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How Do Turtles Communicate?

Turtles Communicate

Turtles aren’t the chattiest animals. They are not as sociable as other animals such as dogs, wolves, crows, and many more. However, they still do communicate.

This is essential to their survival in the wild. While turtles do not have vocal cords, they have adapted to use nonvocal communication to express a wide array of information.

They can even produce hissing sounds and other low-frequency sounds. Yes, turtles have a few ways of communication when compared to most birds and mammals, but these prehistoric gentle creatures have existed for a long time (220 million years). This is in part because their communication is efficient and effective.

Quick Reference Section

Nonverbal Communication

Turtles don’t always produce sound when communicating. There is a lot of communication that goes on even when they are not producing sounds.

One of the main ways they communicate nonverbally is during courtship. Turtles have several mating behaviors. Communication during mating varies from one turtle species to another.

The communication consists of visual and tactile cues. The red-eared sliders’ communication generally involves the male touching the female on the neck and head with their claws.

Other species have more direct ways to attract mates during mating season. Females may blink continuously to attract a male mate. Similarly, a male may squirt water into the female’s face to signal its intent to mate.

Land turtles also have a number of complex head bobbing routines used to attract mates.

Biting is another major way in which turtles communicate. If a turtle bites then it wants to be left alone. Your turtle may let you know that it doesn’t appreciate being held by biting you.

Similarly, when the turtle retracts into its shell, it means it’s scared. Once the turtle feels safe around you, you expect it to retract into its shell less often.

Verbal Communication

While turtles may not have vocal cords or external ears, they still communicate verbally. This is quite impressive. While there is little evidence of verbal communication among sea turtles, freshwater turtles and tortoises are known to communicate verbally all the time.

Hissing Sound

One of the most common sounds which a turtle may produce is the hissing sound. Turtles hiss by quickly expelling air from their lungs. They do this by tucking their heads into their shells.

What message does the turtle communicate when it hisses?

Hissing means a variety of things. However, underneath all the different messages is ‘stress’.

A turtle in a new environment will hiss a lot as it is not used to its environment. Once the turtle gets used to its environment, you can expect it to hiss less. Snappers (common snapping turtle and the alligator snapping turtle) hiss when approached.

They do this because they are stressed and feel threatened. Hissing coupled with heavy breathing produces a menacing sound. A threatened snapping turtle will attack when approached or provoked. Their bites are very powerful and are capable of crushing human bones.

When a turtle hisses, it’s best to leave it alone.

How Do Sea Turtles Communicate?

Sea turtles consist of just 7 species. These include flatback (Natator depressus), green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta), olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), and Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii).

As solitary creatures, sea turtle communication is scarce. However, communication among hatchlings is well documented.

First-Ever Recording Of Sea Turtles Vocalization

baby Leatherback sea turtles_crawling_to_the_sea
Baby leatherback sea turtles crawling into the ocean after hatching

Animals are verbal; we all know that. However, for millennia, we have believed that sea turtles do not produce sounds. Of course, tortoises and freshwater turtles do produce sounds but not sea turtles. It wasn’t until 1999 that humans finally recorded sea turtle sounds.

This is a huge milestone as we have definitive proof that sea turtles do produce verbal sounds. Recorded by Sarah L. Cook and T. G. Forrest of the University of North Carolina-Asheville, these sounds were produced by the leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea).

You can check out the report here.

These sounds consist of grunts and pumps. These sounds are produced only during specific activities. In all the leatherback sea turtle produces over 300 different noises.

The sounds include those linked to particular activities such as respiration or hiding. Some of the sounds are used to coordinate hatching time. This way, hatchlings can emerge around the same time.

This communication is essential to the survival of baby sea turtles as a large number emerging at the same time improves their chances of survival.

Green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas agassizii) have also been recorded to produce distressed calls. Analysis of underwater recording shows that green sea turtles produce pulsed sound when divers come close to them.

How Do Sea Turtles Hear?

We have established that sea turtles produce a variety of sounds which they use to communicate. With that information at hand, we can conclude that they must be capable of hearing as well.

Turtles are considered the least vocal of the extant reptiles. As already mentioned, the sounds produced are through grunts, pumps, and breathing.

These sounds are produced during nesting. The best data on sea turtle hearing comes from research done using brainstem auditory evoked potential (BAEP) tests. BAEP tests measure the electrostatic potential response of the brain to sound.

Using data collected, we know that sea turtles hear mid to low-frequency sounds. A sea turtle responds best to sounds between 200 and 750 Hz.

How Do Tortoises Communicate?

Marginated-Tortoise-looking-out
Marginated Tortoise looking attentively

Just like aquatic turtles, tortoises communicate using a variety of cues. These can be verbal, visual, and even olfactory.

One of the main periods, when tortoises are most communicative, is during mating. Males will stick their heads out and bob their heads towards female turtles to show the intent to mate.

The male may also moan or grunt in a bid to attract the female’s attention. Male turtles may also circle the female, ram her shell, and even bite her.

Head-bobbing also occurs when tortoises are involved in aggression and combat. Males may also ram shells and bite. They do this to defend their territories and establish dominance.

This form of communication is used to establish social hierarchies. Gopherus tortoises, ploughshare tortoises, and African angulate tortoises can even overturn opponents in fights.

Apart from courtship and combat, tortoises also show other social behaviors through communications.

Nose touching, head-bobbing, body posture, and even breathing are all ways through which tortoises communicate. Nose touching is used to show curiosity.

Tortoises may introduce themselves through nose touching. With their strong sense of smell, tortoises can determine sex (see our gender identification guide here to learn how to for yourself) and even temperament through nose-touching.

Also, dominant tortoises are more likely to exhibit this behavior. A less dominant tortoise may interpret nose touching as aggression and shy away.

Posture is also an important way through which tortoises communicate. When shy, scared, or stressed, a tortoise will retract into its shell. If your tortoise retracts into its shell often, then something is wrong. Provide hiding spots and more space if there are two or more tortoises in the same enclosure.

A confident tortoise will extend its head fully or partially. An elevated head is a sign of confidence and is often seen in outgoing tortoises.

Just How Sociable Are Tortoises?

Sea turtles are very solitary, tortoises, and while tortoises are still solitary creatures, they are more sociable than sea turtles are. Of course, you can’t expect tortoises to be anywhere as sociable as dogs or even cats.

Tortoises use a wide array of communication cues and behaviors to communicate among themselves and humans. Also, each tortoise has a distinct personality. Expect some tortoises to be more outgoing than others.

A scared or stressed tortoise will retract into its shell and hiss a lot. Hissing means that the tortoise is scared or stressed. A relaxed and confident turtle will extend and elevate its head. Generally, vocalization is negative unless during courtship and mating.

All tortoises don’t behave the same. Just like humans, some tortoises are more outgoing than others. Similarly, some tortoises are overly shy and easily intimidated.

Regardless of the temperament of your tortoise, make sure to give it space to get used to its environment. Similarly, try to keep the enclosure the same.

Don’t move objects around as this can be confusing for the tortoise who may assume it’s in a different enclosure.

If you ever have to clean the tortoise’s enclosure, ensure that every object is returned to its rightful location.

Several tortoises can cohabitate peacefully. If you notice signs of aggression, make sure to separate the aggressive tortoise. 

Also, it’s very important to touch and hold the tortoise only when necessary. Constant contact can be perceived as aggression. Turning a tortoise upside down is extremely frightening for the tortoise.

The same can be said of lifting up the tortoise. You should only do this when it is absolutely necessary. Also repeatedly tapping on the shell can frighten the tortoise.

Conclusion

Turtles are communicative creatures although not as chatty as other animals. Hatchlings are known to communicate among themselves even before they hatch.

Mothers of some species such as the South American river turtle (Podocnemis expansa) even communicate with hatchlings after they hatch.

Turtles also communicate during courtship and also use sounds to express fear and stress. Also, turtles use physical behavior and posture to show dominance and determine social hierarchy.

As a turtle keeper, you need to be able to tell what your turtle is trying to communicate to you. This skill comes through attention and patience. Also, your interaction with them can be seen as communication.

Turning the turtle upside down or tapping the shell can be construed as aggressive behavior. This can frighten the turtle. When the turtle retracts into its shell, then it’s scared or stressed. There is still a lot to be discovered when it comes to turtle communication.

If you have any questions or additional information feel free to leave a comment below.

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