Terrapin Behaviour

How Well Do You Speak Terrapin? Learn to Understand Terrapin Behaviour


Terrapins, like all animals, have their own personalities and behaviour, which they often display in their tank. Through certain movements and specific demeanours, terrapins can show you what they want to do, how they are feeling, and if they are sick. You just have to read the signs and start deciphering what your terrapin wants.

When a dog wags its tail happily, you know it’s being friendly and wants to play. That’s a behavioural pattern that we, humans, have learnt to recognize in dogs. We are less used to understanding terrapins because they are not that common and there is less research. They also don’t wear their hearts on their sleeve, as dogs do, and their language signs are more discreet.

How to read the terrapin’s body language

It may sound bizarre, but by observing a terrapin’s body language and reactions to the surroundings, you can actually learn a lot about its mood and temper. Through observation and with a good terrapin behaviour guide, you will be able to follow your terrapin’s well-being.

These skills will prove quite helpful if your terrapin is sick. If you recognize behaviour that is out of the ordinary, you can take your terrapin to a vet and overcome an ailment or a health problem much faster.

Following are some typical behavioural signs of a terrapin that can help you understand how terrapins behave on their own and with other terrapins in their tank.

1.      My terrapin is hitting another terrapin

A male terrapin may hit repeatedly a female diagonally and bite it on the neck or legs to prepare her for a mating session. If the male becomes too aggressive, you may have to separate them for some time to prevent injury.

Males can become pretty territorial, so placing several males in a small tank can cause stress and distress to the terrapins. Our suggestion is to have a very large tank if you choose to have several terrapins, to give them enough personal space.

CIANO : Turtle Aquarium: Glass, 34.4L
181 Reviews
CIANO : Turtle Aquarium: Glass, 34.4L
  • Tartarium 60 Turtle Terrapin Reptile Glass Tank with Ramp
  • The tartarium 60, terrarium glass, is equipped with supports and dry zone in high quality white plastic with high gloss finish and a clear plastic lid for the rest of your turtle and for optimal exposure to heat, essential to their well-being and growth. Plastic supports; Plastic RAMP; Lid with clear plastic to prevent the turtle jump. Lid above ramp only, full lid not included or supplied.
  • Aquarium Dimensions L60 x W29.6x H19.5 cm RAMP Dimensions L22.5 x W13 x H15.7 cm Black on ramp & decor is for illustration purposes only.

2.      My terrapin is burrowing and hiding in the soil

During the autumn when the atmosphere starts getting colder, a terrapin may lose its appetite and try to burrow and hide in the soil. This is no cause for alarm: it simply indicates its readiness for hibernation.

Terrapins hibernate during the cold months, when they lower their metabolism, stop eating, and retain the energy they have to keep them going through the colder months. If you keep the tank temperature constant, your terrapin will not feel a temperature difference and may omit hibernation. In its natural habitat, a terrapin will hibernate.

The same burrowing behaviour in other seasons, however, may indicate ill health. You must consult a veterinarian as soon as possible because this could be a sign of a serious health problem.

3.      My terrapin is digging the ground with its rear legs

A male terrapin that is digging in the ground may be trying to find food. In this case, it may be malnourished.

On the other hand, digging or scrapping of the ground by a female terrapin with its rear legs means it is trying to lay her eggs. Provide her with a proper laying site.

According to the recent law of August 2016, terrapin owners are forbidden from breeding terrapins and releasing them into the wild, as they are feared to be invasive non-native species in the United Kingdom. If you have terrapins of both sexes in your tank, you should separate them and stop them from reproducing.

4.      My terrapin is eating pebbles or stones

If your terrapin starts eating pebbles or stones, it may be suffering from mineral deficiency. Pebbles and stones contain helpful compounds and minerals such as calcium or iron. You should provide a rich and diverse diet to your terrapin to keep it healthy.

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1,400 Reviews
Zoo Med MD-11E Dr Turtle Calcium Block
  • A slow release calcium block that conditions water
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5.      My terrapin is lying on its shell

If the terrapin keeps lying on its back for a long time, then help out and put it back on its legs. It may have stumbled or lost its balance.

Other reasons for your terrapin lying on its shell, is that it has a respiratory problem or some other health issue that must be addressed. Check the shell to make sure it’s not broken and take it to the vet if the behaviour persists.

6.      My terrapin is not going into the water

Terrapins love the water and are excellent swimmers. If your terrapin refuses to go into the water, it may be that the water temperature is not suitable and is either too cold or too warm. The right water temperature is between 23 and 28 degrees Celsius.

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HITOP Adjustable Aquarium Heater with Protective Cover, 30W 50W 120W Turtle and Fish Tank Heater for 5L to 120L Fresh Water and Seawater water Thermostat (50W)
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Another reason why your terrapin is not going in the water is that the water might smell of chlorine or is dirty. In this case, you must treat the water to adjust it to terrapin living.

Zoo Med WC-4 Repti Safe, 125 ml
1,620 Reviews
Zoo Med WC-4 Repti Safe, 125 ml
  • water treatment
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7.      My terrapin is swimming to and fro or trying to escape

If your terrapin is overly active, check all the prerequisites of its surroundings. While your terrapin may be simply surveying its new home, it may also not be feeling comfortable. Terrapins are curious animals, which is why you should include stones, ceramic pots, stones, and plants as features of interest in their tank for them to hide in and explore.

If a female terrapin is swimming to and fro, it may be a sign of its readiness to deposit eggs.

8.      My terrapin is stretching on all four limbs on the ground

Don’t worry, as a terrapin that is stretching its limbs on the ground is acting in quite a normal way.

Remember that terrapins are cold-blooded creatures, so they need to take in external heat in order to warm their body. The more body parts that are exposed to a heat source, the more heat the whole body absorbs. When your terrapin is basking in the sun, it will stretch all four limbs to make the most of the tank heat and warm itself up.

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LEDGLE 50W/75W Heat Lamp with Lampshade, UVA/UVB E27 Heat Lamp Bulb, for Reptile Turtle Chicken Coop Lizard Snake
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A very common reason why terrapins are stretching their limbs is just to relax. If, however, your terrapin is listless and not moving for a long time, it could be a matter of concern.

9.      My terrapin is withdrawing all its limbs into the shell

If your terrapin withdraws into its shell, it may be alarmed and stressed. We suggest you leave your terrapin alone for some time.

Terrapins don’t like to be handled and may even nip at you if they feel threatened or bothered. They have quite powerful jaws, particularly female terrapins, and their bite can be painful.

10. My terrapin is holding its head high and standing tall on extended legs

A terrapin that is holding its head high and standing tall on extended legs may either be evacuating its bowels or trying to look around.

Remember that you should keep your terrapinarium clean because terrapins defecate quite a lot. A good filter will clean the water on a daily basis and make it safe for terrapins to swim in. You should also replace between one-quarter and half of the tank water once a week or once every ten days.

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597 Reviews
Fluval Mini Underwater Filter, 200 Litre Per Hour
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11. My terrapin is making whizzing sounds

Terrapins are soundless but can make a threatening hissing sound if mishandled. Also, when the terrapin enters the water, the air that’s in the lungs gets expelled, which causes a distinctive sound. If several male terrapins are in the same tank, they will often hiss at each other.

On the other hand, a whizzing sound while breathing may indicate an infection of the respiratory system. You should take your terrapin to an experienced veterinarian to check it.

Observe your terrapin behaviour

While your terrapin may be unable to talk, it is not hard to learn to understand it. If you want to know more about your turtle’s behavioural signals, read my review of the Turtle Guide Book and check out the complete terrapin guide.

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