How to Know if Your Tortoise is Pregnant
Turtles reproduce by internal fertilization, requiring a male and a female to do so. If you have a male and female tortoise at home, pregnancy is a real possibility. Similarly, if you have a female tortoise at home and they are exposed to a male for any length of time, pregnancy can occur. Tortoises are oviparous animals, meaning they lay eggs which are hatched outside of the body. Pet tortoises can lay a clutch of around 8-12 eggs, although this will depend on the species. This means there will be a lot of baby tortoises to care for, so it is very important we know what to expect.
At AnimalWised, we explain how to know if your tortoise is pregnant. We do so by looking at the pregnant turtle signs which can be both physical and behavioral.
How do tortoises reproduce?
The tortoise is an oviparous vertebrate reptile, which means that it reproduces by laying eggs. Tortoises reproduce through sexual reproduction, meaning they require a male and female specimen. Like other reptiles, tortoises have internal fertilization, with mating occurring through the transfer of sperm from the male to the female. Here is a step-by-step overview of how tortoises reproduce:
- Courtship: during the mating season male tortoises become more active and may engage in courtship behavior. This behavior can include head bobbing, circling the female, and biting or nudging her shell.
- Mounting: once the male has successfully courted the female, he will attempt to mount her. The male climbs onto the back of the female and aligns his cloaca (the opening that houses the reproductive organs) with hers. He then inserts his penis into the female's cloaca to transfer sperm.
- Internal fertilization: the transfer of sperm from the male to the female occurs through the male's penis. Tortoises have a retractable penis, which is everted during mating to facilitate sperm transfer. The female stores the sperm internally until she is ready to fertilize her eggs. Turtles can arrest their embryonic development to wait for optimal conditions, so egg laying after mating can differ in duration.
- Egg development: after mating, the female tortoise's body begins developing eggs. The eggs are formed within her reproductive organs, specifically the ovaries. It takes several weeks or even months for the eggs to fully develop, depending on whether they delay embryonic development.
- Egg laying: when the eggs are ready, the female tortoise will seek out an appropriate nesting site. Tortoises typically dig a nest in the ground using their hind legs and lay their eggs there. The female carefully positions the eggs in the nest, covers them with soil and then leaves them to incubate.
- Incubation: the eggs undergo an incubation period, during which the embryos develop and grow inside the protective shells. The duration of incubation varies among species and can range from several weeks to several months.
- Hatching: after the incubation period, the baby tortoises, known as hatchlings, break through the eggshells using a specialized egg tooth. They emerge from the nest and begin their independent lives.
Tortoises and turtles are the same animal, although tortoises are exclusively types of land turtle. This means the reproduction of turtles and tortoises refers to the same thing. However, there are some differences in species when it comes to reproduction. Although the general principles of sexual reproduction and egg-laying remain consistent, there may be some differences in timing, number of eggs laid and other factors.
The age they reach sexual maturity can differ. Although wild tortoises can need up to 20 years to reach sexual maturity, pet tortoises tend to reach this stage between 7-10 years of age. For this reason, if you have a very young tortoise, it is unlikely they will be pregnant even if they have been exposed to a male.
In addition, the incubation period is shorter when the temperature is higher, which may influence the time of hatching.
How to know if your tortoise is pregnant
Abdominal palpation is the most reliable method of knowing whether a turtle is pregnant. We explain how to do this with your pet tortoise in the section below. Before we do so, we need to know that the signs of a pregnant turtle are not limited to physical changes. There are also behavioral changes which can suggest tortoise pregnancy.
Generally speaking, the following are the signs of a pregnant turtle:
- Swollen Abdomen: a pregnant tortoise will often have a visibly swollen or enlarged abdomen. This swelling is caused by the developing eggs inside the reproductive organs, which push against the internal walls of the tortoise's shell.
- Firmness of the abdomen: when touched gently, the abdomen of a pregnant tortoise may feel firmer than usual due to the presence of eggs. It's essential to be gentle and avoid applying too much pressure as tortoises have sensitive internal structures.
- Restlessness: pregnant tortoises may exhibit increased restlessness or agitation. They may wander around their hutch more than usual or show signs of discomfort. This behavior can be attributed to the physical changes happening inside their bodies.
- Dietary changes: some pregnant tortoises may experience a decrease in appetite or show selective eating habits. This change in behavior is thought to be related to the hormonal changes associated with pregnancy. Not all pregnant tortoises exhibit changes in their eating patterns, so it may not be a definitive indicator on its own. It is also possible that dietary changes are a sign of a range of diseases in turtles.
- Nesting behavior: as they approach the time to lay eggs, pregnant tortoises may display nesting behaviors. They may dig or scrape the ground in their enclosure, searching for a suitable spot to lay their eggs. This behavior is instinctual and driven by the need to create a secure and comfortable nesting site.
It is important to know that determining whether a turtle is pregnant is not easy, even for experienced guardians. In addition to the fact that the signs of turtle pregnancy can also be signs of a pathological illness, behavioral changes may also be due to stress or other factors. If you suspect your tortoise is pregnant, you should take the animal to a veterinarian who is experienced in this animal species to confirm the pregnancy.
We discover more about tortoise physiology with our article on how do turtles breathe?
How to palpate a tortoise
In order to tell whether your tortoise is pregnant, you need to use the palpation technique to check for eggs inside. To do this you will need to feel the abdomen, so we recommend following these steps:
- It is normal for the tortoise to resist and kick out. For this reason, you may want to have a helper aid you in restraining the tortoise.
- You should take advantage of this movement and block one of their hind legs. This can be done by simply holding one of your fingers on the inside of the leg, preventing it from moving.
- Blocking one of its legs will give you access the side of its abdomen, an area to which you must pay special attention.
- Gently press one or two of your fingers on the side of the abdomen to palpate. If the area is soft, you are feeling its viscera. If you notice something spherical and hard, your tortoise is likely pregnant.
Learn more about what to expect when adopting a tortoise with our article on how long do turtles live?
Warning signs during pregnancy
If your pet tortoise is pregnant, you must pay special attention to certain signs that might indicate a disease or a problem with the pregnancy. Your veterinarian should explain more about what to expect, but the following are some general signs of complications in a tortoise pregnancy>
- Red and swollen eyes
- Runny nose
- Lack of appetite
- Shell problems
- Spots on the skin
- Head swelling
- Weight loss
- Breathing difficulty
If you notice any of these signs it is important to go to the veterinarian as soon as possible. They may indicate a disease, which for a pregnant tortoise would be more dangerous than normally. To prevent any harm to your tortoise, you should always be careful with the other pets at home.
If you want to read similar articles to How to Know if Your Tortoise is Pregnant, we recommend you visit our Gestation category.
1. Rafferty, A. R., & Reina, R. D. (2012). Arrested embryonic development: a review of strategies to delay hatching in egg-laying reptiles. Proceedings. Biological sciences, 279(1737), 2299–2308. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2012.0100