When encased in their solid shells, turtles look like the most docile creatures on earth. While their hard surfaces help protect them against violent attacks, this is not the only way they defend themselves against attacks.
Like other animals, their defense mechanism doesn’t always involve retreating beneath the shell – these creatures can also bite when they feel threatened or handled inappropriately.
In this article, we’ll go through everything about turtle bites from why they bite humans to how people can avoid being on the wrong side of these creatures.
Do All Turtles Bite?
By default, wild turtles are aggressive and are likely to bite you whenever they feel threatened. On the other hand, domesticated turtles may also bite, but not often, especially if they are trained to socialize and be gentle. Overall, turtles tend to fight back when they feel like they are in danger.
However, some turtle species are more aggressive than others. For example, Snapping turtles are notoriously known for their aggressive behavior. They respond to any threat by inflicting painful bites.
If you try to mishandle or threaten a snapping turtle (whether the alligator snapping turtle or the typical snapping turtle), you’ll probably end up with a wound or lose a finger.
So, the best thing is to keep a safe distance when dealing with wild turtles.
When Will Turtles Try to Bite You?
Essentially, turtles will only try to bite someone when they perceive imminent danger or when they mistake you for food. Let’s look at these two reasons why you may get your finger bitten in detail.
1. When a Turtle Feels Threatened
Turtles boast armored/hardened shells that act as their first line of defense when attacked. However, if they retreat and still feels like they’re still in danger, they opt for another form of protection; biting the enemy.
Naturally, turtles won’t start any altercation and won’t try to bite you before you make a move. Even the most aggressive wild turtles, such as Snapping turtles, won’t attack you until you stress or threaten them.
If you start walking towards wild turtles, they’ll try to run or hide in their shells. But if you try to touch them or hit their backs, it may prompt them to fight back by biting you.
On the other hand, captive-bred turtles aren’t too aggressive even when you play with them. However, if you start handling them roughly or try to scare them, they may defend themselves by trying to bite you.
2. When it Mistakes a Human for Food
Turtles are opportunistic feeders that won’t hesitate to jump and bite something that they think is food.
Although the creatures can differentiate between a piece of meat or an edible plant from a person, they can mistake your toes or fingers for food. When you feed these animals with your hands, they might mistake your fingers for food and bite it without hesitation.
To ensure that turtles don’t mistake your toes or hands for food, you should avoid doing things that confuse them. Also, avoid walking without shoes in their habitat, especially shores with tall grass or dense vegetation. More importantly, you should never feed them directly with your hands.
Do Turtles Have Teeth?
If turtles can bite, then they must have very sharp teeth! Surprisingly, these creatures don’t have teeth. Instead, they have sharp and powerful beaks that they use to attack their prey or defend themselves.
Carnivorous turtles boast strong beaks since they need to kill and crush the prey. On the other hand, vegetarian sea turtles come with broad flat beaks for grinding food.
Research indicates that sea turtles had teeth in the past. However, their bodies started to evolve and modify over time due to their feeding habits and adaptation to the environment. Today, these creatures only have beaks instead of teeth.
Still, there are reports that sea turtles that have not yet hatched feature an egg-tooth for breaking the shell when it’s time to come out. However, since this is not a natural tooth, it often disappears when the baby turtle is out of the shell.
How Powerful are Turtles Bites?
While the type of turtle species will outrightly determine how hard they bite, other factors can influence how powerful a turtle bite is. Size and diet are two of the most integral factors to help determine how hard a turtle will bite you.
Size: How big a turtle is will influence how hard it bites. Enormous turtles, such as alligator snapping turtles, have more muscles and more prominent jaws, and hence they bite with a higher force than the smaller ones.
Diet: What a turtle eats will also determine its biting power. Overall, turtles that feed on meat can bite harder than those feeding on vegetation. This is not because the former gets more protein than the latter. Generally, meat-eating animals require more energy and power to bite and crush their food than the vegetation-eating animals. So, if a turtle feeds on flesh, it will have a strong, sharp beak that will help attack and crush its prey. Therefore, meat-eating turtles will most definitely inflict deadly and powerful bites on humans.
Fully grown snapping turtles can inflict bites with a force of between 208 and 226 Newtons, which roughly translates to between 46 pounds and 50 pounds.
However, the toad-headed turtles have registered the strongest biting force of about 432 Newtons, which translates to about 97 pounds. Essentially, mature wild turtles have enough beak power to bite off your finger. A full-grown alligator is a notorious biter that can grab half of your foot or all your fingers.
Are Turtle Bites Dangerous?
The danger posed by turtle bites will depend on its species, size, and age. Young turtles don’t have much power in their beaks, and thus they inflict bites that don’t cause any permanent damage on your skin. However, young turtles with sharp beaks can pierce the skin but won’t give you deep cuts or wounds.
On the other hand, adult turtles, especially the wild ones, such as the snapping alligator turtle, can cause more damage with a single bite. These notorious creatures bite with so much power and can leave you with permanent damage.
Be extra careful when around mature turtles since they have larger mouths and powerful, sharp beaks. When irritated, these armored creatures have the power to cut a portion of your leg, cut off your fingers or even slice off your toes.
Softshell turtles are a bit docile along with the sea turtles, but it’s crucial to be extra careful when around them. Although they won’t perceive you as an enemy or prey, they can still give you painful bites and leave you nursing a wound.
Do Turtles Carry Diseases?
Besides leaving you with painful wounds that can cause you more misery if they get infected, turtles are also super-spreaders of a bacterial disease. In some countries, it’s illegal to keep a turtle as a pet since they carry the Salmonella bacteria on their shells.
While it’s evident that everyone can contact Salmonella from turtles, the terrifying part is that you don’t have to touch them to get the disease. You can get sick by touching any surface in their habitat, including the aquarium, tanks, or cages. So besides the risk of losing your finger when you agitate these creatures, you may also contract a bacterial disease that can be fatal.
Turtles may seem like great animals to have around your home, but if you live with senior adults, young kids, pregnant women, or people with severe health conditions, the creature can bring more harm than good. The group of people mentioned above boast low immunity and are highly susceptible to infections. Moreover, turtles are super-spreaders of Salmonella makes them unfit for homes with individuals with compromised immune systems.
How Dangerous Are Snapping Turtles?
As the name insinuates, “snapping turtles” are aggressive turtles that everyone should dread. Although they come in two types; the common snapping turtle and the alligator snapping turtle, both are known for their cranky disposition when irritated.
Unlike other species of turtles, such as sea turtles, which often get close to human beings to quench their curiosity, the snapping turtles don’t like to socialize.
Snapping turtles are naturally aggressive and can give you a painful bite if you try to touch them. These creatures always keep a distance from people when inside the water and immediately try to hide if you try getting closer.
Female snappy turtles are more vicious, mainly when they have laid eggs on the shores. The moment they think that you’re moving closer to their breeding ground, they can turn violent and end up biting you.
Snapping turtles are the most savage of all the turtle species, and thus it’s advisable to stay far away from them.
Never try to lift up a snapping turtle if you don’t want your finger or part of your arm bitten. When they perceive you as a threat, they don’t keep hiding under the shell for protection. Instead, they become aggressive and try to fight back by inflicting painful bites.
Can a Snapping Turtle Bite Off a Finger?
Did you know that a snapping turtle is one of the two reptiles in the US that can inflict a painful bite on a human?
Apart from the mighty alligator, the snapping turtle is the other reptile known for biting people. But interestingly, not all snapping turtles have the ability to do so.
The common snapping turtles may be aggressive, but they are smaller in size and weight. They boast an average weight of around 4.5 to 16 kg (10 to 35lb), with the bulkiest of all coming at 34kg (75lb). This means that even though these turtles can give you a sizeable scar with their toothless jaws, but they don’t have enough power to chop off your finger. However, despite their small size, they can bite off a kid’s finger, so don’t let children anywhere near them.
Unlike the common snapping turtles, alligator snapping turtles are heavy and massive in size. Their average weight ranges from anywhere between 70kg and 79 kg (155lb to 170lb), with the biggest of them weighing up to 91kgs (200lb). These creatures can generate enough power and force to chop off a finger from your hand with their massive size, weight, and muscular jaws. Their sharp beaks can also bite a sizeable part of your body if they land on another spot.
Evidence that Alligator Snapping Turtles Can Bite Off a Finger
If you still don’t believe that an alligator snapping turtle can actually bite your finger, here are few cases that have been recorded.
First, we start with a somewhat crazy incident that took place in a bar in Alabama. An argument ensued between friends in a bar about who could put their hand in and out of an alligator snapping turtle’s mouth before it shut. The men at the bar placed a bet and decided to go along with this dangerous challenge. Unfortunately, the loser of the day went home without two fingers.
The subsequent incidence was reported in Louisiana when a person dissected a snapping turtle only to find a finger in its belly. Since consumption of giant turtles is legalized in the state, this story seems to hold some water.
Lastly, there’s the incident of a fifteen-year-old boy who was transferred to the Pediatric Emergency Department after an alligator bit off his index finger. The boy saw an alligator snapping turtle near a stream and decided to get close and take a photograph. The turtle suddenly snapped and bit his left-hand finger.
Can You Train a Turtle Not to Bite?
Since different species of turtles come with distinct personalities, it can be daunting to train them to stop biting. Some like alligator snapping turtles, common snapping turtles, and softshell turtles are more prone to biting than the others.
Similarly, all turtles in the wild are more likely to bite than those kept as pets. Most captive-bred turtles, such as slider, painted turtles, box turtles, and map turtles, are docile and are less likely to bite you. Regardless, you’ll still find individual turtles that will try to bite you when you try to threaten or agitate them.
While there are a few hacks to making captive-bred turtles not to bite, they can’t be taught like horses and dogs. Rather than trying to train these creatures, you should approach them from the point of care and patience. Once they recognize how careful you are when interacting with them, they’ll reciprocate by being patient with you.
However, you ought to remember that younger turtles seem to be more aggressive. However, when they spend more time around you, they get comfortable and become less aggressive.
How Do You Get Out of a Bite?
Although turtles are known for biting and releasing, sometimes the creatures can clamp down your hand or foot using their powerful jaws. When this happens, you need to think carefully about what to do next. The first instinct will be to pull yourself out, but it’s better if you don’t do that. Even if the bite is excruciating, you must remain calm.
Also, don’t try to hit the turtle or try to kill it. The more you agitate this creature, the more pressure it will apply to the bite. Hitting it until it’s unconscious will spell doom as the jaws will become harder to separate. So, if you want to escape the excruciating pain sooner, the best thing is to hold still and wait for the turtle to let go.
Once the turtle releases your hands, don’t touch your mouth or eat before washing your hands thoroughly with soap and flowing water. As we mentioned earlier, these creatures carry many germs and some disease-causing bacteria, such as Salmonella.
What To Do After a Turtle Bite?
The step you take after a turtle bite will depend on the severity of the injury. For small harmless bites, all you need to do is wash your hands before doing anything else. Also, make sure you give the turtle the space to cool off by leaving them alone. The more you bug a turtle, the more agitated it will get.
For small bites that leave your skin exposed, you should stop everything and disinfect the wound as soon as possible. Cuts should be attended to without delay since turtles carry a lot of germs. If the bite is deep and severe, you’ll have to seek professional medication immediately. Here is how you treat small and less serious bites:
- Wash your hands thoroughly to reduce the risk of infection
- Use a clean cloth to disinfect and clean the wound of any dirt or debris
- Put pressure on the wound using a clean cloth or bandage to stop further bleeding
- Apply ointment or an antibiotic to keep germs away
- Carefully wrap a bandage or clean cloth around the wound
- Ensure that the dressing is changed daily
- Look out for signs of infection on the injury. These include a change in color, redness, pus, or swelling.
If there are signs of infection, visit a medical practitioner immediately.
When Should You Seek Professional Medical Attention?
While most turtles will give you cuts that can be attended at home, some can inflict deep and painful bites that may leave you with profound implications if not treated by a professional. Here are signs that a turtle bite needs to be checked by a professional:
- The wound is bleeding profusely or spurting blood – Continuous bleeding is a sign of something serious like a ruptured vessel. If a turtle gives such a bite, you should put pressure on the wound and contact the emergency medical service.
- When the wound is on a sensitive part – If a turtle bites you in a soft part like the nose, lips, chest, or abdomen, you’ll need to rush to the hospital since these parts can quickly get infected. If blood is gushing from such wounds, make sure to call emergency services.
- If the victim starts to display emergency symptoms – If a bite makes a person feel dizzy, vomit, breath rapidly, get unconscious, or have breathing complications, you should immediately contact emergency services or drive them to the nearby healthcare facility.
- Minor cuts that keep bleeding even after 10 minutes – Sometimes, turtles can give you small but deep bites that don’t look severe at the start. However, they can continue oozing blood non-stop even after 10 minutes. In such incidences, the victim needs to be taken to the hospital without further hesitation.
How Can You Avoid Turtle Bites?
If you want to protect yourself against turtle bites, be careful when around them. First, you should avoid feeding a turtle with your hands. Turtles can feed from anywhere as long as they get their rightful portion.
To make sure that your turtles don’t bite your toes, avoid going near them wearing footwear that exposes the toes.
Always make sure that your turtle is well fed. If you keep the turtle hungry, most probably, it will bite your fingers and legs, thinking they’re food.
Avoid beating or stressing out turtles. They may be peaceful and docile, but they’ll attack if you kick or handle them inappropriately.
If you come across a wild turtle, make sure you keep a safe distance. These creatures are easily agitated and aggressive and won’t hesitate to bite you if you come too close.
If you never knew that turtles could bite humans, now you know. They might seem friendly and calm when in water, but they can send you to the emergency room by biting off your finger or toe if threatened.
So, if you have kept a turtle as a pet, make sure your kids stay away from it. Additionally, learn to handle turtles with care at all times.
More importantly, turtles in the wild are usually aggressive and don’t like to socialize. Therefore, you need to keep a safe distance if you value your fingers.