Animal Information

What is the Difference between a Tortoise Hole, Nest, and Burrow?

Those funny-looking tortoise legs might not be made to walk fast, but they sure can dig. A single tortoise can have as many as 35 burrows. Some of these may be shallow holes, but others designed for winter survival can have tunnels as long as 30 feet. A female tortoise doesn't nest inside a burrow, but some wild tortoises often lay eggs near the entrance or within the nearby vicinity of one.

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.

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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.

Most noteworthy, is your tortoise using its front legs or back. If she is backed into the hole using her rear legs, she is most likely nesting.


Nesting is 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.

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Most females will begin to behave somewhat strangely in the period immediately before they are due to lay. Typical the behavior includes aggression displays towards other females, hyperactivity and climbing over obstacles.

They even attempt to ‘mate’ other tortoises (male or female) including making the high pitched vocalizations usually only heard from males. Females carrying eggs may also reduce their food intake, and sometimes may stop feeding altogether just prior to laying.

Some female tortoises can be very selective about what constitutes a suitable nesting site. Others are less discerning.

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.

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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!

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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.

Please note… When unable to find a suitable nesting site, some turtles deposit their eggs on the substrate, in water, or wherever possible.

However, the unsuccessful search for a site generally causes them to retain the eggs far longer than would be normal.  Calcium is continually added to the retained eggs, causing them to increase in size and can become to difficult to be passed naturally.  These eggs eventually decay, leading to egg yolk peritonitis.  If untreated, this infection is fatal.


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.

A single tortoise can have as many as 35 burrows. Some of these may be shallow holes, but others designed for winter survival can have tunnels as long as 30 feet. These burrows are skillfully constructed to remain at a steady temperature and keep out water.

Every creature needs a place to live, even one who carries a shelter on his back. As a cold-blooded reptile, a tortoise uses his burrows to keep warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

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A tortoise will build several burrows, facing different directions and in different locations so that he will always have at least one that can keep his body the right temperature. For example, north-facing burrows stay cooler, while south-facing burrows tend to stay warmer.

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.

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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.

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A burrow provides a safe place for him to hide from birds of prey, coyotes, foxes, cats, wild pigs, dogs, roadrunners and other animals looking for a tasty snack.

Keeping several active burrows ensures that one will be nearby when he needs it.

Burrows provide homes for other animals. Examples are indigo snakes, gopher frogs, mice, foxes, skunks, opossums, rabbits, quail, armadillos, burrowing owls, and other invertebrates.

Many of these are animals that are endangered or have dwindling populations.


Holes are dug by tortoises to just barely cover the shell in spring, summer, and fall. This offers weather protection and camouflages 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.

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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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