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Can Turtles Live Without Shells? Here’s What You Should Know About Them

The most iconic feature of a turtle is its shell. It isn’t easy to imagine them without it, after all. But you’re probably asking if turtles can live without shells. Short answer: no, and here is why. 

Can Turtles Live Without Shells?

Short answer, no. Turtles cannot live without shells. While some shelled animals can leave their shells, like the hermit crab, this is not true for all shelled animals. Unlike other shelled animals, a turtle’s body is attached to its shells. A turtle’s shell grows as they age, much like the fingernails of humans. 

Turtles use their shells for several purposes. They use them to protect themselves from predators, camouflage, and breeding. These make their shells an essential part of their lives, and living without one is unthinkable.

This article will discuss why a turtle needs its shell and much more. Let’s start. 

Can Turtles Live Without Shells. Here’s What You Should Know About Them

The 4 Main Reasons Why A Turtle Needs Its Shell

  • The shell is a part of their body.

Turtles’ shells are an essential part of their body. They cannot physically separate their bodies; if they do, they will die. These shells are part of their bone structure. It is primarily made of skeletal and dermal bone and has evolved for millions of years to protect their bodies. The outmost part of the shell is made of keratin, the same material that makes up human nails. 

Each “scale” or portion on a turtle’s shell is known as a “scute.” These portions interlock to form the shell, and aquatic turtles constantly shed them in thin layers as they grow. The topmost part of their shell is known as a “carapace,” and their belly is called the “plastron.” The section that connects these two is known as the “bridge.” 

A scute is a general term with more specific names depending on where these scutes are found. The marginal scutes are the outermost scutes on a turtle’s shell. At the same time, the vertebral scutes run along the spine of the reptile. It would be best to be careful when handling turtles, especially when touching them along their vertebral scutes, as these are delicate when they are young or shedding. This shedding process is important as it helps develop their shells as the bones combine, expand over time, and form hardened shells. 

Turtles have nerves on their shells; they can feel it when you touch or pick them up. However, the marginal scutes do not have as many nerve endings as the ones closer to the vertebral scutes. So, if you want to pick up a turtle, it is best to hold them on its sides.

When these animals shed, they usually scratch on rough surfaces to help with the process. You can also help them shed by scratching their shells gently. More experienced turtle owners have noticed that their pet turtles like it when their humans scratch them and even seek out their humans when they shed. 

Since a turtle’s shell is attached to its body, it cannot survive without it. “Removing” a turtle’s shell is not an option. Their inside will be exposed if you do so. 

Most importantly, this animal is classified as a turtle because one cannot separate its shell from its body. 

  • A turtle’s shell protects its internal organs.

Scientists found that turtles evolved their hardened shells for different purposes. The biggest and most important one is that it protects itself from predators. Their shells are composed of thin layers of hardened keratin. This material forms the scutes on the turtle and protects the main inner shell from damage. 

Adult female turtles are known for being able to withstand intense amounts of pressure, and they can even survive bites from the strongest jaws in the animal kingdom. This is not to say that they are completely immune, but their shells are usually enough to protect themselves from large predators. 

Protection from predators is the main reason for the evolutionary adaptation turtles underwent with their shells. And they have been developing this feature for at least 220 million years. Talk about commitment. 

How an ancient turtle started this evolutionary process is unknown and is still a mystery for our scientists. The fossils of primitive turtles have been studied greatly, but they are yet to find something conclusive. On the other hand, scientists found the development of the plastron to be the first part of a turtle to undergo evolution. Also, the shells were not originally meant as protection from predators but began as wider ribs meant for assistance in burrowing. 

The primitive shells in ancient turtles were the origin of the shells tortoises have today. Gopher turtles, in particular, still have the same behavior as their ancestors. These turtles are known to tunnel and create sophisticated tunnels underground to make systems used by hundreds of their species. 

  • A turtle’s shell increases its agility.

A turtle and tortoise shell helps keep them agile. While you often see them slowly making their way into the world, their shells give them a significant boost when they burrow underground. 

As previously mentioned, gopher turtles specialize in digging deep into the ground. However, they are not the only ones who do this. Hermann’s tortoises, Greek tortoises, Russian tortoises, and other European species also bromate or hibernate in the winder by burrowing into leaf litter and debris before tunneling underground. 

Some tortoise species also evolved to be better at burrowing. At the same time, their shells keep them protected while underground and their wide bellies help them shovel faster. The Sulcata tortoise is the third largest tortoise in the world, and they use their shells to help dig and create burrows.

Aquatic species also use their shells to move around. Their shells developed into smooth and streamlined versions of the shell. This feature allows them to move at incredible speeds as their shells cut through the water. 

Softshell turtles and Fly River turtles are the fastest among the aquatic turtle species. They love the ossification and hardening of their shells, which makes them extremely fast. Their agility is unmatched in the turtle family. Their ability to avoid predators entirely while in the water removed the need to protect themselves using a hardened shell. 

If you want to know more about which turtles are suited for aquatic life, here is an article that answers the question: can all turtles swim?

  • A turtle’s shell helps them camouflage itself.

Because of how specialized a turtle’s shell is, almost all of them exhibit a form of camouflage; their shells help them blend in with their environment and hide them from predators. The markings on their shells differ based on their natural habitat, and they have evolved to hide them depending on their environment.

For example, the Sulcata tortoise has a light brown ashy shell that helps them hide in its desert habitats. All Box tortoises also have different markings and colorations on their shells depending on where they live. These might make them easy to spot for humans, but it is effective enough to hide them from predators within their natural ecosystems. It helps them break the image and confuse their predators whenever they are face to face with them.

The red, yellow, and orange colors on a box tortoise’s shell mimic the colors of the forest floor. And the varying lines on their shells help them blend with the leaves

Spikes are another aspect that makes a turtle shell more important. The Spiny Hill Turtle evolved spines and spikes around their shells to discourage predators from trying to eat them. Paired with the camouflage their shells offer, they are safe from predation.  

Baby and juvenile turtles also have brighter and more pronounced colors to help them blend in their environment better than their adult counterparts. They need their shells to hide them better as more predators could eat them before they grow large enough to only worry about apex predators in their habitats. 

However, a few species are also without camouflage because of their environments. These turtles live a particularly luxurious life as they are mostly isolated. Their habitats do not have any other animals that could eat them. Thus they do not need camouflage at all.

Can Turtles Live Without Shells. Here’s What You Should Know About Them

Can Turtles Leave Their Shells?

No, they cannot. Unlike in cartoons and games, they do not use shells, similar to how we use houses. Their shells are connected to their bodies and grow with them as they age. The scientific community will most likely classify it as a lizard if you find a “turtle” without a shell.

If you ever find a turtle shell without anything inside, it is not a sign that they have evolved and can now leave its shells. Their bodies and internal organs decompose faster than their shells. This might also be why some would think turtles can leave their shells. 

It is physically impossible to separate the body of a turtle from its shell without killing it. If their shells are removed, their internal organs will be exposed, leading to their demise. 

These shelled animals should not be confused with hermit crabs. Unlike turtles, these crabs are born without their shells. And they also have to look for new and bigger shells as they age. Turtles do not need this process. Their shells grow with them by shedding the outer layers and replacing them with a new and slightly bigger layer.

If you want a closer look at these amazing creatures, you can check out this list of the cutest small pet turtles. If you find a turtle you like, you might have a new lifelong friend. Just make sure they stay in their shells. 

What Happens if A Turtle Damages Their Shell?

There are several ways where a turtle’s shell can get damaged. The most often cause of shell damage is when a predator bites it and leaves a scar or indent. Predators who try to bite turtles can sometimes pull pieces of their shells or crack them entirely. This often happens when the turtles share their habitat with much larger animals, especially in the sea.

Pet turtles usually damage their shells when they develop shell rot. It is a bacterial infection in the shell that slowly eats away at the outer bones of the turtle. They also get a metabolic bone disease which causes malformations and deformities on their shells. Shell rot will eat away at their shell and cause permanent damage.

Aside from these, their shells are also usually damaged by unnatural factors such as getting hit by cars. If you find a turtle with a damaged shell, it is best to take it to a licensed rehabilitator or local wildlife center instead of trying to take treat it yourself.

Can Turtle Shells Heal?

Yes, some turtles can heal their shells up to a certain degree. The keratin and bone can regrow, but it usually leaves a discolored marking on the area. This is also how we find turtles who damage their shells in the wild, as they often have pronounced scarring on their shells.

However, there are instances where the damage is too great for the shell to heal by itself. Veterinary assistance is often required in these events. If your turtle ever damages their shell, you should bring it to the vet immediately, as only wild turtles are expected to heal their shells on their own.

Regardless, wild turtles with damaged shells still need as much help as possible. While they can heal themselves in time, expert human intervention can speed up the healing process and protect them from predators as they heal. 

Conclusion

Turtles are amazing creatures. Not only have they evolved to a degree where their bodies can protect them from predators, but they also found new uses for their shells. It is almost unthinkable for them to exist without such an iconic part of their body.

So, no, turtles cannot live without their shells. 

But, if you are interested in other reptiles without shells that make for great pets, you can get to know the Leatherback bearded dragon here.