Has your tortoise dug himself into the dirt or burrowed under the substrate in his tank? Don’t worry! Though this seemingly strange habit concerns some owners, there’s a good reason why tortoises sometimes bury themselves under all manner of things.
Who do tortoises bury themselves? Tortoises dig, bury and burrow instinctively to regulate their temperature, prepare for brumation and to escape predators. The desert tortoise, for example, digs itself into the ground to escape the burning desert sun. Some breeds dig elaborate burrows or dens for communal brumation. Others use it as a strategy for escaping predators.
If you notice your tortoise digging around his tank, it might be time to include a satisfying digging spot for him. Below, we’ll cover the variety of reasons a tortoise may decide to dig and how you can help him scratch that itch in a safe and healthy way.
Tortoises Bury Themselves to Regulate Their Temperature
The most common reason tortoises dig deep and bury themselves is to help regulate their body temperature. Like other reptiles, tortoises are cold-blooded. They rely on the temperature of their surroundings to keep warm or cool off. That’s why you may see tortoises in the wild sunning themselves on big rocks or tucked into the shade beneath bushes on very hot days.
For captive tortoises, reliance on humans for their wellbeing hasn’t changed their instincts. If they’re not feeling comfortable in the enclosure you’ve provided, they will seek ways to get warm or cool off on their own.
Usually, a tortoise is burying himself to cool off. Like the desert tortoise of the Mojave Desert, your pet tortoise knows that getting underground will block the sun’s rays and prevent heat from permeating his shell. Sure, there’s no sun in his enclosure, but if you’re keeping it too hot for him, he’ll head underground as his instincts tell him to.
Tortoises Bury Themselves When Feeling Threatened
Many tortoise species have a strong drive to bury themselves when they’re frightened or feel threatened. In the wild, this behavior can save them from foxes, birds of prey, cats, and dogs.
To humans, the safe and nurturing enclosures we build for our tortoises seem perfect. But to a scared tortoise, seeing your pet cat run by or spotting the neighbor’s dog through the window could send her into a panic. She may follow her instinct to dig and end up tearing up all the perfectly-placed plants.
To prevent tank destruction or digging in unsafe or other inappropriate materials, figure out what’s scaring your tortoise. Once you identify the source of her fear, you should remove it. If it can’t be completely removed, do your best to block her view of it or to reduce it if it’s a noise or smell.
In addition to removing the scary thing, be sure to provide a safe place for her to dig anyway.
Tortoises Bury Themselves for Brumation
Brumation is basically hibernation for cold-blooded animals. Not all tortoises need to brumate, but many species require it for their health and wellbeing. If your tortoise is prone to brumation, you may notice him trying to dig around his enclosure when brumation time comes near.
Provide a secure, temperature-controlled hide box if you’d prefer he not burrow. However, since burrowing is an instinct, if you can provide a suitable burrowing material and location, that would be ideal.
Do not try to prevent a healthy tortoise from brumating if it’s something his species is supposed to do. And never dig up a brumating tortoise.
Nesting Tortoises May Bury Themselves
The drive to burrow and bury herself is a sign of nesting behavior in female tortoises. This is not always the case, especially for older tortoises used to familiar surroundings. However, younger tortoises or those who are frequently moved to new enclosures may start to display this behavior when it’s time to lay her eggs.
In the case of nesting behaviors, the tortoise isn’t actually trying to bury herself, though it may look that way. She is attempting to create a bell-shaped burrow to deposit her eggs. Some tortoises are efficient at this task, while others may take quite some time. Do not disturb your female tortoise during this time, and refrain from “helping” her get the job done.
Tortoises Burrow for Fun
Who says there needs to be a reason for what tortoises do? Lots of tortoises simply enjoy the work of digging a hole and enjoy laying low, covered in cool, damp earth. A burrowed tortoise isn’t that different from a human soaking in a warm bath after a long day.
If your tortoise seems to bury himself just for fun, leave him be! It’s a simple, fun way for tortoises to get some exercise while digging and then take a refreshing nap to fend off stress, undisturbed underground.
Will Your Tortoise Suffocate Underground?
Don’t panic! No, your tortoise is not going to suffocate if he buries himself in his enclosure. This is a natural behavior for many tortoises. They instinctively know how to create a safe burrow to rest inside.
A tortoise will dig down as far as they can, usually at a 45-degree angle. Once they’re satisfied with the depth, they’ll move a dirt wall in front of the hole and settle in. The dirt and sand around your tortoise will remain loose enough for oxygen to get inside.
If the burrow is for brumation, your tortoise may actually wake up and move around a little between rest cycles. That will mean you may see the “door” to the burrow gone one moment and then back up again the next. This is also normal.
She knows what she’s doing. Never dig your tortoise out of her burrow. Never disturb the soil above, around, or in front of the burrow as this interrupt her rest or reduce the oxygen flow in her carefully dug burrow.
Will Your Tortoise Starve or Become Dehydrated Underground?
This is very unlikely. As mentioned above, torties that are burrowed in for brumation often wake up to get a drink and then go right back into the burrow. Even if yours doesn’t wake up or move about during brumation, they will be fine.
Many species of tortoise stay buried underground for months on end in the wild. They’ve been doing it for centuries, and they haven’t changed much over all this time. Besides, when a tortoise is brumating, his metabolism slows way down and his body temperature drops. This reduces his caloric needs, thus making it less likely he will need to eat or drink.
If your tort is not brumating and she’s been underground for a long time, it’s safe to check her condition. Don’t disturb her too much, but do check to be sure the soil hasn’t frozen, trapping her inside. Also be sure it’s not too muddy, which makes it harder for her to breathe. If the ground has been packed down by other torts in the enclosure, she’s probably still fine. Tortoises are incredible diggers!
Helping a Tortoise Dig Safely
An ideal enclosure will include enough substrate and digging material for your tortoise to dig a comfortable den all on her own. If you’re unable to provide a nearly-natural digging location for her, there are still things you can do to help satisfy her need to dig.
If you can’t fill the whole enclosure with enough dirt for digging, try to create a mounded area in one corner. Many tortoises are just as happy digging into the side of a big mound of dirt as they are digging downward. You can contain the mound in a shallow box. You can also use a deeper box while providing some stepping stones for your tortie to climb to get inside. It’s kind of like a tortoise playground!
Other mounding materials might be less messy, meaning you can keep them outside of a mounding box. These materials can be spread around over time, so make sure it’s something you can clean up easily. Some favorites include hay, leaves, straw, and grasses. If you collect these materials from your yard, be sure they are tortoise-safe, free from pesticides, and clean.
Every tortoise should have access to a variety of hides. Make one of them fun to dig in with dirt and soft moss. While not quite as satisfying as a full enclosure of luscious dirt to dig up, a dirt hide might help your tortoise feel a little happier.
Some good filler for a digging hide includes garden soil and sand mixtures, peat moss, and coconut fiber.
If the weather permits and you have the space to do so, let your digging tortoise have fun in the yard. Show him a big pile of leaves or a soft spot in the garden and watch him go nuts.
If your tortoise is burying himself, don’t panic. This is a totally normal part of being a tortoise, and may even be bringing him great pleasure. A nice, quiet, cool hole in the ground is a great place to a tortie to relax and destress. Do your best to provide a suitable digging area.
Why do tortoises burrow underground? Wild tortoises burrow to regulate their body temperature, escape predators, lay their eggs, and brumate. Captive tortoises often burrow underground for fun.
How do tortoises breathe underground? After digging the burrow, a tortoise will make a small open area in front of their face and a loose wall to cover the hole opening. This allows oxygen to flow in and circulate, keeping the tortoise from suffocating.