Have you ever caught your pet turtle staring at you, seemingly emotionless and unblinkingly, through the glass of his tank? It can be a bit unnerving, this feeling of being observed and studied by your little reptile. So, is he hungry or bored? Or is he just enjoying the unique brand of reality “show” he’s currently watching?
Why is my turtle looking at me? Your turtle is looking at you because he recognizes you! Though it takes time, turtles can learn to recognize their caretakers. They associate you with food and safety, and can recognize you by sight, as well as scent and the unique set of sounds you make.
Your turtle may not respond to you in the same way a dog will, but they do have their own unique ways of acknowledging your presence and sometimes even showing affection. Some turtle parents even report that their little friend will swim or walk up to the side of their tank to greet them when they enter the room.
A Turtle’s Memory
One study, published in November of 2019, showed that giant tortoises from the Galapagos and Seychelles Islands, have incredible memory skills. In fact, they were not only capable of learning new tasks, they could also recall what they learned almost ten years later.
In a separate study, red-footed tortoises were trained to associate specific colors with certain foods. A red sheet meant they would be given mango, for example. Each colored sheet was also associated with a different quantity of food. Even after 18 months, the tortoises could still identify each color cue.
Your pet turtle may not have a memory that is quite as long and strong as a tortoise’s, but some of the intelligence of their giant relatives has trickled down into their brains. In one study, scientists developed a procedure for teaching specific tasks to Florida red-bellied cooters.
These turtles were able to remember the tasks they learned for at least seven and a half months.1 In another, much older, study, wood turtles were observed to be just as adept at finding food in a maze as rats were.2
I could cite studies all day, but you get it. Turtles are smart! Much smarter than a lot of people give them credit for.
In another example, various species of box turtles will traverse miles of woods, fields, and streams, and will even cross dangerous roads to return to remembered sources of food and water, as well as mating and nesting spots. If turtles can retain memories such as these for long periods of time, they can certainly get to know you, since you are just as essential to their survival.
How Do We Know That Turtles Recognize Us?
Using their intelligence and memory, turtles will learn to recognize the unique scent, sound, and sight of the person (or people) who care for them. They have subtle ways of demonstrating this recognition and showing their appreciation for you.
First, turtles have well-developed sight and can see better than humans in some regards. Turtles can actually see partial shades of red that are completely invisible to the human eye. They also have an excellent sense of smell, both on land and in the water.
They need this excellent sense of smell in the wild to find food and escape predators. Unfortunately, a turtle’s sense of hearing is a bit lacking. However, they can sense deeper sound frequencies, vibrations, and even changes in air pressure.
Whether you know it or not, you have a scent, as well as a set of vibrations, that are unique to you. And of course your voice and appearance are unique as well. Your turtle uses all of these cues to differentiate you from other humans and get to know you.
You are also the provider of several things your turtle needs to survive: Food, water, shelter, and warmth. For that, they will bestow you with their own unique brand of reptilian gratefulness. So how do you know that your turtle recognizes, trusts, and maybe even likes you?
Some turtle parents report that their pets follow them around or pay special attention to what they are doing, while blatantly ignoring others who do not care for them. Turtles will also become quite comfortable with the person who handles them most.
They learn that they have nothing to fear from that individual, and will allow you to pet and touch them without biting or wriggling from your grasp. If a stranger, such as a veterinarian, attempts to handle the same turtle, however, the turtle may bite. And yes, your pet turtle may stare at you when you are nearby to show his recognition.
Can I Bond With My Turtle?
Recognizing a person and actually “bonding” with them emotionally are two very different things, of course. While turtles don’t have the emotional range of say, a dog, and cannot bond with you in quite the same way man’s best friend can, there are some ways you can get your turtle to like and become attached to you.
In the wild, turtles are solitary animals, rather than pack animals. They tend to keep to themselves and don’t have much need for companionship. Most turtles don’t generally like to be handled and petted by humans, though some enjoy it (the best example being giant tortoises who will sometimes compete for the attention of their handlers).
The best way to initiate a caring, loving bond with your pet turtle is to ensure that he does not fear you. There are correct ways to approach and touch a turtle, if you are going to do so. First, always approach them from the front so you don’t startle or frighten them.
Turtles don’t particularly enjoy being picked up or held away from solid ground. When you do pick up your turtle, he should be held securely with both hands. Place one hand on each side of his shell between his forelimbs and hind limbs. Be very sure not to let him wiggle out of your grasp, a fall could break his shell or a limb, and can even be fatal.
Placing your turtle on the floor or inside a shallow enclosure will make them feel more secure and will allow you to touch them. Start by gently petting the top of your turtle’s head. If he puts his head up, opens his mouth when you touch him, or retreats into his shell, he’s doing his best to tell you to stop.
Once you’ve gained some trust from your pet turtle, try gently touching his chin and cheeks, and massaging his neck. You can also stroke his shell. A turtle’s shell is deceptively sensitive, so be very gentle and be careful not to scratch it.
You can also sit near your turtle and allow him to approach you and even crawl into your lap, if he feels comfortable enough to do so. This allows the two of you to bond on the turtle’s terms and may be a bit less stressful for your pet.
Be patient with your turtle, but persistent. The more you’re around him and the more you demonstrate to him that you are not a threat, the stronger your bond will become.
Make Sure Your Turtle Is Happy
Another obvious way to endear your pet turtle to you is to keep them happy and healthy by providing proper and consistent care.
Be sure that your turtle is kept in an enclosure that gives him ample room to explore and exercise. Keep your aquatic turtle’s water clean, your terrestrial turtle’s terrarium free of waste, and clean their habitat regularly. Provide your turtle with lots of hiding places, toys, and other forms of physical and mental stimulation to keep him occupied and entertained.
Make sure your turtle’s tank is kept at the appropriate temperature and has a basking area. You must also provide a UV light source for your turtle as most captive turtles do not have regular access to sunlight.
Also be sure to feed your turtle the proper diet. This may vary depending on what type of turtle you have. Most turtles are omnivorous and need a diet of both protein (such as whole, live insects and worms) as well as fresh, nutrient-rich vegetables.
Acceptable vegetables for a box turtle, for example, include kale, collards, mustard greens, squash, and bell peppers. You should aim to feed your adult turtle about four or five times per week.
Calcium deficiency is common in captive reptiles, so you should also provide your turtle with the appropriate supplement. Your turtle should also always have access to a shallow dish of clean water.
Turtles possess a surprising amount of brain power and are definitely capable of recognizing and bonding with their owners, especially when handled and cared for properly. If you catch your turtle staring at you, don’t be alarmed, he’s probably just thinking about how awesome you are.