Why Does a Turtle Turn Upside Down? (Full Guide)

Copyright: karich

You might have stumbled on your pet turtle struggling on its back and looking helpless. Some turtles find themselves in this predicament more often, making you start to wonder about things such as how it got to that position, whether it can flip itself over and what would happen if it can’t. Science has studied this, and this guide seeks to give you answers. Read in to learn more, including what the right environment is to prevent this from happening.

Why Does a Turtle Turn Upside Down?

There are many reasons for upside-down turtles. If a turtle is strong and healthy, it can get back on its feet when it falls, unless it’s wedged in a way it can’t get the chance to right itself. With their armored nature, turtles easily lose balance and fall on their back. Male turtles fighting for females may also often flip over. Other reasons for upside-down turtles are respiratory illness, erratic climbing, and unfavorable habitat.

Now let’s take a look at the reasons in detail why your turtle might be flipping upside down.

Underlying Respiratory Illnesses

It’s not fun to think about your turtle or tortoise becoming ill, but this might be one of the reasons why it might be flipping over too often. It turns out that a respiratory illness that reaches the lungs can affect their internal stabilizer that’s responsible for buoyancy.

Respiratory illnesses are likely to start from nasal and throat passages. When the infection has reached the lungs, they are likely to be in the latter stages of the illness. As a result, the turtle inevitably tilts to the side or at 1800while swimming.

So, if you start seeing your pet turtle lying upside down in the water, you should perhaps ring the vet immediately. Otherwise, a delayed response could mean serious illness and ultimately death. Pay attention to the vet’s report and know proper tortoise care and handling.

Checking your turtle’s behavior and appearance can help you stay ahead of any nasty infections. Symptoms of respiratory illnesses in turtles include wheezing, cloudy eyes, open-mouth breathing, ear swelling, a poor appetite, and a bubbling mouth.

To prevent this, ensure your turtle’s diet has a sufficient supply of Vitamin A to boost the performance of the mucous membranes in the mouth, eyes, and respiratory tract. Ask your vet for recommendations on a high-quality diet to lessen the chances of illness.

Also, avoid feeding your turtle a diet that solely consists of meat or iceberg lettuce. Ensure to provide treats of live worms and leafy greens as these contain lots of Vitamin A.

Attack From Predators

Turtles in the wild will often retreat to their shell when they sense danger. They respond by hiding under the shell until they feel the predator is gone. However, sometimes the wind, waves, and predators can toss the shell, leaving the turtle upside down. The soft belies of the tortoise will be exposed to predators, and there’s nothing the turtle can do in this state.

For your turtle, there might not be anything dangerous around. However, he might still retract from shell protection, perhaps due to loud noises, curious onlookers, inflated footballs, or other sounds. That’s why you should be mindful of other pets and young children at home. What could be an innocent playtime for your kids can be a stressful situation for your pet turtle if he freaks and slips accidentally.

Turtles Flipping Each Other

The mating season isn’t the easiest for turtles and can even be dangerous. The simple act of copulation might be riskier for turtles than any other species. Male turtles can become highly competitive and start aggressive fights to impress the female. Males respond to the female’s scent by pushing and ramming the competition around, and losers might often end up in a flipped position.

A stronger male turtle might also harass female turtles that are attempting to breed. Also, male turtles can fall on their backs after copulation. When this occurs, it could be stuck for a long time and probably die.

This might seem cruel, but it’s not much different from any other animals competing during mating. You can separate turtles or tortoises who show aggressive behavior, for instance, two females that don’t get along. You can always let them have some social time under your supervision.

A Wrong Aquarium Setup

A poorly set terrarium or aquarium can more easily flip over the turtle than any of the reasons we have highlighted above. The right aquarium should be large enough to provide sufficient room for swimming. Besides, you need to ensure that there are no decorations that are likely to hinder the navigation of your turtle.

Take away any decorations and plants that could easily trap and topple your turtle over. While turtles want to climb anything uphill in the tank, they are poor climbers and can end up upside down, sometimes getting injured in the process.

For this reason, ensure you keep the water deeper than your turtle’s width because they can fall on their backs in shallow water, making them have a hard time trying to turn over.

Tortoises are also curious when they see a hide or rock and will climb. Baby turtles will even try to climb the corners of the tank. Unfortunately, they might tumble when they fall from high enough and land awkwardly on their back.

Animal Cruelty

People or kids out there will just find a turtle and decide to do terrible things. For instance, they might see a turtle and see it funny to turn them upside down. It’s not amusing to the turtle, though, and he could easily starve to death if left in this state. Thankfully, most people understand that it’s wrong to treat turtles like this.

Weird Habits

If any turtle or someone isn’t tipping over your turtle or tortoise, it’s probably normal for your pet to tip over. Sometimes, turtles can just turn over by themselves. It’s not clear why they do this, but some tortoises just enjoy flipping over or at least enjoy doing activities that take them to this position. If the tortoise is healthy and rounder, it might be able to push themselves back on their feet. Unfortunately, the turtle may sometimes flip over itself in the corner of the enclosure, meaning there isn’t much they can do except wait for help.

It’s hard to prevent this unless you know what makes them flip over. An effective way to catch them is to set a camera in their environment and walk away. You could be lucky and catch it on video, which can help you address the cause. However, it’s the most likely activity or habit they enjoy, and you may not be able to stop them.


Not common with pets, but it’s common for aquatic turtles to be flipped around by strong waves in the wild. When the waves reach the shore, the water molecules develop a rapid circular motion or spin that sways the animal around. Large waves can become strong enough to flip and scare sea turtles.

What Happens If a Turtle Flips Upside Down?

When a turtle flips upside down, the first thing they do is panic. The low-walking heavy creatures dislike this position, so they may begin to freak out. Sometimes they will stay still for a moment, trying to figure out what just happened.

Besides, they are unable to move, which means they may starve. Turtles are frequent feeders and might not last long without food. Apart from food, they won’t have access to water, which may be more dangerous than you think. Turtle gets dehydrated quickly in the upside-down position, not to mention the weather might be too hot, which means even faster dehydration.

Another problem with flipping upside down is they become vulnerable to predators. Well, they can retract inside the shell, but they cannot move, which predators can take advantage of. Also, the underside of most turtles is too soft and could allow the predator to break in and have a free meal.

Can a Turtle Die From Being Trapped on Its Back?

Well, the chances of your tortoise dying on its back are minimal if you interact with them often. However, if you leave your friend for most of the time on a daily basis, they may die on their back if they flip over accidentally. Fortunately, you can find ways to prevent the situations and boost the chances of a tortoise’s survival.

Can a Turtle Turn Itself After Falling onto Its Back?

A turtle’s ability to flip onto its back depends on species and size. For example, some flat-shelled aquatic turtles have long and muscular necks that make it easier to flip back if they accidentally get flicked onto their backs. However, other species of turtles and tortoises can find it hard to right themselves back due to the shorter legs and necks that don’t help much.

Sadly, explorers and sailors in the past used to trap giant land turtles for food during long journeys across the sea. They would keep these creatures upside down to make sure they wouldn’t wander off and getaway.

Some turtles are fortunate enough to have shells that make it easier to get back to feet on their own. For instance, those with a dome shell find it easier to rock and roll to the upright position. The mono-static shape effectively means there’s a particular position they are stable in, and that position is right-side up.

Other turtles with flatter shells can achieve a stable position on their back as well, so they can hardly right themselves. It’s even worse when the shell has other stable points on the shell because these make it easier to flip to other sides as they try to rock back and from positions. Also, smaller turtles can un-flip themselves easily than heavy turtles.

How Do Turtles Un-flip Themselves Back?

Looking at turtles, it might seem fair to conclude they are inflexible. You might be wrong because an upside-down turtle shows incredible craftiness that is often overlooked. You’re likely to have read or heard the interesting short story about the rabbit and the turtle, and it’s a live example that turtles are determined and clever in real life.

Long story short.

When the turtle gets to the backward position, they use their head to tilt back, which causes the body to shift slightly. Then, they use their feet to spring off against the ground and flip back the other side.

How Long Can a Turtle Survive Upside Down?

It depends on where it turns upside down. If they can manage to turn over in a short time, they can leave the trap without any problem. Under direct sunlight, turtles may not last long due to dehydration. Young turtles that turn upside down under the sun may not make it past the hour mark. Sometimes death can even happen in minutes.

In an experiment by an unnamed biologist, turtles were purposely turned on their backs, and if they didn’t manage to turn in half an hour, they were righted by the biologist. Since the experiment was testing the health of the turtles, we can probably say 30 minutes is not too much. But anything more than an hour under the scotching sun can leave the turtle with health problems.

A turtle that flips upside down underwater for a long time can starve, become stranded in cold water, and probably die from drowning or freezing. The aquatic turtles will strive to turn themselves over and probably survive for hours and days.

Can I Help Upside Down Turtle? How?

If you notice a turtle stuck on its back, it’s only suitable to help them. You want to be careful how you approach the animal because a frustrated turtle can bite. So, make sure you pick with the hand on the sides and rear end – not the front. Turn the turtle gently and place it stably so that it gets its bearings.

Never shake the turtle or apply firm pressure, especially on the stomach, as this could harm the insides. If the turtle was trying to cross the street when they flipped over, you could help the turtle cross the road to the direction that it was heading to.

As for pet turtles, ensure you address the reason behind the overturn. Is the tank safe? Are there some rocks to help the turtle wind up on the back? Was it bullied? It’s also vital to check on your turtles regularly to see their progress. If your turtle is prone to flipping over, it might help you recognize the cause and mitigate the risk.

How the Shape of the Turtle Influences the Chances of Turning Upside Down

As I have mentioned earlier in this guide, turtles have all kinds of shapes, and the shape of a turtle’s shell can influence the likelihood of turning over. Turtles whose shells are rounder seem to have a significantly easier time getting back on feet than those with flatter shells. The logic here is that rounder turtles can roll like a ball. Check out an object called Gomboc that illustrates this.

Flat-shelled turtles usually struggle the most when flipping back on their feet. Turtles with a flat shell may not be able to rock back and forth correctly because of the flat edges. Some species of turtles with flat shells have adapted muscles that allow them to get back on feet, but not all flat-shelled turtles.

You might wonder why these turtles have flat shells despite this being such a huge vulnerability that makes life hard for turtles. In case of an accident, the turtle could be in big trouble. Evolution should probably help these turtles develop better abilities to flip over. Indeed, many turtle species are better adapted, but there are many turtles with issues.

How the Limbs Influence the Likelihood of a Turtle to Turn Over

As you might have observed, the size of the limbs and neck play a crucial role in the turning process. The longer the limbs, the easier it will be for the turtle to maneuver. Many species have normal legs length, but some have longer ones that make turning over easier. As with legs, few turtles have longer necks, with most species having a normal length, but there’s no unique size.

How the Age Influences the Likelihood of a Turtle to Turn Over

The more experience they have with humans, the easier they can deal with more situations than the younglings. But as it turns out, turtles are different. The famous biologist Ana Glubovic conducted a study to see how turtles react with age, and the results were shocking. Younger turtles seem to turn over more easily than older ones.

This is probably because younger turtles are more vulnerable when they are turned over. As such, they have a sense of urgency that appears to make them move a lot faster and better. Older turtles have a more hardened shell, so this puts them much safer compared to their counterparts. They also know that sticking their head and limbs out will leave them vulnerable, so they choose to stay upside down much longer.

Do Turtles Use the Tail to Turn Over?

The tail length doesn’t seem to matter when the turtle wants to turn over. They only use their legs, heads, and necks.

Is It Allowed to Turn a Turtle Upside Down?

The upside-down position may not be a favorite for turtles and tortoises, but it should be fine. However, while you do it, be sure to do it slowly without shaking the turtle. This can potentially harm their inside organs and could also be painful for the turtle. Otherwise, you should avoid turning the turtle over as much as possible. When you do it, do it gently and spend the least time.

Can a Turtle Get Help From Other Turtles to Turn Over?

Social animals? Not turtles. In fact, a turtle prefers to stay alone. But when they interact with each other, it’s something exceptional. For example, you can check out this tortoise that helps the other flip itself back. However, the turtle that saves the other one is likely one that knocks it on its back in the first place.

Thankfully, a lot of turtles are helpful to one another if they see them in trouble. They will give them a push upright.

Should I Be Afraid If My Turtle Is Upside Down?

Generally speaking, no. Mother nature has it all figured out. While some turtles may have a hard time when flipped over, most healthy turtles and torts can usually turn over without any help.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t assist a turtle when you find them flipped upside down. You could reach in and help him out gently and take them ahead of a few steps to the direction they were heading.

Wrap Up – Upside Down Turtle

Overall, nothing can come good when a turtle is turned on its back. Turtles turn upside down can occur for various reasons such as a fight from another turtle, falling when mating, respiratory infection, and accidental falls in the aquarium. The chances of a turtle dying while on its back are low, but this may depend on where they turned upside down, their health, shell shape, and age.

If a turtle can’t right itself, it can be vital, especially under exposure to heat. It’s also notable that turtles can die when flipped on their back underwater because they run out of energy, can’t hold back the neck anymore, and could drown.

Thankfully, these situations aren’t common, but you want to watch baby turtles more than you do with adults. Ensure their habitat is safe by removing anything that increases the chances to flip over. Hopefully, you now know everything about turtles upside down and what to do.

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