Why Does My Tortoise Bob His Head?

Tortoises bob their heads for many reasons. Male tortoises may want to assert dominance over other males or younger tortoises, or they may be showing mating behavior around females. Females may also bob their heads when they are gravid (pregnant), showing aggressiveness this way.

It’s a normal day. You wake up and the first thing you want to do is go to your tortoise’s enclosure to feed it. As you approach, you notice something weird: the reptile is bobbing its head. Initially, you think it’s nothing serious, but the pet keeps going, to the point where it starts to concern you. What is this behavior, and why is the tortoise doing it?

Head bobbing is something that can be noticed in some tortoises, with some species doing it more than others. Tortoises can do this for many reasons, but if this is your first time seeing something like this, then chances are you don’t know what, if anything, you should do about it. Well, read on to find out more about this strange, but on the whole harmless behavior.

Why Is My Tortoise Bobbing Its Head?

Tortoises can bob their heads for many reasons, and if you want to know what might be causing this, you first need to consider the pet’s surroundings. Environment is a key influence over this behavior. Here are some reasons why tortoises bob their heads sometimes:

  • Dominance

One of the main reasons why tortoises bob their heads is to show their dominance. If they live with other tortoises, they will probably challenge the others in order to defend their space. This is especially true for male tortoises. If they consider anything in their surrounding area to be a threat to them, they will bob their heads and challenge it.

While doing this head movement, male tortoises will wait and see how the other tortoise responds to this. Usually, they may show the same behavior in response, which starts the challenge for superiority. After the fight, one of them will win, specifically the one that ultimately managed to tip over the other tortoise.

Sometimes, tortoises will also bob their heads in order to bully younger and smaller tortoises. This behavior usually starts when it’s time for them to eat.

In dominance scenarios, the head bobbing will be very heavy (think the tortoise equivalent to a headbanging heavy metal fan, but not quite so fast!) When they get a response, they will also show some side to side head swaying.

Pregnant female tortoises may also become aggressive in certain cases, ultimately acting defensively over themselves to protect their developing young. They will bang their heads, bite and ram anything that they consider threatening.

  • Mating

Mating is another common reason why tortoises bob their heads. Males will do it in order to attract females with the intention of mating. When they do this, male tortoises will also start nipping at the shell and front legs of the female. The female reptile will submit and go inside the shell for safety. The male will then go around to the female’s rear so the mating process can begin.

  • Breathing

Some people confuse certain head movements for head bobbing, when in reality the tortoise is simply breathing. Although head bobbing is usually associated with aggression, things become a bit confusing when you see your tortoise bobbing its head when you offer it food, or when it sees you, while not showing any aggressive or mating behavior. Well, in this case, the head bobbing may simply be due to the tortoise’s breathing being more animated.

It is important to bear in mind that tortoises don’t have diaphragms. Since their ribs are connected to their shells, they are unable to expand and contract their ribs as we humans do. As such, they have to try hard to force air into the lungs and out again in order to draw sufficiently deep breaths. Therefore, seemingly exaggerated neck, head, and limb movements help the tortoise breathe with ease. Because of this, it may appear as though they’re bobbing their heads.

Also, sometimes, when they are both excited and breathing, it can give the impression of head bobbing. This is especially true if the pet keeps being friendly during and after the movements.

When Should You Be Concerned About Head Bobbing?

Although it doesn’t always mean something is wrong with your reptile while displaying this behavior, it is always best to pay attention to your tortoise whilst it bobs its head. Sometimes, the movement may indicate a more issue.

There are situations when head bobbing occurs due to respiratory issues or a blockage. When respiratory distress is the problem, you should hear different noises like whistling or squeaking, as well as wheezy sounds. Wet secretions or bubbles around the nose should also be a cause for concern, and you should take the tortoise to a vet immediately.

In case there is a blockage, you will notice the tortoise stretching its neck a lot and look as though it is struggling to breathe, in which case you should always seek a professional’s help.

That said, if you are able to see an obvious obstruction and you really do believe you have an emergency situation on your hands (ie your tortoise’s life is in immediate danger) you may want to do what you can to remove the foreign object, either using your fingers or a blunt pair or tweezers. On successfully removing the object you would of course need to follow up with a vet immediately.

Ideally, if head bobbing is accompanied by appetite loss, nasal discharge, lethargy, and squeaking/whistling sounds, you should seek help immediately.

When Do These Behaviors Start in Tortoises?

You may notice head bobbing starting at any age. Younger tortoises may do it too, but some owners have declared that their tortoises only started doing it at around the age of 40.

In terms of other tortoise’s being the catalyst for this behavior, in truth it can be prompted by any object. So, it doesn’t have to be another tortoise. It may also be a rock, shoe, or anything of the sort.

Don’t immediately assume that just because another tortoise isn’t present, the reason must be because of illness.

Are Some Species More Prone to Head Bobbing than Others?

Some tortoise species may bob their heads more compared to others. For example, Hermann’s tortoises are more likely to bob their heads more subtly, while Spur Thighed tortoises will headbang way more. Moreover, Male Spur Thighed tortoises are more likely to ram a female tortoise during courtship behavior. Meanwhile, Marginated, Hermann’s, and Horsefield tortoises may also end up biting the female in the process.

Incidentally, these are just some of the good reasons why you may want to think very carefully before you consider homing more than one tortoise in the same enclosure.

Final Thoughts

Tortoises can bob their heads for a whole range of reasons: out of excitement, aggression, the desire to mate or show dominance, or because of obstruction to their airway or other potentially life-threatening reasons. But it’s also important to remember that they may all do this while simply breathing. It’s essential to take everything into account and determine exactly why the pet is displaying this behavior. This will tell you whether you should be concerned or not.

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