By Stacey Venzel
Social behavior is not always as complex as forming friendships, raising families and having relationships. Instead of watching movies and going for long walks on the beach, social behavior can involve basic survival traits that are mutually beneficial between individuals.
Most biologists agree turtles are not social creatures. However, this does not mean that they are solitary their entire lives as turtles engage in mass rituals for mating, egg laying, hatching, basking, feeding and burrowing.
Obviously, male and female turtles are together when they mate, but breeding season appears to be one of few instances in which turtles could be suggested as socializing, even when multiple males in species like the diamondback terrapin mate in the same area. Males will interact with each other when they engage in combat for females, but this is not exemplary of a mutually beneficial behavior as one turtle will inevitably lose.
The females of two species of ridley sea turtles and the arrau river turtle come ashore thousands at a time to nest together. Once, 40,000 Kemp’s ridleys were recorded laying eggs in just one day. While they do not interact with each other, this behavior could be a way to increase the chances of one female’s eggs surviving when hundreds of other nests are available for predators to pick through. Scientists still debate whether or not this is considered a social activity.
A rare situation involving turtle teamwork occurs with sea turtles. Hundreds of sea turtle eggs are laid deep below the sand, meaning an itty bitty hatchling could not dig out of its nest all by itself. With the help of other hatchlings, baby sea turtles hatch and dig for days together, alternating breaks. This act of cooperation helps most of the turtles reach the surface instead of suffocating from being buried below.
Aquatic turtles from cooters to sliders are often seen basking on the same log. Instead of this being characterized as a social behavior, it is more likely simply an opportunistic log location of which many individuals are taking advantage. Sometimes, it evens turns into competition for the prime hot spot with turtles piling on top of each other.
Similar to communal basking, turtles are being opportunistic when they congregate near a food source, such as a group of red-eared sliders all coming up at the same time for pellets in a pond. Helmeted turtles are a bit of an exception as they invoke a joint effort to attack birds on the bank. This is a unique case of mutualism but is not necessarily classified as a social behavior, for the turtles might just be hungry!
Unique to the turtle world in its social behavior, the gopher tortoise has some scientists perplexed with its burrow colonies. Gopher tortoises have been observed stopping by other burrows for no apparent biological reason, making some herpetologists question if this species might actually exhibit friendly behavior. However, whether this is truly a sign of being social is still up in the air.
Karen Eckert, David Gulko, Sea Turtles: An Ecological Guide (Honolulu, Mutual Publishing, 2004), 72.
Carl J Franklin, Turtles: An Extraordinary Natural History 245 Million Years in the Making (St. Paul, Voyageur Press, 2007), 64-65.
Whit Gibbons, Judy Greene, Turtle: The Animal Answer Guide (Baltimore, The John Hopkins University Press, 2009), 31-34.