How to Tell If a Turtle Is Male or Female

It can be difficult to determine a turtle’s gender, more so than for other animals, but there are a few ways to find out if your turtle is a he or a she.

This turtle looks like a female. By: MrHicks46
Name that sex! (This turtle looks like a female.) Photo: MrHicks46

Is your turtle a Donna or a Donny? A Joe or a Josephine?

In this article, I’ll give you some tips to help you figure out the gender of your pet turtle.

The first thing that I discovered was that this is an incredibly tricky thing. It takes practice and patience — and if the turtle is young, it is even more difficult to tell.

Although there are differences among the many species of turtle, thankfully some characteristics are quite similar between all of them.

Where to Look

You want to be careful handling your turtle, and you will have to look at the tail and plastron (the bottom shell of the turtle — if you were looking at the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it would be their bellies).

Pick up your turtle carefully. Try not to scare it, and definitely don’t drop it! Not only will dropping the turtle scare it half to death, but it could be seriously hurt by a fall. Turtles have a hard shell, but their shells are not designed to withstand being bounced off asphalt.

Take a peek at the underside of your turtle. On most male turtles, the shell is slightly concave. This is so he doesn’t fall off the female during the mating process.

Female plastrons will be either flat or slightly convex. Also, male turtle tails will be slightly longer and wider at the base than a female.

Some say that the shape of the shell itself is an indicator, but the upper shell (carapace) shape can vary from species to species and is not a reliable indicator. Injuries — such as attacks by predators or the unfortunate mishandling by humans — can also alter the shape of the carapace.

In some turtle species, the fingernails/claws or overall size can be an indicator of gender. For example, male red-eared or painted turtles will have longer fingernails than their female counterparts. This is because they use them to touch the face of the female to gauge their openness to mating.

Females can also grow inches bigger than males in some species.

This video shows a male and female turtle and highlights their differences:

YouTube player

Don’t Let the Eyes Fool You

It has also been said that the eyes of male turtles may be bright red, but this is also unreliable because some females have been seen with red eyes as well. So don’t depend on eye color to help you out.

And no, red eyes are not indicative of a vampire turtle. I do, however, suggest that if you see fangs on your turtle, you set him carefully down and run for cover just in case.

If you really need to look closely, in most species a male turtle’s anus is visible past the outer edge of the carapace or shell (it’s called the carapacial rim). A female’s anus is usually before the end of the carapacial rim. So if you want to make sure your turtle is male or female, you can do an inspection of this area — but at this point, your poor turtle is probably mortified.

Picking Up Strays

Briefly, we should touch on whether scooping up a turtle that you found at the side of the road is a good idea. Does he or she make a good pet?

The answer depends on the amount of time and money you are willing to give to your turtle. Turtles can live very long lives and require plenty of space (i.e., a big tank) as well as special ultraviolet lights to be at their healthiest.

It can get costly, so if you want to take home your Sam or Sally, consider the cost and can make sure they will be as happy with you as they would be in the wild. Also bear in mind that turtles can carry and transmit salmonella to humans. Wash your hands after handling any turtle.

As always, if you ever have a concern about your turtle, the first place to go is to your veterinarian. He or she is trained in animal care and is able to take care of any concerns that you might have. Plus, your vet will probably do the dreaded anus check for you – if you ask nicely.