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3 Reasons Why Turtles Headbutt Each Other

One of the odder behaviors that you may have seen from your turtle is headbutting. You might see a turtle headbutting another turtle, for instance, or a particular toy. Some turtles may even headbutt the wall. So, what’s up with that? Why do turtle’s headbutt?

There are 3 main reasons why you will see this behavior. First off, with other turtles, it’s a way to establish dominance and show ‘who is in charge’. It can also be the initiation of a very clumsy (from our point of view) mating dance. Finally, sometimes your turtle is just exploring the limits of their enclosure.

Today we’ll take a closer look at this fascinating behavior. We’ll talk more about what your turtle may be trying to do when they initiate a headbutt, as well as explain those videos you might have seen with turtles headbutting black shoes.

Finally, we’ll cover some other reasons why your turtle might be ‘upping the ante’ on their aggressive behavior and what you can do to help minimize these exhibits of chelonian frustration. Let’s talk about why turtles headbutt and what you need to know!

Turtle headbutting – Why it happens

When you see your little (or not so little) armored buddy headbutting, it definitely gets your attention. The good news is that it’s not as complicated as you think – it’s a pretty straightforward message that just needs a little context to interpret. 

Below are the most common reasons and the likely rationale behind them.

1. Establishing dominance

If action movies have taught us anything, nothing quite says dominance like a well-placed headbutt. Turtles are well aware of this fact out of necessity – with that large shell on their back and the way their legs are placed, they can’t easily claw or otherwise attack each other.

A headbutt and a hefty push with all of their weight behind them, however, definitely gets a clear message across – don’t mess with me, I’m a big, tough turtle and this is MY territory!

 You can potentially see this behavior at any time if you are hosting multiple turtles in one enclosure, but it’s most common at a certain time, which brings us to reason #2.

2. Mating urges

While the exact months for mating season will depend on the species (typically freshwater vs. tropical), one time that you’ll almost always see aggressive behaviors is mating season! That’s something we can all relate with, when you think about it.

Just like we might go out of our way to groom or brag a bit about ourselves in the springtime, so do turtles go into ‘overload’ when it’s time to find a mate and reproduce. 

With males, this can mean headbutting, shell-ramming, and biting – and you may need to separate them if one or more turtles is getting TOO aggressive or one of your turtles might get badly hurt. 

If you have a male biting a female in the enclosure, that isn’t always bad – usually it’s a lighter bite just to show the female that the male is dominant – but still keep a close eye whenever this behavior occurs. 

3. Exploration

One question we get asked a lot here at All Turtles is ‘why the heck is my turtle headbutting the wall of their tank?’ and the answer is simple: Your turtle is testing to see if they can get out to explore. 

Turtles walk slowly, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t know there’s a world outside of the tank, and testing the limits of the enclosure is pretty much the same as what they do in nature. 

Turtles and tortoises have scaled many a fence with their powerful legs and clawed feet, and when they meet obstacles along the way they know that their bulk and mighty legs can often help them ‘bully’ their way past such obstacles.

Depending on the size of the turtle, this can be cute and kind of funny to watch, or rather impressive as a good-sized turtle simply knocks down a fence or pushes some other obstacle out of the way. 

One exception – if you see your turtle bumping up against glass, then this might be the turtle fighting their reflection (here’s a viral example from the Daily Mail), rather than an exploration attempt. That said, in MOST cases they’re just testing if that wall is as solid as it looks!

Why do turtles headbutt and attack black shoes?

You may have seen some videos online showing turtles going absolutely batty when they see black shoes, resulting in headbutts and bites on the offending ebony footwear. This is normal and shows up with many different species of turtle and tortoise, but what’s up with that?

Well, as it turns out, turtles see and react to colors.

While we don’t have a lot of data on the subject, we know that turtles are attracted to colors such as orange, blue, and yellow, which they have learned to associate with certain kinds of foods. Darker colors, however, like black or dark green, usually mean other turtles and invoke aggressive behavior.

Again, we don’t have enough studies on this phenomenon to provide a 100% confirmation that this is what’s going on, but we can say that turtles don’t seem to do this with shoes that are different colors

So for now, that’s our best hypothesis on the behavior – turtles simply believe that those black shoes are other turtles and so they get headbutts and bites to remind them who is in charge!

If you would like to learn more about why turtle’s attack black shoes then we’ve got you covered! Check out ‘Why Do Turtles Attack Black?’ when you’re done here – link opens in a new window so it will be ready when you want it!

Do only male turtles headbutt?

Nope, headbutting is not just limited to males, but also something you’ll see females do from time to time. While not as aggressive in most cases, females get aggressive and territorial when they feel the need and it’s just as impressive.

While aggression may be displayed at any time (especially if the enclosure is too small), you’ll most often see female aggression during mating season. She might be rejecting a potential mate, for instance, which can result in headbutts and bites to underline the female’s message.

Gravid females, especially, can become very aggressive to protect themselves and their eggs while they are finding a nest to lay them in. Once those eggs are deposited somewhere, mind you, they don’t stick around to defend them, and many of their natural predators know this and look for turtle nests.

When the eggs are still inside the female, however, she’s going to make it very clear that she wants to be left alone!

Other reasons for turtle aggression

When you are raising turtles of your own, you’ll learn a lot about them just by observing their behaviors over time. As a way to help speed that process along, below are some other reasons why turtles might act aggressive to the point that they headbutt or even bite:

They’re bored – Turtles can get bored if there’s not enough to do, but this is something that you can help with. Try providing them with some toys to help pass the time. It’s fun to watch them play and your turtle will have a healthy outlet for their extra energy. 

Your turtle needs more ‘alone’ time – Turtles are solitary creatures and they sometimes get cranky if they don’t get enough alone time in their enclosure. This can be because you are handling them too often, or if there are other turtles in the enclosure. Handle them less and if it’s a problem between turtles, try providing more hiding places for privacy or consider investing in a larger enclosure so that everyone has more room. 

Fighting over food – If there is not enough food, just about any animal on the planet is going to become more aggressive and turtles are no exception. If you believe you are providing enough, try scattering it more widely during feedings so that one turtle can’t push all the others away, and if that doesn’t work then try a little more food – your turtles might simply be hungry.

Not enough hiding places – With more than one turtle in an enclosure, hiding places are a must, but you need to choose them carefully. Aquarium caves, for instance, should be wide enough and designed so that your turtle can’t accidentally trap themselves and drown. Hiding places help to keep the peace, as any turtle that feels bullied or wants a little privacy will have a place to go, so be sure you have them in the enclosure.

Interspecies incompatibility – Some species won’t get along with others, with snapping turtles being a good example of this (they’ll eat other species of turtles and sometimes even other snappers!). As such, you’ll need to carefully consider which species you are housing together and even if they are compatible, you’ll want extra tank space and hiding places to help promote peace.

Minimizing aggression in your turtle tank – Some quick basics!

Now that you know the ‘why’ of your turtle’s headbutting and other aggressive behaviors, we thought that we might include a quick list of ‘basics’ that you’ll want to think about to help minimize aggression with your captive turtles. Here are some important considerations:

  • Tank size – As a general rule when deciding tank size, you’ll want to start with your largest turtle and ensure that the water volume (or tank size for terrestrial turtles) is 10 gallons of volume for every inch of the turtle’s shell – so a 5 inch turtle needs a 50 gallon tank at minimum. For each additional turtle, you want another 5 gallons (although 10 is really better if your budget will allow it – more space is ALWAYS best).
  • Seasons – When it’s mating season, all bets are off, and even your nicest turtle might transform into a mean, green machine! What this means for you is that you’re going to have to monitor them more closely during this time and you might even need to separate turtles if the aggression becomes too violent. You can hedge your bets a little by lowering the temperatures in the tank by a few degrees, but beyond this you’re just going to need to keep an eye on them until mating season has passed.
  • Pairings – Pairing two male turtles together will result in fighting from time to time, and so it’s best to do male/female pairs if possible. Don’t worry – determining their gender is easier than you think – and you can always provide more space and hiding space if you really want two males together. That said, a male and a female will usually get along much better than two turtles of the same gender.
  • The importance of a spare tank – Our final recommendation is that you invest in a spare tank. If you have a glass aquarium, this can be an expensive proposition, but tanks like this 150 gallon Rubbermaid tank can be a real gamechanger. Not only do they provide you with a LOT more space for your dollar, but they are easier to clean and you can get a spare tank for when you need to separate aggressive turtles or quarantine sick ones to protect the rest.


It’s time to wrap things up, but before we do that we have some frequently asked questions to help shore up any gaps in information that we might have missed today. Let’s take a look at those and then we’ll formally wrap things up for the day!

Do turtles headbutt to confront perceived danger?

Yes, turtles often resort to headbutting as a response to perceived danger, but recognizing that danger in the first place generally boils down to sight and sound. Certain colors – especially dark ones – are viewed by a turtle as dangerous and they have a pretty sharp sense of smell as well.

Any smells or sights that they don’t recognize can result in headbutting or even biting behavior but they don’t ALWAYS mean a turtle is afraid – sometimes it’s just a way to assert dominance over other turtles or to show their prowess as a potential mate.

Should I separate headbutting turtles?

Not necessarily. Sometimes turtles will headbutt each other and one will move to their own area of the enclosure, or simply show submission in response and that will be the end of it. 

That said, if biting is involved and it is obvious that one turtle is getting hurt, then you may need to move the instigator to their own tank to avoid further injury to the other turtle or turtles.

Can you touch a turtle’s head?

That’s up to the turtle and many turtles seem to appreciate light patting or rubbing to the top of their heads. A nice chin scratch is also welcome from some turtles, who seem to really appreciate the attention.

Just be slow and gentle about it when determining if your turtle will be receptive to this – moving too fast, especially if the turtle doesn’t trust you yet, might get you a painful bite for your troubles!

Why do turtles headbutt? – Wrapping things up!

Today we’ve talked about why turtles headbutt and it’s generally for one of three reasons – they’re establishing dominance, it’s mating season behavior, or they are butting against their tank to see if it will give way to exploration.

Headbutting is generally innocuous and not something to worry about, unless you are housing multiple turtles and the behavior escalates to more violent biting.

If that happens, you might consider a larger enclosure, or if you have a spare tank you can separate the most aggressive turtle for the safety of the others. Hiding places in the tank are also a good idea, just make sure that the turtle cannot become easily trapped or caught inside -otherwise they might drown!

Turtles can also get aggressive if there is not enough food, and spacing it out or providing more can help, and finally, don’t forget that turtles can get bored. Sometimes adding some toys into the enclosure can help to keep them occupied and minimize headbutting and other aggressive behaviors.

We’d like to thank you for reading today and if you have some feedback or tips of your own to share, please be sure to leave word in the comments – The best tips come from turtle owners and we can’t wait to hear what you have to say! Until next time, we wish you and your turtles the very best!

Reference: Jstor – Display behavior in Turtles

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