5 Reasons Behind Upside Down Turtles | Can Upside Down Turtles Die?

Apr 21, 2021

Upside down turtles

Turtles aren’t the most flexible, athletic creatures we know. So, if you ever come across upside down turtles, don’t wait for them to break into a breakdance. There’s nothing funny about a flipped turtle. 

Keep reading to know why. 

5 Serious Reasons Behind Upside Down Turtles 

Turtles don’t turn themselves upside down for amusement. The underlying reasons are often serious and need immediate intervention. 

As armored creatures, turtles easily lose their balance and fall on their back. Male turtles competing for a female’s attention also often flip their competitors. Other common reasons behind upside down turtles are respiratory illness, poor climbing skills, and unfavorable environments.

An upside down turtle

Now let’s have a look at these reasons in detail. 

Underlying Respiratory Illness 

When a respiratory illness reaches the turtle’s lungs, it adversely impacts their internal ballast, responsible for buoyancy. Thus, the turtle will inevitably tilt to the side or 180 degrees when swimming. 

Respiratory illnesses usually start from the nasal and throat passages. The lungs are only affected in the later, serious stages. And it’s at this point the tilting occurs. 

So, if you see your pet turtle upside down in the water, ring up the vet immediately. A delayed response could translate to an untimely death. 

Lastly, make a habit of checking your turtle’s appearance and behavior occasionally to stay two steps ahead of these nasty infections. 

Usually, the symptoms include cloudy eyes, wheezing, open-mouthed breathing, and loss of appetite. 

Protection Against Predators 

A turtle retracting to its shell
A turtle retracting to its shell

In the wild, turtles often retreat to their shell when they smell danger or are being attacked. Usually, they will hide under the shell until the predator is gone. However, sometimes, the wind, waves, or the predator itself may toss the shell and turn it upside down. 

And when it comes to your pet turtle, he might not have anything dangerous going around, but he might still retract to the shell for protection. The turtle can easily mistake loud noises, excessive footballs, curious onlookers, and a changing environment for danger. 

Be extra cautious if you have furry pets or young children at home. An innocent playtime can easily turn into a stressful situation for your pet turtle if he gets flipped over purposely or accidentally. 

Bottom line: Armored animals can easily lose balance and fall on their backs when prone to predation and starvation. 

Fight Between Male Turtles 

Male turtles looking to mate can get very competitive and resort to fights to impress the female. During mating season, male turtles react to the female’s scent by ramming and pushing the competition around. And often, losers will end up in a flipped position. 

If you ever come across a turtle trying to help upside down turtles, most probably, that is not his intention. Why would he save someone competing for the same female’s attention, right?

So, even if it may seem like a good samaritan helping out a fellow turtle, the odds are that he’s still trying to roll the flipped turtle away. 

A Wrong Aquarium Setup 

A poorly set aquarium/terrarium has a higher chance of killing a turtle than any of the reasons mentioned above. You have to make sure that there are no decorations that will hinder the navigation or topple your turtle. 

Don’t get too carried away with decorations and plants that can trap and tip over your turtle. Turtles are poor climbers. Trying to climb up anything uphill in the tank can very well end up in upside down turtles and possible injuries. 

It’s also important to keep the water deeper than your turtle’s width. A turtle has a greater chance of falling on its back in shallow water. Moreover, he’ll have a tremendously hard time turning himself to the right side in shoal water.

Waves 

Not a case for pet turtles, but in the wild, aquatic turtles are often swayed and flipped around by strong waves. When waves come to the shore, the molecules present in the water rapidly spin in a circular motion. And large waves are strong enough to flip boats, surfers, and sea turtles. 

Since waves usually break near the shore, sea turtles often bear their brunt. 

The 5 reasons mentioned are amongst the most obvious ones we know. Other than that, it turns out that few other factors can influence a turtle’s chance of turning over. 

Let’s have a look. 

How Does Shell’s Shape Influence Turtle’s Chance Of Turning Over?

upside down turtles
Turtles with dome-shaped and flat shells

Scientists have long believed that the height and length of the turtle’s shell play a key role in its righting ability. Flat-shelled turtles have a relatively harder time turning themselves to the right position than dome-shelled turtles. 

Why? 

Because flat-shelled turtles are almost as stable upside down as they are on their feet. Thus, they’ll have a tough time turning themselves over. They will try to extend their neck and pivot on the head while strongly pushing off with legs on whatever side is tilting downward. 

On the other hand, terrestrial turtles with a dome-shaped shell are often referred to as monostatic, which means they’re only stable in one position. So, when they get upside down by any chance, they won’t find it as laborious as flat-shelled turtles to stand right. 

However, there are a few exceptions. Certain deviations and dents can severely compromise a dome-shaped turtle’s ability to turn to the right side – exposing it to all kinds of vulnerabilities. Now, these anomalies could be a result of an accident or mutation. 

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How Do Limbs Influence Turtle’s Chance Of Turning Over? 

The anatomy of limbs, too, plays a crucial role in determining the fate of upside down turtles. The longer the legs and neck, the better are the turtle’s chances of standing right side up.

Sea turtles have considerably longer legs than their semi-aquatic and terrestrial counterparts – making it somewhat easier for them to flip to the right side. Likewise, pond turtles have longer legs than terrestrial species like box turtles. 

However, note that the tail’s length doesn’t play any role. You will seldom see a turtle use his tail’s strength and support to turn to the right side. 

How Does Age Influence Turtle’s Chance Of Turning Over? 

According to research carried out by Serbian biologist Ana Golubovic, younger turtles have a better chance of turning over than older members. She found out that juveniles have a more swift and agile response towards predators, which means they spend shorter periods withdrawn in their shells. 

A baby turtle

Since younger turtles don’t have well-developed shells that they can count on, a sense of urgency kicks in, and they turn over quickly, reportedly. 

Also, the lesser the duration of retraction, lesser the chance of being turned over, right?

However, older turtles prefer relying on the good, old shell for protection. They take their sweet time to take out their head and shell. And in the waiting process, they often get tossed and turned around. 

Can Upside Down Turtles Turn Themselves Right Side Up? 

Yes, in most cases, they can. A turtle would swim right up in the water when tilted unless its lungs and buoyancy are severely impacted. In the land, a healthy turtle will try to use its legs and head to firmly push against the ground or the side to roll itself to the right position slowly. 

They often extend their necks way out to the ground and push against things with their legs. And a healthy turtle often succeeds in his attempts. But as you read above, the turtle’s anatomy and age play a big role in determining his ability. 

Here’s an interesting video of a turtle flipping right back on its feet:

Can I Help Upside Down Turtles? How?

Yes, you can definitely help an upside down turtle, but remember, there are a few things to keep in mind. A toppled turtle is already stressed and exhausted. You need to make sure you handle him tenderly and very slowly so that he doesn’t panic.

Never shake the turtle or apply firm pressure to position him the right way. The shell is hardy, but his stomach isn’t. You may end up harming the internal organs. 

Also, the distressed turtle might try to bite you – resulting in a bitter experience for both parties. Make sure that you apply great caution. 

And once you help the turtle, don’t forget to dissect the reason behind the overturn. 

Was it a tank decoration? Did he slip? Was he bullied? 

Ensure that you address the cause. 

Do Turtles Help Other Turtles Turn Over To The Right Side?

Turtles aren’t social animals, and we don’t really know what kind of social hierarchy they have. So, there’s no guarantee that a turtle will help upside down turtles. In fact, there’s a good chance that he’s responsible for flipping his tankmates. 

If there is mating and territorial aggression among turtles, we don’t expect them to help each other. However, if their dynamics are good, we cannot rule the possibility of helping one out either. 

Here’s an interesting video of a tortoise helping his fellow friend. But once again, there’s no certainty on how turtles react to their friends being flipped. 

Can Upside Down Turtles Die?

Yes, there’s a high possibility that upside down turtles that don’t receive any help die. Since they are stuck in uncomfortable positions, they won’t have access to food or water. Plus, they’re incredibly vulnerable to predators, and moreover, their internal organs are impacted badly. 

Likewise, a young turtle unable to flip to the right side can die quickly as the sunlight overheats its shell. 

Unfortunately, these reasons are more than enough to kill a turtle, which is often the case in the wild. 

Depending on the turtle’s species, age, and environment, they can get dehydrated and starved fast. When stressed, the energy will exhaust quickly – making the matter worse. 

It’s obvious that when weak, the chance of predation increases. Upside down turtles cannot run and hide. They may try to save themselves by retracting to the shell, but the predator eventually breaks through it. 

Even if the turtle manages to survive predation, starvation, and dehydration, his body will eventually give away. When turned over, the internal organs will press on the lung, positioned on the top of the shell.

As a result, all the internal organs will press against the delicate lungs, extremely prone to rupturing. So, even if upside down turtles manage to turn to the right side, their lungs will have been damaged to an extent. 

Another overlooked cause of death is small critters. Yes, it may sound unlikely, but they’re very capable of taking down a helpless turtle. For example, if a colony of ants attacks an upside down turtle, he’ll end up with severe wounds and rots that can be fatal. 

How Long Does It Take An Upside Down Turtle Turn The Right Side Up? 

The time taken depends considerably on the environment, species, and age. However, one study showed that it takes about 30 minutes on average for a toppled turtle to stand straight.

That being said, make sure that you never try to experiment with your turtle. That’ll be a downright cruel thing to do. 

In the experiment mentioned above, any turtle that couldn’t turn up within 30 minutes was helped by biologists. 

As you already know the consequences of being flipped over, don’t try to check how long your turtle will take. This could lead to serious internal injuries. 

Conclusion On 5 Reasons Behind Upside Down Turtles

That was quite a long article, wasn’t it? But I hope you read through it all because it contains important information. 

Here’s a quick rundown of the main bits before you go.

Turtles turn upside down due to various reasons, but none of them are voluntary. Usually, it could result from a fight with another turtle, an accidental slip, or something as serious as a respiratory infection. 

As you read above, the turtle’s anatomy and age also play a crucial role in determining the chances of him toppling and getting back on the feet. Usually, young turtles are better at turning themselves up. 

And lastly, a flipped turtle that doesn’t receive any help can very well die. From ruptured lungs and starvation to being eaten by small and big predators, the dangers are many. 

If you see your pet turtle flipped over, make sure that you help him very gently and address why so it doesn’t happen again. 

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rohit gurung author at urbanfishkeeping

About Rohit Gurung

My never-ending love and fascination with Aquascaping started when I received a red-eared turtle for my 10th birthday.

Apart from researching and writing, I spend hours gazing at my 3 turtles. And yeah, I bask alongside them too.