It is my
opinion based on my observations that turtles can and do play. This is
not a behavior commonly attributed to turtles or other reptiles. I have
never heard anyone else express this before nor have I ever read
it anywhere before. My opinion is based on a few memorial experiences that
were dramatic enough at the time to be recognized as play, much more dramatic
than happy turtles socializing in a pond after eating their fill.
I hear from many
pet turtle owners who resist believing that their turtles behave in ways
they do not expect turtles to behave. They would believe it if it was a
dog, cat or bird but not their turtles. When they read of similar behaviors
TurtleTails.com, they realize that what they observe is common.
They find confirmation that they are not wrong in believing their turtles
are capable of much more than they expected. I am sure that many readers
after reading this opinion will agree with me that turtles can play.
Since these are
not scientific observations published in a trade journal by a professional,
I am stating this as my opinion and not a proven scientific fact. I am
simply a pet turtle owner with a popular web site who is open to learning
from my turtles and my readers.
A turtle playing
with an object:
My first observation
of a pet turtle playing took place in 1973. At the beginning of my senior
year in college and just one week after getting married, my wife and I
found a baby snapping turtle and took it back to our apartment. My wife
had never had a turtle before; I had many turtles as a boy. After graduation
we set up housekeeping in another apartment. We purchased a 30 gallon aquarium
and enjoyed setting up a nice environment for our one year old snapping
turtle complete with stones, gravel, plants, small fish, and crayfish.
I have written about
this snapping turtle before. His name was simply "Turtle". Many of the
opinions I now hold I can trace to that summer with Turtle living with
us in that apartment. We are filled with memories like the time Turtle
walking around on the floor had to climb over a cactus rather than go around
it. Turtle sat calmly as my wife picked the cactus needles out of him.
Like so many aquarium
owners we had to put a ceramic object in the aquarium. It was the likeness
of a snail, brown in color, and about the same size as Turtle. Turtle immediately
investigated the ceramic snail as he would anything new in his aquarium.
While it was a good likeness of a snail, it should have meant nothing to
Turtle since he had never seen a snail before. Then the play began. He
would approach it, snap, and then use his shell as a shield pushing it
against the ceramic snail. It became a game that lasted off and on for
weeks. Other similar ceramic objects did not interest him.
Now this behavior,
this play, is similar to the play of many young animals said to be practicing
survival and hunting skills they will need as adults. Yes that is what
it looked like. But Turtle was already an experienced and fierce predator.
He had successfully overcome many crayfish equal to his size. When he would
back one into a corner of the aquarium, he would attack head first with
no regard for his safety, no using his shell as a shield. A crayfish defending
itself can look pretty fierce too, but every crayfish placed in his aquarium
Turtle did have
some setbacks. After being stung a few times by small catfish, he learned
to kill them and leave them lay for a time. He would then return and bit
off and eat the bodies and leave the heads. He learned fast.
So Turtle was already
an accomplished predator when the ceramic snail became an object of play
for him. Of course we were entertained by his antics.
A turtle playing
with a dog:
The second memorable
example of a turtle playing took place about 1990. It was another snapping
turtle named Snappy we had raised from a baby. He weighted about eight
pounds at the time and was a mild mannered turtle that could be handled
easily. Our house had an enclosed breezeway between the house and the garage.
Since Snappy was getting big we decided to place his 30 gallon aquarium
(the same aquarium Turtle used) out in the breezeway for the summer next
to the back door. The aquarium sat on 4" high wood blocks on the floor
just high enough to run an external canister filter. The aquarium was filled
to the top with water and had nothing else in it except the filter lines.
Everyone entering or leaving walked right by the aquarium.
Snappy was content
in his aquarium and only climbed out once that I can remember. We could
say he had the run of the house since he could have easily entered the
kitchen door that was open to the breezeway most days. However, he never
entered the house. He did pay attention to everyone passing by his aquarium
like he was the door keeper. He had a post!
The aquarium would
have been the perfect watering trough for our dog if it had not been for
Snappy. Our dog never tried to drink from it knowing that the turtle would
not appreciate it. In fact the dog usually hurried past the aquarium as
Snappy moved back and forth.
There was another
dog belonging to a family member that came to visit. It was a large Weimaraner.
This dog did not drink from the aquarium either but found the snapping
turtle interesting. It did not take long for them to develop a game which
was played through the aquarium glass. The dog would advance to the glass
and Snappy would snap. The dog would jump back and bark and then jump forward
again. Snappy would snap again and the cycle would be repeated over and
over. After some play the dog would come inside for a time and then return
to the aquarium. This game was played during many visits.
Now you might be
thinking that this was not a game but you must understand that they had
rules. Neither the turtle or the dog ever moved to the surface of the water.
If the turtle really wanted to bit the dog, he would have easily launched
himself from the aquarium possibly landing on the dog. The Weimaraner loved
water and would have stuck his head in the water if he really wanted to
catch the turtle. But the game never escalated to a serious encounter and
we never worried about either of them hurting the other. If Snappy did
not want to participate, he would have simply turned his back to the dog
and ignored him.
If you think this
made Snappy aggressive, you are wrong. Snappy never became aggressive.
It was just a game between Snappy and that dog.
A group of turtles
playing with a ball:
A few years ago
while we still had our old turtle pond featured in Tour
9 on the Backyard
Turtles page, we watched our pond turtles playing with a plastic ball.
It was one of those special moments. Let me set the stage for you.
We have a dog who
will not play with a ball. My son has a dog who can not get enough of playing
with balls, especially tennis balls. When my son travels, his dog comes
to visit and has spent many many visits with us. His dog is a big playful
dog that demands attention. When the ball is not thrown quickly enough
she will bark or drop the ball in the turtle pen and bark at it. A common
game is to bounce the tennis ball off the house for the dog to catch. The
bounce sends the ball toward the turtle pen and it has landed in the pond
During one summer
family gathering, we were sitting around the deck and patio just a few
feet away from the turtle pen and pond. This time I had a white hollow
plastic ball bigger than a tennis ball for my son's dog to play with. We
talked and played for a few hours. The turtles were really part of this
gathering since they are right there with us and often the subject of conversation.
After my son's dog tired of chasing the ball, I tossed it into the turtle
pond for the turtles to play with. Would you believe they did just that.
The turtles immediately
began pushing the ball back and forth across the pond like they were playing
turtle water polo or something similar to it. It was not just once or twice,
it went on for a time. I pointed this out for everyone to watch. It was
like the turtles had been waiting for their chance to play with the ball.
The distance and speed the ball traveled was intentional on the turtle's
part and not just a simple investigation.
Like I said, it
was a special moment. We knew we were seeing our turtles playing with a
These are three
very specific examples of turtles playing that I recognized as play when
they happened. It is very common for our pond turtles to be playful late
in the afternoon after they are well fed and before they start settling
down for the evening. This is a time I often take pictures. During these
times they are very active socializing with each other and with me. I think
of this kind of behavior as socializing, but there is some active play.
How much is play would be a matter of opinion. Play is often a form of
There are many times
I think my turtles are playing with me. Sometimes I think they just want
to see if they can get me to do what they want me to do. They are good
at getting me to bring them the food they want. They are also capable of
so much more, capable of things we would not normally associate with reptiles.
Keep in mind that these are very domesticated animals I am living with.
They are really quit amazing.
So if you think
you witness your turtles playing, believe it. They are capable of so much
more than most people expect from them. And if you have a similar story
about your turtles playing, I would love to hear your story.
Thomas R. Schucker
A turtle playing
with a blue marble:
Some time after
writing this opinion a reader conveyed to me a story about her red-eared
slider who played with marbles. She described her turtle as destructive
so its aquarium was not decorated with anything, not even gravel. She got
the idea to place a few marbles in the aquarium. The turtle took to playing
with a blue marble and only the blue marble.
As the turtle grew
larger marbles were provided. Again the turtle only played with a blue
marble. It would bat the marble with its front feet across the glass bottom
and against the sides of the aquarium which attracted the attention of
its owner. It was obviously playing with the marble and maybe even using
it to attract its owner.
So I purchased some
marbles of various sizes for my turtles. I placed large marbles in their
concrete pond for a summer. I never saw any of the turtles pay any attention
to the marbles.
That following winter
season I placed marbles in an aquarium with W, our spotted turtle. He never
paid any attention to the marbles either. He did have planters he could
climb on and dig in and he also spent time in a vivarium with young box
turtles so we could say he had more interesting things to do than play
with marbles. We will repeat this experiment.
Two things intrigue
me about the marbles. The first is that a turtle would play with an object
like a marble repeatedly and the second is that a turtle would choose a
blue marble. Blue is not a color turtles would come across often in the
wild. Blue flowers would be the most common. Blue hosta flowers do fall
into our pond but I have never seen our turtles look twice at them or even
I know turtles are
attracted to the colors red and yellow. I once acquired a bright yellow
dish as a food dish to attract turtles to it. The first time I loaded it
with canned dog food, the turtles came running and tried to eat the dish.
If you have similar
stories about turtles playing especially with objects, we would like to
hear them. While I would not say that we need to entertain our turtles,
pet owners do like to provide toys for their pets. Maybe together we can
break new ground in pet turtle keeping.
Thomas R. Schucker