Last Updated on January 30, 2024 by Samantha Harris
Wild tortoises, especially young ones, spend most of their time burrowing and hiding underground.
For some tortoises, digging is just fun and recreation. Like climbing, tortoises are driven to behave this way and may spend many contented hours digging up or rearranging substrate.
As solitary animals, tortoises like time alone. Tortoises often seek a private space like a burrow to be safe from predators and other threats.
Many tortoises in the wild bury themselves to avoid extreme heat and stay warm when the temperature is too cold. As burrowing also leads to darkness, these adjustments in light and temperature can make it easier for a tortoise to sleep or brumate.
Gravid tortoises will also dig a nest to lay eggs. This won’t be a deep hole. Upon hatching, baby tortoises need to be able to emerge from this hole by themselves.
Tortoises leave a thin wall over their burrows that allows oxygen to enter. Unless brumating, the tortoise usually emerges from a burrow at daybreak and returns to its hiding place when the sun sets.
Do All Tortoises Burrow?
All tortoises are unique, and their behavior depends upon various factors, including species, age, temperament, and living arrangements. There’s no single attribute that can be applied to all tortoises.
One activity enjoyed by most tortoise species is a desire to dig and create burrows. That could involve concealing itself under the substrate or digging holes in the backyard.
This activity comes naturally to most tortoises and is a form of exercise, so it’s seldom concerning, especially if it emerges from its burrow during daylight hours.
Be mindful if a captive tortoise hides excessively in a burrow, refusing to emerge.
This suggests the tortoise is stressed by something in its environment. The exception to this is a baby tortoise, which spends up to 22 hours a day sleeping underground.
Baby tortoises haven’t yet developed a hard shell, making them susceptible to predation. Most of a tortoise’s first year involves sleeping in a burrow or under the substrate.
Why Does My Tortoise Burrow?
Sometimes, a tortoise finds it fun to dig holes. As tortoises don’t play with toys, spend time with other tortoises, or regularly engage with owners, they do things to keep themselves occupied.
If a tortoise burrows under the substrate of its habitat or likes to make holes in your yard, one of the following explanations is likely to apply:
Safety and Privacy
Tortoises are solitary animals that value their privacy.
A burrow is a great way to escape the attention of others in the wild, who may otherwise engage in territorial conflict, and to avoid interacting with humans if they want to be left alone.
Burrowing provides a tortoise with a secure space to hide from predators. Snakes, lizards, and birds of prey are common enemies of wild tortoises. Heading underground enables tortoises to stay safe.
Tortoises will also seek this safety in captivity. Even if a pet tortoise lives in an enclosure, it could be stressed and frightened by the presence of a cat, dog, or unfamiliar human.
By burrowing, the tortoise takes an “out of sight, out of mind” approach. It’ll reemerge when it has calmed down and considers the terrain above ground level safe.
Sleep and Hibernation
Healthy adult tortoises spend roughly 12 hours of their day awake and the other 12 hours sleeping. Tortoises are naturally diurnal, meaning they prefer to be active by day and sleep at night.
Do tortoises bury themselves to sleep or doze in the open? In most cases, a tortoise will cover itself when sleeping or find refuge in a secluded place.
This privacy is paramount during the winter, when a tortoise may enter brumation.
If a tortoise opts to brumate, it’ll bury itself for 8 – 12 weeks at the coldest time of year. Most tortoises start to brumate in November or December and emerge in February.
The table explains which tortoises do and don’t brumate.
|Hibernating Tortoise Species
|Non-Hibernating Tortoises Species
|Berlandier’s tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri)
|Indian star tortoise (Geochelone elegans)
|Desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii)
|Leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis)
|Gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)
|Radiated tortoises (Astrochelys radiata)
|Greek tortoise (Testudo graeca)
|Red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria)
|Berlandier’s tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri)
|Sulcata tortoise (Chelonoidis denticulata)
|Marginated tortoise (Testudo marginata)
|Yellow-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis denticulata)
|Russian tortoise (Agrionemys horsfieldii)
If a tortoise doesn’t brumate, ensure it emerges from its burrow at least once daily. Failure to do so will make it hard to thermoregulate, hydrate, or gain nutrients from food.
Burrowing enables a tortoise to escape heat or to remain warm when temperatures drop. According to Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology, this is particularly common among desert tortoises.
As ecotherms, tortoises need sunshine and rely on the sun’s rays to warm their bodies enough to flourish. However, tortoises can overheat if temperatures exceed 100°F.
Tortoises can struggle to stay warm enough when the sun sets, especially outside. Any temperature below 50°F is dangerous for a tortoise, so desert tortoises instinctively burrow.
In the Mojave desert, which is host to the desert tortoise, temperatures peak at up to 140°F in the mid-afternoon and drop as low as 8°F overnight.
Captive tortoises frequently have a warm and cool side (thermal gradient). However, tortoises may instinctively burrow under the substrate during the year’s warmest and coldest months.
A gravid tortoise will burrow to create a nest, allowing her to prepare to lay eggs safely. Be aware of this possibility if a burrowing tortoise is female and spends time with other tortoises.
Tortoises display unusual behaviors when gravid, especially before laying eggs. These can include:
- Loss of appetite coupled with unexplained weight gain.
- Restlessness and an increased desire to climb and escape boundaries.
- Acts of aggression, especially toward other female torts in the vicinity.
- Mounting other tortoises to assert dominance.
A gravid tortoise seeking a burrow as a nest will find a warm, sunny location with soft ground and dig a chamber of a few inches. Usually, this will be the size of the tortoise’s legs at full stretch.
A tortoise will lay eggs in this makeshift burrow and cover it again, ensuring no rival tortoise or predator will notice the disturbed ground and attack.
However, after laying eggs, a tortoise shows no further interest in her offspring.
How Deep Do Tortoises Burrow?
The depth of a tortoise burrow varies according to the purpose of the digging.
A nesting tortoise will only dig as deep as her legs. Equally, a tortoise may dig a small hole deep enough to cover its shell as camouflage.
If a tortoise is actively digging a burrow to go deeper underground, these can be as deep as 8 feet and may stretch for as long as 30 feet. This depends on the tortoise’s age, strength, and species.
A tortoise that needs protection from extreme weather or is concerned about its safety will dig much deeper. If a tortoise is looking for privacy and darkness, it’ll be content with a shallow hole.
How Do Tortoises Breathe Underground?
Burrowing is an instinctive behavior for most tortoise species, born of a desire for safety and self-preservation. Thus, tortoises know how to breathe underground.
Don’t worry because your tortoise is not at risk of suffocation.
Burrowing tortoises usually dig at a 45-degree angle. This allows them to get deeper underground while still enjoying a slope that makes it easy to access and exit the burrow.
Once the digging is complete, the tortoise creates a thin ‘dirt wall’ as a door.
This should help mask the entrance to the burrow, but it’ll be light enough for a tortoise to walk through. Also, it won’t prevent oxygen from entering the shelter.
The same applies if a pet tortoise buries itself under the substrate. It will always leave enough loose substrate to make breathing easy and allow ease of movement.
Do Tortoises Eat and Hydrate While Underground?
If a tortoise has burrowed itself underground, it won’t take food and water resources along with it.
This is why most tortoises prefer to burrow in the late afternoon and emerge in the morning. This allows the tortoise time to graze for food and hydrate.
A tortoise that’s about to brumate shouldn’t eat. Tortoises prepare themselves for this period of inactivity in advance, so ensure they have fat reserves to survive up to 14 weeks of brumation.
As baby tortoises have minimal fat reserves, avoid brumating one younger than 2 or 3 years old. Maintain sufficient heat and light to keep the tortoise active.
A waking adult can survive for months without eating, although it’ll be concerning for a tortoise to lose its appetite to this extent. Tortoises shouldn’t go more than 48 hours without drinking water.
How To Get A Tortoise Out of its Burrow
A tortoise should never be pulled or scared out of its burrow.
If you’re concerned about a tortoise spending too much time underground, coax it out. Don’t force the tortoise out by putting your hand in the burrow because it can cause significant stress.
Food can entice a tortoise to leave its burrow, especially when the sun shines. Leave a favorite snack at the entrance and take a few steps back so the tortoise wants to emerge for its meal.
If a tortoise has been disinterested in food for several days and you’re sure it’s not brumating, use a hairdryer on a low setting to apply mild heat to the burrow to motivate it to move.
Usually, burrowing and digging are instinctive behaviors for most tortoise species.