Why do Hermann’s tortoises bury themselves? and when to worry

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If you are lucky enough to own a Hermann’s tortoise, you will learn new things about them all the time. One curious behaviour that can be alarming at first is that they have a habit of digging into the substrate in their enclosure. So, what does this all mean, and is it something to be worried about?

Burrowing and digging are common tortoise behaviours. Tortoises bury themselves as a way to regulate temperature, escape predators, create a nest to lay eggs and to brumate through the winter. Your pet tortoise will burrow just simply for the fun of it. 

You can help your tortoise by providing enough material to dig in and letting them get on with their daily lives.  Just watch out for instances of increased and excessive digging where there could be a problem with their enclosure or security. 

Wild tortoises dig and use burrows all the time. 

In the wild, burying is a common behavioural trait for tortoises, especially those living in the hottest deserts. Desert tortoises ( gopher and sulcata) in the US, for example, will use a network of burrows where they can take shelter during the hottest parts of the day. 

They get to escape the heat of the sun and maintain an appropriate body temperature without getting too cold. They can have as many as thirty burrows of these in their range covering over 10m in length in which to retreat to and often share them with other creatures like burrowing owls and ground squirrels. 

Both wild and pet tortoises dig burrows to cool themselves down.

When wild tortoises need to regulate temperature in a cool spot for a while, they will create a small pallet depression in the ground and lie there to lower their temperature. This doesn’t use up too much energy and can make an important difference to their body temperature. A pet tortoise may have the same instinct, rather than moving to seek shelter under a rock. 

Increased time under the soil may indicate an issue with the temperature of the enclosure. 

This digging for a cooler temperature is normal, but you should make sure that it doesn’t start to become excessive. If your tortoise starts spending a lot of time digging to get under the soil, and perhaps less time basking, the enclosure could be too hot. That is why it is so important to control the climate and set up a thermostat and reliable thermometers .  You need to keep it at a warm 35 degrees maximum at one end and 20 degrees minimum at the other. 

Hermann’s tortoises will also dig when it is time to think about brumation. 

It is also important to remember that Hermann’s tortoises like to brumate (not hibernate) when it gets really cold in winter. This is something that even if they are indoor tortoises on a table they like to do, so make sure they have a corner with deep substrate ( 6-8 inches) so they can bury themselves.  

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You can help your tortoise if they live outdoors (like ours do) by digging over an area in their outdoor enclosure to loosen the soil. Turn over at least 8 inches of the soil.  Your tortoise can then dig down when they are ready. They will know when the time is right as they will sense the change in the season. 

Our tortoises roam between the greenhouse ( we have a special tortoise door) and their enclosure so they have shelter and warmth as they begin to slow down for the winter months.

Hermanns tortoises must stay at temperatures in the low 40s to prevent them from awakening too early. Depending where you live, you must make sure they don’t freeze.

Female Hermann’s will burrow when they want to lay eggs

If your Hermann’s tortoise is a female she will lay her eggs in the entrance to a burrow and cover them up.  One of ours always digs a really deep burrow and we often have trouble finding her eggs!  Female tortoises often have more than one clutch of eggs, so will use different burrows for each clutch.

Young tortoises dig as a way of avoiding predation. 

Very young tortoises may have the instinct to go underground to evade predation. This can happen with your pet, even if there are no risks or any other animals in the home. It is a simple survival strategy where the animal knows that it is better off hiding under the sand than staying above it, where predators could easily see them and pick them up. 

Increased digging and hiding may mean that your young tortoise feels threatened. 

You may need to consider if your tortoise is threatened by other people or animals if they start burying themselves a lot. Try and consider the situation from your pet’s perspective. When they look out of their enclosure, what do they see? Is there a large cat that has a habit of staring at them from across the room? If so, block the view from that side. Or, you might have a dog that is curious about their “friend” in the box. Train your dog to keep its distance so as not to spook the tortoise. 

Some tortoises will just dig for the fun of it. 

Also, there is also the possibility that your Hermann’s tortoise digs into their substrate because it is a fun activity for them. Owners with outside tortoises can find them digging around in soil, sand, and piles of leaves quite happily. You might consider offering the same opportunities to your pet for enrichment. You can also play around with materials and see what they like best. 

Is it dangerous at all for Hermann’s tortoises to bury themselves like this? 

The only danger comes from any reasons for excessive digging, such as the desire to hide from predators or if they are too hot. Some owners worry that their Hermann’s tortoise will suffocate if they bury themselves. Your tortoise will not suffocate down there as the way they cover themselves to allow for plenty of oxygen to get through the loose particles. 

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So, there is no reason to do anything to impede this desire to dig and stop them. If it is caused by excessive heat or fears of predation, focus on that cause instead. Make it easier for them to follow their instincts when they want to with the right amount of substrate, create mounds to play with, or even give your adult tortoise the opportunity to play and dig in the garden. 

Does your Hermann’s tortoise like to burrow?

In short, there are many reasons why your Hermann’s tortoise may choose to bury themselves in their enclosure. Their instincts may take over or they just might enjoy the process of digging. As long as you keep an eye on their enclosure’s climate and any security risks, there shouldn’t be an issue. Let them dig with the materials they need so they can enjoy being a tortoise. 

Tortoise Burrowing FAQs

How long can a Hermann’s tortoise stay underground?

On average an adult hermann’s tortoise will brumate underground for 4-5 months.

How do I stop my Hermann’s tortoise from digging?

Digging is a natural behaviour but to avoid your tortoise from digging out of their enclosure put a thick board around their area buried half into the ground.

How do Hermann’s tortoises burrow?

Tortoise feet are hard, scaly and designed so that they can dig into the ground with one food and scoop the dirt out as they go. They will burrow down until they have found the right temperature, then turn round and back into the hole before covering themselves with loose filling to breathe.

How deep can a Hermann’s tortoise dig?

A hermann’s tortoise will dig down at least 8 inches. Some have been known to dig burrows 15 metres long and 24 inches deep.

How do Hermann’s tortoises breathe underground? 

Tortoises will cover the entrance to their burrow with loose filling to allow oxygen to pass through. They leave a small gap in front of their face to allow them to breathe.

Will my Hermann’s tortoise dehydrate underground?

The humidity in the substrate combined with your tortoise slowing down it’s metabolism will prevent them from dehydrating whilst brumating.

Why does my tortoise dig in the corner?

Most likely because this is the only area where the substrate is deep and loose enough for your tortoise to dig.