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How To Tell The Gender Of A Turtle

One of the most common questions we get at All Turtles is How can you tell if your turtle is a male or female? Most times when you are purchasing a turtle from a breeder they should be able to inform you.

Reptile sex is determined by the incubation temperature, and through good record keeping, they should easily be able to tell you if your turtle is a he or a she. Males are created through cooler temperatures, while females are produced when they turn up the heat.

When you get your turtle or tortoise from chain pet stores or rescue centers, it can be difficult to tell what sex your little buddy is. This guide is aimed at helping you solve that issue.

With a keen eye and the right information, you too can tell what sex your turtle is, at least with about 95 percent accuracy.

Table of Contents

1. Checking a Water Turtle’s Gender
1.1 Turtles-Claws
1.2 Turtle Tail
1.3 Turtle Size
2. Checking a Tortoise’s Gender
2.1 Gular Scutes
2.2 Tortoise Shell
2.3 Tortoise Tail
3. Video on how to tell whether a turtle or tortoise is male or female

1. Checking an Aquatic Turtle’s Gender

Small aquatic turtle climbing up rocks taken by Jim the Photographer
Small aquatic turtle climbing up rocks taken by Jim the Photographer.

Sexing a baby turtle, if the temperature was not calculated, can be extremely difficult.

Many times turtle owners will have to wait until the turtle starts hitting puberty. While many animals hit sexual maturity in a few years or even months, turtles often take around 10 years or longer.

While you may be able to sex a baby turtle with some degree of accuracy, it may be prudent to wait until your turtle is nearing adulthood.

You can tell the difference between a male and female water turtle thanks to some key physical features. Aquatic turtles are sexually dimorphic. This means there are distinct and different characteristics between males and females.

Some distinctions are obvious such as the size difference between some turtles. Though if you only have one turtle, it may be difficult to compare size differences.

Here we will look at several physical characteristics to determine the gender of your turtle. From the claws to the tail there are plenty of small differences, so let’s get into it.

1.1 Turtle’s Claws

Claws of female red eared slider
female red-eared slider claws

The first place to look is at the turtle’s claws. While in the human world, females tend to have longer nails than most men, the opposite is true in turtle circles.

Females do need long claws to dig out nests for their eggs, but males need strong, long, and thick nails to fight off rival suitors. They also use these long nails to grip the female during mating.

In the case of red-eared sliders, these nails can be significantly longer. While other species of turtles may not be as long, male turtle claws are either longer, or thicker.

Another reason for the long claws on male turtles, they use them to tickle or entice a female into mating. It’s a form of courtship or foreplay before the “action.”

While this one trait isn’t universal for all turtles, it can be used in combination with other traits to solve the gender mystery.

Male Water Turtle Claw Close Up
Male pond turtle claws

1.2 Turtle Tails

Female water turtle tail
Female water turtle tail showing the opening near the base

The next area to check is the tail. If your turtle is shy when you’re checking on its backside, it could tuck itself in its shell. If this happens, you’ll have to spend some time letting them get used to you and being handled.

Assuming your turtle is cool with you looking at its sensitive parts, let’s discuss the differences between male and female tails. First, the male’s tail is usually longer and thicker than a female’s.

If you’re able to look closer, look for the location of the cloaca, or the vent. On a female, the cloaca will be closer to the shell and the male’s cloaca is located more at the tip of the tail.

Male Water Turtle Tail Close up with Cloaca
Male pond turtle tail showing the cloaca which is out toward the end of the tail

1.3 Turtle’s Size

Water Turtles Female and male comparison
Female red-bellied slider on the left and male pond turtle on the right

When you only have one turtle this can be a challenging clue to use. Let’s take the red-eared slider as an example again.

Females can grow to 11 to 12 inches long from shell tip to tip, while males are slightly smaller. Males reach a max growth size between 8 to 10 inches.

You could have a four or five-year-old turtle that’s 9 or 10 inches long. At this size, your turtle could be either male or female, so using size alone, when you only have one turtle is no good.

It’s easier to tell gender from its size if your turtle is a decade old or older, but who wants to wait that long to find out? You have to choose a name! Is he going to be Samuel, or is she going to be called Samantha?

1.4 Turtle Shell

Turtle shell in grass taken by Paul
Turtle shell in grass taken by Paul.

Let’s check one more physical trait to help us determine within a reasonable amount of accuracy. Checking the plastron—the bottom half of the shell—will add more accuracy to figure out the turtle’s gender.

As long as the turtle is healthy, and doesn’t have any shell deformities, you can check the shape of the plastron. Males usually have a slightly concave shape (curved inward) on their bellies. No, it’s not from working out and getting that six-pack ab look, it’s so they can balance on the female during mating.

A female’s plastron is usually flat. And while this isn’t always an accurate trait, depending on the species, the females’ carapace—upper shell—is more rounded. Again, this can vary depending on treatment, food available, and species.

So, if you are able to check these four physical traits, you can reasonably deduce whether you have a male or female turtle. Males have bigger claws, thicker tails, a cloaca closer to the tip, and are overall smaller than females.

Females on the other hand are larger than males and have flat plastrons.

2. Checking a Tortoise’s Gender

A tortoise looking at the camera taken by cactusbeetroot
A tortoise looking at the camera taken by cactusbeetroot.

If you have a tortoise, you can use some of the clues used to tell a turtle’s gender, but there are some differences. The thing about tortoises, most defining gender characteristics are extremely ambiguous until they reach sexual maturity.

Unfortunately, unless the previous owner or breeder is able to tell you the sex of your tortoise, you may have to wait a few years before you know for sure. Now, let’s see how you can determine the gender of your tortoise.

2.1 Gular Scutes

Male Tortoise Gular Scute
Male Sulcata Tortoise Gular Scutes (more pronounced than females)

Gular scutes are typically male tortoise characteristics. What are gular scutes? Luckily it’s not a new dance craze just yet. These plates are the bottom and foremost plates on a tortoise’s plastron. 

Males usually have a pair of jutting gular scutes. They can be fused together, or set apart, making them look like strange horns poking out below their throat.

These are often used to fight off rival males. Some tortoises will use their gular scutes to knock around or even flip other males onto their backs. 

Female Tortoise Gular Scutes (less pronounced)

2.2 Tortoises Shell

Male Tortoise with concave plastron
Concave male tortoise plastron

If you are able to flip your tortoise over you can check the bottom of its shell. Be careful doing this, and don’t leave them upside down for long, this can be extremely stressful for your tortoise.

In the wild, if they get flipped on their backs, they often can’t flip back over and it becomes fatal for them. So, they inherently don’t like to be upside down.

If you can, just lift them up from the back and feel along the bottom of their plastron. Male tortoises will have a more pronounced indention in the shell. Like turtles, this helps them mount the female when they mate.

Female tortoises may still have a slightly concave shell, but compared to the male, it will be much flatter and less curved.

Female Tortoise shell
Female tortoise plastron

2.3 Tortoise Tails

male tortoise anal scute
Male tortoise anal scute

Like aquatic turtles, male tortoise tails are typically longer and thicker than females. The same goes for the cloaca location as well. A male’s cloaca is closer to the tip of the tail, while a female tortoise has a cloaca much closer to the base.

Being closer to the base makes it easier for her to lay eggs. It’s usually a wider opening at the base, and the eggs don’t have to travel quite as far.

Some species of tortoise have a claw-like hardened tip on their tail. If you see this on your tortoise, then you have a male. 

If your tortoise isn’t feeling acutely self-conscious by now, you can also check the anal scutes. This isn’t a decisive factor as they can vary from species to species, but generally, a male’s anal scutes form to make a “V” shape, while females tend to display a “U” shape.

This is much easier to distinguish if you have two tortoises. The way their shells grow, it could be difficult to determine if the shape is a true V, or if it’s rounded and looks more like a U.

Female Tortoise Anal Scute
Female tortoise anal scute

2.4 Tortoise Size and Color

Cute little tortoise up close saying hello to the camera taken by Becks
Cute little tortoise up close saying hello to the camera taken by Becks.

Again, females are generally larger than males in the tortoise world.

This is because the female has to make room for egg development inside her. This characteristic is difficult to quantify when you only have one tortoise though. 

Another variation is color. While most tortoises are drab colored, for protection and camouflage, males of the same species tend to be more brightly colored.

3. How Do You Tell Whether a Turtle or Tortoise is Male or Female?

The reason we use a lot of terms and phrases such as “tends to,” “usually,” and “probably,” is because there are so many variables to take into consideration when sexing turtles and tortoises. They aren’t born with bows on their heads, or from pink or blue eggs, so we have to use the clues provided. 

But, by using all these observations, we can reasonably deduce whether you have Maxwell or Maxine. If you want to have a professional opinion, or your turtle or tortoise isn’t giving you definitive clues, ask your vet during the next check-up.

We hope you have learned a lot from this article and are able to determine the sex of your turtle or tortoise. For added benefit and information, we have added this video. It gives a great walkthrough with the subtle nuances of determining the sex of both turtles and tortoises. 

Check it out to become a turtle and tortoise sexing expert!

Conclusion

That’s it for this guide on sexing turtles and tortoises. By combining all the visual clues presented you can reasonably deduce the sex of your turtle or tortoise.

Females are typically bigger than males because they have to carry the eggs as they develop. Male plastrons tend to be concave and they have longer, thicker tails with a cloaca located near the tip.

Male turtle’s claws are often longer, and thicker than females for holding on to her, and fighting rivals off. Tortoise males often have gular scutes to use as ramming rods and flipping forks to send off other suitors.

Do you have any other tips on how to check the gender of a turtle or tortoise?

Let us know below in the comments!

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Raenna

Monday 10th of August 2020

I am looking to get my 9 year old daughter a turtle. I have read a little bit about them but curious, i am hoping to get a turtle that wont grow very big. I saw that the mud turtle does not grow more then about 4 inches. Is this a turtle that won't bite or be aggressive? Is there any other turtles you would recommend?

Brock Yates

Tuesday 11th of August 2020

Hey there,

Water turtles like the mud turtle are more of a display pet, than one to handle, they may or may not bite but can be docile in nature. A better option may be a tortoise. You can have a look here https://www.allturtles.com/best-pet-tortoises/ to see the different types. Greek Tortoises or Hermann's tortoises stay relatively small. Don't forget about their setups, they will need an enclosure with UVB light as well. You can check the individual care sheets for more information on that here https://www.allturtles.com/tortoise-species/