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Turtle Without Shell – What Does A Turtle Look Like Without A Shell?

If you have ever imagined how a turtle without shell might look like, you would realize that it won’t survive for long. It is like looking into the cavity of a certain animal that students in a biology class opened up for dissection. You can see the exposed internal structure and organs. 

Turtles are one of the most familiar reptiles you can find in many habitats worldwide. Now that you know what a turtle looks like without a shell let’s understand its anatomy and find out what happens when it loses its covering.

What Do Turtles Look Like Without Shells?


Turtles are categorized into four types depending on their shells: tortoises, terrapins, hard-shelled turtles, and soft-shelled turtles.

Now, all of these different types of turtles share a common thing, and they tend to lose their shell when they attain adulthood.

So, whenever turtles lose their shells, they become aquatic creatures. And the bones that are present in their carapace are transformed into flippers.

These strong flippers help them swim through water, and in addition, the spinal column changes shape as well.

As such, it supports the turtle’s back, so, when you see a turtle without a shell, it looks similar to the turtles that don’t have shells.

In short, they will look small, and have delicate skin. Turtle without shell can move easily through the water as they can breathe with ease underwater as well.

Whenever turtles shed their shells, they do so over several months or years. It begins with the first step when turtles attain sexual maturity.

This is when they begin to grow new bones, and the shell tends to grow small and eventually falls off.

The process takes a period of time because of the constraints that their body should go through before the shells break off completely. Besides, the bones in the carapace change shape while they contract and grow.

As a result, the shells become thin and weak. Ultimately, the shells break off, and several tendons, ligaments, and muscles control the whole process.

So, it takes many months or even years to complete the process.

However, you can get an idea of what the turtle’s ancestor looked like if you go back 260 million years.

The Odontochelys semitestacea (half-shelled toothed turtle) is the closest visual of what a turtle might look like without a shell.

The ribs and body are broadened and the lower part of the ribs fused with the plastron. However, it is yet to develop a carapace, which is the top part of the shell.

Apart from the presence of teeth and lack of carapace, it looks similar to what you see in a modern-day chelonian. No doubt, a turtle’s shell is considered its identity.

Why Are Shells Important For Turtles?

Typically, turtle without shell won’t survive.

Besides the shell’s function as skin and skeleton, they serve as a unique form of physical protection from predators. Also, they play an important role in the reptile’s sunbathing habits.

No doubt, turtles don’t have a defense mechanism on their own. That way, they are susceptible to becoming other animals’ meals if they don’t have a shell. Here are some reasons why shells are an integral part of a turtle.

1. The Shell serves as a part of the Turtle’s Skeleton


A turtle’s shell is its skeletal system. It means that the spine and ribcage form a part of the carapace.

The plastron, the lower part of the turtle shell, consists of bones similar to the clavicles and sternum found on other animals. Also, they have inscriptional ribs that you can find in crocodilians.

Besides, you can locate the shoulder blades within the ribcage. Again, this is a major difference from other animals.

The remaining bones are located just beneath the turtle’s head and limbs. Vitamin D and calcium deficiency directly impact the overall growth and the turtle’s health.

In general, if a turtle doesn’t have a shell, there would be no ribcage, spine, and fifty different types of bones. So, no animal can survive without a ribcage or spine. Hence, a turtle needs to have its shell.

2. Turtle Shell helps them from Potential Predators

Another important reason turtles should have a shell is that it is self-defense.

Turtle shells have evolved to compensate for other anatomical changes. Their ribs flatten and broaden over time so that they can add stability and strength to their forelimbs.

However, it impaired their ability to flee or move quickly. So, it is clear that these prehistoric creatures couldn’t escape whenever their predator struck.

But their rib anatomy eventually evolved into armored shells as protection. Every animal can survive predators through camouflage, speediness, or thick skin.

There is no denying that early men wouldn’t have survived if they hadn’t found ways to avoid being eaten. This is the same reason why turtles would have perished now if they didn’t have shells.

3. The Turtle Shell is their Skin


You now understand that the turtle’s shell has complicated components and structure. The shell includes skin and bones.

And the unique anatomical structure falls anywhere between them. The bones are fused to the dermal plates that resemble hardened skin.

The dermal plates are covered by a vascular skin layer covering the scutes. The scutes consist of a sturdy material called keratin.

It is the same material that your fingernails are composed of, and when it comes to protecting sensitive and delicate skin, scutes are important.

Also, it protects the dermal plates from bruises and scrapes, too. In addition, the scutes are arranged to overlap the areas between bones and dermal plates instead of aligning with them. As such, it gives additional support and stability.

The scutes on certain turtles shed them as they grow to show the similarities between a turtle’s shell and traditional skin.

Some examples show that pet turtles use rough surfaces to itch their carapace. Apart from that, the turtle’s fragile dermal plates and nerve endings will be exposed to trauma and bacterial infection without the skin.

Therefore, survival without skin is impossible for all animals. And this is another reason why the shell is important for turtles to live.

4. Shells help Turtles to Absorb UV Light

While it might surprise you, painting the turtle’s shell could make them sick. Because a turtle’s skin is made up of skin, it absorbs UV light and synthesizes vitamin D.

However; the deficiency interferes with the turtle’s calcium levels resulting in MBD, or metabolic bone disease.

Precisely, a turtle without a shell won’t have enough skin area to absorb adequate amounts of ultraviolet rays. As a result, you can find them sick or even dead.

Even humans need enough exposure to sunlight, or they may die because of the lack of vitamin D3. So, turtles need to have shells.

5. Turtle Shell helps them Absorb Heat

The dark-colored turtle shell facilitates heat absorption because turtles are cold-blooded animals, they don’t maintain their bodies’ temperature like humans.

Rather, they depend on heat from their surroundings. Hence, they spend about two to eight hours under sunlight each day.

The dark color protects the internal organs of the turtle against dehydration as well. However, the turtle might have serious problems if they have no shells.

Let’s assume that the turtle fought infection caused by exposure to fungus, viruses, bacteria, and even trauma.

Although they won against the infections, they won’t survive the intense heat if they don’t have their shell.

In addition, the turtle might start to avoid coming under the sun because of the painful experience. As a result, it increases the likelihood of induced hibernation.

And this could be devastating because it would lead to the unfortunate demise of the turtle. This is another great reason why shells are important for turtles to survive.

also read: Turtle Poop – What Does Turtle Poop Look Like?

How Do You Help a Turtle Without A Shell?

It is an unfortunate sight when you find a turtle without a shell. However, many ways help the turtles become fit and fine again. Consider these four useful tips.

Provide Them With A Shelter

No wonder a turtle without a shell or even a broken shell is too wet and cold to survive in the wilderness. The first thing you can do is provide them with a safe place where they can sleep peacefully and stay hidden from potential predators.

A big box filled with plant leaves and fresh water should be the perfect surrounding for them. Also, you can set up a tarp over the ground.

Feed Them Enough

Surely, a turtle without a shell will begin to starve if there is a lack of food. So, if you find a turtle in this situation, consider giving them fresh water, fruits, and vegetables daily.

Besides, ensure they can access burrowing materials such as moist earth and dirt. That way, they can dig the same, looking for food when necessary.

Spread Awareness About Helping Turtle Without Shell

It is good to explain how and why turtle without shell need help. Also, show them how it is easy for anyone to help a distressed turtle simply by keeping an eye on nature.

Explain what you need to do if you spot a similar situation. Let every people know about the importance of safeguarding the turtles.

Can Turtles Heal Shells On Their Own?

It is good news that turtles can heal their shells effectively.

The process is similar to how human bones are regenerated back to their original state after a stipulated timeframe. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take care of your pet turtle in such situations.

In short, you should never leave your traumatized turtle to heal all by itself. Or else they would be exposed to various kinds of problems. Besides, vets would make the healing process even faster with different approaches.

They will use antibiotics to cure infections caused by harmful microorganisms that have made their way to the turtle’s body. Next, they would seal the cracks with an effective bonding material that the turtle encountered from bacterial attacks.

However, if the shell is damaged beyond repair by a bonding material, your vet could recommend a 3D-printed prosthetic. But, it might not work properly regarding UV and heat absorption.


Is it possible for a turtle to get out of its shell?

The myth that turtles can take off their shells has been a part of many cartoons. In reality, turtles can’t take on and off their shells at will. There is no way turtles can do so. As said, a turtle’s shell is its skeletal system and part of its body.

Do turtles lose their shell?

No, turtles don’t lose their shells. However, they lose their scutes just like snakes shed their skins.

Can turtles leave their shell at will?

No, turtles can’t leave their shell at will, as shown in certain cartoons. Some might consider turtles hermit crabs, but this is not the case. A turtle’s shell grew with them and fused to their skeletal system.

Are turtles born without shells?

Turtles are born with a thin skin membrane that covers their bones. However, the leatherback turtle is species that don’t have a hard shell, unlike other turtles.

What do you find inside a turtle’s shell?

You may watch this video to find out what is inside a turtle’s shell. It contains the important organs of a turtle and other structures.


Therefore, a turtle without shell look horrible and an impossible situation as well. Because the turtle’s bones and skin are fused with the shell, it is clear that they would never leave it. Survival without the shell is practically impossible for the turtles.

Although most people believe that turtles only use their shells to hide from predators, the shell has important functionalities. Like other animals, turtles won’t last long without a shell and won’t survive without their ribs, spine, and skin.

Fishkeeping Expert
Fishkeeping Expert
With years of collective fishkeeping knowledge, we are pleased to share the tank maintenance tips and fish care advice we've picked up along the way. Fishkeeping Expert is home to all fishkeeping tutorials and guides that will help you keep your fish healthy.



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