Ten Interesting Facts About Tortoises, From Swimming to Hibernation

Thinking about getting a tortoise, but not convinced it will make an interesting pet? Here are some facts about the land-dwelling reptile from the Testudinidae turtle family that may change your mind.

1. Can Tortoises Swim?

Generally, tortoises do not swim, according to Andy C. Highfield, author of the Tortoise Trust Guide to Tortoises and Turtles.

In the case of commonly kept pet species, "deep water is a serious hazard" and "unfortunately every year we receive reports of tortoises drowning in garden ponds or swimming pools," he told Newsweek.

"There are a very few exceptions," Highfield added, such as leopard tortoises. "I once witnessed a leopard tortoise in South Africa swim right across a watering hole being used by elephants."

Susan Tellem, co-founder of the American Tortoise Rescue nonprofit, explained that leopard tortoises are the only tortoises that do not have a nuchal shield—a protective plate above the neck.

"This means the leopard tortoise is the only member of the family that can raise its head and is the only kind that could swim," she said.

A leopard tortoise drinking from a waterhole.
A leopard tortoise drinking from a waterhole at a park in South Africa. Leopard tortoises can swim. iStock/Getty Images Plus

2. Do Tortoises Hibernate?

It depends on the species and location. Tortoises that live in areas with warm summers but cold winters, such as Mediterranean species, do hibernate, said Highfield. Hibernation does not occur in tropical species or places that have warmer winters. "It is a direct response to low temperatures," he said.

Tellem added that most turtles and many tortoises hibernate during fall and winter. So, it's unnatural for them to be awake from about October through April.

3. Tortoise Can Live Over 100 Years

Turtles can easily live for 25-50 years or more, Tellem, said, while tortoises can go on for more than 100 years. "They are among the oldest living creatures on the planet surviving the dinosaurs."

What's the secret to their longevity? Highfield explained that it's down to their metabolism, which can be very slow at times.

He said the longest-lived known examples of tortoises were ones from the Galápagos Islands and one in the Seychelles—called Jonathan—who is 190 years old.

A radiated tortoise in Tonga was 188 when he died back in 1965. An Aldabra tortoise in the Seychelles reportedly lived for 250 years, according to the U.K.-based Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

An Aldabra tortoise seen on grass.
An Aldabra tortoise on grass. They are among the world's largest land tortoises. iStock/Getty Images Plus

4. Tortoises Can Recognize Faces

Turtles and tortoises have "facial recognition" abilities, said Tellem.

A 2020 study by scientists from Queen Mary University of London, and the University of Trento and Fondazione Museo Civico Rovereto, both in Italy, found that tortoises are "born with a natural preference for faces."

Their research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, recorded the reactions of hatchlings from five tortoise species to different patterned stimuli, including an area with "a 'face-like' configuration."

The "spontaneous attraction to faces" observed by the scientists is the "first evidence of the tendency for solitary animals to approach face-like shapes at the beginning of life." This characteristic had only previously been seen in social species such as chicks and human babies.

5. Some Tortoises Fight Each Other With Glares

When Galápagos tortoises fight, they face each other with "ferocious glares," open their mouths and stretch their heads as high as they can, according to the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. Whoever reaches the highest, regardless of their size, wins the fight. The loser then pulls his head back down with a noisy hiss and the face-off is over.

The battle might look like a show to eyewitnesses, but "it's a serious matter to the tortoises, especially in the wilderness, where fights occur over mates or a specific food item or clump of food," the zoo's website explains.

Male tortoises from some species compete for females by trying to turn other males onto their backs, said the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

A close-up view of a baby tortoise.
A close-up view of a tortoise hatching. A 2020 study found that tortoises are born with an attraction to faces—a characteristic never previously seen in a solitary animal species. iStock/Getty Images Plus

6. Tortoises Can Weigh Over 500 Pounds

Highfield describes the diversity among tortoises as remarkable. They range in size from "the true giants of the Galápagos Islands" to species that are "smaller than the palms of our hands."

A male Galápagos tortoise can be 500 pounds, while the average female weighs around half that. These giants have thick, sturdy legs to support their weight but spend much of their time lying down to conserve energy.

Aldabra tortoises are among the world's largest land tortoises, weighing up to 550 pounds.

African sulcata (or spurred) tortoises are "gentle giants" that can fit in the palm of a hand as hatchlings. But in just five years, they can weigh more than 50 pounds. A fully grown sulcata tortoise ranges from 140 to 200 pounds, according to the San Diego Turtle & Tortoise Society.

7. Some Tortoises Can Squeeze Into Rock Cracks

Tortoises come in various "evolutionary forms that are in response to the differences in environments where they occur," said Highfield. The African pancake tortoise has a flat, flexible shell that allows it to "squeeze into narrow crevices in rocks."

Unlike the hard domed shells of most tortoises, this thin carapace does not offer much protection from predators. So, African pancake tortoises rely on speed and flexibility to escape danger, according to the Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.

The African pancake tortoise.
The African pancake tortoise has a thin, flat shell, rather than the dome-shaped carapace seen in many other tortoises. iStock/Getty Images Plus

8. Tortoises Are Attracted to Bright Colors

Tortoises have good vision and can see in color. Bright shades that resemble the type of edible flowers that grow on cacti will quickly catch their eyes, a Smithsonian Institution article explains.

They're particularly attracted to red food items, according to the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

9. Some Tortoises Eat Old Bones

Some tortoises will eat old bones for the calcium, according to Tellem.

It's important for a tortoise's diet to include the correct balance of fibers and minerals, especially calcium, in addition to the appropriate carbohydrate and protein levels for their species, Highfield said.

10. Some Tortoises Are Great Diggers

"Tortoises have evolved many unique forms to adapt to particular environments," Highfield said. Some can create "really extensive burrow systems, rather like rabbits."

The front legs of many tortoises have spiny scales that help them burrow in the ground.

A close-up view of a Galápagos tortoise.
A close-up view of a Galápagos tortoise, among the world's longest-lived species. iStock/Getty Images Plus