Do Tortoises Have Ears? Explained In Full


Tortoises have been around since the dinosaur age. They are fascinating creatures with unique features, especially the shell.

However, one thing that doesn’t tend to spring to mind when thinking about tortoises is their hearing.

While humans and most other animals have visible ears, you cannot identify any hearing organs on a tortoise’s body.

Tortoise walking on the grass

Do tortoises have ears?

Tortoises do have ears. Their ears are internal, and they do not have external ears. They have an inner ear and a middle ear, and these are located behind a ring of scales behind their eyes.

Read on to find out how a tortoise’s ears work and how they differ from a human’s.

Where Can You Find The Ears On A Tortoise?

The tortoise has one of the most unique anatomies of any species, especially when it comes to their ears.

But where are the ears on a tortoise?

Tortoise ears differ from most mammals because they do not have an obvious outer ear, but they do have internal ears.

The internal ears have two parts: the inner ear and the middle ear.

You will find the tortoise’s ears hidden under a ring of scales behind the eyes, just above the jawline towards the rear of the head. If you look close enough, you will see a dark spot in this area.

But be careful you do not touch them with your fingers as you can hurt or damage these delicate hearing organs.

The tortoise’s ear is in an optic capsule, a bony box surrounding the ear, not seen in any other animal.

The scales cover the internal mechanisms, so they are not exposed.

How Do The Ears Of A Tortoise Work?

To understand more how a tortoise can hear, we need to take a closer look at how their ears work. (Source)

Tortoises are particularly sensitive to low frequencies and rely on their sense of touch. The tortoise can feel vibrations through the ground, which goes up the legs to the shell and then to the eardrum.

The outer ear of a person or animal helps draw sounds to the middle ear.

However, tortoises do not have outer ears but instead have a flap of skin, known as the cutaneous plate, covering their internal ear bones. This skin is similar to the skin found on the rest of the tortoise’s head, and below this skin is a fatty subcutaneous layer.

The skin flaps of a tortoise capture vibrations and low-frequency sounds and transmits them from the middle ear to the inner ear.

The small ear bones in their inner ears help distinguish vibrations and sounds before transmitting them to the brain. When the sound waves reach the brain, the tortoise can hear them and respond accordingly.

But even though their sound range is less than impressive, a tortoise can distinguish vibrations that warn them of predators and can feel water running through the ground so they can find drinking water.

How The Tortoise’s Hearing Differs From Humans

We have discovered that the tortoise’s hearing differs from ours as they do not have outer ears.

That is fine, but it is difficult to understand why it is different for a tortoise, who does not have this missing piece unless we know how the outer ear works.

So, the outer ear has two major parts, which are the ear canal and the pinna.

The prominent part of the ear is the pinna, clearly visible on both sides of the head. Its’ role is to collect sound waves and channel them through the ear canal, amplifying the sound.

The sound waves then travel to the eardrum, transforming them into vibrations that pass through the rest of the hearing system to the brain.

What we learn here is that the outer ear amplifies sound. Therefore, the tortoise can hear the same as us but at a much lower volume.

If you want to know what the hearing is like for a tortoise, just put some earplugs or cotton wool in your ears to null the amplified sounds.

Tortoises Rely On Their Other Senses.

Unlike other animals who use their hearing to find food or listen out for predators, the tortoise does not depend much on sound. Instead, they rely more on their vision and smell.

Tortoises have an exceptionally good sense of smell for navigating their environment, identifying food, and locating the opposite sex.

But did you know that a tortoise smells with its throat?

As with other reptiles, a tortoise can smell the slightest smell with the Jacobson’s organ, a vomeronasal organ found on the roof of their mouths. It also helps them detect predators.

Tortoises also have excellent vision and can differentiate different shapes, colors, sizes, and patterns.

They are attracted to bright colors, which helps them spot edible flowering blooms, especially on cacti that thrive in desert environments where you can find many tortoises living.

Can My Tortoise Hear Me?

Although a tortoise doesn’t have great hearing, it does not mean they cannot hear us. Tortoises respond to specific sound frequencies better than others, especially low, deep sounds. (Source)

A tortoise will feel the vibrations of your footsteps and movements and when you talk, especially if you speak with a low voice.

As we have discovered, the tortoise has a strong sense of smell, so they are more likely to respond to you if you have food and you talk to them.

Do Tortoises Like To Listen To Music?

It is not unusual for some pet owners to put music on for their pets to keep them occupied while they are out.

For dogs who have separation anxiety when left alone, playing music can be particularly calming.

But what about tortoises? Do they like music?

While there is no actual proof that tortoises like music, there is nothing to prove that tortoises do not like music.

Tortoises won’t perceive songs like we do but may like the vibrations of specific tunes, so why not give it a try with your pet?

So, what types of music should you play to your tortoise?

Classical music or slow, relaxing songs with simple sounds are a good idea as they can have a calming effect on a tortoise.

But loud, heavy music can create bigger vibrations and may cause your tortoise distress as they think a predator is looming.

It is best to experiment with various types of music and see how your pet reacts to it. If you notice an increase in their activity, it is a sign your tortoise is enjoying the music.

But if your tortoise retreats and goes to hide, this is a clear indication they do not like it.

If this happens, maybe turn the volume down or change the type of music.

Do Tortoises Like To Listen To Nature Tracks?

Playing nature tracks seems to be a clear winner with tortoises.

Some tortoise owners play nature sounds like rain, waterfalls, or waves for a calming effect.

However, tortoises do not like high-pitched sounds such as birds chirping, so avoid these types of sounds.

When playing any music or nature sounds, monitor your pet’s behavior and make sure they are not distressed in any way.

What Is A Tortoise’s Frequency Range?

Tortoises have a low-frequency range and hear between 200 and 750 HZ, depending on the age and species. They do not respond to sounds above 1000 HZ. (Source)

Can Tortoises Hear Underwater?

Unlike turtles, tortoises cannot survive underwater due to their heavy shell and thick legs.

Also, sea turtles can hold their breath underwater for up to seven hours, whereas a tortoise will only hold their breath for a couple of minutes.

However, although a tortoise is unlikely to put its head underwater, surprisingly, all turtles, including tortoises, can actually hear better underwater, according to new research.

Researchers from the University of Maryland took CT and MRI scans of the inner ears of different species of turtles. They discovered in all of them that these relatively large, air-filled sacks inside the skull vibrated more powerfully underwater because soundwaves travel quicker than in the air.

Now we know more about the ears of a tortoise and how they work, as an owner, we must understand that tortoises are prone to ear infections and diseases.

Can Tortoises Get Ear Infections?

As tortoises do not have an outer ear, you would not be wrong for thinking that a tortoise can’t get an ear infection.

However, all turtles and tortoises risk getting aural abscesses, which is a swelling inside the middle ear.

This area is known as the tympanic cavity, located just behind the corner of the mouth. A thin layer of skin membrane protects it, usually flat against the tortoise’s head when the ear is healthy.

The tympanic cavity fills with pus when it is infected, and the plug presses against the membrane causing it to bulge outward. Basically, it is a lump on the side of the head and, if left untreated, can spread to the jaw and skull. In some cases, the swollen membrane over the cavity can rupture.

Side-on profile of a domestic tortoise

Symptoms

If you suspect your tortoise has an ear infection, they will display the following symptoms:

• Swelling of the ear membrane (located near the corner of the mouth)
• Thick pus is visible through the membrane
• Pain when the mouth opens
• Lack of appetite
• Difficulty swallowing
• Rubbing their head against objects
• Clawing at the ear area
• Inflammation of the eye.

If your tortoise has any of the above, take them for veterinary treatment immediately, as if left untreated, the infection will become worse.

Causes

The leading causes of an aural abscess are due to a weakened immune system caused by either:

• A lack of vitamin A in the diet
• Poor sanitary or cramp conditions in their living environment
• Traumatic injury.

A vitamin A deficiency in tortoises causes abnormalities in the middle ear lining, allowing bacteria to enter the body and causing an infection. It can also affect the eyes, skin, conjunctiva, and respiratory tract.

Poor living conditions for a tortoise include insufficient access to natural or artificial sunlight, unsuitable temperatures, overcrowding, limited water supply, and overhandling.

Infection can also occur due to an injury to the thin membrane, which is vulnerable to puncture. A tortoise may knock itself on objects in their living environment or as a result of another tortoise’s claw.

Diagnosis

Take your pet tortoise to an exotics vet who will do a thorough physical examination. They will examine the mouth and take blood for lab work.

The vet must discover the underlying cause so that the infection does not reoccur. The vet will ask you about your tortoise’s diet and living conditions.

Treatment.

Surgery is necessary to remove the pus and debris built up underneath the membrane, so your tortoise must be anesthetized.

It usually takes about half a month for the skin layer to recover.

Management

Ensure that your tortoise has a diet with sufficient vitamin A levels and lives in suitable conditions.

Conclusion

Although a tortoise does not have a visible outer ear like other animals or us, they do have an internal ear covered by flaps of skin. As a result, they respond much better to low-frequency sounds and vibrations.

Tortoises can suffer from ear infections, with the leading causes being bad sanitation and a vitamin A deficiency.

To prevent your tortoise from getting an aura abscess, ensure that they live in a clean and healthy environment that is not overcrowded and fed a diet with the correct vitamins, especially vitamin A,

Alison O'Callaghan

Alison has been a freelance pet and equine writer for over five years and has been published across a wide range of websites. She is a qualified British Horse Society instructor with over twenty years of experience in the equestrian industry. You can learn more about Alison at https://mercurypets.com/our-writers/

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