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How Does A Tortoise Get Off Its Back?

Tortoises can easily tumble, flip over, and land the wrong way up if the ground beneath their feet is uneven. Since tortoises love climbing and exploring, the likelihood of this happening is even higher.

To get off their backs, most tortoises extend their necks, brace their heads against the ground, and push. Their legs will flail to rock them side to side until they get the necessary leverage to roll onto their feet.

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

Flat-shell tortoises have a difficult time, but their long neck and limbs make the action possible.

Unfortunately, tortoises aren’t guaranteed to self-right, even with their adaptive skill. Your tortoise can get permanently stuck if the terrain is unfavorable, such as when it’s flat or the tortoise is pinned against something. The tortoise may also be sick, overheated, or exhausted, and therefore unable to help itself.

Can A Tortoise Turn Itself Over?

Oftentimes, a tortoise that gets knocked or rolled onto its back can turn itself over again. Tortoises evolved various tricks for self-righting since wild tortoises can’t rely on someone to rush to their rescue. If tortoises could not get back onto their feet again alone, their population would be far smaller than it is currently.

Getting stuck on their back can prove deadly to tortoises, in the worst case, or at least dampen their mating success. For example, if two male tortoises compete over a female, and one gets knocked onto its back in the fight, it will be stuck for a while. This gives an advantage to the upright male, so it can pursue the female without competition. Being able to quickly roll back to its feet gives the attacked male a fighting chance.

With that said, it’s never a guarantee that a tortoise can turn itself over. Self-righting is an adaptive behavior, but certain factors can prevent a tortoise from successfully righting itself. This can include:

  • The terrain the tortoise is on
  • Its weight
  • The shape of its shell
  • Other creatures antagonizing or pushing it
  • A lack of energy in the tortoise
  • The tortoise getting pinned against an object that prevents it from rocking side to side
  • An injury that keeps it from properly extending its neck or legs

Nonetheless, a tortoise can usually get off its back without your assistance. If you notice it struggling for more than a minute or two, however, help it out. If it appears stuck for several minutes, you should intervene to ensure it doesn’t remain stuck on its back or exhaust itself.

Can A Tortoise Get Off Its Back?

According to Herpetologica, tortoises rely heavily on their neck and head to get off their back. When inverted, tortoises extend their neck out and push their heads against the ground. This bares their throat but also gives them leverage to sway their body to the side. They will 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 then back onto their feet in short order.

For larger tortoises, it’s more difficult. They find it harder to get off their backs due to their weight. Their success rate will depend on their surrounding terrain and the shape of their shells. According to Scientific Reports, Galapagos tortoises have evolved two different shell morphologies. These are theorized to help them regain their footing if they’re accidentally flipped onto their backs. The two shapes are:

  • Domed
  • Saddleback

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

In the study, researchers discovered that the saddleback shape required the most energy from the tortoise to right itself. They theorized that this suited saddleback tortoises fine, as their native environment had very uneven terrain. As such, their muscles were adapted to handle the more intense effort needed to right themselves. The domed shape requires less energy, but the uneven terrain can also pin the tortoise at an angle that prevents it from properly rocking itself. 

This example helps to illustrate that tortoises have evolved to handle the natural problem of getting knocked onto their backs. However, there’s no guarantee that a tortoise can right itself each time, so it’s still a risky position to end up in.

can a tortoise get off its back?

Do Heavy Tortoises Get Stuck On Their Backs?

Luckily, more weight means big tortoises seldom find themselves in the upside-down position. After all, they are heavier and less likely to topple. That’s especially true in captivity, where tortoises are less likely to be exposed to rocky and uncertain terrain.

When large tortoises do topple, they leverage their size and weight to get off their backs. Their weight tends to be distributed towards the front of their body. This gives them a favorable forward-tilt that provides greater 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 a harder time getting off their backs. Righting such flat shells needs more than a little thrashing. Long necks are common in these animals, which they extend and use as a pivot while pushing with their legs.

Sometimes, tortoises also help each other get off their backs. Keeping many tortoises together has its advantages and disadvantages. One clear benefit is that they appear to have the inclination to flip each other over if one ends up on its back.

Where they have landed also comes into play. For instance, turning upright on a flatter surface is much harder than flipping on an uneven or slightly sloped surface. On the other hand, if your tortoise has inverted in a corner or near a large object it can push itself against, it may benefit from the additional support and upright itself easily.  

Why Does My Tortoise Keep Flipping Over?

Tortoises obviously want to avoid getting stuck on their back. This makes it confusing when you find your tortoise constantly flipped over. You might help it back onto its feet, only to find it flipped over again the next day. Here’s what might be causing the problem:

Climbing Mishaps  

If your tortoise keeps flipping over, it may be attempting to scale a wall or any other obstacle to escape or explore. It could be motivated by stress, boredom, or just curiosity. Innocuous factors such as ramps and plants in your tortoise’s tank or enclosure can become a flip hazard for your pet.

Tank Mates

Competing males are known to purposefully try to flip each other to show dominance during a territorial dispute. Therefore, while tortoises sometimes display cooperative behavior, keeping territorial males in the same tank can be troublesome.

Male tortoises, particularly those engaged in mating behavior, frequently participate in battles to turn over each other. Sometimes, tortoises push each other over for food. You can find this happening in males and females, but same-sex conflicts are more common.

Other Pets or Animals

If your tortoise can spend time with other, larger pets, it can easily get knocked onto its back. For example, tortoises are frequently rolled over by dogs when fighting or playing with them. In the wild, other animals (and especially predators) can do the same.

Illness or Injury

There could be a medical problem with your tortoise if it keeps ending up on its back. If it’s consistently rolled over for no apparent reason, illnesses and injuries might be responsible. It may have difficulty walking, feel too weak to self-right, or have balance problems.

What Happens To A Tortoise On Its Back?

When a tortoise is on its back, it may lie there for a moment to gain its bearings. After that, tortoises usually begin to flail, extending their legs and neck so they can self-right.

However, there are times when a tortoise reacts more extremely when on its back, internally and externally. Depending on how it was knocked over or its general health, it may:

Have Intestinal Problems

The tortoise’s intestines may twist (bowel torsion), especially if it was flipped violently with force during a fight or attack. This usually self-corrects, but if the tortoise is not passing feces or is showing other signs of extreme stress later, take note. It is advisable to contact your vet. If left untreated, this condition may become hazardous or even fatal.

Soil Itself

The tortoise will most likely empty its bladder and bowels. This isn’t always a concern, but it can exacerbate dehydration. As time goes on, the tortoise can also get sunburn if exposed to the sun or heat, further aggravating dehydration.

Have Difficulty Breathing

Internal organs will press on the lungs, which fill the top half of the shell. Over time, this gets more stressful for the tortoise.


The tortoise may vomit because of the abnormal pressure and position of its organs. It may inhale the vomit, which can result in choking or other respiratory issues. In any case, the tortoise will become physically and mentally anxious, thrashing in an attempt to right itself.

Begin To Starve

The inverted position also exposes the tortoise to predators and insects, such as flies. Meanwhile, starvation and dehydration continue, gradually diminishing their energy levels. This won’t happen unless the tortoise is stuck on its back long-term, but it’s worth being cautious.

Can A Tortoise Die On Its Back?

If you engage with your tortoise periodically and keep an eye on it, the chances of it dying on its back are slim. However, that changes if you don’t spend much time with your pet and only visit its enclosure a few times throughout the week. In this case, the odds of it dying on its back are substantially higher.

A tortoise is more likely to die on its back if it’s left out in the sun. It will be in danger of overheating. Tortoises rely on their shells to protect them from too much sun exposure. Having their underside bare can make them vulnerable.

Tortoises can’t sweat or regulate their body temperature since they are cold-blooded. Heat exhaustion can set in quickly if your tortoise has no way to protect itself. You can avoid this disaster by keeping an eye on your tortoise when it’s outside.

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 is no fixed time at which this will happen. It depends on the tortoise in question and the conditions. Some people claim to have lost a juvenile tortoise within an hour of falling over directly under a heat lamp. Dehydration likely speeds up the process.

Similarly, tumbling over or falling in water during a bath or soak can be dangerous if the tortoise’s head is submerged in water. Tortoises cannot swim or breathe water.

On the other hand, some reports claim that hardy adult tortoises could survive a few days on their backs under more favorable conditions. How long your inverted tortoise has before things become lethal will depend on its:

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

In any case, it is better to take measures to avoid the problem from happening in the first place. Then, you don’t have to figure out how long is too long.

What To Do If Tortoise Is On Its Back

It’s easy to assist a flipped tortoise. Return it to its original position, but not too quickly. You don’t want to cause bowel torsion. If possible, roll it back the way it tumbled. After this, examine the tortoise for signs of overheating, such as:

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

Bring your tortoise inside or remove it from under the heat lamp right away if you suspect it’s overheating. You can give it a cool bath to recover. Next, examine the tortoise for signs of dehydration. Common signs include:

  • Dry, loose, or flaky skin
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Lack of activity
  • Watery eyes

As needed, provide a shady spot to rest and/or a good soak. It will help with dehydration. If difficulties emerge and the tortoise seems disoriented, contact your veterinarian. A tortoise can get off its back, but this won’t always be easy, so lend a helping hand if you can.