Can Turtles & Tortoises Survive Without Their Shells?

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Watching cartoons is fun until those shows start messing up with our heads. I remember episodes on Super Mario and Baby Looney Toons where a tortoise comes out of its shell and slips in it again. But can turtles and tortoises survive without their shells?

Turtles and tortoises can not survive without their shell as it serves several purposes. For example, shells are interconnected to the ribs and bones and make the primary skeleton of these creatures. Also, these shells cushion the internal organs of turtles and tortoises.

But what happens if you force the tortoise out of the shell? And what does a turtle without a shell look like? The following article has all your answers.

Can Turtles & Tortoises Survive Without Their Shells?

Turtles and tortoises can not survive with their shells. The shells are not an accessory for these reptiles but are a part of their body. In fact, a turtle or tortoise can live without a limb or paralyzed leg, but not without a shell. Yes, it is that important.

I know several species can get out of their shells. Take the hermit crab as an example. Again, snakes shed their outer skin every year. These miracles of nature force people to think that turtles can also live without their shells. But here, the case is totally opposite.

The shells are fused with the bone and muscles of the turtles and tortoises. So, forcing these creatures out of these boxy homes is not possible.

Compare the turtle and tortoise shells to your fingernails. It is there for a reason. But though you can survive without your cute nails, a tortoise or turtle will die instantly if you detach it from the shell.

Why Do Turtles Need Shells?

As I said, turtle shells serve several purposes in their life. Hence, shells have similar significance in their life to other body parts. Some of the reasons why turtles need shells are,

1. Turtles Can Not Live Without Shell

Turtle shells are made of a skeleton and dermal bones. The structure and anatomy of this species have evolved over thousand years and have finally come to this form. Also, the shells are made of keratin, membranes, and other organic elements that are also found in human nails.

The scutes on the carapace and plastron are interlocked to each other. These upper and lower shells are connected with an edge bridge.

If you look into the shell, it is fused with the turtles’ bones, spines, and rib cages. On going further, you will find the internal organs of the turtles are finely accommodated inside this shell.

A sneak peek into the turtle’s anatomy shows us that the shell is an integral part of the turtle. So, getting the creature out of this shield is not possible. If you separate the turtle from the shell, the reptile will die.

2. It Is All About Protection

The main purpose of the shell is to ensure protection. For example, the shell protects the internal organs from outside contaminants.

Again, whenever there is a predatory attack, the turtles get into the shell and hide. Fortunately, turtle shells can stand massive forces. So, these shells can save the turtles from a fall or crushing the predators.

Also, the shells act as a shield from the outside world for the turtles. They get into the shell and spend some alone time whenever stressed or anxious.

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3. Shells Help In Speed

Do you know why turtles can swim but tortoises can not? Yes, the turtles have flippers and webbed legs, while the tortoises have elephant-like feet. Apart from that, the shell structure has a great influence in deciding the agility of these creatures.

The sea turtles and regular turtles have streamlined shells, which help them cut through the water. But the tortoise shells are domed, and all they can do is float. So, yes, shells do help the turtles swim efficiently.

4. Make Them Invisible

Look at the turtle shells. Each species is blessed with different patterns and colors. Those varieties actually help these creatures camouflage in their native habitat. As a result, the turtles stay invisible to their predators.

5. Shell Absorbs Heat & UV

Turtle shells also help absorb the UV rays and heat.

You know turtles are a cold-blooded species. So, they require external heat sources to function properly. When under a basking light or sun, the shells absorb the heat and facilitate the turtle in leading a normal and healthy life.

Again, the UV rays are mandatory to build a solid and healthy shell. The primary layer on the shells can absorb and synthesize these rays. As a result, these creatures enjoy the benefits of those exposures later.

Can Turtle Shells Grow Back?

Turtle shells grow back naturally. If you look at a compositional level, the scutes are made of organic elements like keratin, muscles, and membranes. Hence, the cells will heal and grow all on their own. But it is a slow and lengthy process.

Just like our broken bones, turtle bones and shells have the regeneration capability. The cells and membranes start healing once they get damaged. Imagine a scratch on the scute. The lines disappear after a time as turtles knit themselves back together.

However, the newly grown shells will lack color. So you can easily spot the scars.

Also, this healing trick does not always work on turtles. These creatures can regrow the shells to an extent. For example, you can expect healing in case of a minor crack or hole. But in severe injuries, turtles can not regrow their shells.

You cannot trust this natural healing process, whether it is a minor crack or a deadly injury. The shell regrowth is slow and takes several years to fill a simple hole.

If you keep the damaged area exposed for that long, the turtle will die of bacterial infection. Therefore, you have to take steps to fix a broken shell with the help of an expert.

Can A Turtle Take Off Its Shell?

The shell is not a dress for turtles that they can take off or slip on anytime. Instead, it is an integral part of their bodies and connected to their spines and bones. So, there is no way you can remove a turtle from its shell without killing the creature.

Still not convinced? Well, taking a sneak peek into the turtle’s anatomy will definitely help.

See, turtle shells are a protection layer for the internal organs. The shield is made of keratin, membranes, etc., and fused with the bones and spines. So, it is impossible to bring the turtle out without hurting it.

However, if you take off the carapace and plastron of the turtles, here is what you will see,

  • Vertebrae & Ribs: Right beneath the carapace, the backbone and ribs get fused with the upper shell.
  • Pelvic Girdle: It is the rear limb structure of the turtles.
  • Shoulder Girdle: It is the front limb structure of the turtles.
  • Bridge: As the name suggests, the bridge connects the plastron and carapace.
  • Esophagus: The passage from mouth to stomach is called the esophagus. It works to trap food and eliminate excess water from the tract.
  • Trachea: It is the airways of the turtles that deliver air to the lungs.
  • Lungs: These are the main respiratory organs that help the turtles to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide.
  • Heart: Just like a human heart, the turtle heart pumps blood and delivers oxygen-rich blood throughout the body.
  • Stomach: It is where the digestion process occurs.
  • Intestine: The intestine is situated right after the stomach. This passage has multi-purposes. One is to collect undigested food and pass it to the cloaca.
  • Pancreas: All the enzymes required for digestion are produced in the pancreas.
  • Liver: Liver has many tasks, and its main function is to produce bile.
  • Bladder: It acts as a water reservoir in arid environments. But other than that, the bladder stores urine.
  • Rectum & Anus: Rectum is the end portion of the digestive system. The waste comes from the turtle bodies via the anus, passing the rectum.
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See, each of these organs is vital for turtles. The shell is the vessel for these body parts. If you force the turtle out of the shell, these organs will be exposed, and most importantly, the turtle will die.

What Happens If A Tortoise Loses Its Shell?

A tortoise can not live without its shell. So, if the creature loses its shell completely in an accident, it will die quickly. However, there is a chance of survival if the shell is not entirely damaged.

The tortoise shell is not an accessory that the creature can lose easily. Instead, the shell is an integral part of its anatomy.

If you look deeper, the rib bones and spines of the turtles are fused with the inner shells. You only see the outer part of the carapace and plastron. But inside the body, the shell has an inevitable connection with the skeleton of the tortoise.

So, losing the shell means losing the skeleton and the structure of the body. No animal or species can live without its skeleton, the same as tortoises. If these reptiles are in a deadly accident where the entire shell falls apart, they will die.

Again, the shell acts as a vessel for the internal organs like the heart, lungs, stomach, etc. So, if this shield is broken, those vital body parts come out of the structure. Therefore, the creatures die in enormous pain.

However, the tortoise shell is strong enough to carry 200x weight of its own. So, tearing the shell apart completely is difficult and requires enormous force. Again, the tortoise can survive with proper treatment if the shell is not broken entirely.

What Happens If A Turtle Loses Its Shell?

Just like tortoises, turtles can not survive without its shell. As a result, a turtle with a completely torn shell will die instantly. But if the shell is cracked and even severely broken, the creature still has a chance to live.

Though cartoons make us think these creatures can take off or slip into the shell, it is a myth. The turtle shell accommodates all the vital organs inside. So, when the turtle loses the shield, all these parts get exposed to the environment.

Now tell me. How long will you survive if your internal organs come out of your skin? The case is more critical with turtles as there is no way to fuse the shell back together. Hence, the creatures lose their lives.

Fortunately, it is not easy for a turtle to lose its shell. It is because this body part can withstand massive force. So, a severe accident or dangerous predatorial attack can damage the shell but can not break it completely. Even if a turtle shell gets seriously damaged, instant treatment can heal the condition.

Learn how hard a turtle shell is from my precious write-up.

What Does A Turtle Without Shell Look Like?

Have you ever opened up an animal in biology class? A turtle without a shell looks similar, nothing but dead.

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I have already mentioned the importance of shells in the turtle’s life. The shell carries the primary structure of the turtles. Hence, if they lose this shield by any chance, the internal organs of these creatures will come out.

Are Turtles Born With Shells?

Of course, turtles are born with shells. At the beginning of their life, the shells are soft and underdeveloped. But once they grow, the shells develop strength and get a hard texture.

When a turtle is born, the shell on its back looks like armor. With the limbs and head sticking out of the shell, the hatchling looks like a cute shoulder preparing for a fight.

Though turtle shells seem like an extra, it is not. In fact, the shells are an integral part of the turtles’ bodies. These creatures are born with these shells, which help in several ways.

When born, the shells are soft, and the minimum weight can smash the turtle. But with proper diet and age, turtles grow a stronger and harder shell. According to several reports, the turtle shell can withstand forces about 200 times greater than its original weight. Yes, those shields are that strong.

The shells serve several purposes in turtle life. For example, it protects them from predators. Also, the turtles can hide in their shell when they feel stressed. Moreover, the shells accommodate the internal organs of these creatures.

People have a misconception that turtle shells are removable. In reality, the turtle shells are fused with bones and rib cages and connected via a bridge. So, any damage to the shell can cause severe injuries in turtles. If the creatures lose their shells, they will die instantly.

However, there are treatments available for major shell injuries and cracking. With proper care, the turtles can return to their usual routine.

Do Tortoises Have Feelings In Their Shells?

Some people think that tortoises can not feel their shells. So, they take the liberty of painting the scutes and call them art.

But here is the deal.

Tortoise shells are sensitive, and these creatures can feel the slightest touch on them. Though the scutes seem like hard plates, nerves are running beneath them. Hence, these creatures know if you are touching them or hurting them.

This is the reason why shell conditions make tortoises suffer. Shell rot, shedding, pyramiding, or similar health diseases put these creatures in unbearable pain.

Damage Turtle Shell And What To Do

Turtle and tortoise shells can get damaged in many ways. For example, a sharp-edged dock can make scratches on the turtle shell, leading to a bacterial infection. Similarly, falling from a height or getting attacked by a predator can also damage the turtle. Again, some physical conditions can cause holes or punctures on the shells.

Any opening in the shell is dangerous for turtles. It is because the bacteria can easily enter inside the shell via those passages. As a result, the pets get infected and suffer from shell rot and similar shell conditions.

You should take immediate steps to heal the pet if you notice any damage or cracking on the turtle shell. First, clean the wound with an antiseptic and put on a bandage. Next, use an organic epoxy or resin to fill the hole or crack. Sometimes you would have to drill and put wires to support the structure.

Shells are a sensitive part of the turtles, and treating them requires species expertise. Hence, I recommend you take the pet to a vet and let him do the necessary treatments.


Turtles and tortoises can not survive without their shells. In fact, deaths like these are horrible and most painful for these innocent pets. Therefore, as an owner, you should keep a close eye on the shell condition of the turtle and tortoise. Also, take immediate action if you find even a minor crack or hole in the shell.

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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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