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How Does A Tortoise Get Off Its Back? (Self-Righting Techniques)

Last Updated on October 6, 2023 by Samantha Harris

Tortoises can tumble, flip over, and land upside down if the ground beneath their feet is uneven. Since tortoises love climbing and exploring their territory, they can get flipped on their backs.

Tortoises can get off their backs by extending their necks, bracing their heads against the ground, and pushing. Their legs will flail to rock them from side to side until they gain enough momentum to roll over.

Unfortunately, a tortoise can get stuck in challenging terrains, such as pinned against a rock.

Some tortoises have domed shells that make rocking easier, while others have a saddleback shape that requires more energy to self-right, but they have the strength to do it.

Flat-shell tortoises find it harder to get off their backs, but their long neck and limbs make it possible. Even with these adaptive skills, tortoises aren’t guaranteed to self-right.

Can A Tortoise Turn Itself Over?

A tortoise that gets knocked or rolled onto its back can usually turn itself over again. Tortoises evolved various self-righting techniques since they couldn’t rely on the assistance of others.

However, it’s not guaranteed that a tortoise can turn itself over. Self-righting is an adaptive behavior, but certain factors can prevent a tortoise from successfully righting itself, including:

  • Terrain.
  • Weight.
  • Shell shape.
  • Other nearby animals.
  • Energy levels.
  • Pinned against an object.
  • Injury.

A tortoise can usually get off its back without assistance. However, if you notice a tortoise struggling for more than 1-2 minutes, you should put it back on its feet.

Can A Tortoise Get Off Its Back?

According to Herpetologica, tortoises rely on their neck and head to get off their back.

Tortoises extend their neck when inverted and push their heads against the ground. Although this bares their throat, it gives them leverage to sway their body to the side.

They’ll then kick or rock their legs back and forth to roll themselves. For small, lightweight tortoises, this usually rotates them from one angle to another and back onto their feet.

Larger tortoises find it harder to get off their backs due to their weight. Their success rate depends on their surrounding terrain and the shape of their shells.

According to Scientific Reports, Galapagos tortoises evolved two different shell morphologies:

  • Domed.
  • Saddleback.

The domed shape allows for more efficient side-to-side rocking so the tortoise can get off its back, while the saddleback shape enables the tortoise to extend its legs and neck better to gain leverage to flip.

Researchers discovered that the saddleback shape required more energy from the tortoise to right itself.

They theorized that this suited saddleback tortoises because their native environment had uneven terrain. Also, their muscles could handle the more intense effort needed to flip themselves.

The domed shape requires less energy, but the uneven terrain can pin the tortoise at an angle that prevents it from rocking itself. 

can a tortoise get off its back?

Do Heavy Tortoises Get Stuck On Their Backs?

More weight means big tortoises seldom find themselves in the upside-down position.

After all, they’re heavier and less likely to topple, especially in captivity, because they’re less likely to be exposed to rocky and uneven terrain.

When large tortoises topple, they leverage their size and weight to get off their backs.

Their weight is distributed toward the front of their body, which gives them a forward tilt that provides more pushing power to the head and front legs.

Can Flat-Shell Tortoises Get Off Their Backs?

Species with flatter shells, such as pancake tortoises, have difficulty getting off their backs.

Righting flat shells requires more than just thrashing. Long necks are common in these species, extending them as a pivot while pushing with their legs.

Sometimes, tortoises help each other get off their backs, but cooperation isn’t guaranteed.

Where the tortoise landed is a significant risk factor. For instance, turning upright on a flatter surface is harder than flipping on an uneven or sloped surface.

If a tortoise is inverted in a corner or near a large object, it’ll have support and right itself more easily.  

Why Does My Tortoise Keep Flipping Over?

Tortoises want to avoid getting stuck on their back, which makes it confusing when you find a tortoise constantly flipped over. You might help it back onto its feet, only to find it flipped over the next day.

If the tortoise keeps flipping over, here’s what might be causing the problem:

Climbing Mishaps  

A tortoise may attempt to scale a wall or any other obstacle to escape or explore.

This behavior could be motivated by stress, boredom, or just curiosity. Also, innocuous factors such as ramps and plants in the tank or enclosure could become a hazard.

Tank Mates

Competing males purposefully flip each other to show dominance during a territorial dispute. While tortoises sometimes behave cooperatively, keeping territorial males together can be troublesome.

Male tortoises, particularly those engaged in mating behavior, frequently turn over each other. Sometimes, tortoises push each other over for food.

This happens between males and females, but same-sex conflicts are more common.

Other Pets or Animals

If a tortoise spends time with other pets, it can get knocked onto its back. For example, dogs frequently roll tortoises when fighting or playing with them.

Illness or Injury

If you keep finding a tortoise on its back, it could have a medical problem.

If it’s consistently rolled over for no apparent reason, illnesses and injuries might be responsible. It may struggle walking, feel too weak to self-right, or have balance problems.

What Happens To A Tortoise On Its Back?

A tortoise may lie on its back to gain its bearings. After that, tortoises usually begin to flail, extending their legs and neck so they can self-right.

Sometimes, a tortoise reacts more extremely when on its back. Depending on how it was knocked over or its overall health, it may have the following problems:

Intestinal Problems

The tortoise’s intestines may twist (bowel torsion), especially if it was flipped with force during a fight.

This usually self-corrects, but if the tortoise isn’t passing feces or is showing other signs of extreme stress later, it’s advisable to contact your vet.

Difficulty Breathing

Internal organs press on the lungs in the upper half of the shell (carapace).

Vomiting

The tortoise may vomit due to abnormal pressure and the position of its organs.

It may inhale vomit, which can result in choking and respiratory issues. In any case, the tortoise will become physically and mentally anxious, thrashing about to right itself.

Dehydration

Tortoises shouldn’t go more than 1-2 days without drinking, or they’ll start dehydrating. Unfortunately, the situation quickly becomes life-threatening, especially if exposed to the sun.

Can A Tortoise Die On Its Back?

Tortoises can’t sweat or regulate their body temperature since they’re cold-blooded animals.

If you check on the tortoise periodically, the chances of it dying on its back are slim. However, that changes if you only visit the enclosure a few times per week.

A tortoise is likelier to die on its back if its vulnerable underside is exposed to sunshine. Tortoises rely on their shells to protect them from too much sun exposure.

why does my tortoise keep flipping over?

How Long Can A Tortoise Be On Its Back Before It Dies?

Although tortoises can die on their back, there’s no fixed timescale because it depends on their health and living conditions.

Deep water is hazardous, especially if the tortoise’s head is submerged. Unlike turtles, tortoises can’t swim or breathe water.

How long an inverted tortoise can survive depends on these factors:

  • Age.
  • Health.
  • Ability to breathe.
  • How well-fed it is.
  • The surrounding temperatures.
  • Sun exposure.

Hardy adult tortoises can survive for days on their backs under more favorable conditions.

What To Do If Tortoise Is On Its Back

Return a flipped tortoise to its original position, but not too quickly, to avoid bowel torsion. If possible, roll it back the way it tumbled. Then, examine the tortoise for signs of overheating, such as:

  • Foaming or drooling at the mouth.
  • Gaping mouth.
  • Runny nose.
  • Weakness.
  • Lack of activity.
  • Inability to walk.
  • Poor responsiveness.

Provide a shady spot to rest or soak to assist with rehydration. If difficulties emerge and the tortoise seems disoriented, contact your veterinarian.