Albeit educational, cartoons can create misconceptions in us. Who is unfamiliar with the scene of a turtle taking off its shell as it escapes the clutches of its enemy? Its attacker grasps the empty exterior as the turtle goes on its merry way.

But is it possible? Can a turtle live without its shell or even slip it off at will? We will answer these questions and any others you may have about the mysteries surrounding turtles.

Is it possible for turtles to live shellless?

No, you cannot remove the shell of a turtle and expect it to survive. If you were to come across the carapace alone, it is safe to conclude the turtle is no longer alive.

The shell is not an exoskeleton, either, as some people believe. It means it is not a part of the outer skeletal system.

Instead, it is an extended part of the endoskeleton, or internal bone structure. Technically, it is an evolved ribcage and part of the spinal cord. Thin tissue forms a protective layer over the bone scales. On top of it grows keratin plates (fingernail-like material).

Turtles intentionally shed their scutes occasionally, but the shell remains intact.

So, turtles have no hope of surviving if they lose their shells.

Imagine if someone tried to pull your ribs apart. Turtles and tortoises would feel the same agonizing pain you would, perhaps worse. They can die on the spot. Considering the best scenario, they can sustain injuries with massive recovery time.

Additionally, you should never pick up a turtle solely by the shell. Hold on to their stomachs to move them around. It would not hurt them, but it can cause irritation and discomfort. It is as if someone grabbed your backbone and made you shift as they pleased.

Do turtles have shells at birth? 

Do turtles have shells at birth? 

All turtles hatch into this world with a shell. Classified as reptiles, turtles grow inside turtle eggs. In the hatchling stage, their shells exhibit softness, which is adequate to protect them.

The carapace hardens over the next few months. Depending on the turtle species, you can expect a minimum of six to eight months of evolution. Proper nutrition, such as calcium, phosphorous, and vitamins, can accelerate the process. The skin on the bones hardens due to exposure to daylight and warm air.

And so, they have a suit of armor protecting them from predators.

Why do turtles need their shells?

The modern-day turtle needs its shell for protection. Because the carapace is hard and covered with scutes, the actual body of the turtle does not receive much harm when a predator attacks it from behind.

The evolutionary theory of turtles suggests the shell was used for digging at first. The turtle did not have a carapace as much as it had strong ribs.

Later, as the species evolved and tried to get used to different environments, the shape and style of the shell changed.

Tortoises use their carapace as a shield and to stand upright if they fall on their back. Sea turtles have lighter shells so that they can swim with ease.

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Turtles also retract their necks back inside their shells, preventing predators from getting to them. One group (matamata turtles) pulls their head after turning it to the side. Another group (snapping turtles) withdraws the head back straight.

Due to the speed at which the turtle pulls its neck back, scientists have theorized the feature is for them to attack their prey. As they hide their neck, they can fool their prey into believing an empty shell is in front of it. The moment the prey comes close, they attack.

Regardless of the actual reason for the shell, turtles have many uses for it.

Can turtles shed their shells?

Can turtles shed their shells - Answer

Turtles do not shed their shells. They lose the external hard scales (scutes) covering the bones and tissue.

It is comparable to the skin flakes falling off humans every two to four weeks.

When you shed the outer skin layer, your entire back does not fall off. The same is applicable to turtles.

The shell remains intact; turtles only discard the scales. 

It signifies the growth of the turtle. Bigger scutes form under the previous coat to adjust to the changing size of its owner. You see the shinier shell when the old, hard scales scrape off.

However, scutes shedding is not always a good thing. It can indicate health problems. Always check whether the scutes are coming off in whole or in parts. Partial scrapping points to injuries and illness. It should also be semi-transparent rather than a thick gray or black.

Scales falling off without regrowth can suggest any of the following issues:

  • Overeating is as bad as underfeeding and can lead to health disorders
  • Bone disease
  • Thyroid, liver, kidney, or other intestinal problems.
  • Bacterial infection of the shell
  • Basking under high temperature
  • Living in an extreme cold climate
  • Injuries from bumping into boulders at full speed
  • Swimming in ammonia-infested water

Do not attempt treatment on your own; take them to a vet if you feel the shedding is unnatural.

Of course, the turtle shell can also receive harm from accidents and attacks from predators, no matter how strong it is.

How do turtles look if they take off their shell? Is there a change in their skeleton?

For one, if a turtle were to take off its shell – which is impossible for it to do at will – it would not live. It would require treatment and someone to patch up the shell if it had any chance of surviving.

As such, there would be a change in their skeleton too. The shell is practically the rib, ribcage, and spine fusing and forming an oval shape at the back. 

The skeleton of a turtle without its shell would be one with no ribcage, and the head, shoulder, leg, arms, and pelvic bones would be severed from the rest.

Can turtles repair their shells?

Can turtles repair their shells?
Image Credit: Reddit user- u/Whole-Application-44

Turtles can repair their shells the same way humans can heal a broken leg. Even if left untreated, sufficient rest and exercise can strengthen the bones.

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However, because mending is possible, it is not always guaranteed. Antibiotics and sutures would still help the tortoise recover faster. If you rely on its natural healing power, the pain could be unbearable enough for the turtle to die.

How would a turtle’s shell look if you observed it from the inside?

The turtle shell is made of hardened bones and tissue, with scales on the outside. However, the shell’s inside is a storage ground for the animal’s vital organs, including nerve endings. It houses the liver, stomach, gallbladder, colon, kidney, urinary bladder, and pancreas. Even the lungs rest on the upper area of the shell.

Do turtles feel it when someone touches their shell?

Do turtles feel it when someone touches their shell?
Image Credit: Reddit user – u/TheBigHornedGoat

Yes, whether they are sea turtles, box turtles, pond turtles, or tortoises, they all know when someone feels their shell.

The keratin scutes on the carapace have the same texture as our fingernails. They get the same sensation we feel when we rub our fingernails together.

Softshell turtles, such as those hiding under sand beds and roaming around murky river waters, feel it on a deeper level. The softer skin allows them to feel the touch of your fingers more. 

Softshell turtle
Image credit Creative Commons Zero – CC0

How did turtle shells evolve?

How did turtle shells evolve?
Image credit

Let us start the tale with Odontochelys semitestacea. It is a name that translates to “a toothed turtle with a half-shell.” This creature would spend its days splashing around the swamps in the late Triassic era (232 to 221 million years). And on the belly, you would find the half shell, from which the species gets its name.

The anatomy helps us confirm one thing about modern turtles. They are born with two shells that develop independently of each other in the embryonic stage.

Both extend from the skeletal structure of the animal. At present, the total bone count is 60.

The turtle embryo looks no different from that of other reptiles except for the bulge where the back would be. This swelling inflates until it forms a disc shape between the neck and the lower back.

This portion is called the carapace. The rib bones of the turtle connect and enter the bulge. These bones secrete a protein that helps form more bones out of them, bringing the total to fifty.

On the extreme outer layer of the carapace, you have tissues and scutes to protect the shell.

The bottom shell, the one on the turtle’s belly, is called the plastron. Neuron cells thicken and spread across the region to produce nine bone plates. Over time, it joins the carapace at the seams.

So, how did this intricate shape form?

The oldest recorded species of turtle is Eunotosaurus. Dating from 260 million years ago, the creature had a hard set of ribs supporting its forearms—a vital feature to help with the digging.

When we move on to Odontochelys, it has strong ribs and a plate on the stomach.

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Move forward another 50 years, and you have Proganochelys, whose ribs have evolved and fused. The species could survive on both land and water.

Unlike the present-day turtle, it could not pull its neck back, but there were spines on the neck.

Now, sea turtles have a flatter disk and a lighter shell weight to allow them to swim. Tortoises have a dome-shaped carapace, which helps them escape the jaws of their predators. It is hard for dogs and wild pigs to grab onto the shell when it is rough and big.

Softshell and leatherback turtles do not have scutes and hard bony edges. Because of this, they can fit into small spaces like a cat.

Can turtle shells grow back?

A turtle’s shell can return to its previous condition with treatment and care. Of course, the healing process may differ from a couple of months to many years.

It happens the same way our fractured bones heal and join themselves back together. Since the shell is a blend of bones, destroyed ones can be repaired and regrown if treated early and given the right medicines.

A Snapper (a turtle species) fully recovered a year after a car hit it. So it is possible to come back from even serious injuries.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What will happen if I scratch the shell of a turtle?

Turtles love it when you scratch their shell. It is an almost ticklish feeling for them as they have nerve endings in the area. Ever come across sea turtles rubbing their backs against corals? Well, now you know why they do it. It is what you call getting a good back scratch.

Do turtles have any relation to dinosaurs?

The origins of turtles are a matter of great debate. Scientists have come to three conclusions, and the evidence does not speak for any of them with certainty.

DNA tracking suggests turtles have cousin-like relations to dinosaurs, birds, and crocodiles. In another theory, they are relatives of lizards. Of course, some pose dinosaurs evolved from King lizards.

The third scenario poses turtles as anapsids – a primitive reptile group with no holes on the side of its skull.

Do turtles have poison in their shells?

Turtles do not have venom in their bodies or shells. However, bacteria and fungus on the carapace can cause humans to fall ill. Hawksbill turtles also consume poisonous sea creatures and small animals. When humans eat the species, they ingest the poison, which leads to death in many cases.

Final Thoughts

Long story short, turtles can not survive without a shell. It is an evolutionary feature and part of their rib bones. A shellless turtle has been hurt and had its back ripped off. If you see a turtle with injuries on its back, take it to a vet immediately to get it immediate care.

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About the Author

Victoria Lamb

Victoria is a freshwater aquatics specialist, fish keeper, and amphibian enthusiast. She has had more than 6 years of experience caring for aquariums and keeping several fish species, and her home boasts of 3 aquariums and a garden pond. Her goal is to educate fish owners on raising healthy and happy aquatic pets. Career Highlights:…

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