Tortoise Bobbing Its Head? Here’s What It Means

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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The newbie keepers often get scared seeing the tortoises bobbing their heads. What does this head bobbing actually mean? Is your tortoise in danger?

Tortoises may bob their heads to:

  • Show aggression
  • Establish dominance
  • Claim territory
  • Impress female tortoises
  • Scare away the intruders
  • Express excitement and curiosity
  • Draw deep breaths

However, head bobbing may indicate underlying diseases like mental disorders, stress, respiratory illness, etc. 

Catch details on the causes and their solutions in the following articles.

Key Takeaways

  • Not all tortoises bob their heads. Species like red foot tortoises, spur thighed tortoises, etc., are more prone to this behavior.
  • Head bobbing mostly indicates aggression, competition, and greed for power in tortoises.
  • The reptiles also use head bobbing to impress their mating partners and show excitement for a new task.

Why Is My Tortoise Bobbing Its Head?: A Proper Explanation

Of course, there is no way to find out why your tortoise is bobbing its head. But we can guess the cause by interpreting the pet’s behavior and looking at the environmental changes.

1. A Sign Of Aggression

We know tortoises as peace-loving animals. But not always. Apparently, tortoises can be moody and aggressive from time to time. Such a hostile nature is mainly seen in male tortoises.

Generally, the male tortoises get all pumped up and bob their heads when they meet a rival. The opponent can be a predator or another fellow tortoise.

As you know, tortoises are antisocial and very sensitive about their personal space. Hence, they do not tolerate any invaders on their property. Head bobbing is the tortoise’s way of scaring off the intruder from the enclosure.

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Leave your tortoise alone when it is bobbing its head. There is a high chance that the pet will attack you. Instead, remove the tank mate from the habitat to calm the tortoise.

Furthermore, head bobbing is also common in pregnant tortoises. They perform such a weird physical act to protect their developing eggs. In this scenario, head bobbing comes with biting and kicking.

2. Your Tortoise Is A Bully

In my previous article, I discussed the bullying nature of turtles. Well, the same goes for tortoises too.

It is no secret that tortoises are greedy for power. When you house multiple tortoises in the same tank, the adult males will do anything to dominate others.

Some experts suggest bullying is a play of the strong tortoises to defend their space. But in reality, the creatures can pick up on any tank member, even when it poses no threat.

Head bobbing, biting, fanning, etc., are signs of the tortoise being a bully. The strong adult male tortoises will shake their heads to pick up on other males, females, and babies.

In the case of 2 strong adults, the head bobbing means an invitation to a fight for superiority. Whoever wins gets the social power in the enclosure.

You will notice heavy head bobbing when tortoises crave power. They will also sway their heads from time to time.

3. Impressing The Females

The male tortoises can get quite aggressive during mating and even before. Evidently, the males perform stuff to attract female partners. For example, head bobbing, nipping the shell or rear legs, circling around, etc.

If the female is interested in copulation, she will submit to these acts. Only then the male tortoise can mount her from behind. According to some professionals, the female tortoises give their consent to the mating by bobbing their heads too.

Again, the female tortoise may resent these flirty acts by kicking and biting the males.

4. Hungry For Territory

When you house 2 tortoises, there will be a fight over territory. Generally, the strong adult males will shake their heads around the weak tortoises or other competitors. It is a trick to scare them away from their space.

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Territorial fights are more frequent when you provide the creatures with a congested home with limited food.

5. Your Tortoise Is Excited!

Head bobbing is not always a sign of aggression and dominance. Sometimes, tortoises will sway their heads, seeing their owners. It expresses their excitement and happiness for the familiar faces. In such cases, you will often notice a squeaky noise along with the head bobbing.

6. An Underlying Disease

Head banging against the wall indicates a mental disorder for the tortoises. Likewise, if the head bobbing comes with discomfort, there is a chance that the pet has respiratory disease. Look for other signs to confirm the condition.

7. Everything Is Normal

Tortoise’s respiratory system is very different from ours. For the starter, they have a rib cage connected to the shell, and they miss a diaphragm.

Therefore, these creatures can not expand or contract their ribs like us. This is why tortoises have to make an extra effort to inhale and exhale air.

Sometimes, when tortoises draw a deep breath, they involve their neck, head and limbs for support. Hence, the head bobbing you see in your tortoise is just maybe an attempt to breathe perfectly.

4 Types Of Head Bobbing In Tortoises

Remember the time we discussed different tortoise noises and their meanings? Similarly, the head bobbins in these reptiles are of different types, each indicating different emotions. Such as,

Type Of Head BobbingHow To IdentifyExplanation
Slow Head BobbingHead up and down gently and slowly.  Tortoises slowly bob their heads when they are curious about sometimes. This is absolutely harmless and only indicates the adventurous nature of the pets.
Vertical Rapid Head BobbingHead up and down in a rapid motion.    In mating season, the male tortoises do this vertical head bobbing to attract the females. In fact, the females will also shake their heads to show consent in mating.   At other times, tortoises express excitement and interest in something with vertical head bobbing.
Horizontal Head BobbingHead sways sideways  Usually, a tortoise inspects its mating partner’s body by horizontal head bobbing. The reptile will notice the body size, skin color, carapace pattern, etc.
Aggressive Head BobbingHead up and down rapidly, the body’s center of gravity switches to the rear legs.Tortoises will approach their components with aggressive head bobbing. It is a clear invitation for a fight.

Should You Be Concerned With Tortoise Head Bobbing?

Head bobbing is observed in tortoises only occasionally. The behaviour is usually normal and can be justified with proper explanations. However, in rare conditions, head bobbing can be a sign of severe diseases in tortoises. Such as,

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1. Mental Disorder:

Head bobbing along with pacing, tremor, irregular body movements, and uncontrolled spasms indicate neurological disorders in tortoises. This condition can become deadly. So, have your pet diagnosed asap and start the treatment.

2. Dehydration:

Lack of water dries up the nerves and tissues in tortoises, causing an imbalance in the physiological center coordination. As a result, the pet experiences spasm, lethargy, uncontrolled body movement, head bobbing, etc. You can rehydrate the pets with regular soaks and misting the bedding daily.

3. Respiratory Infection:

Runny nose, watery eyes, lethargy, along with difficulty breathing are common signs of respiratory illness. Tortoises may bob their heads if they have a congested nose. Swaying their heads will clear the nasal pathway, offering them ease and comfort. Remember, respiratory infection can be deadly and requires immediate care.

4. Skin Parasites:

Tortoises can be infected with ticks, maggots, and parasites because of filthy husbandry. The infection may cause skin irritation and itching in the pets. Head bobbing may indicate the parasites are in the head or neck zone. Deworm the tortoises immediately and seek professional help.

5. Metal Stess:

Tortoises are pretty sensitive to their surroundings. Any slight change can cause them anxiety and stress. The pets may act weird when they are in such a vulnerable state. Head bobbing, low appetite, weight loss, escape attempts, etc., are signs of stress in tortoises.

Do All Tortoises Bob Their Heads?

Evidently, some tortoises bob their heads more frequently than others. In fact, some species do not bob their heads at all.

Species that are more prone to head bobbing are:

  • Spur thighed tortoises
  • Russian tortoises
  • Galapagos tortoises
  • Greek tortoises
  • Red footed tortoises, etc.

Again, you can not say exactly when tortoises start to bob their heads. Some keepers claim that their young pets have started shaking their heads at an early age. On the contrary, others suggest head bobbing is only seen in adult and old tortoises.

Before You Go…

Head bobbing is not the only weird act of tortoises. Sometimes the pets tend to chase the owners and other tankmates. Go through the link for more explanation.

Why Does My Tortoise Chase Me? [Please Link The Article]

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About Author

Muntaseer Rahman started keeping pet turtles back in 2013. He also owns the largest Turtle & Tortoise Facebook community in Bangladesh. These days he is mostly active on Facebook.


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