Are Tortoises Social Animals? Can They Be Happy Living Alone?

Tortoises are complex creatures that have become popular as pets in the last few decades. As a tortoise owner, it’s important that we understand their biological needs to give them the best quality of life possible. While this includes providing them with a balanced diet, an appropriate enclosure, and the right lighting, it also means considering are tortoises social animals or do they prefer to be alone?

Are Tortoises Social in the Wild?

In the wild, tortoises are considered to be solitary animals therefore will predominantly exist by themselves, only coming together for breeding. They may gather together in areas with a high density of food, however, they are unlikely to exhibit any social behaviours with one another. In fact, tortoises can be territorial, in which case any negative interactions that occur could result in injury.

are tortoises social animals

Hatching

Lots of research has been done around the development of tortoises within their eggs and the hatching process, and it may not be common knowledge that tortoises will all hatch and leave their nest at the same time. This is so that all the hatchlings have a better chance of survival, and so that they can work together to dig out of the nest. This is all done through communication with one another and is probably the one time in their lives that they are the most social, in order to survive.

Are Some Species More Social Than Others?

While most tortoises are perfectly happy to live solitary lives, certain species are thought to be more social than others. For example, gopher tortoises (Gopherus Polyphemus) create burrows alongside other tortoises which can be referred to as colonies. While they are still classed as solitary animals, they have been reported to interact with their neighbours which is uncommon within other tortoise species. Despite this, it is not common to have a gopher tortoise as a pet.

tortoises can be territorial, in which case any negative interactions that occur could result in injury. Click To Tweet

Red-footed tortoises are also known to exist in colonies and are common pets to have, therefore they could be a good option if you want more than one pet tortoise.

It is also thought that different personality types will also affect how social your tortoise is; a shy tortoise will be less likely to interact with another tortoise, or with their human than one that is considered outgoing.

Social Interactions

Despite the fact that tortoises live alone, there are social behaviours that can, and do, occur both in the wild and in captivity. The two most common social interactions are those to do with aggression or courtship.

Aggression

Aggressive behaviours tend to stem from the territorial nature of tortoises however they can be a result of several different circumstances.

For example, female tortoises that are carrying eggs can become aggressive if they feel the need to protect their space or are feeling threatened. Once they lay their eggs, you may find they also act protective over the nest, too.

Male tortoises are known to fight over food, space, and females. Fights between males often lead to serious injury. In the wild, males are able to move away when challenged however in an enclosure, fights can become a lot more serious if they are unable to escape.

Courtship

Probably the most common social behaviour researched in both captive and wild tortoises, courtship is widely documented in different species and is something you are likely to see as a tortoise owner if you own a male and a female.

Mating behaviours and courtship rituals include head bobbing, various vocalisations, and the male may even bite at the female’s back legs.

So Can I Have More Than One Tortoise?

Although tortoises, like other reptiles, usually live alone, many people still keep more than one tortoise in their tortoise enclosures without any problems at all. If you want to have multiple tortoises, there are some things that you should keep in mind.

Space

As tortoises are known to be territorial, you need to provide enough space that they can move away from one another if they need to. Make sure there are separate houses, different areas for them to be cool, and separate food and water bowls, too.

Never force interactions and let your tortoises interact as much or as little as they want to.

Resources

Not only do you want to provide separate bowls, but make sure that you give enough food that your tortoises won’t fight over a lack of resources. If a tortoise is hungry or thinks that there is no enough food, it can become aggressive with the other tortoise it shares its space with.

This is also true for their basking area, make sure that there is sufficient space under the basking lamp that all of your reptiles can warm up and get the UV rays that they need.

Sex

You should always consider the sex of your pet tortoises before putting them together.

Experts strongly advise against keeping two males together as they will likely become aggressive and cause each other harm.

Similarly, if you keep a male and a female, the male will often give all of their attention to the one female, which can lead to the female feeling stressed and constantly trying to move away from the male. In these scenarios, it’s a good idea to have one male with two females so that his advances are spread between the two.

Alternatively, housing two female tortoises is the best option and is strongly advised if you want to have multiple tortoises in the same enclosure.

Mixing Species

Different tortoise species would rarely interact with each other in the wild therefore it is not recommended to mix species in captivity.

Not only do they have different biological needs, but they also can be carriers of different disease and parasites that can negatively affect other species. For example, a parasite found on a Galapagos tortoise can be healthy and normal, however, the same parasite could cause health problems if found on a red-footed tortoise.

Size

It’s not a good idea to house two tortoises of largely different sizes together. The larger tortoise may become dominant and prevent access to food or water to the other tortoises, or may not allow them to bask adequately. If a fight starts, for whatever reason, the smaller tortoise will likely be worse off and suffer from injuries or could even be killed. If they come out unscathed, it is likely that they will be stressed which can cause further health problems later on.

Try to match the size of your pet tortoises as much as possible to avoid dominance and conflict. If you buy two baby tortoises then, although you can assume they will grow at similar rates, it is difficult to know what sex they are when they are so young, which can cause issues as they grow older if it turns out you have two male tortoises.

Alternatively, buying two adult tortoises of a similar size means that you know the sex of each, but also, as slow-growing reptiles, their size shouldn’t vary too much in their adult years.

What To Look Out For

If you do buy two baby tortoises then you may find that they don’t start showing aggression or dominance until they are a few years old. Similarly, even if you have adult tortoises, these social behaviours may only develop under certain circumstances.

This is why it is important to monitor your tortoises and separate them if you notice any changes in behaviour that could cause harm or stress. There are a few behaviours and changes you can look out for.

  • If your tortoise raises their shell towards another tortoise, this is a sign of dominance and can lead to fighting.
  • Headbutting or hitting their shell against the walls of the enclosure is another sign of dominance.
  • Tortoise beaks are sharp and can cause damage, therefore if one of your tortoises is biting another, check for injuries and separate them if necessary. Males will nip at females during mating however if they do this to a male then it’s a sign of aggression.
  • If your tortoise is not eating or drinking normally, or perhaps they are not coming out to bask during the day, then this could be a sign of stress and you should monitor your tortoise’s interactions more closely to see if there is something to be concerned about.
  • Similarly, if one of your tortoises seems to be hiding a lot, it could be that they are retreating from other tortoises in their enclosure.

If a tortoise of yours begins to show any signs of stress or if it begins fighting with others in the enclosure, then you should be prepared to house it separately to ensure they continue living healthy and happy lives.

Human Interaction

While some tortoise owners are happy to watch their pets with minimal disturbance, others will want to be able to interact with their pet tortoise, and that’s okay too!

This will largely depend on your tortoise’s personality and if you have had them since they were a juvenile, however, some tortoises can enjoy interacting with their humans and will show positive social behaviours towards them.

Touch their shell gently, or slowly nudge their legs so as not to startle them; if they retreat into their shell or try to move away then it’s a good idea to leave them be however some tortoises will respond positively and will let you stroke their shells, legs, or head.

Do Tortoises Get Lonely?

As wild animals that are predominantly solitary creatures, they do not get lonely and are perfectly happy to live a life of solitude. Tortoises are not social creatures and do not need the same social interactions that other animals may need to develop and survive.

Do not feel guilty if you only have one tortoise; they can be happy and healthy individuals as long as you provide them with everything else that they need to thrive.

Can I Introduce Two Tortoises From Different Enclosures?

It is natural for tortoises in the wild to come across other individuals therefore it is safe for you to introduce two of your pet tortoises from separate enclosures as long as they are both healthy. Consider what we mentioned before in regards to their size, species, sex, and personality, and always observe any new interactions closely. Be prepared to intervene if one of your tortoises becomes aggressive and separate them if they become stressed or frustrated.

It’s a great idea to do this in an outdoor enclosure where they have lots of space and can retreat if they need to. You may put them in the same space and find that they don’t interact at all and that is quite normal; don’t force any interactions and let them move around the space as they feel comfortable.

Final Thoughts

While tortoises are not classed as social animals, this doesn’t mean that they can’t co-exist harmoniously when given the proper environment.

However, even when following all of our guidelines, your tortoises may just not get along so be prepared to house them separately and always act in the best interest of your beloved pets.

Do you have more than one tortoise? Are they housed together? Let us know about your experience raising tortoises, we’d love to hear your tips.

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