Home » Do Tortoises Mark Their Territory? [Urine Marking vs. Dominance]
are tortoises territorial?

Do Tortoises Mark Their Territory? [Urine Marking vs. Dominance]

(Last Updated On: October 29, 2022)

Tortoises can be territorial, especially if they lack space. Male tortoises can enter conflict if one encroaches on the space of another, and females will bite to ward off predators when nesting.

Tortoises don’t use scent-marking or urine to mark territory. However, tortoises assert territorial dominance by ramming shells against each other, headbutting, and biting.

Tortoises remember where their territories are, even if they don’t mark them like other creatures. They recall landmarks and use color vision to tell different areas apart.

Are Tortoises Territorial?

Tortoises can be territorial, but they won’t demonstrate this by marking their territory. A tortoise won’t urinate on a certain spot to create a boundary.

Also, tortoises won’t rub their scent against a tree or shrub. Even though tortoises like climbing and scratching objects, there’s no evidence that this marks out a specific area as their own.

Instead, tortoises attack others that enter their space. Head bobbing is a tortoise’s only warning. Then, it’ll deter others from its burrows or basking areas with headbutting or biting.

A rare exception is in the case of desert tortoises, specifically the Gopherus Agassizi. According to Herpetologica, female desert tortoises may urinate on their nests after laying eggs.

Urination is to ward off predators, make the nest easier to dig, make the eggs simpler to lay, and help bury the eggs in the soil afterward. No other species urinate around their nests.

According to the Proceedings of Biological Science, territoriality in animals is about survival. So, wild tortoises are usually more territorial than domesticated tortoises.

Are Female Tortoises Territorial?

Female tortoises are usually calm and docile. However, they may become territorial when close to laying eggs to protect their eggs from predators and aggressive tortoises.

That said, female tortoises don’t take care of their offspring; most species only lay their eggs and leave them to hatch on their own.

Rare exceptions are Burmese mountain tortoises and desert tortoises. According to Southwestern Naturalist, female Agassiz desert tortoises guard their nest temporarily after laying eggs.

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.

are female tortoises territorial?

Are Male Tortoises Territorial?

Male tortoises are more territorial than females because they spend more time looking for mates, competing with one another, and driving others away from their space.

Two male tortoises kept in the same enclosure can become aggressive toward each other. Even in mild cases, two males are bound to fight at least once to establish dominance.

According to the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, fighting is even more likely if a female is involved. Male tortoises are most aggressive when seeking mating opportunities.

Keeping two male tortoises in the same tank isn’t recommended. If they must share an enclosure, ensure it’s large enough. Tortoises don’t mind neighboring companions, but roommates stress them.

Although rare, aggressive behavior can be witnessed between males and females. This normally occurs during the mating season, immediately after brumation.

The male will stalk and show aggression toward the female tortoise to subdue her into mating. If it gets heavy-handed, the male can injure the female or exhaust her to the point of illness.

Why Are Tortoises Territorial?

Here are the reasons why a tortoise may become territorial:

Limited Food Sources

Territoriality in the animal kingdom is often triggered by the need to protect food sources.

Tortoises aren’t any different and can become aggressive to protect their food sources. They may also claim a spot to ensure they’ll have access to food later.  

If food sources are limited, a tortoise will become aggressive. It may enter other territories for food, fight tortoises in frustration, or defend its space more vociferously.

Mating Needs

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 have to fight it out to set their territory and gain mating rights. Once the dominant male has won, the weaker male will stay out of his way.

Gravid Females

Female tortoises rarely set boundaries, preferring to remain calm unless carrying eggs. 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 her spot until the eggs have been secured. She may charge at or attack perceived predators to protect her eggs.

This instinct should fade once the eggs have been laid and the nest is abandoned. Now that the female has done her job, she’ll return to normal.

Competition for Basking Spots

Basking in the sun is vital to tortoises’ health and well-being.

Tortoises require UVB rays to synthesize vitamin D and absorb calcium, which is important for healthy growth and metabolic development.

So, it’s not surprising to see tortoises fighting over basking spots.

Incompatible Species

It’s sensible to keep two different tortoise species in the same enclosure.

Some are naturally more aggressive than others and struggle to establish a hierarchy because of their differing 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.

Most importantly, illness can spread if you keep tortoises of different species together. Some kinds of tortoise carry bacteria that are harmless to them but harmful to other tortoise species.

tortoise territorial behavior

Intrusion by Kids or Other Pets

Tortoises like privacy and spending their time alone. So, they’ll be happiest when allowed to dig several burrows and have a wide territory for themselves. Socializing can be fun, but only in small doses.

Being harassed by other pets or handled too often, especially by energetic children, can upset a tortoise.

How Do Tortoises Mark Their Territory?

As mentioned, tortoises don’t mark their territory physically like other animals. Instead, they assert their dominance over an area through their behavior:

Ramming Shells

Tortoises prefer to assert their authority by ramming their shells against each other.

This is a bid to push and flip the other tortoise onto its back. The tortoise flipped over is considered the loser and must struggle to right itself.

Head Bobbing or Butting

Headbutting or bobbing is more common among males than females.

The tortoise will bang its head against other tortoises or any object it perceives to be an enemy. This is a warning, and it indicates that shell ramming is next.

Biting

A tortoise may bite other tortoises to determine the alpha in a territory.

Male tortoises can also bite female tortoises during the mating process. In particular, they’ll bite at their legs to slow them down in a chase.

Do Tortoises Recognize Their Territory?

Tortoises can recognize their territory. When exploring away from its burrow for food and water, a tortoise will find its way home using its:

Tortoises can recognize certain objects months after being separated from them.

This indicates that tortoises know their territory, even though they don’t leave territorial markings. Instead, they understand the zones they prefer and will physically defend them.