Why Do Tortoises Wag Their Tails? (It’s Not Happiness)

If you’ve got a tortoise then you’ve probably noticed that they wag their tails quite a lot. You may be wondering why and if this is something akin to when a dog wags its tail at a human being? It’s not, really, in fact, tortoise tail wagging is altogether more interesting.

So why does a tortoise wag its tail? Tortoises wag their tail to aid them with peeing and with mating. The tortoise tail hosts these two functions in one hole known as the cloaca. While it can also be part of the courtship ritual, tortoises do not wag their tail out of happiness (like dogs do).

It’s interesting to note that there are a lot of myths and theories around tortoises’ tail wagging. So let’s have a look at what these are, what science knows, and we’ll briefly touch on the actual behaviours that suggest our tortoises are indeed happy!

Why do tortoises wag their tail? - TortoiseOwner.com
Why do tortoises wag their tail? – TortoiseOwner.com

Why Does A Tortoise Wag Its Tail? The Myths

Many tortoise owners seem to associate their tortoise’s tail wagging with behaviors that it’s not actually related to. In particular, they seem to think it signifies that their tortoise is happy or that it’s having a poop.

Happiness

Happy is a difficult thing to define when it comes to tortoises mainly because “happy” is a human emotion and it doesn’t seem to directly translate to tortoises. Though, as we shall see in a little while, there are some signs which it is agreed that happy tortoises exhibit.

Sadly, tail wagging is not one of those signs. Your tortoise is not a dog and, as such, its motivations for tail wagging are a little more complex. This is a shame because it would be quite nice if tortoise happiness could be easily measured like this.

Pooping

We can kind of understand why owners might think that pooping was a reason for tail wagging. Surely, it’s just your tortoise getting its tail out the way of its poop? The thinking goes.

This might be true if the tortoise was to cock its tail to one side of its body or the other whilst pooping but wagging it would drag the tail back and forth through the poop rather than keep the tail clear of poop. So, it’s simply not the case.

Note: However, we have noticed that our tortoises wag their tail just before they pee – more on that later.


Why Does A Tortoise Wag Its Tail? Possible Explanations

We turned to a bunch of expert papers to try and find some better explanations of why a tortoise might wag its tail. This is what we discovered.

Natural Function Of A Tortoises Walk

There are a lot of people out there who feel that the tortoise’s tail wagging is simply a function of its gait. The way that the tortoise moves kind of rocks its body back and forth as it moves forward and thus, the tail wags in harmony with this rocking motion.

This makes a lot of sense and in certain species of tortoise, it’s very clear that this is roughly what is happening with your tortoise’s tail. However, in some species the ratio of the tail to the tortoise is simply not large enough to have any real impact on the tail.

In simple terms, short tails probably wouldn’t wag no matter how much the body rocks back and forth. However, this doesn’t mean that long tails wouldn’t, and we think there’s probably some truth in this explanation for many tortoises.

Tactile Use In Courtship

Walter Auffenberg of the University of Florida has written an entire paper on the “display behavior of tortoises” which sounds like a great job to us. He has studied a wide range of tortoise species and he came to two conclusions: the first being that the tail can be used as a tactile device in courtship.

Thus, a tortoise’s tail wagging might be an attempt to get close to a prospective mate and give them a little love stroke with their tail. It might sound odd from a human mating perspective, but tortoises aren’t people and what floats their boat, is unlikely to float yours. This is, probably, for the best.

This sounds pretty likely given that animal courtship rituals are complicated and that, by and large, they often require quite a bit of effort to convince the female that the male has the “right stuff” to pass on to their offspring.

Explicit Use In Reproduction

Mr. Auffenberg also got up close and personal with his tortoises and found that, surprisingly, a wagging tail can help a male tortoise to mount a female tortoise and retain its balance.

Star Tortoises Mating (Some tail wagging involved) - TortoiseOwner.com
Star Tortoises Mating (and some tail wagging is definitely involved) – TortoiseOwner.com

He also found that one type of tortoise the Gopherus agassizi used its tail in a rather unusual manner during mating. It was inserted into the female and used to guide the male appendage inside. This makes these tortoises among nature’s more peculiar love makers.

Related article: How tortoises communicate: Tort sounds, scents & posture


Can You Really Tell A Tortoise’s Gender From Its Tail?

One of the other unusual properties that a tortoise’s tail is said to possess is the ability to help the tortoise owner determine whether their tortoise is a little boy or a little girl.

Now, it’s important to note that different species of tortoise have different lengths of tail – so, you need to be sure that you’ve got two tortoises from the same species if you want this to work but a male tortoise of the same species as the female ought to have a much longer tail, the female’s should be short and stubby.

Tortoise breeders consider this to be the most outstanding signs of tortoise gender and it’s certainly easy to see once you’ve got a little experience with tortoises.


How Can I Tell If My Tortoise Is Happy?

OK, so, we’ve determined that you can’t use a tortoise’s wagging tail to see if your tortoise is happy but are there any other signs that we can use?

Can Tortoises Be Happy?

Firstly, it is important to emphasize that happiness is very much a human emotion. The act of ascribing human emotional traits to animals is known as anthropomorphisation and many people consider it to be quite an unforgivable act.

They say that if we try to do this, we may mistake the real feelings of animals for feelings that we’d like them to have, instead.

So, can tortoises be happy? Well, until the day that we learn to speak tortoise (probably not any time soon) we can’t ask them. So, we would note that while we believe tortoises can be happy – we can’t prove that they can be happy.

Related article: Do pet tortoises and turtles show affection?

This means that when we look at possible indications of tortoise happiness, we’re making something of an educated guess. We look at situations in which we think humans would be happy and then see what the tortoise does. This is not a perfect measure of happiness.

Possible Indications Of Happiness

With that in mind, we think there are 3 signs of tortoise happiness that are reasonably reliable indicators of a happy tortoise:

Not Being Depressed/Stressed

One thing that is fairly obvious is that a miserable tortoise is not a happy one. Tortoises when under stress, illness or injury can become clearly depressed. They may go off their food, they may be sluggish, they may take very little interest in the world around them, that kind of thing.

So, if your tortoise is acting depressed – they may well be depressed and that means they aren’t happy. And if they’re not acting depressed – they probably are happy.

Displays Of Curiosity

A tortoise may not be a rocket scientist, but they are clever creatures with a great sense of curiosity. If they don’t respond to new stimuli, they may not be very happy.

However, it’s worth pointing out that tortoises aren’t always consistent in their curiosity, you might need to try again later to be sure if your tortoise is not interested in something new.

Related article: How to tell if your tortoise is happy and healthy

Displays Of Excitement

A tortoise can display genuine excitement and they run quickly towards things of interest. This is often the person that returns to feed them. If they gallop up to grab a treat, they’re probably happy.


Conclusion

So why does a tortoise wag its tail? The most likely explanation is that it’s simply a function of how your tortoise normally walks. Though there is definitely evidence that a tortoise’s tail can be involved in a display of courtship or be used for sexual purposes.

It’s definitely not a display of happiness though, as It might be with a dog, and it’s a bit harder to tell when a tortoise is happy. However, signs of curiosity, excitement and not seeming depressed are probably good news.

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