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The 6 Most Common Reasons Why Turtles Dig Holes

All species of turtles are known to dig, but why do turtles dig holes? As it turns out, they do it for a lot of reasons and today we’re going to share with you the 6 most common reasons why turtles dig holes so that you can get a closer look at what’s going on in their fascinating reptilian minds!

For instance, with species like the red-eared slider and leatherback turtles, only the females, often referred to as mother turtles or pregnant turtles, dig deep holes in soft soil to create nests for their baby turtles. Terrestrial turtles such as box turtles and tortoises tend to dig more often than aquatic turtles do since they’re spending more time on land.

These dig burrows to rest in and may bury themselves in dirt or mud during aestivation and brumation (both extended periods of dormancy, similar to hibernation). Terrestrial turtles, including the eastern box turtles and Blanding’s turtles, are excellent diggers who use their hind feet to search for food, often uncovering worms and aquatic insects in the soft soil.

Similar to aquatic turtles, female terrestrial turtles also dig to create nests for their eggs.

Let’s break it down into the 6 most common reasons, however, so that you can get a bigger picture of the reasons that inspire this behavior and the turtle logic behind them. If you’re ready, here are the 6 most common reasons why turtles dig holes!

A Green Sea turtle's nest full of eggs
A Green sea turtle’s nest freshly-filled with eggs

1. Nesting

Understanding the Natural Habitat of turtles is essential. Wild turtles, such as the gopher turtle and snapping turtles, choose their nesting sites with great care, often near a nearby body of water in sandy soils or upland habitats. These locations offer the perfect conditions for their eggs, with the right temperature and protection from the biggest threats.

One fact that we touched on briefly was that female turtles dig when they need to nest. These holes are dug in moist soil and once the eggs have been deposited into the hole, the female turtle covers them up. Even aquatic turtles, who spend most of their time in the water, will come out to lay eggs in the soil.

This is because eggs cannot survive in water — they need air and a moist environment – so soil is simply the best medium to achieve this.

Even sea turtles will come on land to lay their eggs on tropic and subtropic beaches around the world. When nesting, gravid sea turtles dig the holes on beaches above high tide levels. This ensures that the eggs don’t become submerged during the incubation period.

The gravid female also tends to avoid beaches with a lot of vegetation, so that the digging is easier and her eggs are less likely to be disturbed or potentially eaten.

Aquatic turtles tend to nest close to a large body of water and they will usually dig several holes before they choose one to lay their eggs in. Additionally, they may nest several times within the nesting season, so it’s not uncommon during this time to see beaches with a lot of empty holes!

Terrestrial turtles and tortoises, of course, also dig holes for nesting, and the cycle of life continues.

If you are keeping turtles as pets, you WILL need to provide suitable nesting locations if you have a female. This is important for both aquatic and terrestrial turtles and females will lay eggs even if they don’t have a mate!

Failure to provide a nesting location can lead to dystocia (also known as egg binding), which can be fatal when left untreated. As such, providing a nesting box will be vital!

Gravid females use their hind legs to dig a nest and after depositing the eggs into the hole, the female covers it up with soil. This is to protect the eggs from predators and the whole process of nesting generally takes less than two hours.

Incubation follows and usually takes about 45 to 75 days – the warmer the temperature, the shorter the incubation process. The hatchling turtles then need to break out of the shell using what is known as an egg tooth, which it loses after hatching.

After breaking out of the shell, the hatchling then digs its way out of the nest and goes out into the world.

All known turtle species lay eggs in dug holes, so if you see a turtle digging, then nesting might well be the reason!

When you are done here, the Oliver Ridley project has a fascinating article on how sea turtles are able to find and return to the same nests over and over. You can read it here (link will open in a new window).

A forest turtle aesthivates to beat the heat
A forest turtle aestivates to beat the heat

2. Brumation/Aestivation  

Another reason turtles dig holes is to brumate, which is a process similar to hibernation. During brumation, the turtle slows its metabolism and this manifests in inactivity and reduced activity for several weeks and even months.

Different turtles brumate at different locations. Terrestrial turtles, for instance, like to brumate in holes dug in soil. Aquatic turtles may also brumate in soil, but more often than not, they end up brumating in the water.

Turtles generally start brumation in the fall and emerge in the spring, although they can halt the process if it warms up briefly. As such, it is not uncommon for the turtle to emerge for a day or two during warm weather in winter, only to go back into brumation when the temperature drops again.

Unless you are breeding your turtles, brumation is best avoided. While this is a natural process that turtles and other reptiles have evolved to survive winter, it is very hard on turtles and usually only encouraged when breeding them.

This is because brumation increases the chances of a female to lay double-clutches of eggs but if you are not breeding them, then it’s best not to encourage this behavior by keeping the enclosure warm and cozy at all times.

If you DO wish for your turtle to brumate, then you’ll need to provide a suitable environment. Turtles generally brumate when temperatures fall below 60 degrees Fahrenheit and Brumation usually begins when temperatures drop to approximately 50 degrees Fahrenheit or 10 degrees Celsius.

If the temperature falls below 35 degrees Fahrenheit, you risk permanent damage to your pet turtle and even death, so temperatures must be VERY carefully controlled when you are trying to stimulate brumation.

If your pet turtle is housed outdoors and is terrestrial, don’t be surprised if they dig a hole and brumate in it when fall arrives!

This is natural behavior, although these days turtle enthusiasts do not view this as a safe way to brumate turtles and will usually bring them inside or provide warming means for their enclosures. This ‘controlled environment’ option is much safer than a hole outside, so it’s the preferred method to use.

Place your turtle in a well-aerated dark box and keep them in a room with a temperature of about 40°F (4.5°C).

Some people even keep the turtle in a non-airtight refrigerator, as they can easily control the temperature., but ideally you should simply keep your pet turtle in a well-aerated room with minimal light and heating.

In addition to brumating, turtles also aestivate – which is like brumation but for surviving hotter temperatures. Simply put, Turtles aestivate when temperatures are too high and they need to cool off. Box turtles are known to aestivate in shallow depressions in litter or topsoil.

These holes may be ones that they dig up themselves or existing holes – whatever is most convenient and feels safe for the turtle.

If you are thinking about breeding your turtles and want to encourage brumation, then be sure to check out our Turtle Hibernation guide when you’re done here!

Turtle's foraging in a garden
Turtles and tortoises spend a lot of time foraging their meals

3. Foraging 

Turtles commonly dig in search of food. Most turtles are omnivorous, although they tend to be more carnivorous than herbivorous when they are young.

Turtles eat worms and bugs and have a fondness for earthworms, which reside in moist soil that is quite easy for the turtles to dig into. As long as your turtle is well-fed, it won’t need to forage for food, so if you see it actively digging then you may not be feeding it enough!

If your turtle is well-fed, however, they might be digging for the next reason on our list!

A snapping turtle digging a hole
Sometimes turtles dig for nesting, but sometimes they do it because they’re bored!

4. Boredom

Turtles also dig for fun and they’ll spend a considerable amount of time doing it. It’s simply in their nature! Some owners suggest that if your turtle is digging a lot, it may well be bored, and they suggest decorating the turtle’s enclosure to provide the turtle with more objects to play with.

We don’t really recommend rearranging the turtle’s enclosure often to keep it from digging, although you can certainly add new items slowly to make their enclosure more interesting – just don’t rush it.

New environments stress turtles, so constantly rearranging the enclosure makes it look like a new and unfamiliar environment, and this tends to stress turtles out.

After all, you’d feel weird if your apartment furniture changed every day and probably a little terrified too – so keep changes at a minimum. Slowly adding pet toys and live plants is a good way to change their environment in a way that feels more natural and can help your turtle stay entertained.

A turtle den in florida
This turtle den was found in Florida and provides excellent defense for a turtle’s peace of mind

5. Security

It is important to provide hiding spots for turtles in order to help them feel safe. Hide boxes, plants, and even logs are a great way to do this, but these aren’t the only choices available. Basically, any object the turtle can hide behind or inside works, so get creative with it (just avoid sharp edges!).

Turtles feel secure and comfortable when they are hidden and if you have several turtles within the same enclosure, it is essential to provide several hiding spots. Failure to do so can result in confrontations and aggression, so this is a must!

Even with the hiding spots provided, turtles like to create their own and may attempt to dig personal burrows in which they can hide and sleep. In the wild, turtles often dig up massive burrows that can be several feet wide and large enough to contain even massive turtles such as gopher tortoises!

Smaller turtles, such as box turtles, will dig much smaller holes in which to bury themselves and they can use these to sleep or to simply hang out in so that they feel safe and secure.

It is recommended to have a large area for your terrestrial turtles, as a large, open area helps them to feel more comfortable. They’ll also need to be several places to hide and ideally, they should be able to dig and burrow when needed.

This will ensure comfort and security and help the individual turtles to deal with stress.

Large species, such as gopher tortoises, require much larger environments to create their burrows in so that they have a safe place to sleep and ‘beat the heat’ on hot, summer days.

A sea turtle in a rocky pool
Turtles will sometimes eat the rocks around them for extra nutrition – but this is dangerous!

6. Ingesting Rocks

While uncommon, turtles have been known to eat rocks and gravel, and this is believed to be for nutrition. For many animals, rocks can be a source of minerals like iron, calcium, and phosphorous.

As such, if you do not offer your turtle a balanced diet with all the needed minerals and nutrients, then it may well resort to eating rocks and soil! That’s not always the reason, though, as turtles may sometimes mistake rocks for food and swallow them whole like they would with any other snack.

Regardless of their reasons, ingesting rocks, gravel, and substrate is dangerous, as it can lead to impaction. Impaction refers to bowel obstruction that occurs when the turtle eats objects they cannot digest.

This ends up blocking the digestive tract, which can lead to internal bruising and may eventually prove fatal.

Your turtle may dig up and ingest substrate including rocks, gravel, and soil and if you see this, then you should try to put a stop to it. While turtles generally pass the substrate they swallow, this doesn’t always happen, and over time it becomes a genuine health hazard.

If you believe that your turtle is suffering from impaction, then you should get a vet involved right away. Symptoms of impaction include lethargy, refusal to eat, inability to pass stool, and straining when defecating.

Thankfully, turtles normally do not eat rocks and soil if they are provided with a healthy diet. You can also provide turtle supplements that are specially formulated with minerals and nutrients that your turtle needs and this should help minimize the chances of them eating rocks and pebbles in their enclosures.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is my turtle digging?

There are many different reasons why your turtle may be digging. For instance, turtles may dig for fun when they are bored, and female turtles will dig every year when they are gravid and need to lay eggs. A turtle will also dig when creating a burrow for sleeping, brumation, or aestivation.

Finally, turtles love earthworms and vegetation that they find in moist soil, so sometimes they’re just digging to find a delicious snack!

Why does my turtle bury itself?

There are several reasons why a turtle may bury itself. For instance, turtles often do this on hot days to beat the heat, or on cold days to survive the winter. For heat, this behavior is called aestivation and for cold, it it called brumation. Both are survival modes where the turtle’s metabolism is slowed for survival.

Turtles may also bury themselves when hiding from aggressive housemates, loud sounds, or even humans, so be sure to provide several hiding spots within the turtle’s enclosure if the digging bothers you – as long as they can hide, turtles will feel safer and much less stressed!

Do turtles dig holes to sleep in?

Yes, turtles and tortoises often dig holes to sleep in, although some species do this more than others. Sleeping inside a hole that they’ve dug or inside a rotted log helps turtles and tortoises feel less vulnerable to any local predators that might want to try to eat them when they are resting.

Now you know the 6 most common reasons why turtles dig holes!

Turtles, being cold-blooded animals, rely on the environment to regulate their body temperature. This behavior explains why they dig holes, ranging from shallow holes for cooling down in hot weather to deeper holes for brumation in early winter.

The act of turtle digging holes, whether it’s a captive turtle in the bottom of its tank or a wild turtle in its natural habitat, showcases their adaptability and instincts for survival under various conditions, including extreme weather conditions.

Finally, digging loosens up vitamin and mineral-rich stones that the turtle ingests for nutrition, although this should NOT be encouraged with captive turtles – rocks and pebbles can impact their digestive tract causing prolapse, so if they’re eating rocks then try adding commercial supplements to their diet.

So the next time you see your turtle digging, don’t panic – just watch them and see if you can use what you’ve learned to determine the reason. With a little practice, you’ll be able to figure it out in no time!

Thinking about building an outdoor turtle pond? We can help with that! Take a peek at our guide and we can walk you through what you’ll need and the steps it will take!

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