Why Do Turtles Dig Holes? 7 Surprising Reasons Your Turtle Is Digging Holes

Apr 20, 2021

Why Turtles Dig Holes

Turtles have a few quirky, amusing habits – like spitting water and biting themselves. But there’s more than what meets the eyes. For instance, the reason behind biting is soothing their irritated skin. And another such eccentric habit is digging holes.

Why Do Turtles Dig Holes?

Just about all turtle species on earth love to dig and burrow. There can be several factors behind this behavior, but the most common ones are hibernation, food hunt, and preparation to lay eggs. Other equally common reasons behind why do turtles dig holes are comfort, fun, and even rock-eating. 

The last reason is concerning, isn’t it? In fact, all of the above reasons are. That’s why you need to go to get to the bottom of it and take steps accordingly. 

Let’s discuss all of the above pointers in brief. 

7 Reasons Why Turtles Dig Holes

olive ridley digging holes to lay egg
An Olive Ridley sea turtle digging a hole to lay eggs

Turtle Is Preparing For Hibernation 

As ectotherms, a turtle’s body temperature changes with the external environment. That’s why, in the winter, they prepare to go for a long hibernation. As soon as they feel the drop in the temperature, they’ll start digging in the mud, sand, or ground. This also helps regulate their body temperature. 

When the weather gets colder, their bodily functions like breathing and digestion will dramatically drop. According to the scientists from the University of Georgia, when the temperature drops below 10°C, a turtle’s bodily functions become sluggish – fostering the need for a hibernation hole. 

Only rarely will turtles come out of this period of inactivity. For instance, aquatic species like red-eared sliders often burrow themselves down into the mud at the base of lakes and ponds and only come up every once in a while for air. 

So, if your turtle has started digging a hole in the late fall or early winter, it’s probably going to go on a long slumber. Don’t you want to do the same?

Turtle Is Preparing To Lay Eggs 

Another answer to why do turtles dig holes is preparation to lay eggs. In the wild, sea turtles come to the shore to dig a hole for eggs. If your pet is doing the same in the tank or outside, this could be the reason. Gravid turtles dig multiple holes to confuse predators. 

Here’s an interesting video of a Box Turtle digging a hole to lay eggs:

Rats and foxes can easily pick the smell of expecting turtles. Thus, digging multiple holes to fool them gives enough time for the eggs to hatch. 

If you’re confused about whether your female turtle is digging to lay eggs or for other reasons, observe the digging style. It’s the biggest giveaway. Pregnant turtles usually dig with hind legs and are backing into its hole. Normally, turtles would dig with forelegs and go head first. 

Another telltale sign is the depth of the hole. Deeper the hole, the higher the chances of laying eggs. Females prefer to dig deeper holes to smooth out a chamber and deposit eggs. 

And lastly, your turtle will repack the dirt to camouflage the entry point and make it look like the area wasn’t dug. 

If your pet lives in a tank or terrarium, all of these digging signs may not be present. But make sure to check the digging style as said above. 

Turtle Is Foraging 

If your pet turtle is hungry and just sensed some bugs or worms, it will likely dig a hole to find them. However, in this case, the holes are a lot shallower.This kind of behaviour is seldom present in pet turtles but is a common practice among wild turtles. 

If your turtle displays this behaviour frequently, it could also mean that the diet it’s receiving isn’t appropriate or enough. A well-fed turtle seldom forages. 

Make sure that you’re feeding greens and veggies rich in vitamins and minerals. 

Turtle Is Preparing For Aestivation 

You may be surprised to know this, but aestivation is just the summer version of hibernation. Yes, they go on slumbers during summer too. When the temperature gets too hot, turtles will try to dig holes and hide underneath to beat the heat. 

So, if you see your turtle out and about digging holes on a particularly sunny day, you can guess why. 

Your Turtle Wants To Eat Rocks 

The rock-eating tendency, also known as geophagy, is a well-documented phenomenon in reptiles like turtles, crocodiles, and lizards. Although the reason isn’t too clear, it’s believed that turtles eat rocks to crave their mineral needs. Especially if there’s calcium or iron deficiency, turtles opt to eat pebbles. 

While small stones once in a while may do no harm, big ones can prove fatal by choking your turtle or blocking the intestine. 

Next time, watch out if your turtle is digging holes to find pebbles. To prevent that, you need to supplement your pet’s diet with some nutritional supplements. 

These calcium supplement balls by SunGrow could be just the right solution for this problem. What I love is these balls look identical to pebbles. 

Your Turtle Is Stressed 

Although incapable of experiencing a broad spectrum of emotions, turtles are prone to stress. That’s why they often try to dig holes to feel secure. When overcome with emotions, digging holes can be a way to channel out stress for your turtle. 

Now there can be so many reasons behind this. If there’s a lot of noise and footfall near the tank, the turtle might get stressed. 

Aggression among tank mates and a poorly kept environment could be the other two reasons. 

That’s why digging holes and hiding underneath can be a comfort mechanism for some turtles. 

Your Turtle Is Bored 

Believe it or not, turtles can get bored quite easily. Hence, it’s essential to create a stimulating environment for their entertainment. Smaller the habitat, the higher the chances of digging. If that’s the case, it’s better to upgrade. 

But there’s no exact way to find out if it’s digging out of boredom. If you have ruled out all other options like pregnancy, slumber, food hunt, rock-eating, and stress, it’s just that your turtle has nothing better to do than dig holes. 

If there’s enough space, add some safe toys to keep your turtle entertained. Last Christmas, my best friend gave my turtles this basking platform with a ramp ladder. 

And they absolutely love it. It keeps them entertained and exercised for hours on end. 

The one that I have is in size large. 

The seven reasons covered above pretty much include everything there’s to know why do turtles dig holes. And as you can see, not all reasons are negative or harmful. It’s just something instinctual to turtles. 

And while we’re on the topic, let’s talk about the importance of good substrate. It’s essential to choose a substrate that supports this perfectly natural behavior.

Judging by thousands of 5-star reviews on Amazon, Zoo Med Eco Earth’s option definitely seems to tick all the right boxes. 

Suggested Readings:

Does Box Turtle Bite? Don’t Make These 5 Mistakes!

Why Are My Turtles Stacked? 3 Shocking Answers and Solutions

Cloudy Turtle Tank Water? Don’t Make These 4 Mistakes!

Why Is My Turtle Burying Itself?

Your turtle is burying itself for all the same reasons it is digging holes. Once again, the reasons can range from hibernation, aestivation and foraging to something more serious like laying eggs, stress, and geophagy. Sometimes, it’s just out of plain boredom.

How Deep Do Turtles Dig?

Terrestrial turtles like box turtles are more apt at digging than their aquatic counterparts. Thus, the holes they dig are deeper. However, in general, turtles can dig up to 2 feet. They can even go as deep as 3-4 feet in some cases, but that’s seldom the case for pet turtles. 

Do Red-Eared Slider Turtles Bury Themselves?

Red-eared sliders also dig holes and bury themselves, although they don’t do it as frequently as terrestrial species. The same is the case for their cousins, painted turtles. Semi-aquatic species usually dig holes just to hibernate or lay eggs. 

In their case, we can rule out aestivation as they can simply dive into the water on a sunny day.

How To Help A Turtle Dig Safely?

By now, I hope it’s clear that digging is a perfectly natural and instinctive habit among turtles. Stopping them from doing so will be unfair. So what we can do is facilitate safe digging. For this, you can create a secluded mounding area and some hides. If the time and environment permits, you can also leave your turtle out in the yard for some exploration. 

Why Do Turtles Dig Holes

Mounding For Turtles

If it isn’t possible to fill the entire enclosure with enough dirt for digging, you can create a secluded mounding area in one corner. This should work because most turtles are happy digging in just one specific area. 

You can keep the mound in a shallow box. If you have enough space, you can opt for a deeper box with some stepping stones for the turtle. 

Make sure the mounding materials are easy to collect and clean to avoid hassles in future. 

Digging Hides For Turtles 

Every turtle should have access to a few hides. You can make one with dirt and soft moss. Although it may not be as fun as digging real dirt, this will help your turtle pass some time every day. 

I usually make a mix of sand mixtures, peat moss, garden soil, and a bit of coconut fibre. 

Outdoor Time For Turtles 

No matter how great the tank environment is or how spacious it is, your turtle should never spend all of its time confined within four walls. Raising a turtle needs commitment and patience. So, make sure to take some time out every once in a while to take your pet outside in a safe area to explore.

Conclusion On Why Do Turtles Dig Holes 

To cut a long story short, digging holes is a natural habit among turtles. The underpinning reason could be preparation for hibernation or aestivation in most cases. Searching for food or a suitable place to lay eggs are other two plausible reasons. If you’ve ruled out all of these reasons, this behaviour could be linked to stress and boredom. 

And although all turtles dig holes and bury themselves from time to time, this behaviour is most prevalent in terrestrial species like box turtles. That’s why they’re also more skilled than aquatic kinds in this matter. 

The dug hole could be anywhere between 1ft to 2ft deep. In some cases, they are even known to be around 3 to 4ft long. However, it’s unlikely that your pet turtle will go that deep. 

Usually, pregnant turtles tend to dig deeper, multiple holes to protect their hatchlings better. 

All in all, just know that digging holes is a perfectly instinctual practice among turtles. Once you figure out why, address the cause and facilitate this process better. 

Meanwhile, add a few toys and decorations to distract the turtle if you think it’s digging excessively. 

Relevant Readings:

How Do Turtles Breathe? Butt-Breathing to Breathing Without Oxygen: A Turtle’s Unique Respiratory Abilities

Do Turtles Eat Goldfish? What Happens If They Do?

Can Turtles Get High? Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Get High In Your Turtle’s Presence

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.