Last Updated on September 3, 2023 by Samantha Harris
Tortoises are slow to react to most external stimuli, which makes us wonder just how developed their senses are, especially their ability to smell. Well, their olfaction is excellent.
Tortoises can smell substances in the air, like chemicals and pheromones, due to the vomeronasal organ in the roof of the mouth. They can also smell food on land and in water.
Tortoise’s sense of smell is crucial to successfully navigating the world. Also, tortoises must be able to use their sense of smell to remain mentally stimulated.
How Well Can a Tortoise Smell?
Tortoises have a good sense of smell, especially when perceiving chemicals and pheromones.
Their chemoreceptor abilities are different from their normal olfactory system, so it can be hard to tell the effectiveness of their sense of smell. There’s no doubt that it’s among their strongest senses.
Tortoises can smell certain things better than humans due to a patch of cells on the roof of their mouth called Jacobson’s organ (vomeronasal organ).
The Jacobson’s organ is a chemoreception organ connected to the nose and the mouth.
Chemoreceptors are cells used by animals to process chemical stimuli. It helps them mix their sense of taste and smell to process the information.
You may notice that a tortoise opens its mouth slightly as it’s tasting the odor particles in the air so that they come in contact with its Jacobson’s organ.
The Jacobson’s organ helps tortoises smell moisture-based odors, chemicals, and hormones, not airborne odors. Airborne odors are perceived by a different part of the tortoise’s olfactory system.
Studies on how well tortoises can smell can be confusing due to two separate olfactory systems.
A study published in the American Zoologist discussed how tortoises can learn about other tortoises due to their highly developed ability to smell pheromones.
However, how well they can pick up scents using the olfactory cells in their nasal chambers is unclear.
Can Tortoises Smell Each Other?
The most effective way for tortoises to get to know each other is through smell. According to Copeia, tortoises smell each other to learn things such as:
- Sexual maturity.
- Tell tortoise species apart.
Only male tortoises can tell the sex and sexual maturity of another tortoise because males are the ones who pursue the females when it’s time to mate.
Male tortoises are equipped with a powerful olfactory system to ensure they aren’t wasting energy trying to impress a tortoise that isn’t female or too young.
Tortoises use their sense of smell to gain information, but not as a form of bonding or social interaction.
Tortoises are solitary creatures and don’t live in groups. Mother tortoises will leave their young a few days after laying their eggs.
The ability to gather so much information about each other through smell is only to avoid cross-breeding with other species and for males to find mating-age females.
Can Tortoises Smell Food?
Tortoises are natural foragers that need to be able to find their food from a great distance. Tortoises are slow movers who must preserve their energy.
If they didn’t have an amazing sense of smell, they’d have to travel long distances to find something to eat. Instead, they can smell edible substances from afar and go directly to them.
When you place food near a tortoise, it can smell it. Tortoises are all different, so they have different responses to smelling food. Some may head to it immediately, others wait before eating, and many seemingly don’t react, but only because they already expect the food.
If a tortoise doesn’t want to eat what you put in front of it, it could be due to:
- Not liking the food.
Tortoises are opportunistic eaters. They don’t always have abundant food in the wild, so they’re usually enthusiastic about eating anything you put before them.
It’s normal for them to decline certain foods since they have preferences, but not eating isn’t normal. Tortoises can smell the food you lay out for them.
Can Tortoises Smell Water?
Tortoises can smell water, especially if it has been contaminated.
No studies have shown if they can smell fresh and clean water. However, water that has been contaminated gives off a certain smell that tortoises are more than capable of detecting.
The water sources wild tortoises encounter aren’t clean by our standards. They contain plants, fish, and microorganisms. Given that tortoises eat fish, it’s safe to assume they can smell and catch them.
The water doesn’t hinder their ability to smell their food.
Can Tortoises Smell People?
Tortoises can smell people and recognize their owners by scent.
Long-term memory is important for forager animals. Remembering where food can be found ensures an animal’s survival.
A tortoise can recognize who you are due to your odor.
How Far Can a Tortoise Smell?
Some experts claim that tortoises can only smell things a few feet away, while others argue that they can smell things over 30 feet away.
Nobody can decide because the two kinds of olfaction are often confused.
It’s theorized that tortoises have long-range olfaction and short-range olfaction. When foraging for food or looking for a mate, they use their long-range olfaction, using the cells in their nasal chambers.
They use their Jacobson’s organ to smell the chemicals or hormones when close enough.
When you let your tortoise explore, you can hide or place food farther away until you think the tortoise can’t smell it anymore. It’s recommended that you do this to play with your tortoise.
What Senses Do Tortoises Have?
Tortoises have the same five senses as humans. It may not seem like it because they don’t have the same body parts we do, but they’re sensitive to external stimuli.
What Is a Tortoise’s Strongest Sense?
A tortoise’s most effective senses are touch and smell. Other senses have certain weaknesses and limitations, at least in comparison to humans.
Tortoises have good hearing but can only perceive lower frequencies.
They have excellent eyesight but relatively poor depth perception.
They have tastebuds but don’t have that many and can’t distinguish between foods with subtle tastes.