What Does a Turtle Look Like Without a Shell?

February 16, 2024
David Sunnyside

Despite what you might have seen in cartoons, turtles cannot live without their shells. Their shells are more than just fashionable bits of armor popped on for turtles to sunbathe on the backs of toothy predators—the shell is part of their skeleton and contains most of their vital organs. If you were to separate a turtle from its shell, it would die instantly.

Interestingly, turtles do not need to use their shells to dig because their ancestors did so to escape land-based predators and reach the sea during mass extinction events. But turtles’ shells have evolved to serve many different purposes—a classic example of exaptation, or a trait that originally served one purpose and ended up serving another through evolution. For example, the widened ribs that helped turtle ancestors dig now protect them from predation.

The shell is made of a bony inner lining called the carapace that fuses to the turtle’s backbone and sternum. The flat bit on the bottom, known as the plastron, also is bony and fuses to the turtle’s rib bones and sternum. In addition to protecting the turtle’s internal organs, the bony plates on the outside of the shell, called scutes, provide additional protection and camouflage.

Some turtles shed their shells during times of stress or when they need to grow larger. Shedding a shell is similar to humans shedding old skin—the old scutes fall off and the underlying muscles and ligaments are revealed. This process is called molting and can take months or even years to complete. If you find a turtle in the wild without its shell, it is likely too cold or wet to survive and should be moved to a safe shelter like a box filled with fresh water or a tarp set up over the ground.

David Sunnyside
Co-founder of Urban Splatter • Digital Marketer • Engineer • Meditator
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