig spots. She may go from spot to spot, trying each one. She’ll nudge the ground with her snout. As cute as this is, it’s for a very good reason. She is testing the soil for softness, proper moisture level, and temperature. If you provide enough soft, easy to dig substrate, she should find the perfect spot in no time.
You may see her digging in one specific location, always working to increase the size of the hole. That’s likely going to be her nest. Don’t disturb her or try to help. She knows exactly how to do it. She’s found the perfect spot and is carefully constructing the perfect nest. It will be just big enough, deep enough, and secure enough to keep her clutch safe.
A pregnant tortoise may show signs of slowing her eating. It really depends on the species and the individual tortoise. While they need good nutrition during gestation, the eggs are also taking up a significant portion of limited space inside that shell. That leaves less room for food, especially right before laying.
There might be more than one nest
Since tortoises can retain sperm for many years after mating, it stands to reason there could be unexpected nests in your tort’s enclosure. This means there could be multiple nests from one tortoise, too.
You should consider that a good sign, however. Tortoises won’t lay their eggs unless there is a suitable location. Basically, everything has to be just right. If your girl has given you two or more nests within a couple of weeks, you’re clearly doing something right. Good job! Of course, if there is only one nest with one clutch of eggs, it’s not an indication anything is wrong.
The problem with multiple nests, though, is that keeping conditions perfect for incubation and hatching can be rather tricky. There’s also the problem of staggered hatch days.
What if there are several partial nests and no eggs?
Sometimes pregnant tortoises can be very picky about their nesting locations. She needs time to find the right location and to make her nest. This can take several hours once she finds the right spot. However, sometimes things go wrong.
If your pregnant tortoise has dug several incomplete nests and isn’t laying any eggs, it’s time for a trip to the vet. She may be egg-bound—meaning the eggs are stuck inside of her. This is an emergency and needs immediate attention.
Of course, the problem could also be that you haven’t provided the right substrate for her to build a nest. If that’s the case, check your species requirements again and carefully adjust the environment and substrate to meet her needs.
What happens after tortoises lay their eggs?
Right after the female tortoise lays her last egg, she’ll take a very short break. Having babies is hard work! Once she catches her breath, she’ll begin to cover the nest with dirt or whatever substrate she dug the nest into.
She will use her back legs to gently toss the substrate over the eggs. It looks like she’s struggling, but please be patient. This is all part of the process, and if you interrupt, you could harm the babies. She knows just how much to toss on top.
Tortoise egg incubation is complicated
While it is true that some tortoise-keepers have managed to hatch perfectly healthy baby torts by leaving the egg clutches alone, that’s not the case for all people. If you wish to hatch your tort’s eggs, you’ll need an incubator and some in-depth research.
It’s not possible for us to list every possible scenario in this article, but we can give you some good info to get you started. You’ll first need to know exactly which breed of tortoise you have. It’s also helpful if you know the date and time your tortoise laid her eggs.
Egg incubation can take anywhere from 90 days to a whopping 120 days. This is just a guideline, however. Each clutch will be different and each individual egg will have its own timer. You must be patient and keep your hands off.
Be sure to have a proper incubator set up in advance. It should be specifically set for reptiles, and even better if it has all the bells and whistles to control temperature, airflow, and humidity without you having to do a thing. Some people build their own, but we don’t suggest this unless you’re certain you know what you’re doing.
If you’ve ever watched a hen sit on and roll her eggs around, you might be expecting to roll or resituate your tortoise’s eggs. Don’t! After the embryos begin to develop, handling, moving, or roiling the eggs can kill the babies. Remember that even though reptiles and chickens come from the same ancestors, their breeding, incubating, and hatching needs are completely different.
What happens when tortoises hatch?
In the wild, tortoise babies will work hard to crack their shells and then take a break. This rest period can last a couple of days and it is essential for the baby’s health. They’ll stay underground, safely tucked inside the nest, gaining strength and absorbing their yolk sac.
Once the yolk sac has dried up and shrunken away, the baby is ready to dig its way out of the nest. Once the babies emerge, there may be a small bump where the yolk sac used to be. Think of this as a cute little belly button.
In captivity, the process is much the same. Depending on species and space in the incubator, the hatchlings may spend a day or so in the safety of this special temperature-controlled device. Again, keep your hands off unless your vet advises otherwise.
Do not attempt to “help” hatchlings shed their shells. They need time to absorb that yolk sac, and part of it is attached to the shell. If you try to peel it away, you could burst a blood vessel and kill the baby.
Do tortoises care for their young?
You may be worried that taking the eggs from your female tortoise is cruel. After all, she’s a mother and she’ll want to see her babies, right? Not really.
This is another way that reptiles are very different from other animals. A mother tortoise might stick around the next for a while after she covers it with dirt. She may even appear to be guarding it. However, she won’t stay long.
In fact, she likely won’t even notice the babies are hatching. It’s not that it’s been so long that she’s forgotten; it’s simply that baby tortoises don’t need any help from parents when they hatch. They come out into the world ready to scoot along and find breakfast.
Choosing whether to breed your tortoises or not is a big decision. It’s not something that should be done without thought and preparation. Just because torts have been having babies in the wild since the time of dinosaurs, it doesn’t mean it’s simple, easy, and that anyone should get involved with it. In fact, keeping tortoises as pets has introduced a host of new issues to the tortoise world, so be sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.
All those warnings aside, choosing to breed, incubate, and hatch your own tortoises is an exciting event. It’s not going to happen quickly, so be sure you’re ready for a very long, extended responsibility. You’ll need to care for the parents before breeding, during the season, and during egg development, too. Then you’ll need suitable incubation locations and a place to keep the hatchlings after they emerge. You need to be prepared for a huge clutch of eggs, not just one or two—this isn’t something you’ll be able to predict or control.
And, of course, you’ll need to be sure you have homes lined up for every single baby that you produce. Part of responsible reptile breeding includes securing homes for the little ones even before they’re born!