Tortoise Tracker (Analogue Version)




About: I want computers to be wilder.
Description (short):
How to attach a bright colorful string to your pet tortoise to keep track of her wanderings.
Answer- Velcro and yarn

Description (long):
Tortoises are wonderful, mischievous, and bizarre. Our russian tortoise resides primarily in a simple 10 gallon tank with bedding and a feeding end. We try to make up for her lack of space in her tank by letting her roam about the house a couple of times a day. We also enjoy bringing her to the park or the yard of our apartment complex to let her explore the world and get some sunshine.

We like letting our tortoise roam about the house and usually keep a good eye, but invariably she manages to sneak off and we spend hours playing hide-and-seek trying to find out where she went. We even had a 4 foot tall fenced in garden that she escaped numerous times, and we didn't realize how, until we caught her in the act (see pictures). The Russian tortoise is apparently a trained escape artist, very fast moving, really well camouflaged and good at burrowing. We need a solution where we can let her have fun, but still make sure she is safe and that we can find her.

Goal -  Maximize tortoise freedom while keeping her safe and locatable

I was so intrigued by what made the tortoise do what she did, that I did a study and visualization of her movements through my apartments called "The Tortoise Tracker" (digital version). Afterward I realized a method for being able to simply follow her whereabouts without the aid of multiple camera arrays.

So follow along, and I can show you one quick way of letting your tortoise have fun and explore the world while still being able to find her at the end of the day! Tortoise freedom now! -but with a really long leash

  • I am not responsible for lost tortoises, or anything else bad that may happen to your poor pet, this is just a fun idea to try at your own will, you should still keep a watchful eye upon your pet at all times.
  • If you are a person who gets super upset about people painting or gluing things on their tortoises shell, you might still get super angry at me, but i tried to design the system such that it causes minimum discomfort for her and everything is 100% non-permanent (water soluble adhesives). Plus it will probably cause less discomfort having a tiny sticker on her back than if she gets accidentally stepped on because she snuck off somewhere and went invisible.

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Step 1: Alternate Prior Designs

Originally we would put shiny stickers on her back, to help distinguish her from the grass that she would be roaming around in. These would stay on quite well, and not interfere with her movement at all. She still managed to sneak away quite often however.

Making a little tactical suit for your tortoise is super tricky, especially because they have retractable limbs and don't like sitting in your lap while you try to get measurements. In the past I have made harnesses from cardboard (bad), duct tape (alright), bendable wire (alright). In general harnesses are super difficult to create, put on, and take off the tortoise. 

Those soft, velcro cord organizers ( were the best things that I have seen for quickly constructing a nice harness. Generally harnesses are OK for a temporary situation, but inevitably the tortoise will find some way out of the harness or get herself caught.

Making your tortoise appear physically taller can help to locate it, but unfortunaltey prevents the poor creature from crawling underneath things which is probably one of its favorite activities.

The most failed attempt at tortoise visibility was attaching a bouquet of balloons to her. Mostly she did not like wearing the rudimentary harness to which the balloons attached, but the other problem was that when the wind blew, it could actually blow the balloons around and tip the poor tortoise over. I was kind of cool seeing the bundle of balloons navigate around the apartment and park. Here is a video dramatization of what could happen with such a system:

Step 2: Materials

  • Velcro (1 x 1 in square)
    • I used some industrial velcro strips leftover from an electronics project
  • Yarn (3 in diameter ball)
    • My wife had some leftover from knitting. The yarn we used was strong (important!) but also a very fuzzy cottony texture. This means that it would often get stuck on things and pick up dirt more easily. I would reccomend using a different sort of material for your tortoise tracker
    • The coloring is very important. Try to use a nice bright (in biology terms- aposematic) color that stands out from an apartment floor and a natural setting. This bright red seemed to be the best that I have tested for outdoor and indoor visibility
  • Sugru (bright color!)
    • The sugru is only used for making a smooth, semi-flexible loop that is also a bright color.
    • It's expensive and there is the temptation to horde it, but IT EXPIRES! So make sure you put it to use.
    • Alternately you can make your own sugru too! I have tested this and it would work quite well!

Step 3: Assemble

Cut out equal sized squares of the velcro. Since most of the force comes in the forward-backward direction, it may be best to actually make it slightly rectangular with the longer dimension going along the length of her spine. Do not make the velcro patch too long or the natural curvature of her spine will interfere will smooth adherence to the shell.

Take plastic backing off the fuzzy side of the velcro patch and apply it to the tortoise's shell, hold it there for about a minute to get it nice and smoothly attached. Leave the plastic backing on the sticky peice of velcro.

Grab out your satchel of brightly colored sugru (i used a nice fluorescent orange). Take it and roll it into a nice little worm. Make sure its sides are nice and smooth. Then bend it in half and attach the ends to the back of the sticky square of velcro forming an arch. Spread out the edges making sure that is smoothly contacts lots of surface area of the velcro back. Make sure the hole is still large enough to let string through, and not too tall at to interfere with her movements. Let this sit for a day to make sure it is fully cured.

Now you can just tie one end of the yarn ball to this flexible loop and attach it to your tortoise when you are ready to let her romp around. When she is done exploring and you want to put her back, you can simply detach the sticky-loop side of the velcro and leave the fuzzy side adhered to her during her normal feeding or sleeping times. Now that she has this velcro appendage, you can also think of other fun temporary attachments that your tortoise might want (eg. dress her up for halloween without annoying her too much!)

Sticky tac can be used too as a means of temporary adhesion. Feel free to offer suggestions of other ways to make a nice loop or about any other parts.

Step 4: Test It Out

Let her run around your apartment first in a supervised manner to make sure everything is working well. The nice thing about this system, is that you can sit next to the ball of yarn, while she walks off into different rooms, and still maintain a certain level understanding of her movements while the ball rolls around unwinding.

Step 5: Design

Sticking things to a tortoise
When it comes to tortoises I've seen that people tend to fall into two camps: A) Decorators and B) Naturalists. The decorators represent a bit of the old guard of tortoising with a 1950's vibe of, "Hey mom, let's paint our turtles today!" This practice often now seems to many of the more naturalistic seeming owners as, at best, tacky, and, at worst, cruel and mean to the tortoise. The design of this is meant to provide a secure, but impermanent means of attaching objects to the tortoise in a convenient way for human and chelonian.

If you don't want to stick things to your tortoise don't do it. If you do want to stick things to it, here is a safe reversible way.

One of the biggest difficulties of tortoise ownership is that most have evolved to be not be noticed but love to sneak away. They have steady movements and coloring that blends in with the background (crypsis). Instead we want our tortoise to be more like those animals which brightly broadcast their colors to the world and stand out from the environment. This is called aposematic coloration [aposematic is derived from the Greek words apo- (from a distance) and sema (a sign or signal) -- meaning "a signal from afar". (source)]. Typically animals that use aposematic coloration have nothing to fear because they are super poisonous or something. So when you are deciding on what colors of sugru or yarn to use, think about the bright colors of poisonous frogs or insect for inspiration.

The dragging of the string also helps to amplify the little movements of the generally inconspicuous tortoise (aposematic movements). You can tell if she is just sitting still, or wandering about from very far away.

Flexibility and Strength
Th system has to be strong enough to make sure she doesn't escape, but flexible enough to lessen the force from any sudden impacts or stoppages of the line. The placement of the line on top of her shell means that she can escape tangles by just withdrawing her head.

Freedom of movement
Other than doing some sort of wireless tracking (which relies on batteries and expensive electronics), this method has offered the least interference to my tortoise's movements (see next step for other examples). She can crawl under and over things, and though the string does get caught on some things, she can usually change directions slightly and unhook it. Out of doors it really is quite freeing for her and she can travel all over the place. My quite fuzzy string tends to build a larger and larger resistive force the further away she travels from the ball yarn, but this also serves as a self-regulating harness which keeps her from wandering incredibly too far away from the central base. If she wants less resistance she can change her plans from directly traveling away from the ball, to exploring the other features within the radius. The amount of friction isn't that immense anyway.

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    21 Discussions


    7 years ago on Introduction

    This is a very entertaining Instructable! Please be careful when applying any substance (like glue, paint, etc.) to a tortoise shell. The shell surface is where vitamin D is absorbed as well as water at times. Your Russian tortoise looks great, but her beak is a bit overgrown which could cause mouth leisions along with other detrimental issues. You can simply "file" her beak down with a Dremel tool or take her to an exotics vet who can do this for you. What is her name? I think she is gorgeous and I love that you are keeping her active and trying new things! Have fun! Wendy (Herpetologist, PHX)

    1 reply

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Cool! Thanks for the advice regarding the beak. I'll get the dremel out. How do you know if her beak is short enough? Do you have any advice for a method of adhering something to her shell that would be strong enough to hold onto her line, but still be easily removable at the end of the day (maybe something water soluble?) I started trying stick tac putty, but it isn't that strong (though easily removable).

    Thanks for all the advice!


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Brilliant! I love the part about your other methods that didn't work. I like to see when someone puts their prev attempts for others to learn from! cute instructable!


    3 years ago

    I use a bluetooth Tile right now to my Leopard Tortoise and it works great. Just need to figure out a way to make it look decent rather than the current black electrical tape.

    I ordered some TrackR, which are smaller and self-serviceable. I'll let you know if those are better.


    5 years ago on Introduction

    I have an African Sulcata tortoise and built an outdoor enclosure for him using patio paver bricks. The walled in area was dug down, below ground level (the depth of 1 brick- about 8 inches) and then 3 more bricks were placed on top to form the walls. He has never escaped and the bricks only need to be close enough as to not allow him to walk through. This will be his 4th summer in the enclosure and he loves it. I added caves and tunnels, supported with lannon stone, as well as a shallow water feature for soaking. He's never been bothered by any wild animals (raccoons, possums, squirrels, etc) and he's fairly camouflaged from people with all of the vegetation I plant for him to eat. I would never trust a fence to keep him contained since he's strong and likes to burrow.

    1 reply

    5 years ago on Introduction

    We just got a "Remote Control Locator" ( and some one has used this little battery operated sound alarm on THEIR tortoise to locate it outside. I don;t know what would be the best way to attach it but it would give you a sound to follow. Still need to keep a close eye on them tho!

    There are several types of turtles and tortoises' that climb; there is a local-to-us turtle that climbs trees and rock walls and goes walk-about; twice we have found the same one at the same spot on the same day of the year! We had a Chinese Reeves that could climb a sheer sided cardboard box with no indents etc---we would sometimes put her in there to clean her tank and could not figure out HOW she got out--we were blaming the youngest kid! One day we discovered her climbing out! She would also get under a heavy Chinese desk that had a base a few inches above the floor and would use her feet to wedge herself under there by pushing up her shell so we could NOT get her out without moving the entire VERY heavy desk---fraught with danger so we did not slip and crush her. We had to block the base to keep her out. She also loved getting under beds and our Border Collie Sheep Dog would track her for us.

    See---there's your answer! Get a sheep dog and train the DOG to keep watch over the tortie!

    There. I fixed it.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    The shell of turtles and Tortoises are sensitive and contain nerve endings.In other words they can feel through their shells. Attaching things by means of "tacky" or glues will poison them. Also binding a harness to them is also not recommended. instead construct an escape proof enclosure and be vigilant to the animals when allowed to run free in a yard. There are many on line clubs (e-groups) that can offer good suggestions for enclosures. Facebook also offers many members with turtles and Tortoises that are more than eager to offer suggestions and plans.

    1 reply

    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    Have 35 years of experience with turtles and I'm very fond of these animals. UncleMike you are absolutely right about the tortoise's shell. There is great sensitivity in the shell - much more than in your own fingernails. Please avoid applying your tortoise this kind of evil. Also the cord can hang onto different objects or wrap around the tortoise's legs or even worse its neck.
    It concerns me deeply that so many find this treatment of the animal funny and cool.
    So many tortoises in captivity are treated both ignorant and vicious, which hurts me deeply to think about. This is evident in several other posts on this site. It should not be allowed for these people to keep these animals.
    (The tortoise in the picture is not well, as evidenced by both its eyes and the shell.)
    Treat your tortoise with respect. Provide adequate and good living conditions and you could have a friend for life. :o)


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Great post! Very interesting to read the user comments about Vitamin D coming through the Tortoise's shell (much like our skin I suppose). I work for a company called Loc8tor and we manufacture a slightly more high-tec solution, we've had some very satisfied tortoises, let me tell you! You can see our device in action on the link below.


    Very good and informative instructable! I've always wanted a tortise and will get one when the time is right. None of my tortise books mentioned their fence-climbing abilities - forewarned is forearmed.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Yeah! I am forever endebted to you discovering that and documenting it!


    7 years ago on Introduction

    This would have come in handy for the tortoise we lost about 6 years back. Strangely enough, after we originally lost it, we found it like 2 winters later. But then we lost it again. : /