In the course of my work, I am often contacted by turtle owners whose pets cease feeding and become unusually restless. The behavior appears suddenly, sometimes after many uneventful years – a Common Musk Turtle did so after 22 years in my collection – and seems to have no external cause. A normally placid turtle may begin frantically paddling or wandering about, trying to climb the sides of the terrarium and escape. Food, once the focus of the creature’s existence, is ignored.
It surprises some folks to learn that turtle and tortoise eggs may develop even if the female has never mated, and that mated animals may retain sperm and produce fertile eggs years later. Unfortunately, gravid (egg-bearing) turtles can be very choosy when it comes to nesting sites…a ½ acre exhibit failed to satisfy some I’ve cared for at the Bronx Zoo! If the eggs are not deposited, blockages due to over-calcification and life-threatening infections invariably result. Fortunately, there are ways to “convince” your pet to lay her eggs; failing this, several effective veterinary options are available.
What To Do
If your female turtle or tortoise suddenly stops feeding and begins to act as described above, first check that something has not gone wrong in the environment. Overheating, Lysol poured into the tank by a mischievous child (actual story), or cage-mate aggression can all cause similar behaviors.
If you suspect eggs, your best option would be to have radiographs done by a veterinarian (please post below if you need help in locating an experienced vet). Your vet can determine how many eggs are present, approximately how far along they are in their development, and if problems related to unusual size or over-calcification can be expected. Also, other health issues that may cause similar symptoms can be investigated.
Creating a Nest Site
If you have some experience and suitable space, you may wish to set up a nesting area before bringing your turtle to a veterinarian. Be aware, however, that the nest site must be ideal if it is to be accepted. The species’ natural history is the main factor to consider, but there is also a great deal of individual variation as well. For example, I once participated in a study of Green Sea Turtles (Costa Rica) wherein it was documented that certain individuals always choose shady sites and others sunny, while some seemed to have no preference.
Warm, moist areas are attractive to many species, while others prefer to deposit eggs within a cave or near plant cover. Use reptile night bulbs to heat nest sites, as the black/red light they emit will not disturb turtles after dark, when many species deposit their eggs. Please see the linked articles for further information on creating nest sites, and be sure to post your questions below.
When unable to find a suitable nesting site, some turtles deposit their eggs on the substrate, in water, or wherever possible (the eggs of many can endure some time under water, so be sure to incubate any you discover).
However, the unsuccessful search for a site generally causes them to retain the eggs far longer than would be normal. Calcium is continually added to the retained eggs, causing them to increase in size – sometimes to the point where they cannot be passed naturally. These eggs eventually decay, leading to egg yolk peritonitis. If untreated, this infection is fatal.
Prompt veterinary attention should be sought if your turtle is unable to deposit her eggs. A (human) labor-inducing medication known as Oxytocin is usually quite effective when administered to gravid turtles. In extreme cases, surgery may be called for. Please post below if you need a reference to a local veterinarian experienced in turtle care.
Hatching the Eggs
While the eggs of Common Snapping Turtles and other consummate survivors will often do well at room temperatures (in a hot room, in summer), a reptile egg incubator will greatly simplify the hatching process. Please post your incubation questions and observations below once you’ve obtained a clutch.
Turtles Seek Heat While Still in the Egg
Caring for Sliders, Map and Painted Turtles
Hi, I really enjoyed the blog but I just wanted to know some more things about what to do with turtle pregnancy. My Golden Thread turtle has recently gotten pregnant and I was just wondering on how I should prepare for the eggs. I need help on how to make a nesting area for her and what to do for an incubator if I need one.
It can be difficult to know when the turtle is ready to produce eggs unless a radiograph is taken. However, if she is showing the behavior mentioned in the article, you can set up a nest area in the cage is space permits, or remove the turtle to a large container (i.e. 5x the length and width of the turtle) provisioned with 6-8 inches of slightly moist soil and sand. Not all will lay eggs in such sites…a vet should be available to administer an oxytosin injection if the eggs are ready to be expelled but the turtle does not nest. Good luck and Please keep me posted, frank
You said that the RES and Golden Thread turtles cannot hybridnize but they have already mated and the Golden Thread turtle is pregnant, so will the eggs be fertile or not?
Male sliders will copulate with just about any suitably-sized female turtle of any species (as well as with rubber balls, etc!); however, this does not result in the female becoming gravid (bearing eggs) unless the species are closely related (i.e. others in the genus, perhaps family).
However, females of any species may develop eggs even if they have not mated (see article).
Many species can store sperm, so that prior matings with the correct species can result in fertilized eggs after months or even years in some cases.
Oh okay, thank you. So do the Golden Thread turtle eggs need an incubator? And if so, what should I do for it?
Yes, a reptile egg incubator should be used. Success has been had with temps of 82-88F and a 1:1 mix of vermiculite:water by weight. Best, Frank
I am just checking in and wondering, my Golden Thread has been gravid and is always pushing objects around and digging holes in the tank but when I put her into her nesting box all she does is run around and try to climb out which she can’t. Is there anything I can do to make her less crazy? So I am not sure if she is close to laying her eggs or if I should wait a little longer.
Many turtles react that way when removed from their usual enclosures..if if the nest site is ideal, they generally will not nest. Covering the enclosure sometimes helps, or providing a larger nest enclosure, but it can be difficult. It may be better to provide a deeper substrate in the turtles home tank if possible, perhaps make one area moister than the rest of the tank. If the turtle seems in distress but will not lay, a vet visit would be your best option/…oxytosin injections are very effective at inducing egg deposition. best, Frank
My turtle is a three toed box turtle I know she is ready to lay her eggs but she keeps going to water trying to get under a log and gets stuck should I let her lay her eggs there them put them in an inqubator or should I put here spme where she can dig pleas pleas help
The best option would be to put the animal in as large an enclosure as possible, with 12 inches or so of loose, slightly moist earth and a spotlight in one corner. However, box turtles end to become stressed when re-located, so unless the enclosue is very large and offers hiding places, she may just try to escape. Some will drop their eggs in the home terrarium, even if a suitable nest site is not available, these should be incubated unless broken, as often occurs. If you are certain she is gravid and does not lay in a day or so, a vet visit would be advisable. Oxytosin injections are very effective in inducing egg-deposition; let me know if you need more info, frank
The enclosure is 4 feet long and 13 inches deep
is there a way that I could send you q video or a picture of it
That may be enough space, but they are very particular about nest sites..in the wild they ofter travel great distances, make and abandon several nests, etc. No real way to predict what will work for a pet. Leave her in place, but arrange fora vet check if she does not deposit eggs as mentioned earlier, best, frank.
How much would it cost me to take my turtle it to the vet to get the x ray done like ypu said
I can’t say – fees vary widely from office to office, but you can get an estimate before having the work done. Could the turtle just be restless, due to changing season perhaps…you didn’t mention why you thought the animal was ready to nest? best, Frank
HEY. Peace be on to you. I just wanted to inquire about about turtle eggs. I have 5 turtles in an external habitat. the whole are is around 8-9 feet in length and 3-4 feet in width. I have put a cage around it and supplied it with sand. Lots of sand. A few days ago I found my an egg in the area Unfortunately it was broken. So I picked it up.
Now the turtle (female) is sitting at multiple places and digging with back legs
So I don’t know where the eggs are in the place. I wanted to know what to do and how to handle this kind of a situation. Also how big is a baby turtle.
Thanks for the kinds words, and you as well..
Turtles often dig “false nests” to confuse predators (and owners!) and they start and abandon nest sites if temperature, moisture level etc is not to their liking. In a large outdoor area, it can be difficult to find nests unless the female is observed depositing eggs…In zoo exhibits, I’ve sometimes been surprised by finding babies w/o knowing eggs were produced (embarrassing when one’s job is involved!). Much depends upon the species also…please let me know what species you are keeping, and perhaps I can provide more info, best, Frank
Hi, so the species is the red eared sliders. Currently the female has been digging so many holes just like you said.( Well I don’t think she is doing that to fool me). Anyway so I got to know about the eggs when I picked up one that was broken and lying in the corner of the habitat. I just was alittle worried about their care. I have been leaving the female outside water for more than half a day and leave here in water for the rest of the day and feed her. Since she was still digging so I suspected that the process is not complete complete. What step should I take now. Also that I didn’t want to take them out of the sand cause they might be damaged. So that’s pretty much it.
Thanks for the feedback; best to let her stay in the nesting area until she is finished…no need to worry about feeding, they can go quite a long time without, with no ill effects. Moving in and out of nest area can disturb the process, resulting in delays, etc. If the nest area is in a warm area outdoors, you can leave the eggs in place…always a chance they will dry out, or a predator may get them, but there are risks involved in moving also. let me know if you decide to move them and need info on setting up indoors. Enjoy, best, frank
Thanks frank. I have no intention of moving them outside. There aren’t any such predators that will destroy the eggs and even if they try they cannot. The nesting are is actually warm yes but I don’t know if it should be too warm or just Ok.
Thanks alot frank for the info. Just these last few. Sorry for bothering you.
The eggs hatch at a wide range of temperatures…anywhere from appx. 78-88 F. Please keep me posted, Frank
Oh almost forgot to ask. So you were saying I should leave her in the nesting areaand not move her, so after how long do you suggest I feed her?
I would leave until she stops trying to dig…it’s important that all the eggs are deposited, as retained eggs decay and eventually cause fatal infections. The amount of time without food is not important, fasts of 1-2 weeks or even longer are fine for healthy individuals, best, Frank
The temperature you mentioned should be for the sand/nest or the external temperature?
Sand…but temeorature can dip at night…they do not dig very deep nests, so nest temp is generally similar to daytime air temperatures. best, frank
From where I am the night temperature is 30.
Thank you for providing such valuable information for exotic pet owners.
My female RES has been exhibiting the typical behaviors prior to laying eggs: restless, trying to get out of the tank, “digging” the river rock substrate and she was lying with her legs spread out behind her in an odd way I’ve never seen her do before. The behavior continued to escalate until she just seemed extremely agitated and it almost seemed to me that she was trying to push her eggs out.
I made her a dry nesting box and put her inside. At first, she became even more restless and was running in the box and trying to get out. Over-night, she buried herself in the nesting box (I initially thought she had escaped!). The first day, she kept her head above the substrate, but the next day, she remained completely buried and did not seem to move for the next two days. I tried to get as much information on the internet, literally spent hours researching, but could not find and information about a nesting RES burying herself.
I began to worry that she had died or was hibernating (It is mid-Spring, April) so I picked her up and put her back into her aquarium with her mate. At first she went wild and swam to her mate, then calmed down and has been calm and normal since.
I did palpate for eggs and she appears unchanged, I believe I feel eggs near her rear legs as I did when she was very restless prior to putting her in her nesting box. I haven’t found any eggs in the nesting box yet…
I originally became an RES owner when finding a male in the street in front of our home almost four months ago. Since nobody claimed him, I decided to keep, fell in love and added a companion last month.
Since we have raccoons here, I have kept the RES indoors in a 3′ x2′ enclosure. I’m planning on creating an outdoor enclosed habitat when I have time and will make it safe from predators with metal wire cage type fencing surrounding the habitat from top to bottom. I believe they will be much happier in a more natural habitat than the large aquarium they are in now.
My questions for you are:
Do you think she buried herself to hide because she was too stressed or do you think she hunkered down in order to rest and prepare to lay her eggs? (I now feel guilty for uprooting her from the nesting box)
How long should I let her remain buried? Should I have waited a week or longer or until she became active again in her nesting box?
I did not feed her or give her water while in the nesting box. Should I add a container for water and food?
Her appetite is unchanged once she returned to her tank. She ate heartily and other than digging occasionally, she appears calm and content as she was before she began getting restless.
Since laying eggs is common and normal, I want to be as educated as possible and keep my RES as healthy as possible. I will also ask my Veterinarian for a reptile specialist if she does not.
Thanks so much in advance. I appreciate the information that you posted and you seem to be the expert I have been searching for in order to get correct information for caring for my female, Raphaella. 🙂
N. California, USA
Thanks for the kind words, much appreciated. Captivity changes their behaviors, especially as regards nesting. it’s common for them to reject nest sites..in wild they often begin and abandon several sites, testing temperature, dampness etc. No need to leave her in box if she does not lay withing a day or so..the only sure way to test for eggs is via radiographs; if there are eggs, vet can induce deposition by oxytosin injection. let me know if yo need more info, best, frank
I’ve been thinking about taking my (possible) pregnant turtle to the vet to actually see if she is pregnant. Can you help me find the best place possible? I live in Kyle Texas so preferably closest to me. Thanks!
Below are links to reptile-experienced vets in Texas; if none are close, ask nearest for a reference, as there will be others not listed here. Most can check if a turtle is gravid via radio-graph. Please keep me posted, frank