It’s no surprise that tortoises sometimes end up on their backs; those big lumbering shells are like the equivalent of carrying a hod of bricks around, or at least it looks like it! If the ground under their feet is a bit uneven or if they’re being too ambitious about climbing over something, a tortoise can quite easily fall over, tumble, and land the wrong way up.
As an owner it can be pretty unnerving to see your tortoise laying the wrong way up, especially knowing that it simply isn’t practical to be on stand by every time it happens. You could for example head out for the day, only for your tortoise to fall onto its back shortly after you leave, meaning they could be stuck like it for hours.
But is this dangerous?
The short answer is unfortunately, yes.
If a tortoise remains on his or her back for any length of time it can prove fatal. One theory is that their internal organs are arranged in such a way that they are only able to function safely the correct way up. Laying the wrong way up means that the weight of other organs will be bearing down on the lungs, which if impaired in any way will suffocate the tortoise.
Whether or not this is true, one thing is for sure, a tortoise on its back cannot eat drink, or move itself out of the blazing heat or sunlight if it topples right under a heat lamp or the midday sun.
So as far as ‘how long is too long?’ goes, this depends on the particular tortoise and the circumstances. Some people have reported losing a juvenile tortoise within an hour if they fall over directly under a heat lamp, probably with dehydration exacerbating the rate of decline. Other accounts tell of hardy adult tortoises managing a few days in more ‘comfortable’ surroundings.
In any case, the important thing to do is prevent the situation arising in the first place so that you don’t have to find out how long too long is!
Can Tortoises Right Themselves?
Depending on the precise circumstances of the situation, tortoises are often able to right themselves (flip back the right way up), so it isn’t always bad news. Evolution has kept tortoises from extinction for this long, so they must have developed at least some features to prevent flipping over from being fatal.
Chief among these features is the pronounced dome of the shell. Breeds with the most pronounced domes stand the best chance of being able to ‘roll’ themselves back onto their front with the aid of their legs and neck pushing against the ground.
It would be interesting to know how a species such as the pancake tortoise with its very flat shell would get on trying to right itself. I would venture not terribly well, although hopefully the odds of them ending up in this position are quite remote.
As I say though, self righting isn’t guaranteed, particularly on flat smooth surface where there is little for the legs and head to get a good purchase on/push against.
Older specimens in theory stand less chance of toppling onto their backs because they are heavier, but also because their weight tends to be distributed towards their front, which should tilt them forward and give the head and front legs greater pushing power if they do happen to find themselves upturned.
Tortoises Can Right Each Other
Keeping multiple tortoises together comes with its own set of pros and cons, but one definite positive is that they seem have the instinct to flip each other over if one should end up on its back. Interestingly enough this seems to be one of the only forms of cooperative behavior displayed by tortoises.
Be warned however this behavior isn’t guaranteed, I especially hate to think what two rival males who deliberately try and flip each other would, or rather wouldn’t do if one did get flipped over during a territorial duel.
How Can I prevent My Tortoise Flipping Over?
Unfortunately keeping tortoises in captivity is in itself a risk factor for tortoises to accidentally flip over. The artificial enclosure environment is typically full of raised obstructions, and more crucially corners and walls that a tortoise will try and climb up or over, particularly if they believe it will lead them to freedom.
If you can do away with 90 degree corners this is a good starting point as tortoises seem to love corners and will try like anything to climb out of them. Placing an intermediate piece of wood across the corner to effectively make it a blunt corner rather than a sharp point can prevent over zealous climbing and toppling.
If the walls, or rather the opaque part of the walls is too low the tortoise will be able to see over the top of them, again encouraging them to climb and investigate. If this is the case you might want to block their view by extending the height of the opaque section with some thin wood (it only needs to be a visual barrier rather than to try and keep anything in or out, as presumably this will already be taken care of by the existing wall).
If your tortoise does unintentionally flip themselves over and you’re not around it can be really handy to have a wifi camera perched over their enclosure so that you can keep an eye on them when you’re out or at work.
I use a 1080p camera by a company called YI to keep an eye on my tortoise, which works great if I’m at work and just want to have a quick look to see how Terry is doing. Also, because they’re relatively inexpensive, I’ve got several more of these cameras installed on my property for security purposes. They’re also really simple to use and you can either pay a few bucks each month to backup footage to the cloud, or use an SD card.
That way if you do happen to notice that they’ve lost their footing you can head home, or ask a trustworthy neighbor to go round and turn them over for you.
Given that we know tortoises are far more likely to be able to right themselves if they have firm footholds to push against, it makes sense to have a firm yet lumpy substrate.
Whilst my own particular preference for straw pellets is certainly lumpy, it is also unstable meaning it probably isn’t ideal to push against.
A better option would be a firm claggy soil, perhaps that you can moisten and then ‘rake’ so that it dries with a textured, grippy surface.
Outdoors of course your tortoise will benefit both from the natural topography of the ground, and the grass and shrubbery providing ‘rope and cargo netting’ like foot holds.