Are Turtles Born With Shells? – How Do Turtles Find Their Shells?

Copyright: sbonk

Turtles are known for their slow-moving pace. But it is also hard to think of a turtle without thinking of its shell. Unlike humans, who are covered with skin and wear clothes for protection, turtles have a shell. The shell is their home, among other vital functions.

But are turtles born with shells, or do they get the shells upon growing?

Yes, turtles are born with shells. It forms part of their skeletal system, and they have a shell right from hatching. While juveniles, the shell is soft, but it hardens as they grow older and mature. You can’t get a turtle out of its shell without hurting the animal.

A turtle’s shell resembles a suit of armor. It protects our beloved reptiles from predators. They need this hardcover to survive. In its absence, the turtle will die because this is a part of its body.

Turtles’ limbs, tails, and heads protrude outside the shell. It is thus possible for people to wonder whether these reptiles are born with the shell and whether they can live outside the cover. Let’s have an in-depth look at how these primitive reptiles find their shells, how the shell grows, and a lot more on this vital body part.

How Do Turtles Find Their Shells?

Turtles are born with their shells, even though it is unclear when, how, and why these creatures evolved to have the shells they carry today. Fossils found in Eunotosaurus Africanus by scientists seem to be the link that has been missing between the old age turtles that didn’t have a shell and the modern turtles with one.

Turtles do not get out of their shells. They can’t do so because the shell connects with their skeletal systems. Therefore, turtles do not need to find their shells; they never leave them. These reptiles carry their cover everywhere they go.

It is also impossible for a turtle to live without the shell; they would undoubtedly die.

Even though turtles can’t live outside their shell, some can retract their limbs, head, and tail fully inside, while others can only retract these body parts partially. Retracting is made possible by hinges in the lower shell at the posterior and anterior regions.

How Do Turtles Shells Grow?

Turtles have shells right from hatching. Unlike other reptiles such as hermits, turtles don’t get another shell. They live with the one shell they are born with for their entire life. The shell grows together with the turtle.

So, how do turtle shells grow?

A turtle’s shell has two parts. The first one is known as the exoskeleton, which has dermal bones and is the exterior part of the skeleton. It is this exoskeleton that contains the shell. The second part is known as the endoskeleton, which is the interior part of the skeleton.

The exoskeleton and the endoskeleton develop when the turtle is still in incubation before hatching. A female turtle will lay eggs during the nesting season and leave them to hatch at the end of its incubation period.

During incubation, the embryo in the egg develops into a notochord, which is a supportive structure and a significant part of the embryo’s skeletal element. Somites, which are important in the rise and development of vertebrae, also develop in this stage.

The primary indicator of shell growth in the embryo is the formation of a ridge on the side of the surface. It grows to form the outer edge of the upper shell (carapace). This ridge is known as the carapacial ridge. Turtle’s bones develop as the ridge forms.

Its ribs are covered by the carapace, as the outer skin would in humans. Unlike in most animals, ribs in turtles don’t extend to the protect lungs and heart. They remain infused inside the upper shell. Turtles don’t need the ribs to extend to the lower parts, as the hard shell is already enough to protect the internal organs, including the heart and lungs.

Similarly, the upper vertebrae bones also integrate with the carapace.

When the ribs connect with the vertebrae, the growing spinal column fuses inside the carapace, and in the end, scales form to cover both the plastron and carapace. By the time the egg is hatching, the shell is fully formed and has tiny scales.

Turtles’ shells grow together with the animal. So it is not possible for a turtle, juvenile or mature, to outgrow the shell. Baby turtles grow fast till they attain reproductive maturity. Consequently, a turtle’s shell grows faster during this phase. Upon reaching sexual maturity, the growth process slows down.

Every growth year adds a new ring to the shell. It is easy to tell how fast the turtle has grown and how old it is through the number of rings.

Ensure that your pet turtle grows at a standard rate. Proper nutrition ensures the turtle does not suffer stunted growth. For juveniles, feed them with a high protein diet. They need more protein for their high growth needs. If unsure, ask the vet to guide you on an appropriate diet and commercial foods you can get.

For adults, dark green vegetables are a vital part of their diet to ensure ideal shell growth and great overall health. With turtles of all ages, it is crucial to add vitamin and mineral supplements to compensate for what the diet may be falling short of.

Are Baby Turtles Born with Shells?

Yes, all turtles are born with their shells. The shell of hatchlings works as a means of protection from predators. Since turtles lack motherly instincts, their babies need to protect themselves, and the shell is a defense mechanism.

They are also born with protrusions such as four limbs, the head, and a tail that stick out of the shell. It is, therefore, a fact that baby turtles are born with shells.

Upon hatching, the baby turtle must strive to ensure that a predator does not eat it before the shell hardens. A soft shell makes baby turtles more vulnerable to predators such as skunks, foxes, raccoons, etc.

Mature turtles have fewer predators. Few can break the hard shell, so turtles that survive the younger years are more likely to live for long. Even so, threats such as loss of habitats, road mortality, and pollution put these young and mature turtles at the risk of death.

Unlike other shell-bodies animals, turtles are not capable of shedding or molting their shells. They live with the one they are born with till the end of their lives.

Why Turtles Need Shells to Survive?

We have seen that baby turtles are born with a shell and live with the same their entire life. In addition, we have established that turtles can’t move outside their shells. So why is a shell very important to a turtle? Why do turtle’s need shells to survive? We get to answer this right below.

1.     The Shell is Their Skin

Just as the skin covers the human body, a shell covers the turtle’s internal organs. It infuses the ribs, bones, and skin forming a unique anatomical structure. These bones, known as dermal plates, have a cover of vascular skin. Scutes often cover this skin in most species.

Scutes consist of keratin, which is the same protein found in fingernails. They offer protection against bruises and scrapes to the sensitive and delicate skin as well as dermal plates in a turtle. Scutes often overlap dermal plates instead of aligning with them. The arrangement brings extra stability.

2.     The Shell Is a Part of Their Skeletal System

A turtle’s shell is a part of its skeleton. It infuses the spine and ribcage forming the carapace. The plastron comprises special bones similar to the inscriptional ribs found in crocodiles or the clavicles and sternum found in four-legged animals such as cows.

This hard-shelled animal has its shoulder blade in the ribcage, which differs from most other vertebrates.

In the absence of a shell, a turtle would not have a ribcage, spine, and a variety of bones. These are vital parts of an animal’s body. In their absence, a turtle would not be able to survive.

3.     Protection

Protection against predators is probably the top reason most people believe that turtles need a shell to survive. And they are right. Turtles have a shell for protection against predators since they walk very slowly, so flight can’t be their defense mechanism.

The hard shell protects turtles from predators. Featuring hard plates known as scutes, few predators have the energy to break the turtle’s shell. Most terrestrial (land-dwelling) turtles can retract fully and hide inside the shell. A predator is only left with the hard shell to attack, and most of them don’t succeed.

The shells can offer the turtle this protection because of their shape.

The land-dwelling species have a high-dome upper shell. This shape is hard for predators to enter their mouths or even have a good grip. As for sea turtles, their shells are more flattened to give them a streamlined body. These turtles are, thus, able to swim faster and escape from predators.

4.     Assists in Heat Absorption

A turtle’s shell helps the animal absorb heat more efficiently. Most turtles frequently bask. The dark color of the shell also makes their bodies absorb heat better.

Heat is necessary to a turtle as it makes it easier for the animal to dry. Exposure to sun rays also kills bacteria, fungi, and any other harmful micro-organisms that might be on the animal’s shell or skin.

Turtles are cold-blooded reptiles. Therefore, they need an external source of heat for them to remain warm inside. The shell helps with this. A shell also protects the turtle’s internal organs from overheating and getting dehydrated. 

In the absence of a shell, a turtle would not be able to bask for long enough without its internal organs getting burnt or dehydrated. It would also not be able to regulate its internal body temperature. The lack of enough sunlight absorption would affect the animal’s growth and overall health. 

5.     It Aids in UV Light Absorption

A turtle’s shell is sensitive and partially features skin. It helps with the absorption of the vital UVA/UVB light. UV light aids with Vitamin D synthesis, which helps in calcium absorption and prevents metabolic bone disease. Turtles have a slow metabolism, which applies to their healing process as well, so it is important to avoid illnesses at all costs.

Without a shell, the turtle would not have enough surface area to absorb the UV light. Therefore, the turtle would suffer from calcium deficiency and the resulting illnesses such as metabolic bone disease, shell rot, and stunted growth.

10 Interesting Facts About Turtles Shells

  1. The inner part of a turtle’s shell comprises 60 bones. They include ribs, breastbone, and backbone.
  2. Its shell is a part of its body. They don’t outgrow their shell; instead, the shell grows as they too grow.
  3. The majority of turtle species have scutes covering their shells. The scutes are hard to protect the reptile and comprise keratin.
  4. Softshell turtle species lack scutes and instead have thick skin on their shell for protection.
  5. Turtle shells differ in color depending on factors such as species. Some have spots, markings, and stripes, while others are plain. The most common colors of the shell in turtles are brown, olive green, gray, and black. The differences can act as distinguishing factors between different turtle species or subspecies.
  6. Most turtles can retract their limbs, tail, and head inside the shell. It is so because their plastron is hinged. However, some species, especially sea turtles, can’t do so.
  7. The term “testudinal,” often used to refer to turtles, means to look like a turtle’s or tortoise’s shell.
  8. A turtle shell comprises three essential parts; upper shell (carapace), lower shell (plastron), and the part connecting these two.
  9. The shell is sensitive as it has nerve endings
  10. A turtle’s shell can be flat or dome-shaped. A flat shell is familiar with aquatic species as a swimming adaptation, while land-dwelling species have a high dome.

Frequently Asked Questions About Turtles’ Shells

What Is a Turtle’s Shell Called?

A turtle’s upper cover is known as a carapace. It can be flat or domed depending on the turtle’s species and habitat adaptation. The flat carapace is typical with sea turtles which need a streamlined body to swim faster. Highly-domed shells are common with terrestrial species so that a predator is unable to get it in its mouth.

The lower part of a turtle’s shell is known as a plastron and runs along its belly. It could have a hinge or lack it. With a hinge at the posterior and anterior, a turtle is able to retract its protrusions fully and fully close the shell.

Does a Turtle’s Shell Hurt?

Yes, a turtle’s shell hurts when pressed or attacked. It has nerve endings that connect with the nervous system. They can, therefore, feel when you touch, tap, stroke, or scratch the shell. Because of the nerve endings, the shell is also sensitive to pain.

Ensure to be gentle when petting a turtle, helping it cross the road or any other time that may be necessary for you to handle the animal.

Can a Turtle Change the Shell?

No. All turtle species are born with one shell, and they can’t change it in their entire lives. Turtles don’t molt or shed their cover, so they live with the same shield they are born with till they die. However, turtles can shed scutes as new ones grow. These creatures also can’t leave the shell or survive without it.

How Does a Turtle’s Shell Remain Healthy?

This body part has bones and keratin. As such, it needs plenty of calcium to grow and remain healthy. Calcium is vital in a turtle’s diet. When well-fed with a balanced diet rich in dark green vegetables, the turtle will most likely get all the calcium it needs to remain healthy.

Frequent basking is also important for the shell to thrive. Vitamin D absorbed by the shell when basking helps in the processing and absorption of calcium. Calcium deficiency affects shell health resulting in shell decay and metabolic bone disease. If you have a pet turtle, you should also add calcium supplements to their diet.


The question of whether turtles are born with their shells and everything about their armor is fascinating. These creatures have been in existence for ages, and their overall demeanor and look set them apart from other animals.

Turtles are born with their shells; they can’t get out of these shells. As such, they live with the same shell for their entire lives. You should never try to remove a turtle from its shell, as it would die.

If you come across a turtle with a broken shell, take it to a vet or rescue center for treatment. A broken turtle shell can receive treatment, and the animal has a chance to survive.

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