The turtle shell is not bulletproof. It has nerves, blood supply, and over 60 different bones that are highly interconnected. This makes it extremely sensitive and painful for the turtle in case of injuries.
However, a turtle shell is robust and can withstand about 200 times its weight. In practical terms, 1000 pounds of pressure won’t break a turtle shell, but it can leave the animal in a lot of pain.
Bullets are known to travel at supersonic speeds, meaning that they can easily pierce and damage even the hardest of surfaces, including a turtle’s shell. Moreover, even if a bullet fails to penetrate, it can cause excruciating pain since a turtle’s exterior consists of nerves, blood vessels, and bones.
What Makes Turtles Shell Hard?
As we’ve already mentioned, a turtle shell boasts layers of keratin, the same building elements found in our hair and nails. The upper part which covers the turtles’ body is called the carapace, while the bottom part is known as the plastron. Both the carapace and the plastron make the turtle shell tough, rugged, and hard to break.
On the shell’s outer surface, you’ll find hardened scales called scutes, which help protect the carapace from bruises and scratches.
The plastron is flat and helps shield the turtle’s internal organs and the soft part of its body if a predator topples it upside down.
How Strong Is a Turtle Shell?
A turtle shell can withstand thousands of pounds of pressure. In fact, research indicates that most turtle shells have a fracture toughness of 36.4MPa m1/2. Fracture toughness is the amount of force needed to crack through a surface. To give you a relatable example, a turtle shell is strong than aluminum.
Turtle shells are pretty strong and can withstand extreme pressure. Different species have different hardness levels. Sea Turtles have a softer shell compared to their freshwater counterparts. As we mentioned earlier, a turtle shell can withstand up to 200 times its weight. This means that even 100 pounds of pressure might not break the shells of many turtle species.
Which Turtle Has the Hardest Shell?
It’s challenging to tell which turtle has the most rigid shell since there’s limited research on this aspect, but the fact is, sea turtles have softer surfaces than freshwater turtles. For instance, red-eared sliders have more rigid shells than green sea turtles.
In addition to the environment, another factor that determines a turtle shell’s hardness is its size. Adult turtles tend to have thicker shells than young turtles.
When comparing turtle and tortoise shells, a tortoise has a more hardened shell than a sea turtle since it can’t escape into the water when faced by predators. Tortoises solely rely on the toughness and rigidness of their shells for protection.
What’s the Purpose of a Turtles Shell?
Turtles are the most primitive species in the reptile world, and they are also the oldest reptiles. They’ve existed for millions of years, with their evolution dating back to 240 million years.
One of the main reasons turtles managed to survive the mass extinction is their hardened shells. The shell protects it from predators.
Without a doubt, a turtle shell plays a crucial role in protecting it from predators. In addition, there’s a theory by R. Lyson that the turtle shell may have evolved to help them dig.
The shell is designed in a way to improve the turtle’s balance and give it extra strength. This means it can dig in the mud when searching for food or in the sand when it wants to escape extreme weather conditions.
With that in mind, we can now talk about why turtles can’t survive without a shell.
Why Can’t Turtles Survive Without a Shell?
The shell is a part of a turtle’s body. In addition to acting as the differentiating structure of their bodies, it forms a significant part of their body.
A turtle without a shell is an exposed and naked creature that can’t protect itself from danger. The exterior shell is a protective shield that prevents predators from turning a turtle into a meal. Turtles are slow and cannot run and thus are easily preyed on. However, since the shell is tough and impenetrable, it’s not easy for predators to break it.
Let’s discuss four reasons why turtles can’t live without its shell:
- They’ll lack a self-defense mechanism. A turtle shell serves as a vital protection tool. Turtles majorly defend themselves by hiding vulnerable body parts such as the head, limbs, and tail in its shell.
- They’ll be exposed to infections. A turtle’s shell consists of its skin and bones. Without it, the nerve endings and blood vessels will be exposed to external bacteria, viruses, and fungus. This can cause infections and make it difficult for turtles to survive.
- They use their shell to regulate body heat. Turtles are poikilotherms, which means they rely on the external environment to control their body temperature. The turtle shell is dark to help them absorb heat from its atmosphere. On the other hand, if the external temperature becomes too much, the shell protects the inside organs from overheating. In addition, it protects the turtle from getting dehydrated.
- They use the shell to absorb UV light. A turtle shell constitutes its skin, which means it plays a role in absorbing UV light, which helps their bodies synthesize vitamin D. A deficiency of vitamin D can result in metabolic bone disease.
Can A Turtle Get Out Of Its Shell And What Happens If It Loses Its Shell?
A turtle shell is inseparable from its body. Unlike the videos of turtles we see in cartoons where they are pulled out of their shells, a turtle can’t survive without its shells.
The shell is connected to the spine, ribs, and other internal body organs. If a turtle loses its shell, then it dies after some time. In the same way that we can’t survive without a backbone, so is the case with turtles.
If a turtle loses its shell, other body parts will fall off. Not to mention that it’ll lose its protection and thus will become easy prey to all types of predators.
Can Turtles Survive With a Broken or Cracked Shell?
Turtles can survive with a broken or cracked shell, but of course, this depends on the extent of the injury. If a cracked shell is not treated immediately, the turtle may suffer serious infections.
Turtle shells don’t always crack or break due to injuries. Sometimes, lack of calcium, poor diet or lack of sunlight (UV light) can cause the shell to weaken and crack.
If there is a hairline fracture in the shell, there’s a high chance that the turtle will survive. However, if the crack is deep or extensive, the turtle may not stay for long. The shell is a critical part of the turtle’s body as it keeps all the features together.
Therefore, if it breaks, the internal organs get exposed to bacteria, leading to infections and later death.
Can a Cracked or Broken Shell Repair Itself?
A turtle shell is made of living, natural, and organic elements and thus can heal itself. However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t treat broken shells. If you notice cracks or breaks on your pet turtle, it’s advisable to consult a vet and have your pet treated immediately. Veterinarians will assess the extent of the damage, find the causes of the cracks, and treat the turtle with antibiotics to accelerate the healing process. In addition, they can seal the crack or break using a unique bonding material.
In the wild, if a turtle shell cracks, maybe from a predator attack or fall, the shell can heal itself over time. It can also regrow slowly in case it breaks on the sides.
Now that we understand how integral a shell is to a turtle, let’s switch things a little bit and try to uncover some of the reasons why a reinforced turtle’s shell breaks!
Which Predators Are Capable of Breaking a Turtle’s Shell?
Although a turtle’s shell is perceived to be a robust and formidable line of defense, there are still animals capable of breaking it. You’ll be surprised to learn that most of the predators that are actually capable of crushing and cracking a turtle’s shell are aquatic animals. These include sharks/whales, hippos, and crocodiles.
Conversely, terrestrial animals, such as honey badgers and birds can easily crack the turtle shell.
So, which predators can break the hard turtle shell, and how do they do it?
With one of the strongest bites ever, a hippo can break a turtle shell with a single bite. With a biting force of 1820 PSI, hippos won’t need much effort to disintegrate a turtle’s shell.
Luckily, hippos are vegetarians and will only attack the docile turtles when they cross their paths or make them agitated. They only respond to provocation or disturbance.
Crocodiles and Alligators
Boasting the most significant bite force ever measured, crocodiles and alligators can break even turtle and tortoise with the most rigid shells.
These creatures can slam their jaws with 3,700 PSI, meaning they can tear into a turtle’s shell effortlessly. And the worst part is that is they are carnivorous, meaning that turtles fit the bill as tasty prey.
Whales and Sharks
Although nobody has managed to put whales and sharks through a bite test, there’s no doubt that these marine creatures are the world champions in terms of biting force. With an estimated biting strength of more than 4000 PSI, it’s understandable why they are the most dreaded sea predators.
Their immense jaw power enables them to crush their prey effortlessly. Considering that marine turtles have a softer shell than their freshwater counterparts, you can see why they are the most favorite food for sharks and whales.
You must be wondering how sharp a bird beak needs to be for it to pierce a turtle’s shell! We all know that birds like vultures and eagles are natural scavengers that won’t mind making turtles their tastiest prey.
Unlike other animal predators that crush or bite into the turtle’s shell, vultures and eagles are sure that their beaks don’t have enough power to break or crack the keratin-reinforced shells.
What they do is grab a turtle with muscular claws and fly up into the sky. Once they are sure they are far into the clouds, they drop the turtle over rocks or a hard surface.
When the turtles hit the rocks or the ground with force, their shells disintegrate, and the birds descend and enjoy the now-ready wholesome meal.
Another predator that’s keeps turtles and tortoises on their toes is the honey badger. Although the animal doesn’t have enough biting force to crack the turtle’s shell with a single bite, its sharp teeth allow it to pierce the shell after repetitive bites.
This mustelid sends shivers to turtles and tortoises since it inflicts much pain when trying to cut them open.
Additionally, turtles can break their shells when:
- Accidentally dropped by owners
- Trying to sneak out of their cage
- Accidental falls
Besides predators and accidents, you might also want to know that turtle shells can also break due to other reasons.
Things that Might Make Turtle’s Shell Break
Apart from injuries, many other things can cause the turtle’s shell to crack or break. Among them are improper nutrition, lack of adequate sunlight, and unhealthy living conditions. Let’s look at these factors comprehensively.
Lack of Adequate Sunlight
Turtles need to alternate between the sun and water to keep their body temperature at optimal levels as cold-blooded reptiles. These reptiles spend time in the water, but they climb on stones and rocks to bask and warm up when their bodies get too cold.
Once their bodies heat up beyond the required level, they dive back into the water to cool off.
Apart from temperature regulation, turtles rely on sunlight to get vitamin D. The vitamin is used to produce keratin, one essential component of the turtle’s shell. Lack of exposure to sunlight lowers the keratin levels in the turtle’s body, leading to the formation of weak shells that break easily.
During active growth, turtle’s scutes increase horizontally to match the development in other parts. Usually, they grow smoothly and uniformly throughout the shell.
However, at times the scutes may start growing abnormally and form ring-like structures that extend upwards. This is what is referred to as pyramiding. The abnormal growth is attributed to stress, poor nutrition, and an unconducive environment.
Pyramiding makes a turtle’s shell prone to cracking and breaking. If the condition is overboard, it can inhibit the male turtle’s ability to mount the female when mating.
Like any other animal, the lack of a proper and healthy diet can result in deformities and weak bones. In turtles, lack of proper diet can lead to fragile shells that crack easily. Although replicating the diet that turtles consume in the wild can be daunting, giving your pet turtles food rich in proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals is essential.
Malnutrition is considered the root cause of other problems such as pyramiding, shell rot, and self-inflicted shell injuries. Giving your pet turtle well-rounded meals can help alleviate most of the shell problems.
Dirty and Unhealthy Water
Turtles may be the messiest aquatic pets, but they need a clean environment to function optimally. As a pet owner, you should always provide your pet turtles with clean and healthy water at all times.
If the water in your tank is filthy, polluted, or chlorinated, it can harbor a conducive environment for bacteria growth. These can, in turn, cause shell diseases, such as rotting or making the turtle shell fragile.
What Are the Symptoms of Turtle Shell Problems?
A turtle’s shell may be its most significant armor, but it can expose the reptile to a lot of danger when compromised. The worst part is that you’ll always find it challenging to pinpoint the exact problem, especially if there are no visible cracks.
To ensure that you are informed about the condition of your turtle’s shell, here are some symptoms to look out for:
Irregular Shell Growth
If you detect abnormal or irregular growth of the shell, this may signify an underlying condition. And since these signs take long to manifest; you might come to realize that the problem might have been in existence for a while by the time you notice.
If you notice an irregular or abnormal scute growth, this may be signs of malnutrition or pre-existing metabolic bone disease.
Divots, Soft Spots, and Pits
Although turtles are slow and lazy, they often climb on rocks and other high areas in the pond or tank to bask. Sometimes they fall from high places and land on their backs, developing pits and divots. And since such issues can go for days without being identified, they can transform into soft spots that weaken the turtle’s shell.
Essentially turtles should have hard, supple, smooth shells free from bites, scratches, and defects. If you discover that a turtle shell has pits, divots, sores, and soft spots, you need to take it to pay a vet with knowledge of turtles a visit.
Algae on the Shell
It’s normal for algae to grow on a turtle’s shell. However, some harmful algae can plate themselves on top of the turtle shell. The green algae that look like a delicate blanket don’t cause any problems.
Any other algae, especially those with a long, slimy, and stringy look, are unhealthy and indicate a dirty water tank. Be sure to look out for any signs of the latter since it covers the upper part of the shell preventing the turtle from getting adequate Vitamin D.
Cuts, Splits, and Breaks
Accidental falls and injuries can also inflict cuts, breaks, or splits on the turtle shell. Unlike pits and soft spots, scratches, cracks, and splits can expose the animal’s internal organs to bacteria leading to profound complications.
Due to the distinct turtle shell color and patterns, it might be challenging to know whether your turtle suffers from a cracked shell or not. However, if you are unsure whether it’s an injury or a color pattern, the best thing to do is take your pet turtle to a vet for a thorough inspection.
Uneven or Abnormal Skin and Shell Sloughing
Like the rest of the reptiles, turtles also shed their skin or pieces of their shell periodically. While this is a normal bodily function, at times, scutes may start falling of unevenly. While turtles don’t feel any pain, uneven scutes loss can lead to shell infection.
Additionally, if you notice that a turtle is experiencing complete- thickness shedding or total sloughing that leaves the shell bare or bleeding, this is a sign that something is not okay. Often, this is associated with vitamin A deficiency, bacterial or fungal infection, trauma, or burn. Consult your vet when you see your turtle’s shell flaking and sloughing abnormally.
Foul Odor from the Turtle’s Shell or Skin
When a turtle is provided with a clean habitat, proper diet, and safety, its shell remains clean and doesn’t smell. If you detect a foul smell or odor coming from a crack, soft spot, or any other part of the shell, this is a sign of an underlying health condition.
Conversely, if the shell starts oozing discharge, this means that it’s infected and needs immediate attention from a qualified vet. A turtle’s skin may also produce an odor if it’s rotting.
Different turtle shells boast distinct colors that range from bright yellow and orange to dull green and brown. When the shell color starts fading or turning reddish, this indicates that the skin is rotting.
Inspect the turtle’s shell for any color changes and check whether the turtle’s belly has red patches that were not evident before. Although it might be difficult to note a change in shell color, if you’re keen enough, you’ll be able to spot the red patches on the turtle’s belly.
Any Form of Bleeding from the Shell
When a shell oozes blood or discharge, it’s a sign that it has incurred some damage before. While all symptoms require immediate action, you should visit a vet immediately when you see blood dripping from a crack or split on the turtle’s shell.
Any other Coating besides Algae
If you notice a slime coating that’s not algae on the turtle’s shell, these are harmful fungi that can compromise its integrity. Usually found on the underside and sides of the body, the coating can affect how a turtle’s shell works.
The origin of slime remains a mystery since it has been previously witnessed on turtles in both dirty and clean water ponds. However, it’s significantly attributed to the lack of enough sunlight. Once you identify this slime, you should move quickly to get rid of it since any delay can accelerate the damage.
When the signs mentioned above are followed by sudden behavior change, this indicates that the turtle is suffering from something. Suppose your pet turtle starts losing appetite, sleeping more than usual, or seems interested in everything else, including swimming and basking. In that case, you need to see a vet as soon as possible.
How to Care for Your Turtle and Prevent Shell Problems
As observed, most of the incidences and factors that lead to shell cracks and damages are caused by the lack of proper care. So, if you take the prerogative to improve safety, hygiene and comfort, you can curb most of the problems. Here are seven practices to help minimize turtle shell problems:
Maintain a Clean Living Environment
Since various turtle species require different living conditions, you should research to ensure that you provide your turtle pet with the best conditions. Make sure your cute reptile has enough space to roam and exercise.
Also, ensure that the water tank is clean at all times. Avoid leaving rotten food or dirty beddings in the water for a long time as they can harbor bacterial and fungal growth, leading to infection. Regularly empty the tank, fill it with fresh water, and eliminate any excess food before it starts rotting.
Provide a Healthy and Balanced Diet
Turtle owners need to be conversant with the dietary needs of their pets. Whether a carnivore or herbivore, providing pet turtles with well-rounded meals helps supply all essential nutrients vital for balanced and seamless growth.
By ensuring that every turtle meal you offer has the right combination of proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals, you can meet your pet’s nutritional needs and avoid shell conditions associated with malnutrition.
Let Your Turtle get Enough Sunlight
Even in their natural habitat, turtles are always basking in the sun to maintain optimal body temperatures. More importantly, adequate doses of sunlight supply vitamin D, facilitating the production of keratin, an essential component of the turtle’s shell.
Sunlight plays a critical role in ensuring that the scutes remain rigid and solid. Ensure that your turtles get enough basking time. If you’re unable to provide natural sunlight, you can supply artificial UV lights. Remember to add logs and rocks to provide turtles with a comfortable basking area like in the wild.
Prioritize Your Turtle’s Safety
Many turtle accidents occur if you don’t establish robust measures to guarantee the safety of your pet turtle. When taking your turtle out of the tank, avoid putting it in an area where it can get stuck or get injured trying to escape.
Additionally, keep other pets such as dogs away and foul-proof this territory against unexpected hazards. Don’t let kids or other people handle your turtle since even the slightest fall can damage the turtle’s shell. Making your turtle’s domicile foul-proof can help prevent some common incidences that may damage the shell.
Conduct Regular Inspections
Regularly inspecting your turtle’s shell will help you notice a problem early enough and take corrective action before it becomes a full-blown catastrophe. Even if you find something that you can’t decipher, you can always seek professional help from a vet.
Normalize inspecting your turtle’s shell at least twice a week and ensure that they get checked up by a qualified vet.
How Can You Help a Turtle with a Cracked Shell?
Now that we understand how turtles end up with a cracked shell and how you can help prevent shell problems, what happens if they suffer a broken, split, or cracked shell? Can you perform a DIY to repair it at home, or should you go to the vet?
The decision to repair a cracked shell at home or visit a turtle vet will depend on the severity of the damage. For minor injuries such as those incurred when turtles are engaging in territorial fights or when they’re stuck under the fence, you can attend to them at home.
However, for significant cracks or infected wounds, you’ll need to visit an exotic vet with extensive knowledge of turtles.
Turtle owners can repair minor shell problems at home through these steps:
Step 1: Clean the Dirt or Blood from the Injured Party
When you notice minor damage to the turtle’s carapace, the first thing you should do is to clean the affected area. Using a clean cloth, clean up the injured area using antiseptic or diluted iodine.
You should clean the cracked part a few times every day for one week. Keeping the wound clean helps avoid harmful germs that may cause ailments, such as shell rot, from getting in and hastens the healing process.
Step 2: Don’t Return the Turtle inside the water
For aquatic turtles, make sure that they stay dry until the crack heals. Returning them into the water tank may re-introduce debris and dirt and allow bacteria from the water to enter the wound.
Step 3: Use Antibiotics to Clean the Broken Shell
If you believe that a wound is infected, you’ll need to rush for antibiotics from your veterinary doctor. They may prescribe antibiotics like ceftazidime or Baytril. However, you’ll only do this if the injury doesn’t pose any imminent danger to your pet turtle.
For more complicated treatments and infections that don’t clear out in a week, you’ll need to seek the services of a qualified turtle vet.
Unfortunately, this is all you can do to help repair a cracked turtle shell. Anything beyond here will need to be done by an exotic vet with extensive knowledge in turtle treatment.
Vets will treat or fix a crack based on its size and the severity of the infection. They’ll follow steps one to three and then progress as follows:
Step 4: Fix Large Splits or Cracks
The type of treatment your turtle will get will depend on the position of the crack and its size. Small and shallow cracks will need a few zip-ties to hold the pieces back in place, while the more prominent cracks may need to be connected with wires or other unique materials.
Step 5: Attaching a Fiberglass Patch
For extensive depressions and cracks, vets can use a fiberglass patch to cover them. The patch is adhered to the scutes using a few coats of glue.
Once in place, the turtle should be kept in an area where no items will get stuck on the glue. A clean surface with no beddings is preferred.
Step 6: Applying Resin
After receiving treatment, a vet will advise you to apply resin on the treated area to keep away water. This is vitally essential for aquatic turtles since they could get wet and re-introduce germs into the wound.
Like glue, you’ll need to give the resin time to dry before putting the turtle near things that can attach to it.
Step 7: Letting the Turtle Dry
A turtle should not be introduced back into the water or released into the wild before the wound dries. Usually, vets ask turtle owners to give their animals one week before letting them back into the water tank.
How Long Do You Have to Wait for the Shell Crack to Heal?
Typically, turtles don’t have a fast metabolism, and their growth is slower than that of other animals. For this reason, their healing process may also be slower.
Injuries on soft tissues under the shell can take 2 to 3 weeks to heal completely. However, broken or fractured shells can take between 4-18 months to regain their stability.
So, once your turtle suffers a cracked shell, you’ll need to give it more than a year to heal completely.
Fun Facts about Turtles and their Shells
After a comprehensive overview of the turtle’s shell, we now wrap up this fun write-up with outstanding facts about the exoskeleton of these calm and docile reptiles.
- Turtle shells are divided into three parts: the carapace (top part), plastron (the lower side), and the bridge, which adjoins the top and lower parts.
- Although most turtles are capable of retracting their heads into their shells, there are species, such as sea turtles, that can’t.
- A turtle’s shell and body are a complete unit that grows together simultaneously.
- Turtles and tortoises boast carapaces with different shapes. The former boasts a flatter upper shell to facilitate swimming, while the latter boasts a raised, dome-shaped carapace.
- The upper part of the shell is made of keratin-reinforced shields known as scutes.
- Some turtle species, such as Softshell Turtle, lack scutes, and their bodies are protected by thick skin.
- You’ll find up to 60 bones in the turtle’s shell, including the ribs, backbone, and breastbone.
- Both the carapace and the plastron are highly sensitive due to the presence of multiple nerve endings.
- Different turtle species come with shells of different colors ranging from orange and yellow to brown, olive green, and black. Some boast unique markings, usually of orange, red, gray, or yellow hues.
- Lack of sunshine can make turtle’s shells soft and easy to crack.
Final Verdict: Is a Turtle Shell Bulletproof? Why Do Turtles Have Hard Shell?
A turtle’s shell is its armor and an ultimate protection tool that helps it evade danger and survive. Contrary to the common myth that the turtle and its shell are independent, its shell is part and parcel of its anatomy. It is made up of several bones, blood vessels, and nerves.
While the turtle shell is made of rigid material that is not easy to break, it can ultimately crash when subjected to excessive force. Some predators such as crocodiles, sharks, alligators, whales, and honey badgers are some of the few animals that can crack or crush turtles for food.
So, to answer the most pressing question of whether turtle shells are bulletproof, we can confirm that they can’t withstand the blatant force and speed of a bullet.
More importantly, when turtles are not provided with a proper diet, adequate sunlight, and clean and healthy living habitat, their shells become weak and easy to crack or break.
If you would like to know more details about turtles Shell, check out this Post: Turtles Shell Part 1