Why Do Tortoises Bob Their Heads

Why Do Tortoises Bob Their Heads

Tortoises are unique and fascinating reptiles that often have us wondering why they are doing certain things. Tortoise’s often headbanging leaving us asking why do tortoises bob their heads? Is it something to worry about, or is it just something they do?

Tortoises bob their head to pump the buccal pouch in the throat to force air in and out of their lungs, allowing them to breathe. Tortoises breathe like this as they don’t have a flexible rib cage or a diaphragm as humans do. Head bobbing can also be a sign of aggression and mating ritual.

Ok, so head bobbing can be many different things, but in most cases, if you only have one tortoise will be them breathing. However, let us take a look at each item; it could be your tortoise is bobbing its head in more detail.

Just breathing

Seeing your tortoise bobbing its head can be disconcerting, and it can become more apparent as your tortoises get bigger. However, it is rarely anything to worry about, and it’s just the way your tortoise breathes

A tortoise’s breathing is entirely different from the way we humans breathe. A tortoise has a pouch in its throat that they pump by moving its head up and down, often said to be bobbing. As they bob their head, the buccal pouch fills up with air and pumps it into the tortoise’s lungs. 

A tortoise doesn’t have a flexible rib cage or a diaphragm as we do that pumps the air into our lungs.

You may also see your tortoise moving its legs to move even more air in and out of there lungs. A tortoise doesn’t have a rib cage as it has evolved into a fixed shell, so without the buccal pouch, they wouldn’t be able to breathe. 

There is one tortoise, the hinge-back, which has a moveable shell. When you watch them breathe, you can see the shell moving just like our rib cadge does. However, this doesn’t mean the hinge-back tortoises don’t use the buccal pouch as other tortoises do. They can use the buccal pouch; it is just the movable shell that allows them to breathe better or easier. 

The buccal pouch is how many reptiles breathe but looks strange on tortoises as they rest their chin on their lower shell, which gives the appearance that the tortoise is bobbing its head.

Headbanging just started?

You may not have noticed your tortoise headbanging or bobbing, but out of the blue, it just started. 

I have heard people say they have had a tortoise for 15 years or more, and it just started to happen. Within the tortoise communities, this is entirely normal. 

Your tortoise just may have found a comfortable position by resting its chin on its lower shell, which will extenuate the appearance of the head bobbing. 

Not seeing your tortoise head bob for years then seeing it can be a concern, but there should be nothing to worry you. A tortoise will expel other signs if they are having health issues.

Mating Ritual 

When the mating season starts, a tortoise’s behavior can completely change as they try to get the attention of the other sex.

Male tortoises will bob their head at female tortoises to first get their attention and before attempting to mount the female. However, if you have two male tortoises and you start to see them bobbing heads, a fight could follow and a tortoise ending up on their back. 

Female tortoises can also display this ritual just as their male counterparts. Female tortoises that show the head bobbing ritual can be a sign its carrying eggs. This can also lead to them becoming aggressive by biting or raming objects in their path. 

Some species are more likely to headbang than ram items; a Hermanns tortoise is the more likely head bob than ram items. 

A male tortoise that is headbanging or biting or just becoming aggressive can also be marking its territory. While this can be the case, it is more likely to happen when there is more than one male tortoise.

While talking about multiple tortoises, headbanging and aggression can often happen around food. The best advice would be to separate tortoises as eating time to stop and aggression. 

How long it all lasts?

Once your tortoises start to bob their head down to mating, the time it lasts can vary dramatically. 

If your tortoises are alone, then the headbobbing can last for the whole mating season from mid-May to mid-July. 

Multiple tortoises and the amount of time the headbobbing lasts will vary. If you have two tortoises fighting for a female, then this can last weeks alone. Once you then have a winning tortoise, you will have some more weeks while they try to impress the female. A male tortoise attempted to impress a female tortoise is by bobbing its head.

Once the mating is completed, the headbobbing and aggression should end. However, it has been known that a dominant tortoise can carry on aggressive behavior, especially around food. 


Head bobbing in tortoises, in most cases, is more likely to be them just breathing than anything sinister. It can be very concerning when you first witness it, especially if it comes out of the blue by an older tortoise. 

A tortoise with other tortoise friends and you start to witness headbobbing can be a sign things are about to turn nasty. Taking some simple steps like separating them at eating time can calm your tortoises down.