Tortoises are territorial animals that claim resources they deem important (like food, shelter, and mating rights), but they don’t use scent (pheromones) or urine marking to do so.
While tortoises may tolerate each other, they’re not social animals. Tortoises assert territorial dominance by ramming shells against each other, headbutting, and biting with their hard beaks.
Male tortoises can enter conflict if there’s encroachment into their space. Even female tortoises will ward off predators from their territory when pregnant (gravid).
Tortoises remember the location of their territories, even if they don’t mark the area like some animals. However, they recall landmarks and use their color vision to distinguish between areas.
Are Tortoises Territorial?
According to the Proceedings of Biological Science, territoriality in animals is about survival. Wild tortoises are usually more territorial than domesticated tortoises.
Tortoises won’t demonstrate territoriality by marking their territory. For example, a tortoise won’t urinate on a certain spot to create a boundary that other animals abide by.
Also, tortoises won’t scent mark against a tree or fence. Even though tortoises like climbing and scratching objects, there’s no evidence that this marks or claims an area.
Tortoises are defensive of their space, and head bobbing is their only warning to others. Then, tortoises will deter entry to their favored areas with headbutting, ramming shells, and biting.
Female tortoises are usually calmer and more docile than males. Females can become territorial when gravid to protect their eggs from predatory animals, like raccoons and foxes.
That said, females don’t take care of their offspring. Once the eggs have been laid, tortoises leave them to hatch on their own, which is why hatchling survival rates are so low.
Rare exceptions are Burmese mountain tortoises and desert tortoises. According to Herpetologica, female desert tortoises urinate around their nests after laying their eggs to deter predators.
The female will only defend her offspring after she lays the eggs and only if she can see a threat. The female will wedge herself in the burrow created for the nest to block any incoming danger.
Two male tortoises kept in the same enclosure will likely become hostile toward each other. Male tortoises are more territorial than females, especially during the mating season.
According to the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, fighting is most likely when a female is involved. Male tortoises are most aggressive when seeking mating opportunities.
Males compete with one another and drive rivals away from the females they’re courting.
Keeping two male tortoises in the same tank isn’t recommended. If they must share an enclosure, it should be divided into two halves. Tortoises don’t mind neighbors, but roommates stress them.
Aggressive behavior can sometimes be witnessed between males and females, normally occurring during the mating season immediately following brumation.
The male will stalk and show aggression toward the female tortoise to subdue her into mating. Sometimes, the male will exhaust or even injure an unwilling female.
Why Are Tortoises Territorial?
Here are the reasons why a tortoise may become territorial:
Territoriality in the animal kingdom is often triggered by the need to protect food sources.
Tortoises are no different and can become aggressive to protect their food. They may also claim a spot to ensure they’ll have access to nutritious food later.
A tortoise is more likely to become aggressive if food sources are scarce or limited. It may enter other tortoises’ territories for sustenance and defend its space more vociferously.
Courting and mating usually occur during Spring, shortly after brumation.
The male will approach the female and assert his dominance by biting, ramming, and climbing on top of her. He may also chase her until she submits.
The female will resist at first by being aggressive, returning the bites or headbutts.
If other males are in the same enclosure, the two males will battle it out for mating rights. Once the dominant male has won, the weaker male will stay out of his way.
Female tortoises rarely set boundaries, remaining calm unless carrying eggs. However, a gravid female may become territorial in the days leading up to egg-laying.
Once a nest has been chosen and she’s dug out the area, she’ll be defensive of this location until the eggs have been secured. She may charge at or attack perceived predators to protect her eggs.
This instinct should diminish once the eggs have been laid and the nest is abandoned. Once the female has fulfilled her limited parental role, her hormones will subside, making her less defensive.
Basking in the sun is vital to tortoises’ health and well-being.
Tortoises are ectothermic, so they depend on their environment to regulate their temperature. They’ll seek out the sun’s warmth when they’re too cold. When they’re too hot, they’ll find shade.
Tortoises require UVB rays to synthesize vitamin D3 and absorb calcium, which is essential for healthy growth and metabolic development.
So, it’s not surprising to see tortoises fighting over the best basking spots.
Avoid keeping two different tortoise species in the same enclosure.
Some are naturally more aggressive than others and struggle to establish a hierarchy due to their different temperaments. This can lead to some tortoises getting bullied to exhaustion or injury.
You can’t expect tortoises to never fight, especially two males. However, you can ensure the fights are mild, short-lived, and evenly matched by ensuring tortoises are the same size.
Also, illness can spread if you keep tortoises of different species together.
Most tortoise species carry bacteria (on their skin and shells and in their digestive systems) that are harmless to them but harmful to other species.
How Do Tortoises Mark Their Territory?
As mentioned, tortoises don’t mark their territory physically like certain other animals. Instead, they assert their dominance over other tortoises for an area or resource through aggressive behaviors:
Headbutting involves using the head and neck to push against or ram another tortoise.
The tortoise, usually a male, will bang its head against other tortoises it perceives as an enemy. This is a warning that indicates that shell ramming is next.
A tortoise may initially communicate with another tortoise by bobbing its head.
It’s considered an intimidation tactic, as it’s a non-aggressive way of letting the other tortoise know it’s already staked its claim on territory, resources, or a specific female.
The frequency and intensity of a tortoise’s head bobbing indicate the aggression level.
Tortoises assert authority over others by ramming their shells against each other, which can cause injury to one or both tortoises.
This is a bid to push and flip the other tortoise onto its back. The tortoise flipped over is considered the loser and will struggle to right itself.
If a tortoise can’t get off its back after flipping over, it’s vulnerable to dehydration and heat stress. Also, if a tortoise remains flipped over for too long, it can experience respiratory and digestive problems.
A tortoise may bite other tortoises, but biting is less common than other behaviors. Tortoises don’t have teeth, but they have keratin-based beaks that can exert a crushing force.
Male tortoises may also bite female tortoises during the mating process. In particular, they’ll bite at their legs to slow them down when the female attempts to escape.
Do Tortoises Recognize Their Territory?
Tortoises recognize their territory through visual, auditory, and olfactory signals. Some of these sensory cues are superior to others. For example, tortoises have a better sense of smell than hearing.
When exploring away from its burrow for food and water, a tortoise will find its way home using its:
- Color vision.
- Sight range.
Tortoises can recognize certain objects months after being separated from them. Their memories are good enough to recall anything they consider important to their survival.
This indicates that tortoises know their territory, even though they don’t leave territorial markings. Instead of scent or urine marking, tortoises physically defend space and resources.