understanding turtle behavior

Enhancing Your Understanding of Turtle Behaviors

Turtles are fascinating creatures that have been around for millions of years. From small box turtles to giant sea turtles, they come in all shapes and sizes. With their sluggish movements and slow pace of life, turtles can seem laid back and uninterested in the world around them. However, there is more to a turtle’s behavior than meets the eye. As a pet owner, understanding the behavior of your reptilian companion can be an intimidating task. From their shell to their intricate diets, turtles are a unique species with behaviors that require close observation and knowledge. It is important to be aware of some basic principles of turtle behavior in order to ensure your pet’s overall health and happiness. In this article, we will discuss the different ways you can enhance your understanding of turtle behaviors to ensure your pet has the best experience possible.

How Turtles Behave?

  • An unhappy turtle becomes very lazy in its conduct. It will withdraw into its shell, physically and emotionally. It will remain quietly unobtrusive for minutes or even hours.
  • Semi-aquatic turtles like to swim and to bask. When swimming, they look busy but synchronized. They may take a few minutes out from swimming to rest quietly on the bottom of their tank or to walk slowly along searching for prey.
  • Turtles often like to climb up and over a rock or log, even when they could easily walk around the obstacle.

Feeding Habits of turtles:

Turtles have excellent vision and apparently an acute sense of smell as well. And this helps the turtles to make their food. Turtles are known to find their food primarily by vision and if they like to eat some vegetable, then they may use their smelling power. North American wood turtles find their earthworm meal by “stomping.” For doing so, they raise the shell high above the ground on extended legs, then collapse against the moist earth. The vibrations from this apparently induce earthworms to surface, and there the tortoise can easily eat them.


It may be noted that all turtles nest on land. Females are very much sure about finding the needed amount of ground moisture and temperature when searching for a nesting site. Some of the turtle species gather together a mound of vegetation for the nesting site. Although some turtles choose to dig a body pit with the forelimbs, the nest itself is dug with the hindfoot.

Social Behavior of the turtles:

Sea turtles are not generally considered social animals; however, some species do congregate offshore. Sea turtles gather together to mate. Members of some species travel together to nesting grounds. After hatchlings reach the water they generally remain solitary until they mate. Turtles are known for their independent nature and solitary behavior, however, they can also be quite social creatures. Social behavior in turtles is typically seen when they congregate in large groups or share a food source. In these interactions, turtles have developed a variety of ways to communicate with each other. When turtles are together in large groups, they will often interact by vocalizing and head bobbing. This helps them to establish dominance and recognize each other as part of the same group. Additionally, some species of turtle may show more complex social behaviors such as cooperative foraging or shell jousting which is an aggressive display meant to demonstrate strength between individuals.

Individual Behavior of the turtles:

Turtles are fascinating creatures with unique behavior patterns that can be seen in the wild and in captivity. Researchers have studied the individual behavior of turtles and found that it varies depending on species, geography, habitat, and other factors. The individual behavior of turtles starts with their feeding habits. Some species are omnivores while others are strictly herbivorous or carnivorous. Regardless of their diet type, turtles generally search for food close to their homes, and they prefer to stay in an area where food is readily available. This means that when a turtle moves out of its home range, it risks going hungry if there’s not enough food around. Aside from feeding habits, researchers also observed how turtles interact with each other. Male turtles often compete for mates by engaging in fights with rival males or displaying courtship behaviors like head-bobbing or throat-puffing. Little is known about the individual behavior of sea turtle species. In the ocean, flatback turtles may spend hours at the surface floating, apparently asleep or basking in the sun. Frequently, seabirds perch on the backs of the flatbacks. Hawksbill turtles spend some time resting or sleeping wedged into coral or rock ledges. Olive ridleys have been observed basking on beaches, and it is not unusual to see thousands of olive ridleys floating in front of the nesting beaches. Leatherback turtles tend to dive in a cycle that follows the daily rising and sinking of the dense layer of plankton and jellyfish. The turtles probably feed in the upper layers of water at night. As dawn approaches, their dives become deeper as the plankton and jellyfish retreat to deeper water, away from the light of day. The turtles bask at the surface at midday when the layer sinks beyond their typical driving range. As dusk approaches, the turtles’ dives become shallower as the layer rises. Green sea turtles are considered solitary, but occasionally form feeding aggregations in shallow waters abundant in seagrass or algae.Hawksbill and green turtles often return to rest in the same spot each night.

FreshWater Turtle Behavior:

Freshwater turtles are reptiles, like snakes, crocodiles and lizards. Like other reptiles, they are ectothermic, or “cold-blooded”, meaning that their internal temperature matches that of their surroundings. They also have scaly skin, enabling them, as opposed to most amphibians, to live outside of water. Also like many reptile species, turtles lay eggs (they are oviparous). But what makes them different from other reptiles is that turtles have a shell. This shell, composed of a carapace in the back and a plastron on the belly, is made of bony plates. These bones are covered by horny scutes made of keratin (like human fingernails) or leathery skin, depending on the species. All Canadian freshwater turtles can retreat in their shells and hide their entire body except the Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina). This shell is considered perhaps the most efficient form of armor in the animal kingdom, as adult turtles are very likely to survive from one year to the next. Indeed, turtles have an impressively long life for such small animals. For example, the Blanding’s Turtle can live for more than 70 years! Most other species can live for more than 20 years.

There are about 320 species of turtles throughout the world, inhabiting a great variety of terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems on every continent except Antarctica and its waters. In Canada, eight native species of freshwater turtles (and four species of marine turtles) can be observed. Another species, the Pacific Pond Turtle (Clemmys), is now Extirpated, having disappeared from its Canadian range. Also, the Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) has either such a small population that it is nearly Extirpated, or the few individuals found in Canada are actually pets released in the wild. More research is needed to know if these turtles are still native individuals. Finally, the Red-eared Slider (Trachemys), has been introduced to Canada as released pets and, thus, is not a native species.

Our freshwater turtles come in a variety of shapes, colors and sizes. In some species, adult males are smaller than adult females, or the reverse, but most species show very little sexual dimorphism, so males and females are almost identical. Typically, freshwater turtles are smaller than their marine counterparts and their looks are more varied. They have adapted and are specialized to live in a great variety of habitats, and so can look quite different from one species to the next. Two of our most distinctive-looking turtles are probably the Common Snapping Turtle – and the Spiny Softshell (Triony). While these two species are the largest freshwater turtles in Canada, they have very different looks. The softshell is primarily aquatic, making its flat, soft shell necessary for hiding in the mud at the bottom of the water. Also, its long neck and pointy snout makes it easier to breathe while staying almost completely underwater. The prehistoric-looking Snapping Turtle is also mostly aquatic, but the fact that it cannot withdraw in its shell and its diet has given this species a long neck and very strong jaw to defend itself and forage.

Habitat and Habits of freshwater turtles:

Freshwater turtles are active in Canada, from April to October. Turtles become active in the spring when water and air temperatures go above 15 to 20°C. Spotted Turtles are among the first freshwater turtles to become active in the spring. During its activity period, a typical freshwater turtle’s day is divided between resting, basking and foraging. Basking is the behavior that turtles, and other reptiles, exhibit when they are resting in the sun, either out of the water or just at the surface. This helps regulate their bodies’ temperature (as they are ectothermic), is beneficial to their skin and shells, and speeds up their metabolism. While most turtles are diurnal (active during the day), the Common Snapping Turtle and the Eastern Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus), or Stinkpot, may be looking for food during the night.

Freshwater turtles can be found in a great variety of habitats, including most wetlands (even inhospitable bogs!), lakes and rivers. Still, most prefer shallow waters and slow currents, with soft mud at the bottom and aquatic vegetation where they can hide. One exception is the Wood Turtle (Glyptemy), which prefers hard substrate and clear waters. Not all freshwater turtles are good swimmers, so a substrate on which they can walk at the bottom of the water, is a necessary element for some species.

But even if they are recognized as aquatic animals, all freshwater turtles rely on land for their survival. Indeed, they all need to come out of water for greater or lesser periods of time, depending on the species. Some only come on land to lay their eggs and remain in water for the rest of the year. This is the case for the Eastern Musk Turtle and the Common Snapping Turtle. The Spiny Softshell, which is also well adapted to aquatic life, can even absorb oxygen dissolved in the water through its skin! Others, like the Painted Turtle and the Map Turtle (Graptemys geographica), will come out on logs or rocks daily in the summertime to bask. But some species, even if they do still need access to water for periods of their life cycle, can spend a larger period of their time on land. This is the case of the Wood Turtle, which inhabits woodlands, farmlands and grasslands not too far from water for much of its activity period. This species is considered the most terrestrial of our turtles, but the Blanding’s Turtle and the Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) may also be observed wandering out of the water, close to the shoreline, especially in the spring. The Blanding’s turtle may even travel long distances on land to go from a wetland to another, or to reach their nesting site.

Range of Freshwater Turtles:

Freshwater turtles occur in every Canadian province except Newfoundland and Labrador. They are absent from every territory, since the winters are too long for these reptiles to thrive. Most species are restricted to southern Ontario (where all species can be observed) and Québec, while two others can also be found in the Maritimes or in southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Only one species can be found from coast to coast, the Painted Turtle. It has the widest distribution in Canada. Its eastern subspecies is found in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, its midland subspecies, in southern Ontario and Québec, and its western subspecies, in central and western Ontario all the way to British Columbia.

Feeding Process of Turtles:

Unlike most other reptiles, turtles do not have teeth. They rely on their powerful jaws, strong horny beaks and front claws to seize and tear apart their food. If the morsels are small enough, they may swallow them whole, but if not, they will chew them with their beaks and jaws. Our freshwater turtles are omnivorous: they eat both plant and animal material, in different ratios according to the species or the age of the individuals. Globally, a turtle’s diet includes aquatic and terrestrial plants, invertebrates like snails, slugs, earthworms, crayfish and insects, and even vertebrates like fish, amphibians and other turtles in some cases. Some consume more plant material, like the Wood Turtle, while others have a more carnivorous diet, like the Common Snapping Turtle, which mostly scavenges for dead prey. Most freshwater turtles forage only underwater, lying in ambush in the mud waiting or actively seeking prey. Others, like the Blanding’s Turtle and the Wood Turtle, are able to catch food on land as well. Indeed, the Wood Turtle is thought by some to trample their feet on the ground, emulating the sound of rainfall, to get earthworms to come out of the ground and catch them.

Breeding process of Turtles:

Breeding begins at sexual maturity, when the turtles are between 10 and 20 years old, depending on the species. This process starts as soon as spring arrives, and the courtship between males and females can happen at any time until the fall. Mating occurs underwater, and the eggs contained within the females are then fertilized. In some species, females can store sperm from a given male to fertilize later clutches, sometimes years after the fact! Females of several freshwater turtle species have also been known to be able to produce clutches fathered by several different males at the same time.

When they are ready to lay their eggs, females dig their nests in the sand or the earth near their aquatic habitats. Between five (for the Spotted Turtle) and 100 (for the Common Snapping Turtle) eggs are then laid, and are often covered by the female using her hind legs. Except for the Wood Turtle and the Spiny Softshell, it’s the temperature in the nest, during the incubation, which determines whether a hatchling will be male or female. Higher temperatures will cause more females to be born, and lower incubation temperatures, more males.

The female leaves the nest after having laid the eggs and the hatchlings are born with no parental care. Following their birth, the hatchlings from most species will instinctively go to the water, where they can more easily hide from predators. Painted Turtle and the Map Turtle hatchlings may be born in the fall, which means that these hatchlings remain in the nest until the following spring. They can survive throughout the winter at temperatures as low as -10°C with the help of antifreeze chemicals which they produce in order for their cells to remain unfrozen and undamaged. They can only do so during their first winter, following which they must head to the water.

Even if several clutches, or batches of eggs, may be laid every year by the same female, very few hatchlings survive to adulthood. Nest predation is very common, birds and mammals will often eat all the eggs once the female has left, or sometimes when she is still present! This is thought to be why turtles are such long-lived species, since it may take them many years to produce one offspring that will survive until adulthood. Hatchlings that do survive will grow rapidly until they are mature, and if the conditions are good, individuals from some species may continue to grow their whole life.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Turtles are not social creatures. While they typically don't mind if there are other turtles around them, they don't interact or socialize, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Most turtles are active during the day, spending their time foraging for food. Turtles are not silent creatures.

Sea turtles have played vital roles in maintaining the health of the world's oceans for more than 100 million years. These roles range from maintaining productive coral reef ecosystems to transporting essential nutrients from the oceans to beaches and coastal dunes.

Turtles will be the most receptive to human interaction when they feel safe and secure, so place them on the floor (preferably tile rather than carpet) when petting them. Pet the top of the head. Gently run your finger on the middle-top of the turtle's head, carefully avoiding the nose/eyes.

Animal-based food sources for turtles can include processed pet foods like drained sardines, turtle pellets, and trout chow. You can also feed them cooked chicken, beef, and turkey. Live prey can include moths, crickets, shrimp, krill, feeder fish, and worms.


In conclusion, turtles have a variety of behaviors that are unique to their species. They can be shy, curious, and even aggressive. Turtles can also be very social creatures and enjoy being around humans, as long as they are handled in the proper way. With the proper care and attention, turtles can make great pets for anyone who is looking for a unique companion.  It’s important to remember that turtles require special care and should be treated with respect.

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