Does your tortoise constantly retreat to a corner of their enclosure? If so, what do they do once they get there? Dig? Scratch? Hunker down? Some of these behaviors may look pretty cute, but might actually be cause for concern, or for immediate change to your tortoise’s habitat.
Why does my tortoise go to the corner? Your tortoise goes to the corner because they are too hot, do not have ample opportunity to dig, or because they are scared or stressed. Once you figure out which of these is true for your tortoise, you can make some changes that will help.
Even though the answer to this question isn’t necessarily a happy one, there is good news as well. A bored, hot, scared, or stressed tortoise is relatively easy to fix. You’ll just need to make some tweaks to your tortoise’s environment and they’ll be happier in no time.
Is My Tortoise Too Hot?
It is quite possible that your tortoise is withdrawing to a corner of their enclosure in a desperate attempt to escape the heat. Tortoises are cold-blooded and will bask to raise their body temperature. They need ample exposure to either indirect sunlight or artificial UV light for key bodily functions such as healthy digestion and vitamin D3 production.
However, excess heat can be harmful to them, especially juveniles, who tend to overheat much faster than adults. Signs of an overheated tortoise include gaping, lethargy, runny nose, drooling or foaming at the mouth, and inability to walk.
In the wild, a tortoise will escape from the heat by finding a patch of shade or burying themselves in the soil. Your captive tortoise’s habitat should not only be kept at the right temperatures, but should also provide similar opportunities for cooling down.
The ideal temperature for your tortoise’s habitat will vary just a bit based on their species. A Mediterranean species of tortoise such as a Greek tortoise, will prefer temperatures that are a few degrees warmer than a European species of tortoise, such as a Horsfield’s tortoise.
You should do some research on the typical high and low temperatures in your tortoise’s natural habitat and then attempt to mimic those temperatures as best you can.
Generally, the temperature in your tortoise’s warm or basking area, should be about 90-100℉ and the cool side of their habitat should be about 75-85℉. Use reliable thermometers on both the basking and cool side of your turtle’s enclosure to monitor their temps. If your tortoise’s cool area is too warm, they may seek relief in a corner.
You can also plant tortoise-safe vegetation in their habitat or use potted plants to provide shade from the sun or the heat of their basking lamp.
Give your tortoise the opportunity to create a scrape or burrow (which is what they might be attempting to create in their corner). A scrape is an area just large enough to protect your tortoise’s head and front end.
A burrow allows them to retreat completely (from extreme temperatures, for example). You can provide your tortie with the opportunity to create either of these retreats by providing dry, sandy substrate with sufficient depth, as well as sloped areas, and good areas to burrow in or under. You can also provide your tortoise with a man-made shelter to escape the heat.
Does My Tortoise Have Ample Digging Opportunity?
As previously mentioned, sometimes a tortoise will repeatedly visit a corner because it is the only area of their enclosure that allows them to dig. Tortoises love to dig and burrow. They will not only dig when they’re too hot, but for other reasons as well, and sometimes just for a bit of fun.
Some species of tortoise brumate, or hibernate, and may bury themselves in order to do so. Species of tortoise that hibernate include Desert Tortoise, Russian Tortoise, Hermann’s Tortoise, and Marginated Tortoise.
If you own one of these species, you may notice them attempting to dig when it’s time for him to brumate. Never attempt to prevent a healthy tortoise from brumating and never dig up a brumating tortoise.
A female tortoise will also attempt to dig when she is pregnant and it is time to lay her eggs. It’s important to mention that a female tortoise can become pregnant even when there is no male tortoise nearby. The difference in this situation is that her eggs will not hatch after she lays them.
Lastly, tortoises will attempt to bury themselves when they feel scared or threatened, which I’ll cover more in the next section. This is natural behavior for a scared or stressed turtle and mimics one of their methods for escaping predators in the wild.
No matter the reason your tortoise feels compelled to dig, you need to provide them with ample opportunity to do so. Again, this means providing them with the right type of substrate, in large enough quantities, or depths, to allow for adequate digging.
If, for some reason, you cannot fill your tortoise’s enclosure with enough substrate to allow for digging, create a mounded area for him in one corner of their habitat, or in a shallow box. Your tortoise can dig into the side of this mound, rather than digging down through the substrate.
You can also add a hide or shelter to your turtle’s environment that is filled with dirt. This isn’t as ideal as an entire habitat full of digging opportunities, but it will suffice.
Is My Tortoise Scared or Stressed?
Lastly, it is also a possibility that a tortoise who repeatedly retreats to a corner is scared or stressed. They are either going to the corner to attempt to dig a hole to hide in, because this is the only area that allows that opportunity, or they are going there because they feel most secure in an area with limited blind spots.
It is especially likely that your tortoise is stressed if they are new to their environment, either because you’ve just brought them home or because you’ve moved them to a new enclosure. Once they feel comfortable in their habitat, and with you, they will most likely stop this behavior.
Things that don’t seem stressful to you or I can really freak out a tortoise. A curious dog or cat, loud music, a strange person’s presence, or a noisy neighbor are all scary to a tort. Changes in their routine or environment can also cause stress.
Perhaps you changed the lighting in the room in which you keep your tortoise, or you’re working a different schedule at the office so their feeding times have been altered. All are stressful.
Handling your tortoise too much, or handing them improperly can also be very stressful. There are times it is necessary to handle or inspect your turtle, but if you notice they’re acting differently, try to give them space for a while.
A cramped habitat can also be a source of stress. Imagine if someone locked you in a bathroom all day! A tortoise who consistently goes to a corner of their habitat and scratches or attempts to climb out may be trying to tell you that their enclosure is too small and they are feeling trapped. Tortoise enclosures should always be as large as possible to allow for adequate stimulation and exercise.
Tortoises are also confused and stressed by glass, as they can see the world beyond the glass but don’t quite understand why they can’t get to it. You should house your tortoise in a solid or opaque enclosure to prevent this.
The best way to remedy your tortoise’s fear or stress is to remove or block its source. Don’t let other pets in the same room as your tortoise, don’t listen to loud music in their presence, or move them to a room where they can’t hear your noisy neighbors.
If you cannot remove the source of your tortoise’s stress altogether, giving them a good place to hide will help. Provide several good hiding spots in their enclosure where they escape and relax. Make these hiding spots your tortoise’s “safe zone” by never attempting to enter them.
You should also be well-versed in the proper ways to handle and interact with your tortoise. Be as gentle as possible when it comes to touching them. Never tap on or scratch a tortoise’s shell, as they are actually quite sensitive. Make sure your movements around them are steady and slow. Speak softly to them.
Lastly, learn to speak your tortoise’s unique language. This is actually pretty fun! First, you can gently touch or “boop” your tortoise’s shell, leg, or head. This behavior shows curiosity and you may be surprised when they “boop” you back.
You can also try bobbing your head at your tortoise. Tortoises will often bob their heads slowly when they are feeling relaxed. You can display this behavior in front of your tortoise to encourage friendliness and calmness.
There are quite a few reasons why your turtle may be hanging out in the corner of their enclosure, but all are fixable. Give your turtle an environment that is kept at the right temperature, allows ample opportunity for digging and hiding, and is quiet and stress-free.