11 Things To Know About Tortoise Tails


Did you know tortoises have tails? Unless you’ve lately taken a good look at a tortoise or own one, you may be surprised to learn they have these wiggly appendages. 

Tortoise tails are an integral part of their anatomy. They aren’t all the same length, nor do they look the same between different sexes of the same species. Tortoise tails mainly play important roles in mating, urinating, and defecating, and balancing.

This article aims to enlighten you with 11 things you may not have known about tortoises and their tails. 

A tortoise in close up walking

1. Tortoise Tails Are Really Old

Tortoise tails are even older than their shells [Source].

Before they developed shells, scientists believe that tortoises were relatively flat, elongated animals that were very good at swimming and looked a little like a soft, squishy crocodile. 

This elongated form meant they also had a long tail, probably to help early turtles swim and early tortoises dig. 

This means, not only have tortoises had tails for as long as they’ve been alive, but they’ve probably had them for longer than they had shells.

2. They Really Do Look Like Tails

Often when reptile body parts are described as similar to something other animals have, they don’t look alike. Tortoise tails look precisely as you’d imagine them. Some are shorter than others, but most look like they are attached to or growing out of a hole in the bottom of their shell. 

Some tortoise tails look stubby and smooth; others are longer and have bumps and ridges. Most tails end in a thorn-like tip.

Tortoise tails can also differ in color from the rest of their bodies, with some appearing to be dark brown or completely black.

These differences are important for various factors.

3. You Can Tell a Tortoise’s Sex From Its Tail

This isn’t always the most accurate way of sexing a tortoise, especially when it is young, but in mature tortoises, the length and shape of the tail can provide a good indicator of its gender. 

The differences between a male and female tortoise’s tails after reaching maturity are described below [Source]: 

FeatureMaleFemale
LengthLongerShorter
TipThe thorn-like tip is usually larger and longerThe thorn-like tip is usually shorter and thinner
CircumferenceThickerThinner

These differences are mainly due to the varying uses of the tail for each gender. In some tortoises, like the leopard tortoise, you may notice a notch under their tail.

Females will usually have a U-shaped notch, while males will have a V-shaped one.

Usually, once a male tortoise reaches maturity, its tail will have a growth spurt that leaves it longer than its female counterparts and, therefore, easier to identify.

Both male and female tortoise tails are important for mating and protection, although their uses in these functions differ widely. 

4. Tortoise Tails Are Essential for Mating

A tortoise’s reproductive anatomy is very different from those of other animals. 

The use of a tortoise tail in reproduction also differs dramatically between males and females, so each is discussed separately.

Males

A male’s tail hosts a ventral opening from which its appendage erects.

During mating, the male tortoise will wiggle his tail until his vent is aligned with the female’s opening. The wagging movement may also help the male tortoise keep its balance.

Some male tortoises also use their tail as a way to guide the male appendage into the female’s ventral opening. Without a tail, most male tortoises would be incapable of mating. 

Females

A female tortoise’s tail covers and protects her cloaca and opening.

In most cases, a female tortoise’s tail is not vital for mating, as she will simply move it up and toward the side during the process. 

The cloaca, or vent, is also necessary for laying eggs, as each egg is passed through it.

5. Tortoise Tails Help Them Do Their Business

The cloaca, or ventral opening of a tortoise’s tail, is used for both mating and excreting waste. 

Unlike other animals, tortoises don’t have separate urine or feces. Instead, a combination of these substances is released in the form of a watery, greenish fluid. 

To expel this waste from its body, most tortoises will lift their tails to ensure the feces don’t get stuck to them. 

A tortoise in the grass surrounded by palm trees

6. Tortoises Can Wag Their Tails

Of course, we’d all love to think tortoises are very distant cousins to dogs and wag their tails when they’re happy. 

The reality is that this is mostly done to maintain balance, as a result of the tortoise’s walking, or, in some cases, as a mating ritual.

7. Their Tails Are Vital for Protection

Not only do tortoise tails play a vital role in reproduction, but most tortoises are able to pull their legs, necks, and tails tightly into their body as a form of protection. 

Their tails also allow them to protect their cloaca, which is especially important to female tortoises who keep their tails firmly down unless presented with a suitable mate.

8. Their Tails Can’t Grow Back

Unfortunately, unlike other reptiles, tortoises can’t grow their tails back if they fall off or are damaged. 

However, if they do get bitten or hurt, they have as good a chance as any other animal of healing. Any scar tissue left as a result of an injury should also fade over time.

9. They Use Their Tails for Balance

Not only do male tortoises use their tails for balance while mating, but tortoises of both genders also utilize them to keep steady while walking, climbing, or crossing slippery surfaces. 

Contrary to their clumsy, lumbering stereotypes, tortoises are actually very agile and have their tails to thank for some of their climbing and digging abilities. 

10. It’s Possible Tortoises Can Drink Through Their Tails

Although there’s not enough scientific research to either prove or disprove this assumption, many pet care experts claim there’s a good chance the cloacal bursae, located near their ventral openings, can help them absorb water while they bathe. 

This theory could be supported by the fact that a tortoise’s skin is more permeable to water than other reptiles, which means there’s a chance the skin on the tail assists moisture absorption.

11. Their Tails Are Sensitive To Touch

Like the rest of a tortoise’s body and shell, its tail is sensitive to touch, and it will know if it is hurt, stuck, or even being scratched. 

Since a tortoise’s tail is an essential part of its anatomy, tortoise owners should always ensure it is kept clean and healthy, as fecal build-up could be a sign of a digestive health issue.

Turtle Tails vs. Tortoise Tails

Like tortoises, turtles also have tails and use them similarly, including for mating and protection. 

However, turtle tails are often much longer than those of tortoises and can be covered in bony scales. Despite what many believe, turtles cannot use their tails to help them swim or steer themselves underwater. 

Conclusion

Tortoise tails, though often ignored, are an essential part of their reproductive system and are necessary to remove waste, keep their balance, and possibly help them absorb moisture. 

Ensuring your tortoise is healthy and comfortable will ensure your pet keeps wagging its tail for many years to come, even though it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as when a dog does it.

Brigitte Cave

Bridgitte grew up on a farm and eventually spent 5 years on Mahe Island in the Seychelles during her teen years. Her time living on a farm was spent mostly around animals including dogs, cats, cows, horses, and all sorts of fowl (chickens, ducks, and geese included). You can find out more about Bridgitte at https://mercurypets.com/our-writers/ Bridgitte is a keen horse rider and has competed in many showjumping competitions. She loves writing about pretty much all animals, and particularly dogs, cats, small mammals, horses and reptiles.

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