Box turtles love to dig and cover themselves up in dirt. In this article, I will explain the many reasons why your box turtle is digging.
Ever wonder why your box turtle loves to dig so much?
Here’s the quick and easy answer:
Just about every turtle species will if given the chance dig and burrow into the dirt and mud. Box turtles tend to do this more often due to their terrestrial environment. They do this for a multitude of reasons, such as: brumation, aestivation, boredom, comfort and safety, foraging for food and lastly, preparation to lay eggs.
Depending on the circumstances, you can sometimes tell why your box turtle is digging and burrowing into the dirt.
Below, I will expand a bit on each of these reasons.
How Deep Do Box Turtles Dig?
To begin with, if you’re wondering if there are any species of box turtle that do not dig, you’d be hard-pressed to find any.
Just about every turtle species that I know of digs and burrows to some extent.
Not only do box turtles LOVE to dig, but they love to dig DEEP.
Eastern box turtles, for instance, are known to burrow up to 2 feet down into the earth! Other pet owners have experienced turtles escaping from indoor enclosures that extended over 3 feet of depth into the soil!
This means that most box turtle species will burrow down to the bottom of your habitat, provided it’s not outdoors. This also means that even if you have an outdoor habitat enclosed by a barrier of some kind, you’ll probably need to place another barrier (such as bricks or mesh wire) that extends down 3-4 feet into the soil.
For those in North America, the most popular species of box turtle tends to be:
- Ornate box turtles
- Eastern box turtles
- Three-toed box turtles
- Florida box turtles
- Gulf Coast box turtles
Why Is My Box Turtle Digging?
Any given box turtle species will dig and burrow for the following reasons:
- Comfort and safety
- Foraging for food
- Getting ready to lay eggs
Let’s quickly go through each.
Brumation is basically jargon for hibernation. It means the exact same thing.
In the wild, turtles will often dig and burrow down into the earth to prepare to survive through the winter. During this period of inactivity, their internal temperature, as well as overall metabolic activity level, will both drop.
Only rarely will they come out of this period of inactivity, and usually that is for food or water purposes. Aquatic turtles such as red-eared sliders will often burrow themselves down into the mud at the bottoms of the ponds and lakes they live in, and only come up for air every once in a while.
It’s pretty easy to figure out if your box turtle is digging because it’s getting ready to brumate; if your turtle is digging and covering itself up during the late fall and early winter, it’s probably to brumate.
You might have known that turtles hibernate during the winter months, but I bet you have never heard of this one before!
It’s called aestivation, and it’s essentially the summer version of brumation.
Turtles are cold-blooded animals whose body temperature changes based on their outside environment. They are very good at adapting to inclement weather, but sometimes it gets too cold (hence the need for brumation), and sometimes, it gets too hot!
That’s basically what is happening here.
Sometimes, it gets a bit too hot outside, and in order to protect themselves, a box turtle will sometimes burrow down into the earth in order to cool itself down.
Just as with brumation, you can probably deduce that the reason your box turtle is digging into the earth is due to aestivation if it’s particularly hot outside.
Believe it or not, your box turtle may be digging because it’s bored.
There is no real way to determine if boredom is the culprit of your turtle’s constant digging, except to go through a process of elimination. If it’s not digging due to it being too hot or cold, getting ready to lay eggs, or because it feels unsafe, it’s probably digging because it just has nothing better to do.
Generally, the smaller your enclosure or habitat, the more often your turtle will try to dig. So, if you want your box turtle to dig less often, try upgrading to a bigger size, or start adding some safe plants or hideaways to your tank.
Comfort and Safety
A lot of times box turtles will try to dig in order to feel more secure.
This often happens if your terrarium is in an area of your house that has a lot of visitors or movement, both of which may scare your turtle.
It can also happen if your habitat isn’t set-up very well, such as being very shallow and having an open-top on the ground, thus allowing your turtle to become frightened every time someone walks in.
While we’re on the topic of a good set-up, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got a good substrate for your box turtle to burrow into that is safe for your turtle. If you prefer sand, you should check out my guide on the best sand for a turtle tank.
That being said, your turtle’s digging doesn’t necessarily have to be due to being scared. Box turtles often dig and burrow down into the dirt simply because it makes them feel more comfortable down there.
Foraging For Food
This is one of the less likely reasons for your box turtle’s burrowing, but it does happen from time to time.
If you haven’t been giving your box turtle an appropriate amount of food or the right types of foods, it may not be digging but rather foraging for food.
Make sure you are feeding your box turtle daily vegetables, as well as a protein source a few times a week to avoid this.
Why do turtles dig holes?
The main reason turtles dig holes is to prepare for laying eggs.
Often the tell-tale sign of this is when your box turtle digs with its hind legs and is backing into its hole, rather than digging with its forelegs and going in head-first.
Another sign that this is happening is noticing how deep the hole is. The deeper the hole, the more likely she is laying eggs. This is because turtles often dig shallow holes to get away from the surface. They need those deeper holes in order to smooth out a chamber in which to deposit her eggs.
Lastly, she will often repack the dirt to cover the entrance, basically making it NOT look like she just burrowed there.
This is obviously much more likely if you have an outdoor habitat. But if your box turtle is laying eggs, it will look quite a bit different from typical burrowing.
If you suspect your box turtle to be laying eggs, leave her be and let nature take its course, particularly if its outdoors and a wild turtle. What will typically happen is the turtle will leave the nest and never return. The turtles will hatch and make their way out into the world.
You can learn more in the article I wrote about how to tell if a turtle is pregnant.
It would also be wise to keep away any cats, dogs or children you may have from the turtle. The best course of action is to simply refrain from disturbing the turtle.
The Best Substrate for a Turtle Digging in Tank
If you have a turtle digging in the tank, it is important that you have a substrate that helps supports this natural behavior. I would recommend you get the Zoo Med Coconut Fiber Substrate. You can click the photo below for more info.
Why Is My Turtle Burying Itself?
If your turtle is completely covering itself with mud, dirt, plants or anything else in your tank, that will eliminate a few possible reasons.
If you see your box turtle doing this, it is likely due to:
- Brumation due to the upcoming winter months.
- Aestivation when it gets too hot.
- To make itself feel more comfortable.
- To feel safer and more secure in its environment.
If it’s completely covering itself, it is probably not foraging for food or doing it because of boredom.
Do Red-Eared Sliders Bury Themselves?
I wanted to mention that digging and burrowing is not something limited to just box turtles. Aquatic species of turtles such as red-eared sliders and painted turtles will also bury themselves if given the chance.
Usually, aquatic species bury themselves for 2 reasons:
- To brumate.
- To lay eggs.
As aquatic species live in the water, digging into the earth in order to get relief from the hot sun or weather is a lot less likely.
Instead, what they do is as the winter months start to come around, they will burrow down deep into the soft mud at the bottom of the lake, pond or stream where they live. This will actually keep them warmer than staying outside in the snow. It will also keep them a lot safer from remaining in the frigid water, where respiratory illness is waiting just around the corner.
When it comes time to lay eggs, females will often deposit the eggs on or near the shore. Red-eared sliders often mate around May and will usually lay their eggs sometime in June, July, and August.
Why Turtle Digging In The Tank?
Lastly, I wanted to mention this peculiar behavior.
If you have an aquatic turtle such as a red-eared slider or diamond-back terrapin, you may have seen it digging at the bottom of your aquarium.
This is totally normal behavior.
As I noted above, aquatic turtles will go to the bottom of lakes and ponds, burrow themselves in mud and hibernate over the winter months.
Typically, turtles will dig in an aquarium because:
- They are digging into any substrate because they are curious, hungry or want comfort.
- Your water is too cold. They may be tricked into thinking that winter is coming and its time to brumate.
Always routinely check your water temperature to make sure its not hot or cold enough for your species.
- Box turtles typically dig in the dirt because the temperature is getting too hot or cold, in order to forage for food, stave off boredom, feel safe and secure as well as lay eggs.
- You can often surmise the most likely reason why your box turtle is digging due to the temperature, time of year, diet as well as any possible mating opportunities your turtle may have had.