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can a tortoise walk backwards?

Why Is My Tortoise Walking Backwards?

Tortoises are capable of walking backwards. Their joints are designed to take them backwards, forwards, and from side to side.

The only time a tortoise can’t back up is when it’s turning a corner. Tortoises also can’t walk backwards quickly, but they don’t need to since they can hide in their shell if they’re fearful.

Walking backwards is a natural motor skill that your tortoise develops as it grows. Tortoises back up to get around barriers, retreat from predators, and keep themselves calm in scary environments.

They also back up to ram other tortoises during fights or courting behavior. Tortoises laying eggs need to back up, and baby tortoises will go backwards as their joints develop.

In rare cases, your tortoise may go backwards instead of moving forwards. This can indicate a neurological disorder or weak limbs, such as sickness, age, or disease.

You can help your tortoise strengthen itself by offering it climbing toys and fun barriers to dodge around. Backing up is natural for a tortoise, but it should primarily walk forwards.

Can A Tortoise Walk Backwards?

Walking backwards is a natural motor skill that tortoises develop to avoid danger and get out of difficult situations.

When faced with adversity, your tortoise will take a step or two back before retreating into its shell for protection. Some tortoises also prefer to retreat backwards into their burrows and hiding spots instead of going in head-first. This allows them to clearly see what’s in front of them so that they can watch out for danger. It also keeps their mouth facing toward, so they can bite if necessary.

The only instance where a tortoise cannot walk backwards is while turning around a bend. Tortoises are not flexible enough to move in reverse after maneuvering around a corner. There’s a high chance they will flip over, which is more likely to happen when the turn is awkward.

According to the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, many tortoise species have difficulty turning themselves over from their backs. For this reason, they will try to avoid these precarious situations.

Even though tortoises can walk backwards, they cannot do so at high speeds. That’s because they don’t have webbed feet that help them navigate various terrains quickly. Tortoises are slow-moving animals with a rather clumsy demeanor. Their round, stumpy feet do not help matters. Nonetheless, taking a step back or two remains an effective survival tactic for these shelled animals.

Reasons For Tortoise Walking Backwards

A tortoise walking backwards might seem like a weird or funny spectacle. However, this behavior is normal, and it shouldn’t be a cause of concern.

Response To Barriers

According to Acta Ethologica, walking backwards is a skill that tortoises learn and develop to cope with dense vegetation in the wild. In essence, tortoises move backwards as a behavioral response to various barriers and obstacles along their path. Even though tortoises are slow-moving, they are persistent wanderers. Rather than getting stuck forever, you will find your tortoise backing up to get a better angle on a barrier.

This is still important for pet tortoises. For instance, your tortoise may get stuck in dense vegetation or a fence. That could make it vulnerable to threats like dehydration, overheating, and predatory attacks. The only way the tortoise can free itself is by walking backwards.

tortoise walking backwards

Defense Mechanism

Walking backwards is a natural defense mechanism that tortoises use to evade predators and suspected threats. Most tortoises like to dig burrows in the soil that act as hiding spots.

When facing danger, the tortoises will walk backward and enter any of these burrows in reverse instead of going in head-first. If the burrows are far away from the tortoise’s current location, then the tortoise will step back and retreat into its shell.

Weak Limbs

A tortoise’s limbs could be weak because of illness, old age, or poor diet. If it lacks the strength to push itself forward, it may be easier to make its legs take it backward.

You can help strengthen the legs of your tortoise by providing it with a healthy diet of fresh plants. You should allow the tortoise to bask in the sun more regularly, so it can absorb essential vitamins required for stronger bones and muscles. The terrain of the enclosure should be mixed to give your pet tortoise a good workout.


If a male tortoise wants to engage a female during mating season, it will perform a series of actions, like head bobbing and shell ramming. A few of these sexual displays involve walking backwards and standing on its hind legs. This lets the tortoise show off its prowess while also getting a better angle to mount the female.


Shell ramming is also common with male tortoises in combat. The tortoises involved in the brawl have to take a few steps backwards before ramming into their opponents.

Egg Laying

Scooting backwards is a common habit with egg-laying females. Before laying her eggs, the tortoise will dig a hole in the substrate to serve as a nest. When the time comes to lay her eggs, she will back up and deposit the eggs into the moist burrow. However, tortoises don’t care for their young.

Developing Joints

Walking backwards is especially common in baby tortoises. That’s because their limbs are still weak and their joints are developing. They may struggle to find a solid grip on different surfaces. To ensure better footing, they will prefer backing up instead of moving forward.

You can help the baby tortoises develop stronger joints with exercise. Start by placing various obstacles and barriers in the enclosure so the babies are forced to climb. This will force the tortoises to walk backwards as they look for alternative routes.

New To The Environment

Your tortoise will also walk backwards if you approach it abruptly and unexpectedly. This is particularly true if the tortoise is relatively new to your home or in unfamiliar territory. It will prefer to keep its eyes forward and its back toward a safe area, like a burrow or corner of the tank.


With that said, in serious cases, walking backwards continuously and persistently could mean that your tortoise has a neurological disorder. The development of gross motor skills in all animals involves the brain. If your tortoise is backing up more often than normal, then it may have something wrong with its cognitive function.

You can tell there’s a problem when your adult tortoise walks backward more often than forward. A healthy, calm tortoise should avoid backing up when it’s traveling or foraging for food.

Is Walking Backwards Natural In Tortoises?

Like most animals, tortoises can move forward or backwards effortlessly without any challenges. They develop this natural motor skill as they grow.

From an evolutionary point of view, tortoises wouldn’t exist if they did not have a way to walk backward. These shelled animals face many obstacles and predators, especially in the wild. Their ability to retreat comes in handy as a survival tactic, both for navigating and escaping.

It’s not a tortoise’s main or preferred way of getting around. Your tortoise will only walk backwards a few steps when it is suspicious about something in its enclosure. It may also walk backwards if it is stuck and wants to get out of a tight spot. If your tortoise backs up constantly, you should reach out to a vet.