Have you ever touched your tortoise’s shell, or even scratched at it with a soft brush, only to see your tortoise do a wiggly dance? Most tortoise owners find this behavior pretty adorable, but why is your tortoise doing it in the first place?
Why does my tortoise wiggle his bum? Your tortoise is wiggling his bum because they enjoy the scratching or rubbing sensation on their shell. In most cases, tortoises enjoy having their shell scratched or petted. Just keep in mind that this area is very sensitive and should be handled with care.
Read on to learn more about tortoise shells and why they’re so sensitive. We’ll also talk about tortoise tail-wagging, proper tortoise handling, as well as tortoise shell ailments and how you can prevent a dried-out shell by taking proper care of your tortoise.
Tortoises (as well as turtles) have shells that are made up of a carapace (top shell), as well as a plastron (bottom shell). Both parts of a tortoise’s shell are connected to the sides of their body, providing protection to their vital organs. This connection is called the bridge.
Tortoise and turtle shells are comprised of individual sections called scutes. These scutes are made of keratin, which is the same material that makes up human finger and toe nails. Under a tortoise’s scutes lies a layer of epithelium, or surface tissue.
As the tortoise grows, its body produces additional layers of keratin underneath the existing layers, forming “growth rings”. Unlike a tree, you cannot accurately determine a tortoise’s age by counting these rings.
The scutes of certain species of aquatic turtles will shed as the turtle grows, but land turtles and tortoises do not shed their shells like this.
Tortoises and turtles have a lot of nerve endings in their shells. They can feel every pet or scratch you give them. Some tortoises will also respond with happiness when you rub or pet their shells by leaning into the scratch or wiggling their bottom in a little tortoise dance.
Reptile Biologist Matt Evans, previously with the Smithsonian National Zoo Reptile Discovery Center, says, “Tortoises enjoy tactile sensations; rubbing, scratching, that kind of thing.
So when we go in there with them and we’re engaging with them – we’ll kind of rub their shell, scratch their head a bit and when we do that, they extend that neck out and they’ll look like they’re enjoying it a little bit and that’s just something we do to interact with the tortoises on a daily basis.”
Shell Rubbing and Shell Health
Turtles with dry shells or conditions such as shell rot, have been known to rub their shells against rocks in their enclosure, or appear to be doing a wiggly little dance against any rough surface they can find, in an attempt to find some relief.
Proper husbandry is essential for a healthy tortoise shell. Your tortoise’s enclosure should be kept at the proper humidity level, according to their species. Additionally, you need to be sure you feed your tortoise the proper diet, provide them with appropriate supplementation (such as calcium), and keep their tank at the proper temperatures to support healthy shell growth.
Below is a table illustrating the proper humidity level and temperature ranges for several popular species of captive tortoise.
|Basking Spot Temperature
|Cool Side Temperature
|50-60% overall, plus a humidity chamber that is kept at 80%
You can measure the ambient temperatures of your tortoise’s basking and cool areas using digital thermometers. You should also invest in an infrared thermometer to measure the surface temperature of your tortoise’s basking spot. The humidity level in your tortoise’s habitat can be measured using a tool called a hygrometer.
Improper conditions, such as excessively high humidity levels, temperatures that are kept too low, and poor nutrition, can contribute to a condition called shell rot. Your tortoise can also contract this condition if they scratch or chip their shell, so be sure to remove items from their habitat that could harm their shells.
The symptoms of shell rot include foul-smelling discharge from the infected area, reddish fluid under your tortoise’s scutes, softening or lifting of the scutes, soft areas or pitting on the surface of the shell, and shell plates falling off, leaving your tortoise’s bony tissue exposed.
If you suspect that your tortoise has shell rot, call a licensed reptile or exotic veterinarian immediately.
Proper Handling of Your Tortoise and Their Shell
Always keep in mind that tortoise shells are sensitive to pain and damage and must be handled with care outside of your tortoise’s enclosure as well.
The best way to pick up a tortoise is to do so using both your hands, with one on each side of the tortoise’s shell. Place your hands somewhere in the middle of your tortoise’s front and back legs and hold them tightly but gently. Tortoises can wiggle and are quite adept at freeing themselves, so it’s important never to pick them up using just one hand.
Avoid tapping on your tortoise’s shell, and never strike your tortoise against another surface. This can cause stress to your tortoise, injure their shell, and create an abrasion that may lead to shell rot. Never place your tortoise on an elevated surface as they could fall off and chip, dent, or scratch their shell.
You should never allow other household pets to interact with your tortoise. Many a well-meaning dog has grabbed a tortoise in their mouths, injuring the tortoise’s shell.
You can gently stroke your tortoise’s shell in slow circles or by running your fingers in a straight line along its length. You can also rub your tortoise’s shell with a toothbrush or other soft-bristled brush that isn’t rough enough to cause irritation. Never use any sort of micro-scrubber. It will feel like sandpaper to your tort.
Regular bathing is recommended for many species of captive tortoise. Baths given once every couple of weeks will ensure that your tortoise stays hydrated, as they tend to drink their bath water.
These baths will also allow you to remove dirt and that can build up on your tortoise’s skin and shell. Baths provide an excellent opportunity for rubbing and scrubbing your tortoise’s shell after you’ve used warm water to soften built-up dirt.
When you do bathe your tortoise, make sure the water is the proper temperature (between 85-95°F). Use a thermometer to help you determine the temperature of your tortoise’s bath water, and don’t leave your tortoise in the water after it gets too cool. You’ll want to let them soak for about 10-20 minutes and then remove them from the water.
Lastly, be sure to wash your hands before and after handling your tortoise, every time.
Tortoise Tail Wagging
In addition to wiggling their bums, you might also see your tortoise wagging its tail from time to time. Unlike a dog, this doesn’t necessarily indicate that your tortoise is happy to see you (though of course they probably are).
There are a few scenarios in which a tortoise will wag their tail, and two of them have to do with courtship and mating. Walter Auffenberg, a Zoologist with the University of Florida, studied tortoise behavior and wrote a paper detailing his observations in 1977.
He noted that a male tortoise’s tail is sometimes used to maintain their balance when mounting a female, and can also be used as a tactile device during courtship. Therefore, your tortoise’s wagging tail may be a sign that he is ready to find a mate.
Other times, a tortoise tail that appears to be wagging is just a function of how your tortoise walks, or of their gait. As your tortoise “lumbers” back and forth, and it’s tail just so happens to wag in harmony with this movement.
A waggly tail may also mean that your tortoise is preparing to relieve themself. Many tortoise owners have witnessed this behavior just before their tortoise has a bowel movement.
Tortoise’s have been known to wiggle their bums as a sign of delight at being rubbed or scratched. They may also wag their tails when they are ready to mate… or poop.
It is perfectly safe to rub and brush your tortoise’s shell, as long as you do it gently. Never place your turtle on an elevated surface that they could fall off of, as this could do irreparable damage to their shell. Additionally, do not allow other household pets, such as dogs, to interact with your tortoise, as they can accidentally scratch or puncture their shells.
You can also contribute to the health of your tortoise’s shell by keeping their enclosure at the proper humidity level and temperature, and feeding your tortoise a well-balanced, well-supplemented diet.