We view our tortoises as tough with a vulnerable side. Having a giant hard shell makes you feel they are tough, then their docile slow-moving nature makes you think they are weak. This may have you guessing how does a tortoise protects itself from a predator?
Tortoises protect themselves from predators by burrowing into the ground using their strong legs. Their following line of defense is their hard shell that not only protects from bites but acts as camouflage. A tortoise’s last line of defense from predators would be their hard beak that they will use to bite.
There is a quick way a tortoise protects itself from predators but let’s take a deeper dive into how they do it and what their predators are they may face. The tortoises we keep in our homes have many surprises that we may not even know about that they are hiding.
Mature Tortoise Defences
If you plan on keeping a tortoise outside, one of your primary concerns is going to be predators. Despite looking super solid and protected by their shell, tortoises actually have many natural predators that would love to have an opportunity to try and eat your favorite outdoor pet. So how does a tortoise protect itself from predators?
A fully grown mature tortoise has a lot of tools in its toolkit when it comes to avoiding and defending against predators. While predation is always a concern for outdoor pets, the tortoise has many different options when it comes to protecting itself.
Carapace and Plastron
The most well-known defense for tortoises is their shell. A tortoises’ shell is divided into two different sections: the carapace and the plastron.
The carapace is the hard outer shell that forms the tortoises back. It is very hard and rigid and makes for a great defense against most predators, especially when a healthy and mature tortoise.
The second part of a tortoise’s shell is the plastron. The plastron is the softer, more flexible part of the shell that covers the underside, including the belly.
This section is softer than the carapace, but it can still provide decent protection from a hungry predator in a dire situation.
The second-best defense a tortoise has against predators is its ability to burrow. Tortoises love to dig holes, and they dig extremely well.
When a tortoise buries itself in the ground, it becomes nearly impossible to get to.
The few predators who can dig a tortoise out of a burrow would have a hard time getting through the shell.
Tortoises burrow in order to create themselves a safe shelter to live in and hide from predators. Tortoise burrows protect them from heat, cold, predators, and more.
They will often dig one main burrow but could also dig multiple side burrows to use as well. When a tortoise gets spooked, they will often go to their burrow to hide from prying eyes.
Tortoises also have a beak that they can use to bite predators. This will be a last line of defense because if a tortoise has to bite another animal, the rest of its defenses have probably failed.
However, a tortoise bite can be strong enough to ward off most small predators. Tortoises are not designed to use their beak as a primary defense, but a sharp bite from any animal can give a predator second thoughts.
If tortoises are in their natural environment, they blend in very well. Many tortoise species’ shells are designed to camouflage them against predators.
Desert tortoises are dusty tan and brown color, which makes them look like sand or rocks when they are not moving.
Forest tortoises have green and dark brown in their color. This helps to deter and confuse predators with bad eyesight. Since tortoises do not move quickly, their camouflage often works well.
However, if your tortoise is not in its natural environment, it will not benefit from this defense. For example, if you keep your desert tortoise outside in your green lawn, it is going to stick out a lot more than it does in the desert.
Infant Tortoise Defences
Infant tortoises, also called hatchlings, have much fewer defenses than mature tortoises. Hatchling’s shells are not fully developed, and they can be breached much easier.
They do not have a strong beak or good survival instincts when they are young.
Infant tortoises rely on camouflage and burrowing in order to protect themselves. It is critical that they remain unseen when they are young in order to avoid attracting the attention of hungry predators.
They must stay close to their burrows and keep a wary eye out for nearby animals that might do them harm.
If you have a hatchling, it is best to protect them by keeping them inside or in an enclosure.
What are the Natural Predators of a Tortoise?
Tortoises have many natural predators. Depending on the habitat location and species, each tortoise has a different set of predators that they have to watch out for.
Will Foxes Attack a Tortoise?
Yes. Foxes, coyotes, and other canids will definitely try and attack a tortoise if given the opportunity.
These predators are opportunity hunters, they are not picky about what they eat, and they can be smart and dangerous when they are hungry.
Tortoises caught out of their burrows can be flipped over and killed by a determined predator like a fox or coyote if you are not careful.
Even if not killed, they can be dragged miles from their usual surroundings and injured; the combination will not end well.
Do Hedgehogs Eat Tortoises?
Generally not. Hedgehogs are primarily insectivores meaning they like to eat bugs more than anything else.
However, they have been known to be opportunity hunters in the wild. Given the opportunity, a hedgehog might try and go after a tortoise, but the tortoise would probably have to be a baby in order for it to do any damage.
Tortoises will become much too hardy and large for a hedgehog to consider hunting seriously.
With any carnivore, you have to be wary of having your tortoise being around them, especially if the tortoise is young, sick, or undersized.
Do Birds of Prey Attack Tortoises?
Yes, they will. If a raptor or owl sees a tortoise moving on the ground, they could potentially try to swoop in and grab it.
Younger tortoises are much more susceptible to this kind of attack than mature tortoises. Once tortoises reach a certain size, birds no longer think that they can grab them and carry them off.
Tortoises that do get grabbed will often be flown up and dropped in order to try and crack the shell or flip it over, exposing the softer underbelly.
If you live in an area with many birds of prey, you need to keep an eye on your tortoises, especially young ones. You can mitigate birds of prey targeting your pet tortoise by keeping them in an enclosure with a lid.
Tortoises can be attacked from air to ground level predators due to their slow-moving nature, but they are tough cookies that can more than handle these attacks.
However, tortoises are excellent at protecting themselves from any such predators, whether air or ground level.
Evolution has been kind to the tortoises in the form of protection from predators, whether that’s their hard shell or their strong legs allowing them to burrow. Their whole rounded protection has kept them safe for many years, and I feel that many more humans are a tortoise’s biggest problem.
People can often see tortoises as slow and weak, but they can’t be more wrong. The tortoise is a tough animal that has outlived the dinosaur.
So next time you look at your tortoise and feel they are cute, you not wrong, but they have a side to them that is tough. I think this is what makes tortoises even more extraordinary to have as pets; you have something that has outlived the dinosaurs.