If you have multiple turtles housed in the same tank or if you’re just curious you might be wondering if turtles fight each other and why?
Turtles can fight each other over a wide variety of things. It could be food, fighting over a mating partner, fighting because they’re living in too close of quarters. There can also be fights between mating partners if the female turtle doesn’t appreciate the advances of the males. While turtles can be at peace with each other for many years usually once fighting breaks out it only get worse over time.
Seeing two turtles fight can be a very sad and frightening sight to see. It can start with a seemingly innocent snap and quickly escalated to permanent injury. If the turtles are not separated in time it can lead to loss of limbs and even death for one of the turtles.
Here I will be covering all the reasons turtles fight with each other, how it generally progresses and what it looks like. Additionally, I will discuss what signs to watch out for and what to do to break up fights before they start to get really bad.
Turtles Fight Because Their Tank is Too Small
One of the most common reasons for aggression between pet turtles is probably related to the size of their living space. Turtles love to swim and roam around. But they need quite a bit of space to do this. When they’re babies it’s pretty easy to keep them happy with their tank. As they grow to many multiples of their baby size this can start to become considerably more difficult.
I remember in college having to share a single small room with someone else and having to share a bathroom with 4 other people. It was not at all a pleasant circumstance and in one or another I think we were all miserable. It can be the same thing with turtles. They are tank mates sharing this one small area of living space where they all eat, bathroom and bask together in close quarters.
Eventually tempers are going to flare and turtles being animals don’t have the same level of self control as humans do. They also can’t ever just leave the tank if they need some personal alone time. When the space is too small snapping will start and eventually snapping will turn to blood and biting.
A single turtle such as a red eared slider or painted turtle needs about 10 gallons of tank for every inch of shell length they posses. This is sometimes called the rule of shell. These space requirements are not at all lowered when you have multiple turtles. They each need this much space and if they don’t all get that much space in a single tank then someone is going to be pissed.
Not enough space will usually cause the larger ones or just the most fierce to start to bully the smaller and nicer turtles. They’re just trying to say hey give me some space. While in the wild the more submissive turtle can just comply and swim off to the other side of the pond, but this unfortunately is not an option when they’re stuck in the same tank.
The aggressor will start attacking the other turtle and the other turtle will have no where to escape. If you see one turtle gallantly swimming all over the tank while another one just has their legs and head constantly tucked in this is a good sign that bullying is taking place. The turtle has their limbs tucked in all the time because if they didn’t then they might get bitten off.
So if your going to have multiple turtles please make sure they have enough space. Its very common for multiple turtles to live together happily when their young but as they grow up and their space requirements increase many of them have to be separated eventually and moved to their own tank.
Turtles Fight Over Food
The problem of turtles fighting over food is usually closely related to them not having enough tank size. When turtles see that there is a scarcity of space their reptilian minds can also come to the conclusion that their may not be enough food. Even if this is not the case and you do your best to make sure they all eat.
Besides that as turtles grow older and usually around the time they reach sexual maturity they may fight over food. Especially when this food is considered a rare and special treat. They may even get along fine with each other when they’re being fed what might be considered normal food. But throw in something special and all of a suddenly the beaks come out (turtles bite with their beaks as they don’t have any teeth).
I’ve had cases where turtles were fine with each other when eating the normal store bought turtle pellets. But when I fed them shrimp, one of their favorite treats, then they instantly started becoming aggressive to each other.
It’s important to note though that once the line of aggression has been broken they generally never return to their peaceful idyllic past.
Turtles Fight Over Mates
Ever fought with your friend over a girl or boy you really liked? Well turtles will do the same, except they don’t really have innocent crushes they generally just want to get down to business.
Put a female turtle with two males in the same tank. And you will definitely start to see some fighting between the two males. Usually as a precursor step to this you may get to see the infamous turtle claw fluttering. It may sound cute but this is actually for turtles deadly serious business. You can consider it the turtle equivalent of challenging the other turtle to a duel.
Turtles will flutter their claws at another turtle either to show that they want to mate if the other turtle is a female. Or it’s a challenge of dominance if they are a male. In the wild the more submissive male might respond with a fluttering of claws of their own if they feel up to the challenge. If they don’t then they simply submit to mightier male by swimming away. In a tank this is not an option, so the weaker turtle has no real choice in the matter.
How Do Turtles Flutter Their Claws?
When a male turtle wants to challenge another male to a duel or if he wants to show a female that he’s interested in her then he will flutter his claws.
While facing the other turtle face to face, he will then extend his front claws straight out in front of him and in front of the other turtles face. Then the claws will make a very strange and subtle fluttering motion. They will move very quickly back and forth, it’s subtle because while they do flutter the flutter movement is not at all very large.
If you see a turtle do this brace yourself, there is either going to be some mating about to take place or there is going to be a fight.
Turtles Can Fight With Females When They’re Trying to Court Her
Not all turtle aggression occurs between two males. Sometimes it can actually happen between a male turtle and his female crush. Turtles are animals and they don’t always understand the idea that she’s just not that into you.
When a male turtle really likes a female turtle and wants to mate with her he will flutter his claws at her face. If the female turtle is receptive to the males advance then mating will eventually take place.
But what happens if she says no? The male being an animal will often not understand this and will continue to pursue her even after shes tried to tell him that shes not interested. Unlike humans female turtles are often bigger than the males. In fact in some species they are almost twice as big as the males.
So these unwanted advances by the male turtle do not turn out well for him at all. If he doesn’t cease with his annoying persistence, the female turtle can and will kill him. Usually she tries to say no nicely first but some turtles may not take the hint and will continue making advances.
So if you have a male turtle making unwanted sexual advances towards a female your going to need to separate them pronto. Other wise your male turtles life could in danger.
What Are Some Signs of Turtle Aggression?
For all of these reasons it’s very important that you as the turtle owner be on the lookout for any signs of aggression between your turtles. Your turtles lives could depend upon it.
Usually aggression will start out in smaller and more subtle ways and then keep building to a violent crescendo. Aggression in turtle tank mates once start generally always escalates over time and almost never deescalates.
- Watch out for any turtle claw fluttering as this can signal coming aggression between two males, or potentially aggression between a male and female
- If one turtle constantly seems to have their limbs, head and tail tucked into their shell while their tank mate swim freely and confidently, then there has probably been some biting that you haven’t seen and they’re trying to protect themselves from the bully turtle.
- Any biting or snapping whatsoever. If you see one of your turtles snap or bite at each other then you probably need to separate them asap.
- If you see any blood in the water or one of the turtles has damage to a part of their body then most likely aggression has escalated to a life threatening level and they need to be separated immediately. Otherwise one of your turtles could die.
What To Do If Your Turtles Are Fighting?
You will need to seperate them quickly and unfortunately probably permanently. They cant get along as tank mates any more and your going to need a seperate tank for one of the turtles.
Admittedly a nice tank set up can be quite expensive but their is a way you can do this cheaply temporarily until you can afford a better set up.
Buy one of those large gallon tubs that you can usually find at a walmart or other large store. These can serve as a good cheap temporary home for one of your turtles until you can find a better long term option.