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Turtles Can Play

     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 on, 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 was consumed.

     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 many times.

     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 ball.

     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 social activity.

     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 sample them.

     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