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Why Tortoises and Turtles Bob Their Head: The Science Behind the Strange Behaviour

Why Turtles Bob Their Head

Don’t you just love it when you see your pet do something strange, and you have no idea what they’re up to? Well, rest assured that you are not alone. Even the most knowledgeable pet owners can sometimes be stumped by their furry or scaly friends.

For example, turtles are well-known for their podgy appearance and strange behaviours. And one of the most bizarre behaviours that have baffled scientists for years is head bobbing. This behaviour may seem odd to tortoise and turtle owners, and some pet owners tend to think their pet is sick, but that’s not always the case. The thing is, there is a scientific reason behind it. So, let’s take a closer look at why turtles bob their heads.

Why Do Turtles Bob Their Heads?

Turtles have been around for centuries, yet we have only started to study and understand their behaviors a few decades ago. A simple movement like head bobbing has been mistaken for dancing or enjoying some music, which is not the case. Some have mistaken it as a sign of illness. You can get more information about common turtle illnesses from this great resource at Reptiles Life.

The truth of the matter is that head bobbing means it’s ready to fight, or it’s trying to get the attention of a mating partner. Therefore, you should be able to identify why and when your pet should be bobbing its head.

1)   Sign of Aggression

All turtles bob their heads to signal aggression when they meet a rival. When it does this out of aggression, you should avoid handling it as it can unintentionally attack you.

A turtle can be aggressive when it feels a threat is around, and in most cases, it’s usually another turtle. After all, they are known to be antisocial animals that hate sharing their environments with other turtles. This is the leading cause of fights between turtles. So if you have more than one turtle, you should give each one of them its own space.

Tortoises bob their heads at one another to communicate
Tortoises bob their heads at one another to communicate

2)   The Start of the Mating Season

Both female and male turtles bob their heads when the mating season starts, but male turtles use it more to attract a mate. This leads to a response from the female, and if it’s a positive response, then they mate. Male turtles also bob their heads to intimidate other males in the vicinity before trying to lure a female turtle.

If there are more males in the vicinity, the head bobbing can result in a battle with these creatures pushing and chasing each other. The contest ends typically once one of them has toppled over. After winning the fight, the winner will impress a mating partner while the loser tucks in its tail and walks away.

There has been an occasion whereby the losing turtle has suffered from stress resulting in their death. Females also take part in the mating head-bobbing ritual. Females bob when it’s either accepting or turning down the advancing male.

During the mating season, the male bobs its head first, and once the female starts bobbing, the male will remain still as the female checks it out. If the female remains still after bobbing, then it shows that she has accepted his advances. But if the female moves away, the male would chase her and try to impress her again.

Types of Head Bobbing

Generally, there are different head bobs, with each having its own meaning. Some of the most common types of head bobs are:

Vertical Head Bobbing

During the mating season, you may notice both the males and females bobbing their heads up and down. The reason behind this type of bobbing is unknown, but scientists believe that they use vertical bobbing to attract a mating partner.

Turtles would bob their heads vertically towards each other when the mating season starts to identify a mate. This may result in either the female rejecting or accepting the males’ advances.

Vertical head bobs are also used to show signs of aggression. But this is common between male turtles. Aggression between opposite genders or females is quite rare.

Horizontal Head Bobbing

Horizontal bobs are used between opposite genders to size each other up during the mating season. This helps them determine the mate’s size before deciding if they should proceed with mating. Horizontal bobs are also used as visual signals between turtles.

When bobbing their heads horizontally, the turtles usually look for some crucial marking or coloration on the potential mating partner’s shell. These markings or colorations are essential to the mating sessions as they can determine if they are compatible or not.

Females look for the markings on the male while the males are attracted to the coloration on the female’s body.

Swaying Head Around the Females’ Carapaces

Before mating, the male tends to sway its head around the female’s carapace while chemically signaling the female turtle to mate. The males release some chemicals in the air during mating, which the females detect through their rostral pores.

Other Times When These Pets Bob Their Heads

When Trying to Breathe on Land

Turtles are reptiles that spend a better part of their lives on land and water, but since they don’t have gills, you may see them on the surface breathing. Luckily, they are known to hold air for a very long time.

But when on land, they usually have a hard time breathing because of the weight of their shells, so to reduce the pressure and breath, they would bob their heads. Tortoises can’t swim by the way in case you were wondering.

Turtle breathing whilst swimming
Turtle breathing whilst swimming

Nervousness When Being Held

Generally, tortoises are solitary creatures that love their privacy. Therefore, they are not like dogs that are easy to train. By lifting it with your hands, you unintentionally make it nervous. So when lifting it, you will notice that it bobs its head.

Final Thoughts 

Turtles bobbing their heads may seem like strange behaviour, but there’s a science behind it. They may bob their head when looking for a mating partner or are threatened. Understanding this behaviour can help us better care for turtles and keep them healthy. It can also help us determine when it is the right time to lift our pets without being attacked by them.

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