Can Turtles Smell Food?

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I often wonder what if turtles could smell things underwater. Turtles are adaptive creatures in nature and they have a well-built sense of touch, smell, and vision. But can turtles smell food?

In short, turtles can smell food because their olfactory receptors activate the sense of smell to locate food, nesting territories, and mating companions. Most sea turtles have a high-density smelling sense that helps them to detect food in the aquatic life.

Buckle up and keep reading to explore more about the turtle’s sense of smell.

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Can Turtles Smell Their Food?

Turtles can smell their food because they understand the food flavors well. Plus, turtles and their food detection are quite amazing and researchers find turtle’s nasal senses better than dogs.

I’ve observed my box turtles for some days to understand if they can smell their food or not with turtle pallets and other things. And after a long time, I’ve noticed turtles smell their food because they didn’t eat the other stuff when their food was present in the box.

Moreover, turtles depend on their olfactory sense to identify chemical substances and prey as well. For example, land-dwelling turtles use it to catch insects or carrions, and aquatic sea turtles’ chemoreceptive sense helps them to locate jellyfish and other sea animals.

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Can Turtles Smell Food In The Ocean?

The aquatic turtles can smell food in the ocean. They mostly eat marine substances like sea sponges, crustaceans, seagrasses, and jellyfish. To locate these foods, they use their barbels under the water.

Though turtles don’t have a powerful sense of smell underwater like salmon and sharks. Only smell isn’t enough for sea turtles to locate food, so they utilize their vision for it.

But sea turtles often confuse old biofouled plastics with shrimps for the smell and it’s harmful for them.

Early experiments have indicated that sea turtles possess the ability to detect magnetic fields. Some of the beach characteristics they might use could include smell and low-frequency sound. (Source)

Do Turtles Have A Good Sense Of Smell?

Turtles have a good sense of smell, though it’s less substantial than other animals. Generally, they use their sense of smell to find food, mates, or understanding the living environment.

Yet, turtles don’t have nostrils, instead, they’ve bumps under their chin that are called barbels and their chemoreceptive system is also called Jacobson’s organ.

With their small barbels, they can easily detect odors under the water and on the land. Plus, musk turtles use it to detect their predators and prevent potential attacks. Freshwater or snapping turtles have a more powerful sense of smell due to their habitats than land turtles.

Besides locating food or prey, turtles use smell sense to communicate with other turtles and find potential pheromones for mating. Also, this sense supports the sea turtles to navigate far distances on the ocean.

How Do Turtles Use Their Sense Of Smell To Find Food?

I’ve got 4 amazing characteristics of turtles that directly help them to smell their food underwater and this table will make you understand how they use their sense of smell to detect their food.

FeaturesHow it works
Olfactory receptorsTurtles have a high-density olfactory sense in their nasal cavities and this leads them to understand the difference between food and other things.
Strong chemical detection senseWith a great chemoreceptive sense, turtles have a well-built chemical detection that helps to sense the chemical fluids of food.
Sense of food scentsTurtles are familiar with their food smells if they’ve eaten them for five months. Their barbels support them to get the food scents.
Long-range detection powerTurtles can get the smell from long distances and it supports them more across the ocean.

How Strong Is A Turtle’s Sense Of Smell?

Turtle’s sense of smell can vary with different species. However, most turtles have strong receptor genes.

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For instance, soft-shelled turtles have 1,137 olfactory receptor genes that are more than dog’s and near to rat’s receptor genes.

As turtles have a subtle smell sense, it helps to navigate their surroundings and also for their reproduction process in the breeding season. It’s also one of the most necessary tools for their survival.

Are Turtles Sensitive To Smell?

Not all turtles are sensitive to smell. Aquatic turtles have a more sensitive olfactory system than terrestrial and freshwater turtles.

However, terrestrial turtles depend on their vision more than smell. But all turtles can understand the various types of scents and they are more conscious of their food aroma and potential mating partners.

Can Snapping Turtles Smell Water?

Snapping turtles can smell water because they have avid olfactory senses. These semi-aquatic turtles get their prey with the help of vomeronasal organs.

Alongside, they mark their territories with the powerful nasal sense. Their habitats are almost similar to aquatic turtles, but they’ve got a keener sense of smell.

Do All Turtles Have Similar Smelling Capacity?

It depends on the different turtle species. When it comes to land-dwelling or terrestrial turtles, they have various sensory characteristics like eyesight and touch along with their olfactory capacity.

For sea turtles, they smell with a swallow of water and clean it with their barbels. According to some researchers, a turtle’s smelling sensation depends on their lifestyle, age, habitat, and food habits.

What Things Can Affect A Turtle’s Sense Of Smell?

The smelling capacity of turtles is affected by different factors.  And these things affect their nasal sensory system. Here are the 3 major things that can damage a turtle’s sense of smell to detect food.

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1. Impure Habitats

If turtles are living in a bad environment,  they gradually lose their smelling capabilities and it influences their other senses like vision and touch. Turtle’s living environments are important for their survival.

2. Weak Health Condition

When the turtles get sick, especially cold, fever, and nasal injuries, they can’t smell. It continues until they’re not getting well. Also, their imbalanced diet plan is responsible for losing the sense of smell to find prey.

3. Poor Water Quality

Sea turtles are strongly dependent on underwater conditions. So the water flow, temperature, and quality can affect their senses. Low-quality water damages a turtle’s sense of touch, vision, and smell.

There’s evidence to suggest that certain sensory perceptions (like smell and taste) could lead turtles to consume plastics, mistaking them for food. (Source)

What Turtles Can Smell?

Ornate box turtles, loggerhead sea turtles, Asiatic soft-shelled sea turtles, leatherback turtles, green sea turtles, modern sea turtles, musk turtles, and snapping turtles can smell things.

Most of the time, they smell food, breeding mates, fish pellets, chemical signals, and nesting zones. They can precisely smell things better underwater. Yet, their foraging management is better than other animals.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Turtles Smell Far Away?

Turtles can smell far away, almost a few meters away. They can’t smell long distances like other animals and it depends on different species, ages, and ecosystems.

Can Painted Turtles Smell?

Like other turtles, painted ones can also smell. Though their nasal senses aren’t higher than sea turtles, they do have a good sense of smell to recognize food and mating partners.

Why Do Sea Turtles Smell Ocean Plastic As Food?

Some ocean plastics have similar chemical scents to various turtle foods like seaweed, shrimp, snails, jellyfish, and other marine insects.  That’s why sea turtles mistakenly eat plastic and it affects their health. 

Can Freshwater Turtles Smell Underwater? 

Freshwater turtles can smell underwater with their dominant olfactory glands and sensitive chemoreceptors. However,  they can sense chemical scents and specialized odors underwater. 

Before You Go…

Now you’ve got the answer of can turtles smell food.  My eternal love for turtles often led me to find some questions that helped me to understand them better and it’s one of them. If you’re also an avid turtle lover,  you can look into these articles below to explore their life more.

Can Turtles Eat Egg Shells?

How Far Do Sea Turtles Travel?

Do Sea Turtles Eat Jellyfish? How?

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About Author

Muntaseer Rahman started keeping pet turtles back in 2013. He also owns the largest Turtle & Tortoise Facebook community in Bangladesh. These days he is mostly active on Facebook.


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