While slow-moving creatures with a speed that tops out at about 1 mile per hour, tortoises have a number of ways to protect themselves from predators. Primary targets are newly hatched or juvenile tortoises, which are vulnerable due to their small size. Ravens, coyotes, foxes and roadrunners are known to go after these tiny creatures when their shells are still relatively soft and easy to penetrate.
Carapace and Plastron
The tortoise’s hard upper outer shell, also known as a carapace, protects the vast majority of its upper body from predation, while the plastron, or under-shell, protects its underbelly. While his back legs, tail and head are exposed, they're covered with a tough, horny skin that can deter predators. The tortoise can also draw its head and limbs into its shell to protect against predation.
Both male and female tortoises have something called a gular horn -- an extension of the plastron, or lower shell, which they use for self-defense. The gular horn of the male is larger than that of the female, and it often aids in fighting with other tortoises. Tortoises use the appendage to try and “flip” the other onto its back during fights, which is a highly vulnerable position for a tortoise to be in.
The tortoise has a sharp, beak-like mouth, which serves it well in foraging for its plant-based diet. While not a primary weapon of defense, the tortoise can use its beak in a snapping manner if necessary to defend itself against predators. This is especially beneficial when the tortoise is buried in a burrow with only the top of its body exposed.
Tortoises have the ability to use their tough claws and strong legs to dig into the ground and create burrows, which protect them from both predators, as well as hot and cold climate conditions. A tortoise may dig several burrows in its territory as a means of escaping weather conditions or predators as needed. Tortoises also use burrows as an insulated, safe hideout during hibernation, and they frequently lay their eggs in a clutch near their burrow.
The tortoise blends into its surroundings with brown and tan markings. This allows it to hide from predators, often while partially submerged in a shallow burrow. Tortoises are not fast animals, and hiding by blending into the surrounding landscape is a significant defense mechanism.
Lisa McQuerrey has been a business writer since 1987. In 1994, she launched a full-service marketing and communications firm. McQuerrey's work has garnered awards from the U.S. Small Business Administration, the International Association of Business Communicators and the Associated Press. She is also the author of several nonfiction trade publications, and, in 2012, had her first young-adult novel published by Glass Page Books.