Tortoises headbutt each other by bracing their legs and ramming themselves forward, causing their shells to collide with other tortoises, objects, or humans.
Tortoises won’t harm themselves by headbutting but may flip over another tortoise.
Male tortoises headbutt each other to show dominance, court females, or claim mating rights. Gravid females will ram objects to protect themselves and drive off threats so they can lay their eggs in peace.
Headbutting is a way to vent frustration. If your tortoise is ramming you, this is usually due to over-handling, excessive petting, or not being fed fast enough.
Why Does My Tortoise Headbutt Everything?
Tortoises headbutt things in the wild, but it appears strange in captivity, as pet tortoises won’t restrict themselves to just one object.
Male tortoises are more inclined to headbutt things than female tortoises. Targets include inanimate objects, other pets, and people.
The behavior can have various meanings, depending on what the tortoise is ramming:
1/ Ready to Mate
According to the Journal of Bone and Mineral Metabolism, headbutting can indicate that a tortoise has entered the mating stage of its growth.
Your tortoise will have excess energy and hormones driving it to impress a mate. It’ll spend its time headbutting random objects to scare them off, so it can claim mating rights for the area.
Also, it’ll burn off its sexual frustration through exercise if it can’t find a mate. Should a female be present, a male may ram against her shell with a headbutt. Ramming is designed to show his prowess and exhaust or knock females into submission in readiness for the breeding process.
It can last for several days as the courting rituals continue.
2/ About To Lay Eggs
If a female has reached sexual maturity, she may be preparing to lay eggs.
In response to her maternal hormones, she may become more aggressive. This will result in headbutting to drive away other tortoises, pets, people, or inanimate objects that she misinterprets as a threat.
The female tortoise will be trying to:
- Defend herself
- Protect the eggs she’s carrying
- Scare off threats
3/ Demonstrate Authority
Tortoises can become territorial and try to establish who is dominant. To accomplish this, fights will break out where tortoises headbutt each other.
These ramming sessions are designed to scare, hurt, or flip over the other tortoises. Usually, once a tortoise has been flipped, it is the loser, and the winning tortoise will disengage. The losing tortoise (usually the smaller one) will be wary of the winning tortoise and stay out of its way.
Tortoises can be social, but they prefer their own space.
In a way, they like neighbors but not roommates. If your tortoise feels overcrowded, fights over dominance are more likely to break out.
The tortoise will attempt to defend its personal space and drive off competition, protecting food/water resources and burrows.
Some tortoise species are more social than others and won’t mind sharing space. Some will even allow other tortoises into their numerous burrows.
However, if your tortoises are constantly fighting, consider whether they need a bigger enclosure.
5/ Food Competition
Tortoises will begin headbutting others if they fear there may not be enough food and water.
They’ll defend their resources and keep others at bay to avoid starvation or dehydration. It could mean your tortoise is overcrowded, or you’re feeding it too little or infrequently.
Tortoises establish territory and dig burrows where there are ample resources. They’re happy to share if there’s enough for everyone, but if they deem the amount too small, they’ll drive off others.
Tortoises are easy-going creatures that don’t need much to stay calm. However, many things stress out tortoises, including noise, bullying, and over-handling.
This can lead to added aggression as the tortoise tries to relieve its distress. Headbutting and ramming will be an outlet for its frustrations.
7/ Feeling Bored or Frustrated
Tortoises lead simple lives, but they still need fun and enrichment.
If your tortoise is bored, with nothing to explore, climb, or forage for, it’s likely to become aggressive. The tortoise will begin ramming objects, other tortoises, and even the walls of its tank to entertain itself.
It may be trying to escape to find more interesting activities. Glass walls regularly lead to frustration, as the tortoise won’t understand why it can’t get through the invisible barrier.
If this is the case, provide some environmental landscaping. Consider adding plants, hideouts, mounds, or other items for the tortoise to climb on.
Why Does My Tortoise Headbutt Me?
Most tortoises headbutt their owners due to over-handling, food delivery, and frustration.
It may dislike being handled too much and want you to leave it alone for a while. Tortoises don’t mind some handling, but they’re not social animals like cats and dogs.
The tortoise may be eager to receive the food and wants you to put the meal down immediately.
Of course, it could be as simple as breeding aggression or defensiveness if you’re dealing with a tortoise during the mating season. That’ll go away once the tortoise’s hormones calm down.
Can My Tortoise Injure Itself While Headbutting Stuff?
Ramming is a natural behavior that tortoises evolved to display over millions of years. Wild and domesticated tortoises will have the instinct to ram and do so many times throughout their lives.
According to the Mechanics of Materials and Structures, turtle and tortoise shells are specifically shaped and grooved to distribute the impact of ramming. They’ve evolved to ensure this practice doesn’t result in serious damage to themselves.
Headbanging isn’t intended to damage another tortoise permanently. At most, it should be jarring and unpleasant, perhaps resulting in another tortoise getting flipped on its back.
So, a tortoise can’t hurt itself because its shell is thick, strong, and resilient. Shells are made of bone and keratin, with thick plates that offer additional protection. The outer ridge of the shell is designed for ramming, so it’s reinforced.
Tortoises shouldn’t be stopped from ramming. Instead, you should pay attention to what the ramming means. Your tortoise may be in emotional or physical distress, which is its means of expression.
Headbanging or headbutting is a common activity in tortoises, especially in males.