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How Do Turtle Shells Grow? Scientific Facts & FAQs

Codee Chessher

By Codee Chessher

woman holding turtle

Some people think of turtle shells like little houses that they can shed at will, but that’s not even close to the truth. Turtle shells are direct extensions of the turtle’s body, growing from their bones and skin to encase the critter in a robust, durable endoskeleton. Much of the shell is made of calcium phosphate, like our bones, but it has a tough keratin layer coating it.

A turtle’s shell is roughly composed of two main pieces: the carapace, which is the thick, tough top part of the shell, and the plastron, which is the softer part underneath your turtle’s body. These are fused together on the sides or bridge of the shell, which act as more flexible joints with holes in the shell facilitating movement via the turtle’s legs. Just like how our bones grow as we age, so does a turtle’s shell.

Can Turtles Grow New Shells?

No, turtles can’t grow new shells or rehome themselves in other turtles’ shells, contrary to the urban myth. A turtle’s shell is as unique as your own bones or fingerprints, and every shell looks different. When a turtle’s shell is damaged, it’s quite literally damage to their skeleton. If the damage is severe enough, the turtle can suffer internal injury to their organs or suffer infections from bacteria flocking to the injury site and festering.

Turtle Shell Peeling and Shedding
Image By: SeaReeds, Pixabay

Can Turtles Live Without Their Shells?

No, turtles cannot live without their shells because the shell serves several vital functions that help keep them alive and healthy. To name a couple of things, the turtle’s shell serves as structural support for them, and missing their shell would be sort of like us missing our spines. The shell also allows the turtle to regulate their body temperature, staying cool in hot temperatures and warm in cold temperatures.

Can Turtles Feel Their Shells?

Yes, turtles can feel their shells, but it’s not the same sensation of touch we experience with our skin. A turtle’s shell is thick and chitinous, so the sensation of rubbing, scratching, or brushing a turtle is likely more similar to what we’d feel doing the same thing to our fingernails—a more dull, vibratory sensation than a tactile one. Brushing or scratching your turtle’s shell isn’t quite like petting them, but it does help them to shed old, worn-out keratin layers and grow new, more vibrant and stronger layers.

giving red-eared turtle a bath
Image By: Maks_Nova, Shutterstock

How to Keep Your Turtle’s Shell Healthy

A turtle’s shell is more than their home; it’s their skeleton, so you want to keep it as healthy as possible. While there’s not a whole lot you can do, there are a few things you can try to maintain your turtle’s shell and keep it as strong and healthy as possible.

Tips for Keeping Your Turtle’s Shell Healthy:

  • Make sure your turtle is getting plenty of calcium, but don’t neglect other sources of essential nutrition like leafy greens and insects, especially for young turtles.
  • Provide your turtle with 10–12 hours of high-quality UVB and UVA light to help their bodies synthesize vitamin D3, supporting bone and shell growth.
  • Periodically scrub your turtle’s shell with a soft-bristled toothbrush and mild unscented soap to remove dirt and debris, and encourage new growth by shedding old and weak exterior layers.
  • If you have concerns about your turtle’s shell, visit a vet with experience caring for turtles to help pinpoint the cause and for advice on the next steps.
turtle eating vegetables
Image Credit: Wirestock Creators, Shutterstock

 

Conclusion

Turtles are one of Earth’s most interesting and unique creatures, and their shells are a marvel of evolution. A turtle’s shell is sort of like an external spine, temperature regulator, and support structure all in one, not to mention it’s invaluable in fending off predators.


Featured Image Credit: Ivan Smuk, Shutterstock

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