All healthy mature females can become pregnant turtles. This can happen regardless of if the turtle has mated or not. Of course, if the turtle hasn’t mated, the eggs will be infertile and won’t yield any hatchlings.
Turtles like other reptiles are said to be gravid when carrying eggs. In the title of this article, we use the word “pregnant” loosely and only because that’s what new turtle parents (keepers) usually search when they need information on gravid turtles.
If your turtle is gravid, you can feel the eggs from inside the shell as lumps in front of the hind legs.
If your wondering what a pregnant turtle looks like, then you will be surprised that it looks like a normal turtle. The plastron may be slightly more bulged, but otherwise it is very hard to visually tell.
If you have a female adult turtle, you need to keep in mind that your turtle will lay eggs even if she doesn’t mate. You don’t want your turtle to become egg bound.
This happens when the turtle fails to lay the eggs it produces. This is also known as egg retention or dystocia. Egg retention is one of the greatest health threats to adult female turtles.
As mentioned earlier, whether or not the eggs are fertile, you need to ensure that the turtle lays them even if you don’t plan on doing anything with them.
Not only is egg retention uncomfortable and painful, but it can also lead to death. Without the right conditions, the turtle may take longer to lay her eggs and may fail to lay all the eggs she produces.
Causes of dystocia among captive turtles
There are many reasons why a turtle may fail to lay eggs. Among captive turtles, these reasons are:
- Lack of a proper nesting site. Turtles need a site where they can comfortably lay their eggs. This site is usually a hide box filled with a slightly dampened substrate such as sphagnum moss, coco coir, and potting soil. This is the most common reason for egg retention among gravid turtles kept in captivity.
- Stressful living conditions. A tiny tank or an overcrowded tank can stress the turtle out. Similarly, incorrect lighting and heating can also cause a lot of stress. The same can be said of poor water quality. Even the presence of other pets such as dogs and cats (these animals are actually turtle egg predators in the wild) can cause the turtle to refuse to lay eggs. The living conditions must be optimal.
- Nutrient deficiency. Lack of important nutrients such as calcium can cause egg retention.
- Pre-existing problems with the turtle’s reproductive system.
Although aquatic turtles spend most of their lives in water, they do come on land to lay eggs. They do this by digging and burying the eggs in soil on the banks/beach of their native habitat.
With most aquatic setups, this sort of environment doesn’t exist. As such, it is important to provide a nesting site in the setup.
How to tell if your turtle is pregnant
Here are some signs that may indicate that your turtle is pregnant.
- Restlessness. Is your turtle restless? Is she trying to dig through the bottom of the enclosure, climb out of the enclosure or swim through the sides of the tank? If so, then she may be gravid. She may be desperately trying to find a nesting site. If a nesting location isn’t provided she may release a few eggs in the water.
- Changes in appetite. During the early stages of gravidity, expect the turtle to eat more and consciously. Gravid turtles may tend to eat less as they devote all their time to finding a place to lay their eggs. This usually occurs when egg disposition is near. Change in eating habits can be a sign.
- Digging in the substrates available in the tank. If the turtle uses her hind legs to dig, then it’s most likely that she is carrying eggs.
Palpating your turtle is one of the best ways to tell if the turtle is pregnant or not. This should, however, only be performed by experts and qualified herp vets as it’s very easy to break the eggs and cause yolk peritonitis.
To palpate the turtle, you need to delicately press the soft areas near the hind legs – between the plastron and the carapace. If she is gravid, you can feel the eggs.
If you are unsure if your turtle is gravid or not, your herp vet can take an x-ray, which should reveal any eggs that are present, the x-ray also provides useful information such as the number of eggs & the presence of any problematic eggs.
Caring for a gravid turtle
Here we will give you general instructions on how to care for a gravid turtle.
If you plan on breeding your turtle, you can easily determine the period within which the turtle would lay eggs as you closely follow the yearly breeding schedule of the turtle.
This usually isn’t the case if you don’t wish to breed your female turtle. Turtles can also lay eggs at unusual times of the year. In the wild and even in captivity, the nesting season is usually from March to June.
Creating a nesting site
A lack of nesting sites is the biggest reason why most gravid turtles fail to properly lay eggs. Creating a nesting site in an outdoor enclosure is easy. You need to dedicate an area of the pen to nesting.
This area must contain about 8 inches of slightly moist soft soil and some rocks and logs so the turtle can feel safe.
The container should be large enough to hold soil deeper than the length of your turtle. It should also be wide and long enough so your turtle feels comfortable. A container that’s about 5 times her length & width should do.
It’s best to use a mix of potting soil/topsoil and sand. All substrates used should be free of pesticide, microbes, and fertilizer. Mosser Lee Desert Sand Soil Cover and Hoffman Sphagnum Peat Moss are good choices.
Mix equal parts of sand and potting soil/topsoil in the plastic container. Make sure the soil is at room temperature. Now lighting mist the top of the nesting soil with tepid water.
Place the turtle into the container and cover about two-thirds of the container with its lid. Allow for two to three hours to pass before returning her to her enclosure. Make sure nothing disturbs her.
You can now check the soil for eggs. These are usually buried in the soil. Whenever, your turtle looks eager to lay eggs, return her to the nesting site.
If after several tries, your gravid turtle refuses to lay eggs, you may want to book an appointment with your local herp vet. Reasons, why she may refuse to lay eggs, include the wrong temperature range, lack of moisture, and the choice of nesting soil mix.
You can also simulate the laying process by placing her in warm water (about 100 degrees Fahrenheit or 30 degrees celsius water than the water in her enclosure) for about half an hour before placing her in the nesting site.
The main complication that can arise when a turtle is gravid is the failure to expel the eggs. Dystocia can be very painful for the turtle and even lead to death.
To prevent this, you need to provide the turtle with the ideal conditions needed to lay the eggs. A lack of the right place to lay the eggs is the number one cause of egg binding.
It is our duty as turtle keepers to monitor the turtle and determine if it’s gravid and provide a laying site that closely mirrors that of a natural oviposition site.
If you have any additional information or questions, leave a comment. We look forward to hearing from you.