Turtles are one of those animals that we all think we know enough about, but when we come across a turtle fact, we’re often surprised by how eccentric they are. Those who have studied or who care for turtles may be more well-versed in their behaviors, but there is no doubt that turtles are fascinating animals. These reptiles are strange and one-of-a-kind animals with a variety of appearances and habits, boasting more than 350 unique species that can range in size from only a few inches to the leatherback sea turtle that can grow to almost five feet in length. One question many find themselves asking about this fascinating creature is, do they have teeth?
Do Turtles Have Teeth?
Despite what many adorable and comical cartoons and other imagery might suggest, turtles do not have teeth. You may be confused about this, having heard someone mention a turtle bite or how dangerous a snapping turtle can be if they decide to give you a chomp, but this is for other reasons than a set of sharp pearly whites hiding in that slow expression. While they can’t bite you with teeth, many species can give you quite a decent chomp if they decide to. Turtles have a hard beak they use to take a bite out of what they find tasty and to occasionally hurt something they deem dangerous or a threat. These beaks can be sharp and their bite force can be quite strong, allowing them to bite off pieces of food small enough that they can swallow. Many turtles have a regular diet of foods they can simply swallow in one gulp by waiting and luring small prey to their mouths, but occasionally they will decide they want something a bit larger.
However, there is a lot more to a turtle’s dining habits than simply whether or not they have teeth. With all the variety in the turtle world, their diets are just as varied and each species has a unique way of chomping through the tasty treats that they love. And while turtles don’t have teeth, there is much more to be said on the matter.
There’s more to this story…
Turtles, which are defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica as any reptile whose body is encased in a boney shell, includes tortoises and what some people refer to as terrapins. They’ve been around for about 230 million years, entering the scene alongside some of the first mammals, and while many early ancestors aren’t recognizable when compared to their modern decedents, you can certainly see the resemblance of these early turtles. With such a unique body structure, it’s easy to see those similarities. The Triassic was an age when reptiles were thriving, so there’s little surprise something so unique would be able to develop, but the basics of their design worked so well that they spread all over the world and made their home in many different environments, from the deep oceans to arid deserts.
Some of these ancient turtles actually did have teeth, but over time the diets and habitats of these animals changed to the point that they were no longer needed. While all modern turtles have a beak instead, these beaks can vary in size and shape depending on the food sources each species of turtle enjoys. Those who eat mostly vegetation, for example, will have shorter beaks with rough edges, sometimes very similar to the serration on a knife. This allows them to tear leaves from plants easier and crush them as needed. Turtles with an herbivore diet will dine mostly on plants, berries, and fruit and they tend to reside more on the land than in the water. You’ll likely think of tortoises, like the Leopard Tortoise and the Red-Footed Tortoise which are both commonly kept as pets.
Carnivorous turtles are usually the ones that people think of when they think of turtle bites. In America, when referring to wild turtles, the most common one thought of regarding nasty bites is the Snapping Turtle. It, and other carnivorous turtles, spend much of their time in the water and will often employ the use of their tongue to lure in fish who think it’s a tasty worm or smaller fish. They’re an ambush predator with sharp and more pointed beaks. This allows them to bite right through larger prey, snapping their jaws together, which is where the Snapping Turtle got its name. There are also some aquatic turtles who will catch birds from the water’s surface, using their strong bite to drag them underwater to drown. It’s a far stretch from those ridiculously slow and clumsy cartoon turtles from children’s shows.
Falling in between these two polar opposite diets are those turtles who eat both plants and prey equally. Omnivorous turtles tend to have a beak that’s still pointed and sharp, but not as much as those who are solely carnivorous, and many will have serrated edges to their mouths to help tear through tougher vegetation and flesh alike. They are more similar to the beaks of turtles with an herbivore diet rather than their carnivorous cousins. Mostly freshwater turtles fall into this category, such as Map Turtles and Painted Turtles, where there is ample plant and smaller live prey for them to take advantage of.
Despite the simple fact that modern turtles don’t need to see a dentist, there is much more to the link between these shelled reptiles and teeth than what meets the eye. Throughout a turtle’s life, they may never have teeth, but they do get one tooth and some even have spikes to help them eat their food. The question of whether turtles have teeth or not is far more complicated than a simple yes or no. With the diversity in the Testudines family, there is no wonder that it’s such a complicated question.
What is an Egg Tooth?
The relationship between turtles and teeth starts and ends when they’re only freshly hatched. Turtles, like many reptiles, lay their eggs and move on, leaving the little guys to fend for themselves. Depending on the species in question, some turtle eggs are hard and some are soft, but all of them are a challenge to a tiny baby trying to break free and begin its life. Because turtles lack any other means of breaking through their eggshell, they’re born with something called an egg tooth. This little hard knob on the end of their face allows them to break through the tough shell that’s been their protection. Most animals that hatch from eggs have a similar type of temporary tooth, though they can differ in how and where that tooth forms.
Do Sea Turtles Have Teeth?
Remember the spikes mentioned previously? That’s where sea turtles come into the picture. Green Sea Turtles, Leatherbacks, Loggerheads, and some other types of sea turtles have sharp spikes lining their mouths and throats, pointing downward. Because prey that lives in the ocean tends to be slippery, these spikes prevent any squirming food from wiggling back up. These spikes are called papillae and are quite scary looking. However, far fewer people have received a bite from a sea turtle than from many of their landlubber relatives.
Sea turtles mostly eat jellyfish, mollusks, and vegetation. Some even change their diet as they age, starting out as omnivores and then become herbivores into adulthood. Some are solely carnivorous. Either way, those scary papillae help them get the food they need. Unfortunately, it’s these spikey throats that catch on plastic bags and have caused many sea turtles to suffer as the thin plastic gets trapped just like their regular food. Their beaks are also made for crabs and softer prey rather than some of the harder trash finding its way into the oceans. This has left many with broken jaws and beaks, making it difficult or impossible for them to eat.
How Long Ago Did Turtles Have Teeth?
Some ancient turtles certainly had teeth, but how long ago was that? According to some archeological evidence found in a Chinese dig site, the most recent turtle to have had teeth was 160 million years ago. This ancient turtle, named Sichuanchelys palatodentata, was a land dweller. While which exact reptile is the turtle’s ancestor is unknown, and even debated among those who study these ancient animals, a turtle’s chompers were a residual family trait that disappeared when they were no longer needed due to their changed physique and habits.
Before these fossils being found recently, the last turtle to have teeth was thought to be 190 million years old. Despite other turtles that existed at this time, the thought is that when Pangea, the name for the land when all the continents were still connected, separated it caused different evolutionary paths for the turtles due to the changing environments. It simply took longer for Sichuanchelys palatodentata to lose its teeth than the others. So far, there have only been four fossils collected on this Jurassic reptile, so who knows what we’ll discover in the future.
Do Turtles Have Lips?
While turtles have beaks for eating their food, you may be surprised, yet again, to learn that some turtles have lips. The types of turtles with fleshy mouths instead of hard ones are few but are certainly interesting. These are soft-shell species and often have longer, snorkel-like nostrils as they are aquatic in nature. This allows them to remain mostly submerged while still breathing. They are carnivorous and will eat anything small enough to fit in their mouths. Like many turtles, they face the threat of their environments shrinking and changing and multiple species are vulnerable, endangered, or even almost completely extinct.
You may think that these pouty reptiles are safer to handle than their counterparts because you don’t have to worry about a hard beak snapping shut on you. Interestingly, many soft-shell turtles are known to be more aggressive and still have an amazing bite force that can easily bite through flesh. There are many stories about injuries caused by these turtles, among both encounters with wild ones and ones in captivity. While they may look more kissable, they are still a predator feared by small fish, insects, and crayfish. There was even an incident in Malaysia of a soft-shell turtle biting off part of a man’s nose, so don’t think to try giving them a smooch anytime soon.
How Dangerous Are Turtle Bites?
Most of the time, smaller turtles won’t cause any serious damage, especially those who are herbivores as they lack the sharp pointed beak and have a rounder shape to their face. They also tend to have a weaker bite force, unlike their carnivorous relatives who can sometimes bite through bone. While the sharp, hard, snapping jaws of a massive Snapping Turtle may seem scary, and you certainly should avoid it if you can, a turtle is more likely to just want to be left alone. Like everything else, there are reasons they bite and one of those reasons is not to try and eat a human. They bite primarily because they feel threatened. If you pick up a turtle, whether a pet or not, you should do so by understanding the impact you’re having on that animal’s level of stress.
As mentioned, there are many turtles considered endangered or at risk. If you come across one in the wild, it’s best to leave it alone and only touch them if it is necessary. While they don’t have a set of fangs, larger turtles will have powerful jaws that can easily break the skin, if not more. If you’re bitten and the turtle drew blood, you need to immediately wash and disinfect the wound.
Are Turtles Poisonous?
There are no poisonous turtles. However, like many reptiles, they do have a relatively high chance of carrying the bacteria Salmonella. This bacterium is often associated with food contamination, but many reptiles also carry it. There are other germs and bacteria turtles can carry as well, especially the carnivorous ones. As such, those who care for turtles should always be mindful of their turtle’s behavior when handling them. If they begin to act concerned, it may be time to put them down in a safe place. This will not only prevent you from getting bit, but it will also help the turtle to trust you more in the future.
Another thing to consider is the shape of a turtle’s bite. They won’t bite and leave teeth marks. If it’s a large, carnivorous turtle, like an Alligator Snapping Turtle, it will likely take a piece of you with it. This will mean that a turtle bite that breaks the skin is likely to bleed heavily. If you get bit into a vulnerable place, you may need to seek medical help quickly.
But what should you do if the turtle clamps down and doesn’t let go? Despite what your first instinct is, you should avoid hitting the animal or trying to yank it off. This will only make it bite down harder. If you kill the animal, its jaws could tense even more. The best thing to do is wait for it to let go. It’s likely to do so quickly since its main goal is to get you to leave it alone.
So, turtles don’t really have teeth. They have one tooth to help them break through their egg at hatching that will eventually fall away, and some have spines in their mouth to help them swallow food. They can still bite, and the many species have a varied diet. There is little doubt that turtles are interesting animals. They’ve lived with the dinosaurs and while many are on the brink of disappearing from our world, they are still capable and resourceful reptiles who are unique and fascinating.