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Can Turtles Climb Trees? [Everything Explained]

box turtles looks

Although turtles may often appear slow, depending on the species of your pet turtle, they may actually possess quite adept climbing skills. Turtles who belong to the Musk, Map, Red-Eared Slider, and Snapping Turtle families as well as Russian and African Tortoises breeds are especially known for their impressive capabilities when it comes to incline or angled surfaces. 

This is mainly used for obtaining food in higher places, keeping a certain temperature for health and safety purposes in certain environments, or even fleeing from predators altogether. 

The turtles that are capable of climbing trees exhibit amazing feats of strength and agility. These extraordinary reptiles are members of the Testudines order that can, unlike the sea species, traverse branches with the head and neck extended for long periods of time. 

box turtles in open

It is thought that tree-climbing turtles have evolved special abilities to help them survive. Some use their natural talents to reach food or escape from predators as well as lay their eggs in higher nesting sites away from predators on land. 

While these magnificent creatures do possess amazing abilities, there are risks associated with their newfound habit including falling from high places. 

Those risks aside, learning about a turtle’s tree-climbing dreams makes us wonder what this incredible species will accomplish next!

Other Differences

In the event that you spot a turtle, there exist several distinguishing features between terrestrial and aquatic varieties.

Terrestrial Turtles (Land)Aquatic Turtles (Water)

Spends lots of time on land; cannot swim
Shells are heavier and dome-shaped; thick for protection from predators
Do not shed scales from the shell, continues to grow thicker in their lifetime
Padded, stumpy feet with scaly toes
Herbivores; eating leaves, grasses, fruit, vegetables, and more
Tend to live longer; some are over 180 years old

Spend lots of time in the water; excellent swimmers
Shells are thin and flat; streamlined for swimming and diving
Shed scutes, keratin scales, from the shells for growth; may bask in the sun to dry the scutes and then rub against something to flake them off
Webbed clawed feet or flippers
Omnivores; eat both plants and protein; proteins may include worms, insects, fish, or jellyfish

Naturally, there may be some outliers, as evidenced by the semi-aquatic Box and Mud Turtles, which possess convex carapaces akin to those of land-dwelling turtles. Additionally, box turtles lack webbed extremities or flippers.

Why Turtles Climb

Turtles, both pet and wild, may climb for the following reasons:

  • Food
  • Escape from predators, perceived danger, or stress
  • Temperature regulation
  • To keep fungal infections at bay in the sun
  • Dirty water
  • To move around an obstacle
  • Expand territory 

Filled with curiosity, pet turtles continuously look for an area to explore and expand their territory beyond their glass enclosures. They may not be able to find a space suitable for having babies, but this urge will drive them to climb and seek higher vantage points to find new places to investigate or even just catch some sun. 

So it is important that their enclosure provides enough height variation and appropriate ramps – much like they would enjoy in the wild – so they can watch the activity around them without needing to escape to do so. 

7 Turtles With Climbing Ability

Pet turtles may be small, but their sense of adventure is anything but! These resilient little creatures are filled with curiosity and will do whatever they can to explore the world beyond their enclosure. 

Although pet turtles won’t find suitable places for them to lay eggs, they still have the urge to climb and seek out higher vantage points. Because of this instinctive behaviour, it is important that owners provide fish tanks or enclosures with ramps and varying heights so the turtle can better observe its surroundings from a higher point. 

Not only will this improve the quality of life for our scaly friends, but it can also prevent unwanted escape attempts!

1. Indochinese Box Turtles (Cuora galbinifrons)

 Indochinese Box Turtles

The irresistible, brown-coloured turtle is an impressive species. Spending most of its life on land yet climbing trees to search for succulent fruits with its two mighty claws, this species is a truly unique explorer. Despite the fact that it is quite capable of turning itself right side up if it accidentally falls, the IUCN has listed this species as vulnerable following illegal trade and poaching activities.

2. Musk Turtles (Sternotherus)

Musk Turtles

Musk turtles, known for their unique spiky shells and pointed noses, are fascinating creatures that exhibit many unusual behaviours. Along with living in aquatic areas such as rivers or small streams, they are also quite capable climbers; if they can’t find adequate ground cover to hide under near the water’s surface, musk turtles will often ascend very high up trees to remain safe from predators. 

3. Red-Eared Slider Turtles (Trachemys scripta elegans)

Red-Eared Slider Turtles

Aquatic turtles are an interesting species that demand special care and attention. For example, they need the opportunity to both stay in the water as well as leave it to bask in the sun. 

Generally found near freshwater habitats, these turtles will take advantage of any manmade environment present, such as streams, swamps, ditches and canals. 

To reach these ideal basking areas, the turtle will even attempt to climb angled tree branches. The primary benefit of this is to maintain the turtle’s health by avoiding fungal infections from humidity.

4. Map Turtles (Graptemys geographica)

Map Turtles

Map turtles are truly incredible creatures that can survive in a variety of environments. found in drainage waterway systems as well as large bodies of water such as lakes and rivers, map turtles have adapted to make the most of their environment. They will bask on slanting trees for health, dietary needs, and temperature control – all important aspects for these semi-aquatic animals.

5. Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina)

Can Turtles Climb Trees

Despite their name, snapping turtles are not limited to the water and can climb trees if they need to. They have strong claws that allow them to grasp surfaces, helping them to ascend. This climbing ability is even more impressive when taking into consideration their large size and heavy shells. Interestingly, these aquatic reptiles are capable of escaping their enclosures by scaling the walls with their flattened tails acting as makeshift propellers. 

6. Russian Tortoises (Agrionemys horsfieldii)

Russian Tortoise

Russian Tortoises are keenly adapted to their environment and use a variety of methods to protect themselves from extreme weather. Sharp claws and a tendency to burrow give these tortoises the ability to withstand high temperatures by burrowing beneath the ground. Consequently, they are most active in temperatures ranging from 60°F to 90°F. In some cases, Russian Tortoises have also been known to climb trees for food or shade when needed – a surprising feat for such small creatures!

7. Sulcata Tortoises (Geochelone sulcata)

Sulcata Tortoises

Sulcata or African Tortoises are fascinating animals known for their long sharp claws. These impressive reptiles are equipped with features that allow them to burrow and climb, giving them the ability to thermoregulate according to their environment. 

For those living in captivity, such as a pet Sulcata, it is important to provide ample room for the tortoise to move around with plenty of large items like rocks, logs and other structures for the Sulcata to climb on and graze from. 

Fall Risks

Although their formidable claws, turtles might be put in danger by steep or vertical climbs.

If a turtle falls, the following could happen:

  • Shell cracks or breaks
  • Injury to the soft body
  • Inability to turn over
  • Death

As a result, if you have a climbing pet turtle, you must provide a secure habitat in which it cannot escape and become injured.

Final Words

Turtles are often associated with water or land but surprisingly, some species of turtles can climb trees. These aquatic climbers include Musk, Map, Red-Eared, and Snapping Turtles. Additionally, the African and Russian Tortoises are known to scale trees too. Although it may seem like strange behaviour for these reptiles, they actually have a number of adaptive reasons to climb. Trees offer a variety of benefits compared to their traditional habitats in water or on land. 

For instance, by climbing upward in search of food sources like insects or vegetation at the top of trees or away from predators on the ground – tree climbing offers protection for these animals. Additionally, the high point of the canopy allows for better heat absorption and thermoregulation than areas lower down where temperatures can quickly change from day-night cycles.


Author Profile
Rahul M Suresh

Visiting the Zoo can be an exciting and educational experience for all involved. As a guide, I have the privilege of helping students and visitors alike to appreciate these animals in their natural habitat as well as introducing them to the various aspects of zoo life. I provide detailed information about the individual animals and their habitats, giving visitors an opportunity to understand each one more fully and appreciate them in a more intimate way.

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Visiting the Zoo can be an exciting and educational experience for all involved. As a guide, I have the privilege of helping students and visitors alike to appreciate these animals in their natural habitat as well as introducing them to the various aspects of zoo life. I provide detailed information about the individual animals and their habitats, giving visitors an opportunity to understand each one more fully and appreciate them in a more intimate way.


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