Home » Do Tortoises Mark Their Territory?
are tortoises territorial?

Do Tortoises Mark Their Territory?

Tortoises can be territorial, especially if they lack space. Male tortoises will get into heated battles 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 establish private domains.

Instead, they assert authority over a given territory through aggressive and defensive behaviors. A tortoise will ram its shell against intruders, head-butt, or bob as a warning and even resort to biting.

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

Tortoises are unlikely to display territorial behaviors if they have sufficient space, privacy, and food.

Are Tortoises Territorial?

Tortoises can be territorial, but they won’t demonstrate this by marking their territory. A tortoise will not urinate on a certain spot to create a boundary. Likewise, it won’t rub its scent against a tree or shrub. Even though tortoises like climbing and scratching objects, there is no indication that this marks out a specific area as their own.

Instead, a tortoise will establish a private zone by attacking any other tortoises that invade it. It will deter others from its burrows or basking areas with headbutting or bobbing. This is a tortoise’s only warning. If the warning isn’t heeded, it will start ramming its shell against intruders or biting.

A rare exception is in the case of desert tortoises, specifically the Gopherus Agassizi. According to Herpetologica, females of this species may urinate on their nests after laying eggs. This is to ward off predators, as well as make the nest easier to dig, the eggs simpler to lay, and help bury the eggs in the soil afterward. Almost all other female tortoise species don’t urinate on their nests and won’t engage in territory marking.

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

Are Female Tortoises Territorial?

Female tortoises are usually calm and docile. However, they may become territorial when they’re close to laying eggs. They aim to protect their future offspring from predators and other tortoises by growing aggressive or assertive.

With 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. Instead, this aggression is designed to keep predators away from the:

  • Female herself, who is carrying the eggs
  • Area where the eggs will be laid
  • Nest itself, which could be dug up or disturbed by others

Other rare exceptions are Burmese mountain tortoises and desert tortoises. According to Southwestern Naturalist, females of the Agassiz desert tortoise species may guard their nest temporarily after laying eggs.

Even in this case, the female will only defend her offspring just after she lays the eggs and only if she can spy an immediate threat. If a Gila monster or human is close by, 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. That’s because males spend more time looking for mates, competing with one another and driving intruders 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, this is even more likely if a female is involved. Male tortoises are usually most aggressive when scrambling for mating opportunities.

Males won’t establish their territories by marking or scenting. Instead, they assert their dominance by fighting each other. This behavior may result in injuries or cause stress to other, uninvolved tortoises in the enclosure.

For this reason, it’s not always recommended to keep two male tortoises in the same tank. If they must share an enclosure, ensure that it’s large enough to give each tortoise its own space. Tortoises don’t mind neighboring companions, but roommates stress them.

Although rare, aggressive behavior can be witnessed between a male and female. 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?

Tortoises don’t mark their territory physically. Instead, they assert their dominance over others through territorial behaviors. This is designed to stake out a claim to a particular area, object, nest, or mate.

Like any other animal, territorial behavior is vital to the survival of your tortoise, even in captivity. 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 are not any different, and they can become aggressive to protect their current meals. They may also claim a spot to ensure that they’ll have access to later food.  

If food sources are limited, a tortoise will become aggressive in all regards. It may be prone to invading other territories for food, fighting tortoises in frustration, or defending its own space more viciously.

Your tortoise may also become a picky eater, which can eventually lead to nutritional deficiencies. For this reason, it’s important to offer plenty of food and water to your tortoises. This can reduce their aggression and territoriality, especially if they share the same enclosure.

Mating Needs

In tortoises, courting and mating usually occur during spring, soon 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. They prefer to remain calm and docile unless they’re pregnant. A gravid female may become territorial in the days leading up to egg-laying.

Once a nest has been chosen and she’s digging out this area, she will be defensive of her spot until the eggs have been secured. She may charge at or attack perceived predators to protect her eggs. During this time, you may also find your female tortoise:

  • Unwilling to spend time with you
  • More eager to nip or bite at you
  • Starting fights with other tortoises

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

Competition For Basking Spots

Basking in the sun is vital to tortoises’ health and wellbeing. Tortoises require UVB rays to synthesize vitamin D and absorb calcium, which is important for healthy growth and metabolic development.

Therefore, it’s not surprising to see tortoises in an enclosure or even in the wild fighting over basking spots. This is a way of establishing a dominance hierarchy. Your tortoise may snap or bite other tortoises that have encroached into its favorite sunny area.

To avoid extreme aggression and reduce territorial behavior, it is a good idea to set up several basking spots in the enclosure. This will ensure no one has to share and improve the amount of vitamin D your tortoises can glean. That will keep your tortoises healthier and more even-tempered.

Incompatible Species In The Same Enclosure

It’s considered unwise 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 the point of exhaustion or injury.

Aside from that, size differences can lead to normal fights over food or mates turning brutal. You can’t expect your tortoises to never fight, especially if they’re both males. However, you can ensure the fights are mild, short-lived, and evenly matched. Pairing tortoises with others of their own species will be beneficial.

Perhaps most importantly, if you keep tortoises of different species together, there’s a chance of illness spreading. Some kinds of tortoise naturally carry bacteria that are harmless to them but harmful to other tortoise species. For this reason, you should keep them apart to reduce unnecessary risks.

tortoise territorial behavior

Intrusion By Kids Or Other Pets

Tortoises are social animals, but they like their privacy and spend most of their time alone. They will be happiest when allowed to dig several burrows and have a wide territory for themselves. Socializing will be fun, but only in mild doses.

If a tortoise gets overstimulated, it may turn aggressive. That’s especially true if you invade the tortoise’s burrow. You should not poke around or disturb this area as your tortoise may bite at you.

Being harassed by other pets or handled too often, especially by energetic children, can upset a tortoise. It will then defend its burrow and hiding spots more aggressively to force others to give it a break.

How Do Tortoises Mark Their Territory?

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

Ramming Shells

Shell banging is a common way to drive off rivals and secure mating rights. Tortoises prefer to assert their authority by ramming their shells against each other. This is a bid to push and flip the intruder onto its back. The tortoise that is flipped over will be considered the loser and need to struggle to get back up.

Head Bobbing Or Butting

Headbutting or bobbing is more common with male tortoises 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 will come next. If a tortoise wants to scare a newcomer out of its territory, it will lead with this action.


A tortoise may resort to biting other tortoises to determine the alpha male in a given space. 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 their burrow for food and water, a tortoise will find its way back home using its:

Tortoises have been proven to recognize certain objects months after being separated from them. This indicates that tortoises know their territory even though they do not leave territorial markings. Instead, they understand the zones they prefer and will physically defend them.