Can Turtles and Tortoises Live Without Their Shells?

Can Tortoises & Turtles Live Without Their Shell?

Someone seeing a tortoise or turtle for the first time might come to an incorrect conclusion about its anatomy. It’s understandable. Humans are soft-skinned and wear clothing for protection. A tortoise or turtle shell looks an awful lot like a big suit of armor. It even looks like their little legs, heads, and tails are sticking out of the shell, like they can just slide right out any time they want to.

So can tortoises and turtles live without their shell? Tortoises and turtles absolutely cannot live without their shells. The shell is not something they can simply slip on and off. It is fused to the tortoises’ and turtles’ bones so they cannot live without it.

In fact, the shell of a tortoise or turtle has nerve endings, which means it can feel you touching it and it hurts when the shell is damaged. Asking a tortoise to live without its shell would be like asking a human to live without his skin. There are some important notes on all of this though, so please read on to learn more. Your tortoise’s or turtle’s life could depend on it.

Tortoise and turtle shells explained

Can turtles and tortoises live without their shells? The question makes me shudder, but the answer is extremely important to know. Yet, to truly understand the magnitude of the question and answer, you must first understand what the shell is and how it works.

Tortoise and turtle shells are very similar, and they grow in similar ways. The shell is not something these beautiful reptiles can shimmy into or out of. They do not molt or grow out of their shells. A shell always grows with the turtle or tortoise because they are a part of the animal’s body. It will always be the perfect size.

The tortoise shell is part of an exoskeleton. That simply means that part of the skeletal system is on the outside of the body instead of the inside like a human skeleton. In the case of tortoises and turtles, the top exoskeleton is fused to the ribs and spine.

Sensitive shells feel pain

If you broke your arm, a part of your skeleton, you would feel immense pain. The tortoise shell is a lot like that. There are sensitive nerve endings in and around the shell, which means a tortoise or turtle can feel you touching him, striking him, or trying to pull the shell off!

It also means that if a turtle or tortoise gets a crack or hole in its shell, it’s like you breaking one of your bones.

Different shells for different purposes

While most of this article is true for turtles and tortoises, it’s worth mentioning that their shells can be a little different. Case in point: tortoises are land animals and need their shells for land-based protection. Turtles spend all or part of their lives in the water and need to be streamlined and smooth to glide through the water.

As such, tortoises have very hard, bone-like shells coated in keratin. That’s the stuff your fingernails are made of. Sea turtles have a leathery-type covering over their shells. Land and sea turtle shells can fall anywhere in between.

Even with different outer coatings, all tortoise and turtle shells can be damaged and cause the animal great pain.

Can tortoises and turtles get out of their shell?

No, and you should never try to force them to. Since the shell is part of the animal’s exoskeleton, there is no way to safely remove a tortoise or turtle shell. Trying to do so would cause great pain and would eventually kill the turtle.

Let me repeat that: Please, please, please do not try to get a tortoise or a turtle out of its shell! Imagine someone trying to peel the skin off your back or to remove your spine and ribs. Not a pleasant thought, is it?

While they can’t get out of their shells, they can tuck their limbs inside. Some can even close their shells tight, preventing anything from getting inside. Never try to pry a turtle or tortoise shell open though! The muscles holding the shell closed are very strong, and if you try to pry it open you will hurt the animal.

Can tortoises and turtles survive a broken shell?

Thankfully, yes! A broken shell isn’t an immediate death sentence, but it is a very serious medical condition. A crack or break in a shell means the turtle’s or tortoise’s body is opened up. It’s like a crack in your fingernail or a gash in your skin.

Any injury like this can lead to major infections if left untreated.

Sometimes, a broken or cracked shell isn’t a result of an injury. Poor diet and unsanitary tank conditions can cause ulcers on and around the shell. This is called “shell rot” and it can be deadly.

Lack of calcium, not enough sunlight, and many diseases can cause shell abnormalities that can result in shell ulcers, too. Look for signs of kidney damage, liver disease, and thyroid issues if your tortoise or turtle is developing shell rot.

Does a tortoise shell heal by itself?

Nature is a wonderful thing. Since tortoise and turtle shells are made of living, organic, natural materials, they have the ability to heal on their own. Just as your broken arm will slowly knit itself back together, a tortoise shell can heal on its own.

Though the shells can heal on their own, it’s best not to leave a broken or cracked shell untreated. As mentioned earlier, even the smallest fracture can leave your pet exposed to dangerous bacteria that can kill him.

Veterinarians can help the healing process along by applying antibiotics and then sealing the crack with a special bonding material. Smaller fractures and cracks are easier to fix than larger holes, but let your vet decide how to proceed. Even if it looks really bad to you, it might not be too big of a hole to fix.

How do tortoises’ and turtles’ shells grow?

All turtles and tortoises are born with a shell. While it may be softer than an adult’s shell, the hatchling still gets adequate protection from its shell.

Unlike some other animals, turtles and tortoises do not molt and grow a new shell when they grow and mature. Instead, the shells grow with the turtle.

Since the shell is part of their exoskeleton, it grows at the same pace as the rest of the skeletal system. Sea turtles have a slightly softer shell that has a leathery covering, while land turtles and tortoises have a rounded, thicker shell that’s covered in special plates.

The plates are called scutes, and they grow over time, overlap, and sometimes shed off. But only turtle scutes shed; tortoises never shed theirs. Instead, tortoise scutes just keep growing and overlapping.

Why do tortoises and turtles have shells?

It’s not certain how, why, or when turtles and tortoises evolved to have shells, but some new discoveries have helped pave the way for answers.

Recently, scientists discovered fossils from Eunotosaurus africanus, which was the missing link between previous fossils of non-shelled turtles and modern turtles and tortoises. This “in between” shell is helping biologists figure out the evolution of the turtle shell.

What we do know if that turtles and tortoises primarily use their shells for protection. Tall, rounded shells are hard for predators to get their jaws around. Tough shells are nearly impossible for predators to chew or scratch through. And sea turtles, even with their softer shells, have the benefit of a suit of armor to fend off anything trying to take a bite.

Digging for the truth

Obviously, turtle and tortoise shells do a phenomenal job of protecting their owners. But one scientist believes these shells evolved for another purpose. According to Tyler Lyson from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, tortoise and turtle shells may have evolved as a way to help digging.

While we are far from definitive answers, this new idea is taking hold. Whether digging in mud for food or digging into the sand to escape the heat, the shell of these ancestors was shaped perfectly for balance, strength, and digging efficiency. This is especially convincing given the string claws found on the fossils.


A turtle or tortoise without its shell would die a painful death. It’s a horrible thing to think about, and while researching this article I found a lot of pictures and videos I wish I hadn’t seen. But if it helps people take better care of their pet tortoises, it was worth the nightmares.

Keep a close eye on your pet tortoise. Feed her well and maintain her enclosure. Check her shell frequently for cracks or holes, and get her to the vet right away if you notice any changes. Caught early, a damaged shell may be mended.

Related Questions

How do turtles get their shells? Turtles and tortoises are born with their shells. While they may be softer right after hatching, they quickly harden and gain better protection for the animal. Their shells grow with them, getting bigger and stronger over time.

How do turtles grow their shells? Turtles need adequate calcium to grow and maintain a healthy shell. They also need a variety of vitamins and minerals from their diets to keep the shell growing at the same pace as their body. Turtles have either a leathery cover to their cartilage shells or they have scales, or scutes, made from keratin that cover their bony shells.

Can turtles change their shells? No. All turtles and tortoises are born with one shell. They do not shed the shell, though some turtles may shed old scutes as new ones form. Turtles and tortoises can never leave their shells, so they can never change to a new one.

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