Abstract

Adult North American tortoises (Gopherus spp.) engage in aggressive interactions with conspecifics when competing for mates and burrows. However, aggressive interactions have not been widely reported in hatchling and juvenile tortoises. We describe aggressive interactions between wild hatchling and juvenile gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) based on video recordings collected at tortoise burrows. Immature tortoises usually inhabited burrows alone but occasionally shared them. Presence of multiple individuals inside burrows hindered tortoise movements in burrows. Hatchlings or juveniles exhibited overt aggression toward similar aged/sized conspecifics in at least 6 of 13 (46%) encounters, and cameras may have failed to detect aggression occurring inside burrows. Hatchlings and juveniles also exhibited aggressive responses to foreign objects that were similar in appearance to small tortoises. Aggressive behaviors resembled those of adults and included repeated ramming, pushing, biting, and flipping. Young tortoises may respond aggressively to conspecifics at burrows because the presence of additional individuals constrains thermoregulatory and antipredator movements within these important microhabitats. Social interactions appear to play a greater role in the ecology of hatchling and juvenile gopher tortoises than previously recognized.

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