Tortoises are slow-moving animals, leaving them vulnerable to predation. For this reason, they need to be able to protect themselves, which they achieve through various self-defense mechanisms.
Tortoises have to protect themselves from predation and each other, especially other males. They’re solitary animals, so they usually dislike living together.
Consequently, they’ll butt each other and attempt to flip each other over when they fight.
How Does a Tortoise Defend Itself?
Tortoises aren’t fast movers., only able to move 1 mile per hour. So, how does a tortoise protect itself from enemies if it’s unable to run away?
Here are the main survival techniques of tortoises:
1/ Hard Outer Shell
Tortoises are shielded from predators by their hard outer shells. The top part is called the carapace, and the underside is called the plastron, while the bridge connects them.
The carapace protects the upper body, and the plastron protects the underbelly. The tail, head, and back legs are exposed, but they have tough and resilient outer skin.
Tortoises can pull their head and limbs inside the shell to protect the more delicate parts of their bodies.
Can a Tortoise Go Inside Its Shell?
According to Sciencing, tortoise shells are made of bone, which they can retreat into when threatened.
They retract their legs and necks into the shell, exposing no limbs. Most predators can’t break through the solid shell and give up on eating the tortoise.
The shell is attached to the tortoise and can’t come off. It comprises 50 bones in the skeleton, including the spine and rib cage.
Tortoises can’t use their back muscles to move or contort, relying on their strong neck muscles to retract the head into the shell. A tortoise’s head and limbs are much smaller than the rest of its body, allowing them to fit inside the shell.
Tortoises have soft, loose skin, enabling them to move their limbs while the shell remains rigid. Also, because the shell isn’t one large piece, tortoises have the flexibility to move inside the shell and can draw the plastron shut once the head and limbs are safely inside.
2/ Gular Horn
Tortoises have a gular horn, which is a pointed extension of the plastron (lower shell) that they use for self-defense against predators and other tortoises. They use the gular horn to flip other tortoises onto their backs and win disputes/fights.
Males have longer gular horns than females, although both sexes have them.
Tortoises don’t have teeth, but they do have sharp beaks. While the beak’s not a primary means of self-defense, it’s useful as a snapping mechanism against predators.
Tortoises burrow into the ground using their strong claws and legs. A single tortoise can have up to 35 burrows at one time. While most are shallow, some can extend as much as 30 feet.
Once they’ve dug a suitable burrow, they remain inside to avoid hot temperatures and use it as a nesting place for their eggs. Even pet tortoises create burrows when they feel scared or threatened.
Tortoises have brown and tan markings that enable them to blend in with their environment, keeping them safe and hidden from predators. Once they dig into their burrows, they’re well camouflaged.
Behavioral Ecology describes how tortoises choose their habitat based on how well it camouflages them from predators. If they choose wisely, the use of their habitat has adaptive advantages in that it reduces visual detection.
Tortoises empty their bladders if they’re picked up, handled, or confronted by predators.
Tortoises are experts at hoarding water, unleashing a seemingly never-ending stream of pee when they encounter a threat. However, this method of protection leaves them vulnerable to dehydration.
According to Herpetologica, female tortoises urinate before, during, and following egg-laying. The taste and smell deter mammal egg predators, keeping the eggs safe.
However, tortoises don’t look after their young beyond urinating around the nest.
What Does a Tortoise Do When It Is Scared?
When tortoises are scared, they’ll:
- Release any water they’ve stored up by peeing
- Retreat inside their shells
- Attempt to run, primarily to seek shelter in a burrow
- Breathe heavily, pant, and hiss out of stress
When tortoises feel threatened, their bodies go into fight-or-flight mode to protect themselves.
How Do Tortoises Fight?
Tortoises seek a mate to breed with, but they live alone for the rest of the time.
This means tortoises fight by doing the following:
- Biting each other using their strong beaks.
- Chasing each other away – the dominant tortoise will hold its ground.
- Headbutting using their strong necks to gain power and momentum.
- Ramming into each other with their hard, tough shells.
Tortoises rarely kill each other during a fight but can sustain injuries.
Why Do Tortoises Flip Each Other Over?
Male tortoises fight with other males for the right to be alpha, enabling them to mate with a female.
While ramming, both tortoises attempt to flip the other onto its back using the gular horn. Doing so leaves the upside-down tortoise vulnerable, giving the victor mating rights.
Larger tortoises are more likely to win a fight by flipping the smaller tortoise onto its back. However, bigger tortoises have a more challenging time righting themselves because they’re heavier and less agile.
Females also fight, but this is less to do with mating dominance than it is to do with getting space. They have smaller gular horns, so their fights don’t always end with one flipping the other over.
If a tortoise remains on their backs for too long, the weight of its organs will bear down on its lungs, restricting its ability to breathe and eventually suffocating them.
Do Tortoises Have Any Predators?
Tortoises have a surprising number of enemies, including:
Birds that prey on tortoises include golden eagles, bearded vultures, crows, ravens, and herons.
Vultures and eagles fly away with tortoises gripped in their talons and drop them onto rocks and hard surfaces in an attempt to break their shells, giving them access to the tender flesh beneath.
- Ground squirrels
Fire ants are deadly to tortoises because they swarm tortoises, eventually eating them alive. Because they’re slow, tortoises can’t get away from the ants quickly enough.
It’s less common with larger adult tortoises, but baby tortoises are most at risk.
Red harvester and carpenter ants are also a threat.
Some cultures enjoy eating tortoise meat, snatching them from the wild to be served as a delicacy. It’s far rarer these days to see tortoise meat on modern menus, but tortoises still have to protect themselves from people.
Even though tortoises aren’t completely safe from danger, their shells do a good job of keeping them protected. Tortoises rarely fight predators, preferring to hide inside their shells or burrows. When desperate, they’ll pee on the predator as a last-ditch attempt to survive predation.