Turtles are synonymous with their shells, it’s hard to imagine them without one! But can turtles survive without their shell?
In this guide, you’ll learn:
- What is the purpose of a turtle’s shell?
- Can turtles get out of their shell?
- What does turtle shell damage look like?
What's In This Guide?
Can Turtles Live Without Their Shell?
In short, no, turtles cannot live without their shells! Unlike other species of shelled animals, most notoriously the hermit crab, turtles are attached to their shells. Their shells are a part of their body in the same way that fingernails are a part of a human’s body.
Turtles use their shells for a variety of purposes, including protection from predators, camouflage, and breeding purposes. We will discuss the use of a turtle’s shell in this article and discuss the variety of ways why turtles cannot possibly live without their shells!
Top 4 Reasons Why A Turtle Needs Its Shell
1. A turtle’s shells are a part of them.
Turtle’s shells are a part of them. They physically cannot be removed from their shells, and if you try, they will die in the process. The shells are made primarily of skeletal and dermal bone and have evolved over thousands of years to protect these reptiles. The most external part of the shell is made of keratin, which is the same material that comprises our nails.
Each “scale” or portion of the turtle’s shell is called a “scute”. These scutes interlock to form the shell and are often shed in thin layers in aquatic species as the turtle grows. The top of the turtle’s shell is known as the “carapace” and the belly is known as the “plastron”. The section on the sides of the shell connecting the turtle carapace to the plastron is known as the “bridge”.
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Each individual scute has a name to be referenced, including the marginal scutes (external most scutes), and vertebral scutes (along the spine of the turtle). The spine fuses with the turtle’s shell, therefore it is important to be careful with any turtle you find.
Turtles have nerves on their shells, therefore they are able to feel it when you pick them up or when you touch their shell. The external or marginal scutes do not have as many nerve endings and therefore are not as sensitive as the ones closer to the vertebral scutes (spine).
When turtles shed, they may scratch on rough surfaces to aid in the shedding process, therefore a turtle can feel it if you are scratching their shell! Some pet turtles even like this and will seek out scratching from humans. The shell is essentially the ribs of the turtle that have combined with bone and expanded over time to form a hardened shell.
Because the turtle’s shell is attached to them, they cannot survive without it and cannot even exist without their shell. There is no “removing” of the shell, as their insides would have nowhere to go without it. Without the shell, there is no turtle!
2. A turtle’s shell serves as protection.
Scientists have found that turtles have evolved shells over millions of years in order to serve a variety of purposes. One of the major reasons for the shell is protection from predators. Turtle shells are composed of hardened bones covered by a thin layer of keratin. This keratin, which forms the scutes of the turtle, has developed to protect the main shell from damage.
Large, adult female turtles can withstand a huge amount of pressure, and I have personally found turtles with marks from where alligators have tried to eat them but failed. This is not to say all predators are unsuccessful, as many are able to penetrate the shells or find ways to attack the limbs (such as raccoons). However, turtles can prevent a huge majority of attempted attacks thanks to their shells.
Protection from predators is a key evolutionary adaptation of the turtle that the shell has provided. The evolution of turtles began 220 million years ago, with the discovery of the oldest turtle fossils showcasing the first hardened shell.
The true evolutionary process in turtles, however, is still a mystery. The wide ribs from primitive turtles have been studied greatly, but conclusions are still limited. The evolution of the plastron, surprisingly though, was the first of the two parts of the shell to evolve. Also, the shell did not originally evolve for protection from predators but began with wider ribs to help assist in burrowing.
This primitive shell acted as an early form of what present land turtles (tortoises) often use to dig and bury themselves underground. Gopher tortoises in particular will tunnel and create extravagant tunnels underground that reach great depths, utilized by hundreds of other species. Turtles use their shells for more purposes than just protection.
3. A turtle’s shell aids in their agility.
Turtle and tortoise shells, besides acting as protection from predators, also help keep these animals more agile. In an interesting way, many different species of turtles use their shell to help them burrow underground.
Gopher tortoises are specialized for digging far beneath the ground, but they are not the only species to do this. Hermann’s tortoises, Russian tortoises, Greek tortoises, and other European species will hibernate (brumate) in the winter by burrowing into leaf litter or debris, and then tunneling underground. They will only dig a few inches to insulate themselves from the harsh weather, and will slowly emerge when the seasons get warmer.
Some tortoise species have evolved their limbs to help them burrow as well, but the shell acts as a key feature to keep them protected underground and help shovel down. Sulcata tortoises, the 3rd largest species of tortoise in the world, use their shells to help dig into the ground and create burrows as well.
The shells are not only helpful in terrestrial species, aquatic turtles also benefit from shells significantly. Turtles that live in the water have developed shells that are smooth and streamlined, which allow them to cut through the water and move at incredible speeds.
Some turtle species have evolved keels as well, which are protruding spikes along the vertebral scutes that keep them protected from predators and slice through the water. Softshell turtles and fly river turtles have evolved to lose the ossification and hardening of their shells, exposing their skin, but making them extremely fast in the water.
Their agility is unmatched by other turtle species thanks to these specializations of the shell. Their ability to avoid predators is heightened heavily in the water, and their speed matches some species of fish.
4. A turtle’s shell can serve as camouflage.
Nearly all species of turtle exhibit some form of camouflage, and can effectively avoid potential predators by hiding and blending into their surroundings. The markings of turtle and tortoise species are stunning, and each animal has evolved to suit the surroundings of the environment they inhabit.
Sulcata tortoises have a light brown, ashy appearance to blend in with the sandy deserts they are found in. All box turtle species boast varying forms of coloration that may seem like they would be obvious to find, but instead, keep them hidden fairly well in the wild. They have evolved to match the forest environment surrounding them, and the patterns and colors help to break up the image of their shell and blend them in.
Colors such as orange, yellow, and red blend into the forest floor, and lines and varying stripes on the shell fuse the image of the shell with their environment.
Many turtles, particularly the Spiny Hill Turtle (Heosemys spinosa), have evolved spines and spikes around the perimeter of their shells to deter predators attempting to consume them, which, coupled with camouflage, help keep them relatively safe.
Younger turtles and tortoises often have brighter and more bold colors than their adult counterparts in order to better blend into their environment and avoid predators. It is more important for younger animals to hide, as there are more things that are likely to eat them compared to a full-sized turtle or tortoise. Some turtles or tortoises, particularly those that evolved on islands, haven’t a need to blend in particularly well due to their lack of predators. Most turtle species, however, do not have this luxury.
Can Turtles Get Out Of Their Shell?
No, turtles cannot get out of their shells. Rather, their shells are a fused part of their body and grow with them. Turtles are born with their shells, and slowly get bigger as the turtle grows.
A good source of calcium will help in shell growth in turtles. They will shed small parts of the carapace (top), shedding their scutes which are keratinized parts of the shell that protect the actual bony shell.
It is physically impossible for a turtle to be removed from its shell. They would certainly perish in the process, as their organs are inside of the shell and the only protruding parts of them are their arms, legs, tail, and head.
Turtles should not be confused with animals like hermit crabs, who are born without their shells and must search for a shell to call home. They also need to change into larger shells as they grow and get larger. Turtles do not need to undergo this process; they simply grow with their shell and shed the old layers in the process (mostly in aquatic species rather than tortoises).
What Happens If A Turtle’s Shell Gets Damaged?
How Do Turtle Shells Get Damaged?
There are a variety of ways in which a turtle’s shell can be damaged. Predators attempting to consume them can pull pieces of the shell off or create cracks in the shell. Indents, divots, and pits in the shell can come from the teeth of animals attempting to eat the turtle (this presents a lot in turtles sharing a habitat with alligators).
In improperly housed environments, turtles can develop shell rot, which is an infection of bacteria of the shell that slowly eats away at the shell and can penetrate the bone structure. They may also get metabolic bone disease (MBD), which can cause deformities in the shell.
Shell rot will eat away at the shell and cause permanent damage. Turtle shells can also be damaged by less natural causes, particularly roads and being struck by vehicles. If you find a turtle with an injured shell, take them to a licensed rehabilitator or local wildlife center as soon as possible!
Can Turtle Shells Heal On Its Own?
Yes, some turtle shells can heal on their own to a degree. The keratin and bone can regrow but will be discolored and often lacking color. The scars are very clear in turtles with damaged shells.
In more severe cases of damaged shells, turtles may not be able to heal on their own and may need the assistance of veterinarians. If a pet turtle develops a damaged shell, it is very important to take them to the vet, as only wild turtles should be expected to heal their shells on their own.
Despite this, wild turtles found with injured shells can use all the help they can get and should be assisted! Wild turtles may be found with shells that were damaged and healed on their own, but veterinary and human intervention will speed up the healing process.
How Can I Help A Turtle With A Damaged Shell?
If you find a turtle with an injured shell, find a vet or local wildlife center that will take the turtle in and ensure they get proper care! In more fortunate situations, the vet will be able to keep the wound clean and rejoin the shell as closely as possible, and over time the parts between the crack will heal and scar over.
Turtles have an incredible ability to protect themselves from predators physically, burrow to survive harsh weather, become extremely agile in aquatic conditions, and also avoid predators altogether through camouflage. All of these because of their shells! Therefore, turtles cannot live without their shells since it’s also attached to their bodies as a part of their skeletal system.
Are there turtles without shells?
No, there are no true turtles that exist without shells. In order to be classified as a turtle, the animal must have some form of a shell. Otherwise, you simply get a lizard!
What happens if a turtle loses its shell?
A turtle without its shell will die. Their shells are a part of the turtle, and they cannot exist without it! If you find a turtle with an injured shell, call a vet or wildlife center immediately for assistance.
What does an empty turtle shell mean?
Finding an empty turtle shell means you have found a turtle who passed away. The turtle’s organs, skin, and other limbs will decompose more quickly than the shell, therefore it is often that the shell, which is mostly bone, will stay behind. Eventually, the scutes will also fall off, and the shell will fully decompose.
Do turtle shells grow with them?
Yes, turtles are born with their shells, and the shells will grow with the turtle. Over time, aquatic species will shed parts of their shell called scutes, and their shells will get larger over time. This does not occur in most tortoise species though and in young aquatic turtles.