Many people wonder if turtles can live without a shell, and we don’t blame them! Even though these animals have been around forever, the structural makeup of their iconic protective feature isn’t well-known among the general public.
This guide covers if turtles can live without a shell, and how these wearable defensive shields actually work.
Table of Contents
What Are The Main Components Of A Turtle’s Shell?
If you want to understand if a turtle can live without a shell, it’s important to know what their shell actually is!
While a turtle’s shell may appear to be one solid object, it’s actually made up of different parts. Being familiar with the names and functions of these parts is important because it will help you to better comprehend technical literature, follow care sheets and understand species descriptions. It will also help you to really appreciate the intricacy and specialization of your turtle’s anatomy.
A turtle’s shell is made up of two main parts: the carapace and the plastron. The carapace is the top part of the shell, and it’s covered in individual scales that are known as scutes. These scutes are made up of the same stuff that’s in your hair and nails, and they help to protect both the epithelium and bone of the shell. In most cases, scutes stay with a turtle for life and harden and thicken as a turtle ages.
Not only does the carapace provide armor-like protection, but it is actually fused to the turtle’s bony structures (which is why you don’t see turtles without a shell). If you could look underneath it, you would see how the ribs and spine are attached to the underside of the carapace. This adds structure and stability to the shell.
Author Note: Something interesting is that the shell of an aquatic turtle tends to have a flatter carapace, while the carapace of a terrestrial turtle is more domed in shape.
The plastron, often brightly colored, is the bottom section of the shell. It too is made up of bony plates, and its job is to protect a turtle’s internal organs such as its lungs, heart, stomach and intestines. The plastron has another important job as well; it is the part of the shell that allows the turtle to withdraw its head, legs and tail.
The carapace and plastron are fused together on the sides of the shell, and the scutes, acting like hinges, help the turtle pull the top and bottom of the shell more closely together during times of danger.
Can Turtles Live Without A Shell?
So as you probably guessed, a turtle definitely can not live without its shell.
As we mentioned above, a turtle’s shell is literally attached to the ribcage, spinal column and a number of internal organs. Nerve endings and important blood vessels are also attached to the shell, so removing a turtle’s shell would pretty much kill the turtle instantly.
Why Turtles Need Their Shells
Is a turtle’s shell only for protection? While that is a pretty important function of the shell, there are lots of other reasons why a turtle’s shell is a critical part of its anatomy.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the other reasons why a turtle cannot live without its shell.
1. The Shell Is Part Of A Turtle’s Body
Let’s start with the obvious, a turtle cannot live without its shell because it’s actually a part of the turtle’s body. The bone that makes up the top part of the shell is connected to the turtle’s rib cage and spinal column. As we discussed earlier, there are nerves, blood vessels and internal organs that are also attached in some way to the shell.
In the same way that your skin is a part of your body, a turtle’s shell is permanently attached to all of its internal structures. A turtle’s shell is as much a part of its body as skin is to ours.
2. It Acts As Protection
While this may be an obvious reason why a turtle needs its shell, it’s one that is worth exploring further. These reptiles are not the speediest creatures, so a turtle without a shell would have no protection from predators. There are lots of animals out there that would find turtles to be particularly tasty, but most of them are no match for a turtle’s shell.
Even an alligator, a powerful creature at the top of the food chain, will often find it impossible to penetrate a turtle’s armor-like shell. If a predator is able to grab one of the turtle’s limbs before it retreats into its shell, however, then the turtle usually becomes a meal.
Even though a turtle that lives in an enclosure in your home doesn’t need to worry about predators, it still needs the protection of its shell. Turtles can be accidentally dropped, they can get hurt on enclosure enhancements, or they may get into an altercation with another turtle. Without a shell, a turtle wouldn’t really stand a chance against such mishaps.
3. Shells Help A Turtle To Be More Agile
At first glance, it would seem that the weight and bulkiness of a turtle’s shell would get in the way and slow a turtle down. However, quite the opposite is true. Watch a turtle swim underwater, and you’ll notice how gracefully they are able to swim and dive. The turtle’s smooth shell actually allows it to be very streamlined and efficient in the water!
What about terrestrial turtles? It’s believed that the shell of a land-based turtle or tortoise may help it to dig the deep burrow it uses for hibernation and to aid in digging the hole that a female turtle uses to deposit her eggs. It seems that the hard shell of the turtle helps to give it some stability and leverage as it digs deeper and deeper.
4. Shells Help Turtles Stay Hidden
Have you ever wondered why a turtle’s shell is usually pretty plain and drab? It’s because a brown, black or olive shell helps the turtle stay hidden in the mud, leaf litter or sand of its habitat.
Besides its protective shell, a turtle doesn’t have much of a defense, so it would lose out on the ability to camouflage without a shell.
5. A Turtle’s Shell Helps With Bodily Functions
A turtle needs Vitamin D3 in order to maintain healthy bones and promote shell growth. Since a turtle can’t synthesize this vitamin on its own, it takes the sunlight that is absorbed through its shell and converts it to Vitamin D3 using pigments in the skin and shell.
Author Note: This is one reason why you should never paint a turtle’s shell. Painting the shell inhibits the absorption of sunlight, and that can lead to Vitamin D3 deficiency.
The shell of a turtle also neutralizes toxic lactic acid that can build up in a turtle’s body during hibernation when it switches from aerobic to anaerobic respiration. It also stores important minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus. Without a shell, a turtle wouldn’t be able to do any of this!
Can A Turtle Leave Its Shell?
A turtle is born with the same shell that it will have its entire life. As the turtle grows, old scutes peel off, and new, larger ones grow to replace them.
Some animals, such as hermit crabs, will seek out new shells once the old ones are too small. However, a turtle will never leave its shell because it simply can’t. The shell of a turtle is a part of its internal anatomy, and it would die instantly if removed from its shell.
Are All Turtles Born With A Shell?
Yes, all turtles are born with a shell. The shell of a baby turtle may be much softer than that of an adult’s, but it functions in the same way. This shell is the same shell that the turtle will have for its entire life. A turtle will never shed its shell (or go without a shell at all) and grow a bigger one, and it will never discard it for a new one.
There is a slight difference as to how the shell of an aquatic turtle and a terrestrial turtle grows. With an aquatic turtle, the scutes of the shell peel off and are replaced with larger ones that overlap.
In the case of many land turtles, the scutes never peel and fall off. Instead, they just become larger, thicker and overlap to create the characteristic thick, domed shell.
What Happens When A Turtle Damages Its Shell?
What happens when a turtle damages its shell mostly depends on the extent of the damage.
As we’ve discussed already, a turtle’s shell is more than just protective armor. It’s actually a part of a turtle’s internal structure, so damage to the shell could potentially mean damage to bones, nerves or internal organs.
In the wild, damage to a turtle’s shell usually comes from a predator trying to take a bite out of it. Even though a turtle’s shell is incredibly strong, it will often end up scratched, cracked or even broken if a predator, such as an alligator, raccoon, skunk, heron, or other turtle, tries to take a bite.
Depending on the extent of the damage, the turtle may experience little to no long term effects, or it may end up with an infection caused by an open crack in the shell.
While turtles in captivity usually don’t have to worry about predators, there are plenty of other ways in which a turtle’s shell can become damaged.
One common way that pet turtles end up with damaged shells is that they are either dropped or stepped on. This is a potentially serious event and can cause the shell to lose pieces, or the shell may even end up with a depression fracture.
If a small piece of the shell is missing, then it will probably heal on its own. However, if a big chunk of shell is missing, then the result could be fatal. In either case, it’s a good idea to see your veterinarian right away if this happens to your pet turtle. Cracks in the shell are often a prelude to infection.
A fractured shell is a whole other issue, because there could be damage to internal organs or to the turtle’s spinal column and nerves. If you suspect a shell fracture, then you’ll need to call your veterinarian immediately.
Other health issues such as shell rot and metabolic bone disease, can also cause damage to a turtle’s shell. Shell rot is usually caused by cracks or tiny scrapes on the turtle’s shell that become infected due to dirty water or unclean living conditions. Once the shell becomes damaged, fungi, bacteria or algae can get into the shell and cause infection. If not treated properly, shell rot may lead to permanent shell deformity.
Metabolic bone disease is usually caused by a lack of Vitamin D3. If this condition is not corrected right away, it can lead to a softening of the shell and ultimately damage to the shell and bones. Once the shell is compromised, there is an increased risk of infection.
Can A Damaged Shell Heal?
While a turtle with a damaged shell is always at more of a risk of infection, the good news is that the shell will usually heal without too much trouble. How long it will take for the shell to heal will depend on the type of damage and how extensive it is.
It’s important to realize that when there are cracks or breaks in the shell, there is almost always some kind of injury to the soft tissue underneath. This layer of soft tissue is the first to heal after an injury, and if there is no infection, it should be totally healed in two weeks to a month.
However, the outer shell takes much longer to heal. Depending on the extent of the damage, the outer shell can take anywhere from a few months to years to heal completely. If the damage is severe enough, there may be some sort of permanent scarring or deformity.
A turtle in the wild has to take its chances when it comes to healing. Because a turtle’s shell is made up of renewable materials like keratin and collagen, eventually the damaged parts will heal by themselves. The success of this healing depends on if there is an underlying infection, the overall health of the turtle and the extent of the damage.
A pet turtle with a damaged shell has a much better chance of a complete recovery because there are many things that can be done by a veterinarian who has experience with turtles. It’s important not to ignore even small cracks or missing pieces of shell. As we’ve mentioned before, there is always the risk of infection with shell damage, and a vet will be able to assess the situation and provide a treatment plan.
Sometimes the only treatment that’s necessary is a simple, at-home treatment, and your veterinarian will give you helpful care instructions. If you are treating your turtle at home, or if you are waiting to take it to the vet, remember to keep the turtle out of the water. Even if you keep your turtle’s enclosure scrupulously clean, bacteria and other microbes in the water can seep into a cracked shell.
If there is severe shell damage, then your turtle may need to remain at the veterinarian’s office for quite some time. Depending on what’s going on, the vet may need to rebuild the shell, and this can take weeks.
Mildly damaged shells can be repaired with a special kind of adhesive tape. However, if there are big pieces of shell missing, or if the cracks are deep or large, then your vet will probably use a method called bridging. This involves attaching implants to the shell. The tissue of the shell will eventually grow back and fill in the damaged area.
Your vet may also use a combination of resin, epoxy, glue and zip ties. Which method your vet uses depends on the overall health of the turtle, the age of the turtle and the type of damage. Healing a turtle’s shell takes time and patience, so be prepared for an extensive recovery time.
In the most severe cases, the shell may never heal completely, even with the most sophisticated techniques. If this is the case with your pet turtle, you’ll need to make some modifications to its enclosure. With extra care and attention, your turtle should be able to have a pretty normal and happy life.
As you can see, a turtle without a shell wouldn’t be able to survive. So the next time you hear someone ask this question, you can be the one to enlighten them!
If you have any other questions about turtles without shells, let us know! This is an interesting topic that we’re always happy to discuss with our readers.