Can Turtles Climb Trees? [Some Can! Explained]

Photo: I. Wayan Sumatika / Shutterstock

Turtles are generally slow-moving creatures on land. Yet, you may notice that your pet turtle keeps trying to climb out of its tank.

This means that it may be able to climb trees and other items.

Only certain species of turtles, such as Musk, Map, Red-Eared Sliders, and Snapping Turtles, as well as Russian and African Tortoises, can climb angled or leaning trees with their sharp claws and powerful bodies. Often they do this in search of food, for body temperature regulation, to escape predators, or to find more desirable conditions.

The word “turtle” in this article refers to the Testudines order as a whole. Read on to learn more about turtles, which ones can climb and why, and their risks of falling.

3 T’s: Turtles, Tortoises, Terrapins

Before we start delving into the world of tree-climbing turtles, it is important to know a little about the terms used to describe them. Three labels are commonly used to describe these interesting creatures. 

Some people use “turtle” for aquatic species only, whereas others use the word “terrapin” for water ones. Not all turtles are tortoises, by definition, but all tortoises are turtles. 

Due to this confusion, people may use their labels interchangeably. 

Generally speaking, the word “turtle” refers to the Testudines order. This includes 14 families of 200 species of this shelled reptile.

These creatures have bony shells connected to their skeletal system, lay eggs, are cold-blooded, and have a beak.


  • Used to describe the Testudines order as a whole as aquatic, semi-aquatic, or terrestrial reptiles

  • Or, used to describe aquatic species only that spend the majority of their time in water such as ocean, ponds, lakes, rivers, wetlands, or swamp areas


  • Commonly used to describe non-swimming, terrestrial (land-dwelling) Testudines species

  • Found in land habitats such as deserts, scrub, evergreen, and tropical forests


  • Any species of small, hard-shelled aquatic turtles

  • Spend the majority of life in water such as in the ocean, pond, lake, river, wetland, or swamp areas

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Other Differences

If you see a turtle there are a few other differences between land- and water-dwelling ones.

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

Of course, there will be exceptions such as the semi-aquatic Box and Mud Turtles, which have dome-shaped shells like terrestrial species. Box turtles also do not have webbed feet or flippers.

Why Turtles Climb

Pet and wild turtles 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 

Pet turtles may try to expand territory because they can see beyond their glass enclosures. Or, it is too small for them to live in or lacks sufficient hiding places. 

Many turtles like ramps in their enclosures to climb for basking or a different viewpoint, much like they would do in a natural habitat.

Additionally, some turtles may climb in the search for an area to have babies. While they will not have them in a tree, they may need to climb to find a suitable area.

7 Turtles With Climbing Ability

Turtles are not considered arboreal animals that live in trees. They also cannot easily climb smooth, flat surfaces with their claws. Some turtles have smaller claws or very heavy bodies, which makes climbing trees not possible.

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However, some land-dwelling and aquatic species will climb rugged surfaces, such as the bark of a tree, with their powerfully strong claws that can grip and pull them up, while maintaining balance. 

It can take a while for the turtle to climb, and generally, they are more successful if the tree or branch is leaning or angled for moving both up and down. 

Fences and walls can be difficult for a turtle to climb due to the sharp angle, lack of grip, and excessive body weight.

1. Indochinese Box Turtles (Cuora galbinifrons)

Photo: Michal Sloviak / Shutterstock

This land-dwelling and brown-colored turtle uses its front claws to assist it in climbing as it searches for fruit. If they fall, they are capable of flipping themselves back over with ease.

This turtle is a vulnerable species according to the International Union For Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a result of illegal trade.

2. Musk Turtles (Sternotherus)

Photo: Gabbie Berry / Shutterstock

Musk turtles, such as Common (Stinkpot) or Loggerhead, will climb tall trees fairly high for safety if they cannot find hiding places on the ground.

They live in aquatic areas such as rivers and small streams.

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

Photo: I. Wayan Sumatika / Shutterstock

These aquatic turtles can be found in freshwater and manmade habitats, such as streams, swamps, ditches, and canals. They leave water for basking and laying eggs. 

They climb angled tree branches in search of basking areas to dry out and warm up in the sun. This helps the turtle to maintain its health and keep fungal infections at bay.

As pets, these turtles will attempt to climb out of their enclosures, and therefore need one that keeps them contained, while allowing them to bask out of the water in warmth.

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4. Map Turtles (Graptemys geographica)

Photo: Fabrizio Chiriu / Shutterstock

These turtles are semi-aquatic, found in drainage waterway systems that empty into water such as the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as other large bodies of water, such as lakes and large rivers.

Map turtles will bask on slanting trees to stay healthy, absorb dietary calcium, and regulate body temperature.

5. Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina)

Photo: Tucker Heptinstall / Shutterstock

These aquatic turtles have all they need in the water and surrounding area for food and habitat, not necessarily needing trees for sources of food. 

They have strong claws that can grasp surfaces, used in conjunction with long and strong tails to push them up, much like alligators

Snapping turtles have been found to escape their enclosures with their climbing ability, and therefore have the potential to climb trees.

6. Russian Tortoises (Agrionemys horsfieldii)

Photo: Haoss / Shutterstock

Russian Tortoises have sharp claws to burrow in the ground in an attempt to cool down and protect themselves from extreme weather. They are most active in temperatures from 60°F to 90°F. 

They can also climb trees in an attempt to access food or shade.

7. Sulcata Tortoises (Geochelone sulcata)

Photo: PUMPZA / Shutterstock

Sulcata or African Tortoises have long sharp claws to burrow or climb to thermoregulate. 

Those kept as pets or in captivity need lots of space with rocks, logs, and large features to climb and graze.

Fall Risks

Steep or vertical climbs can make a climb riskier for a turtle despite their powerful claws.

If a turtle falls, the following could happen:

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

Therefore, if you have a climbing pet turtle, you must provide a safe enclosure where it cannot escape and get hurt.  


Surprisingly, some turtles are adept climbers on angled, leaning trees or branches. 

Turtles that can be found climbing are often Musk, Map, Red-Eared, and Snapping Turtles. Russian and African Tortoises can climb as well. 

Trees offer quality living conditions as they thermoregulate, search for better living conditions, escape stress or predators, or search for food.

James Ball

James has had a lifelong passion for animals and nature, tracing back to his childhood where he first began fostering intimate knowledge and connection with pet frogs and snakes. He has since honed this interest into a career as a trained Wildlife Biologist, specializing in Biogeography, sustainability and conservation. In addition to his professional pursuits, James maintains an active lifestyle, regularly indulging in outdoor activities such as hiking, and musical pursuits like playing piano and swimming.

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