Tortoise Nest, Holes, and Burrows

A tortoise uses the shovel-like design of their feet to dig with one foot, gouging out the soil several times. Scooping soil out of the hole during the process.

Is your tortoise digging a nest, a hole, or a burrow? That depends. It depends on the sex of the tortoise, the time of year it is, and the hole location.

Nesting is a behavior only displayed by females. When conditions are right, and the gravid tortoise is happy with her chosen nesting site, she will begin to excavate the nest ready for laying her eggs.

She will normally choose a sunny location situated on a well-drained slope of soft soil and will position herself with her back to the sun to ensure she gains maximum exposure to the heat, with her head uppermost, and her front legs securely anchored so that she doesn’t slip backward.

As she digs, the soil is placed in two piles, one either side of the hole.  The nest is a carefully constructed bell-shaped chamber, several inches deep.  From observation, once the tortoise can only just feel the base of the hole with legs at full stretch, she will consider this to be deep enough.

Once she is in position, she will commence digging with her hind legs, using large circular movements in an outwards direction. Tortoises often prefer to dig their nests in the afternoon or early evening.

Once all the eggs are all laid, the female tortoise will again rest briefly before starting to refill the nest.  She will do this once again using her hind legs, but this time using circular inwards motions, replacing the soil she has previously excavated.  Once the nest is refilled, she will smooth the surface over using her plastron, leaving an apparently undisturbed area, well camouflaged from the casual observer!

Please note that if a suitable nesting site isn’t naturally available, then the tortoise keeper must ensure that a suitable one is constructed, otherwise there is the possibility that if the tortoise cannot find anywhere suitable to lay her eggs she may retain them. This a potentially dangerous life-threatening condition.

Nests in the wild are most often associated with the female’s burrows. The nest may be in the burrow mound, the mouth of the burrow, or deep inside the tunnel.

Burrows vary considerably in length and type. The style of burrow appears to be dependent upon the region, soil type, and vegetation in which they are found.

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Each tortoise usually has more than one burrow. The number of burrows the tortoise uses may depend on age and sex, as well as on the season.

The burrow is usually the size and shape of the tortoise–half moon in shape and flat on the bottom. Small tortoises have small burrows and large tortoises have large burrows.

Tortoise burrows are often confused with armadillo or other mammalian species burrows. Active tortoise burrows are easily identified by their classic flat-bottomed, high domed appearance and characteristic area of excavated soil in front of the opening called the apron.

Also, tortoise burrows gently slope down, whereas mammal burrows usually slope straight down. Tortoise burrows are usually proportionate to the size of individual occupying the burrow.

Holes are dug by tortoises to just barely cover the shell in spring, summer, and fall. This offers weather protection and camoflauges and protects the animal against predators.

These temporary spots of refuge can be fragile and may be used for shelter for a few days while a tortoise is foraging in a particular area. The tortoise will use this hole for to a season and then the hole disintegrates.

Please Note: NEVER stick your hand in an abandoned hole or burrow.

Instead, you should use a stick because other critters depend on these holes for shelter.

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