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Can a Turtle Live Without a Shell? Facts & FAQ

Nicole Cosgrove Profile Picture

By Nicole Cosgrove

vet holding a turtle

In science, we define turtles as cold-blooded vertebrates that belong to the Testudine taxonomic order. The order comprises members who possess a shell that typically develops from their respective ribs.

A turtle’s shell is essentially a skeleton box, made of two pieces. The piece covering its bottom section is called a plastron, while that covering the top is the carapace. There’s yet another layer covering the carapace, but it’s made of individual pieces, known as the scutes.

The scutes are not so different from the epithelial cells that cover the interior and exterior surfaces of our bodies, because they are made of keratin. But can a turtle survive without this shell? To be honest, no, turtles cannot live without their shells. Keep reading as we explain further.

Can a Turtle Survive Without Its Shell?

Shells are everything to turtles, as they are intentionally designed by nature to act as armor during predatory attacks. How many times have you seen a turtle tuck in all its limbs, the tail, as well as the head, whenever it feels threatened? To increase their chances of survival, they’ll instinctively go in and not come out until they feel safe.

Also, you have to think about the fact that their shells are part of their skeletal system. If you study them closely, you’ll learn that the shell and the backbone are fused together, forcing them to grow as the turtle grows older. The lungs are directly below the shell, and if you keep on going deeper, you’ll find the rest of the organs.

If you were wondering whether turtles could shimmy in and out of their shells, now you know the answer.

So, what we are saying is that even if you find a way to detach that shell without killing the turtle, they’ll be forced to walk around with their lungs and all internal organs exposed.

Their shells also act as heat facilitators whenever they are out there basking in the sun. They depend on external sources to regulate their body temperatures. The shells are also meant to protect the turtle from overheating or dehydration.

yellow blotched map turtle
Image Credit: Gabbie Berry, Shutterstock

Can a Turtle Survive with a Damaged Shell?

This largely depends on how extensive the damage is. If half of the shell was lost during the incident, they’ll probably die after a couple of days. You can never be too sure about these things because animals know how to adapt to different situations. Regrowing back to its original shape is not a possibility, sadly.

Small cracks can be surgically repaired, and sometimes they heal on their own.

Is a Turtle’s Shell Made of Skin?

Crazy as this might sound, part of that hard surface is actually skin. And the skin plays a huge role in making sure that the turtle stays healthy, by absorbing UV rays from the sun. The rays are meant to help the turtle synthesize vitamin D, which in turn increases the absorption of calcium in the body.

Calcium, as a nutrient, is responsible for the development of the bones and the shell. So, without the shell, your turtle will soon start showing signs of vitamin D deficiency, which ultimately leads to metabolic bone disease (MBD).

woman holding turtle
Image By: Ivan Smuk, Shutterstock

Do Turtles Feel Pain When Their Shells Get Damaged?

We are often quick to assume that the shell has no feeling, but like we said, part of it has skin. Skin is an organ that can’t function without any nerves. The nerves are there to collect information about pressure, sensation, and also temperature.

If the nerves get damaged, they won’t properly function. In other words, they won’t be able to transmit the right signals to and from the brain. Your turtle will know what’s happening through the painful sensations and discomfort.

Do All Turtle Species Have Shells?

There are more than 350 turtle species living on different continents. There used to be more, but some of them went extinct. We’ve never come across a turtle that doesn’t have a shell, but if you start going through the prehistoric records, you’ll learn that there was a species that only had half a shell.

Its taxonomic name is Odontochelys semitestacea, which literally translates to “toothed turtle with a half-shell”. It had most of the features present in the modern-day Chelonia, save for the carapace, which is the top section of the shell. And yes, it also had teeth.

Final Thoughts

So, to recap, a turtle cannot live without a shell. The turtle’s shell comes in two parts—there’s the carapace, which is the top portion, and the plastron, which covers the bottom section. Parts of the shell have skin, and the skin has nerve endings that make it sensitive.

The shell is also responsible for the absorption of UV rays, which are later used to synthesize vitamin D. This nutrient is important to the turtle because it facilitates the absorption of calcium. The mineral is the reason why the shell is as tough as nails, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impenetrable.

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Featured Image Credit: Goldfish Studio, Shutterstock

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