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.
Understanding the sex of a turtle, whether it’s aquatic turtles or land-dwelling species, is important for every pet turtle owner, especially in the United States where turtle keeping is popular. This guide doesn’t cover sea turtles since they cannot legally or physically be kept as pets.
How is the gender of turtles determined?
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
How to tell if a turtle is male or female
Checking an Aquatic Turtle’s Gender
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. When considering the adult size of a turtle, females generally are larger due to their reproductive role.
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. Turtle’s 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 aquatic species like the female red-eared sliders, claw length can be a clear indicator of gender, with longer claws often suggesting a likely male.
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.
2. Turtle Tails
The turtle’s tail and its length are critical factors. A long tail can indicate a male, whereas a short tail might suggest a female.
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.
3. Turtle’s Size
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?
4. Turtle Shell
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.
Sexing a Tortoise
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.
1. Gular Scutes
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. In male box turtles, for example, these can be quite pronounced.
Males usually have a pair of jutting gular scutes. They can be fused, 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.
2. Tortoises Shell
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.
3. Tortoise Tails
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. This distinct difference in the cloacal opening is a foolproof way to determine the sex of the turtle.
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.
4. Tortoise Size and Color
Again, females are generally larger than males in the tortoise world. While not a tortoise, this is evident in species like African Sideneck turtles, where the size of a turtle and color change during mating season and can be telltale signs of their gender.
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.
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 can 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!
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.
Remember, the easiest way to determine the sex of the turtle is often by observing physical traits like the length of the claws, the flat plastron in females, and the shell shape.
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