Tortoises might be one of the slowest-moving animals, but their movements are far from boring. You can tell a lot about a tortoise by studying how it moves.
Like most four-legged creatures, tortoises walk forward – often covering several kilometers per day. Their anatomy allows them to walk backward, but it’s not something you’ll see often. If you see your tortoise walking backward often, it might feel threatened, constricted, or unwell.
Overly small enclosures, threatening environments, unsuitable habitats, and disease can cause tortoises to walk backward. That said, it’s normal for them to reverse occasionally.
How Do Tortoises Move?
Tortoises travel at about 0.2–0.5 km per hour, so they’re slow-moving reptiles.
They’ll walk many kilometers in the wild to find food and mate. According to HAL, tortoises pause regularly on long journeys, taking cover in bushes to avoid overheating. Indeed, a tortoise will avoid body temperatures over 35 degrees Celsius as these can become deadly.
Tortoises are most active during Springtime, whereas they may brumate during winter (depending on the species).
Although docile and seemingly slow, inactivity is important for tortoises to stay healthy.
The best term to describe how a tortoise moves is simply walking. According to Science Direct, a tortoise has four legs and moves forward in the same way that many four-legged mammals walk.
While some mammals, like horses, have multiple gaits (trot, gallop, walk), tortoises seem to have just one gait (walking sequence).
They can, of course, speed up their walking, but the gait sequence does not change. And in any case, a tortoise can only move so fast. Tortoises can’t run in the true sense of the word; they’re built to retreat in the face of danger rather than flee.
Reasons for Tortoises Walking Backward
There are four key reasons why you might find your tortoise walking backward. To understand which one applies, ask yourself: How often is my tortoise walking backward?
If the answer is “every day,” then this suggests that something may be wrong with your tortoise’s enclosure or perhaps even its health. Here are the reasons why tortoises walk backward:
1/ Feeling Under Threat
It’s not unusual for a tortoise to walk backward if it feels threatened – walking backward can sometimes be used as an escape route.
When under serious threat, most tortoises will hide in their shells. But they might also creep backward to avoid threats like dogs, foxes, other small animals, and new people.
As explained by RVC, having a hard shell is often not enough to feel protected from a predator. That’s why tortoises may also try to retreat backward away from danger.
That said, a tortoise will usually reverse backward to escape a threat if the threat is at a distance (leaving time to escape) or if the tortoise believes it can retreat backward into a hiding place.
So, if you see your tortoise walking backward, consider if anything is threatening in the environment. Threats might include:
- New furniture (or decorations)
- Things moved around in the enclosure
- Bugs (outside)
- Changes in temperature
2/ Limited Space to Turnaround
Tortoises might start walking backward if they don’t have enough space to turn around comfortably.
According to The College of Veterinary Medicine, tortoises need plenty of space to roam, and unfortunately, some pet owners don’t appreciate quite how much space tortoises need.
Tortoises walk for miles in the wild, so providing enough space is vital. Enclosures with narrow, sharp corners will make it difficult for your tortoise to turn around comfortably, especially if its shell is larger.
In this case, reversing to turn might feel easier for your pet. Although this maneuver might look easy, it’s a sign that you should provide more space for your tortoise.
Similarly, if you see your tortoise circling in its enclosure (see below), this is a surefire sign that your tortoise needs more space.
3/ Digging and Burrowing
According to Exotic Direct, many tortoises like to burrow. When a tortoise is busy making a burrow, it can look like it’s moving backward into the earth.
When burrowing, tortoises tend to edge backward, pushing soil/substrate forward with their front arms. They’ll edge further and further backward as they get deeper.
If your tortoise has a very shallow layer of substrate, you might find it clumsily burrowing, which could look like walking backward.
You may need to provide more substrate and hiding spaces for your tortoise to feel comfortable.
Hermann’s tortoises, in particular, like to burrow and have been known to burrow 24 inches deep. Tortoises burrow to hibernate, escape predators, regulate their temperature, and more – so try to facilitate this natural behavior.
Diseases that make your tortoise feel unstable could lead to physical imbalance and stumbling backward. In this case, you might see additional symptoms like:
- Runny nose
- Sunken/swollen eyes
- Labored breathing
- Soft shell
- Changes in weight
Diseases are hard to spot in tortoises, so if you have even the slightest concern about the health of your tortoise, you should contact your vet immediately.
Why Do Tortoises Circle?
According to CDN Science, tortoises, like many herbivores, walk long distances daily because they have an inbuilt desire to graze on diverse plants and weeds, so they must travel to find these.
Tortoises need ample space to roam in captivity, or they’ll likely become bored.
Pet tortoises might start circling if their enclosure is too small. This is because they’re trying to engage in their natural walking/grazing behavior.
Some tortoises might circle because they can see through the glass of their vivarium, making them believe that they can keep walking much further than is possible.
This can be rectified by covering the bottom of the glass so that the tortoise feels more enclosed. Even then, a tortoise may continue circling to engage in its natural behavior.
That is why giving your tortoise as much space as possible is one of the kindest things you can do. You can also hide its food throughout its enclosure, encouraging it to “graze” for nourishment.
Should I Stop My Tortoise from Walking Backward?
If your tortoise is walking backward, it’s not a good idea to pick it up and change its direction (unless there’s a hazard in the way).
According to Anapsid, most tortoises don’t appreciate being picked up, and it can cause damage to pick a tortoise up if you don’t take the proper precautions.
Rather than intervening, try to understand why your tortoise is walking backward. If it’s due to an external threat or limited space, you can improve the conditions for the tortoise.
Is It Normal for Tortoises to Walk Backward?
Tortoises can walk backward, which isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. That said, if you regularly see your tortoise walking backward, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does my tortoise have enough space to walk and turn around comfortably?
- Is my tortoise able to burrow/hide away when desired?
- Are there any threats in my tortoise’s environment?
- Are there any signs of disease in my tortoise? (Runny nose, labored breathing, weight loss, etc.)
Answering these questions should help to pinpoint if the backward walking is a problem (and, if so, what’s causing it).
Keeping your tortoise in an enclosure too small is the leading cause of walking backward (and circling). Thus, if you see this behavior a lot, you might need a bigger enclosure.