The end of the Triassic period, about 220 million years ago, marked turtles’ emergence. Turtles are one of the closest living relatives of the dinosaur. With over 250 species of turtles worldwide, turtles come in a variety of colors.
Many turtle owners say that they have noticed that a turtle’s shell seems to change with age. Have you noticed the same, and do turtles change their color with age? Perhaps you’ve noticed the color from vibrant green to yellow or from brown to black. What exactly is going on here?
We have done hours of research on this topic and have found some interesting facts about this topic.
What Color Are Turtles?
Most turtles are dark, or light brown, olive green, yellow, reddish-brown, brownish-gray, black and have multiple patterns on their shells from circles to stripes and hieroglyphs. Some green turtles have a shell with patterns such as streaks and blotches of black to brown.
Leatherbacks have top shells with white dots, and the bottom shell is white with dark splotches. As the name implies, the green sea turtle is named after the color of its diet (feeds on seagrasses) and not the shell.
Like other aquatic animals, sea turtles are counter-shaded with a darker back and light ventral carapace, which helps to camouflage the turtle from potential predators.
When viewed from above, the turtle blends with the ocean depth and bottom. From below water, the light ventral blends with most sea surfaces.
A box turtle that you see in a terrarium or road might seem colorful and catch your attention with its reddish yellow and grey streaks.
However, in its natural habitat filled with yellow and brown leaves, you can hardly notice it. Due to the colors of the turtle, predators can pass it undetected.
As you can see, different turtle species have a wide range of colors, depending on the environment a turtle lives in. Turtles that live in dense vegetation are likely to be darker than turtles living in lighter foliage.
What Gives Turtles Their Colors?
The answer is dependent on the environment they live in. Most turtle species have developed different colors to blend into their environment. This is to allow them to hide from predators.
The shell comprises two parts; the upper part is the carapace, while the underside is the plastron. For most turtles, the carapace is darker than the plastron. You’ve probably also noticed that most fish have a whiter belly while the upper tends to be darker or more vibrant.
When submerged, predators can hardly see them from underwater due to the reflection of light. The camouflage is quite an efficient tool for turtles because most predators don’t have an accurate vision.
Why Is My Turtle Losing Color?
Generally, there are two types of color discoloration in turtles; the transition from bright green and yellow to darker shades and the fading of all colors. Most of the time, the former is considered natural, while fading may signal an underlying problem.
A healthy discoloration can be seen on the overall body. This means a change in color on the head, shell, and legs. Discoloration that occurs in patches and blotches or in various body parts is considered unhealthy.
Here are some of the reasons why your turtle losing color?
1. Inadequate UV light
Turtles are cold-blood creatures which mean their body temperature is related to the temperature in their environment. In other words, a turtle has to bask to maintain internal body temperature. So, when it isn’t getting enough heat, discoloration of its shell and body is the first sign.
If you place a window where sunlight enters daily, you need to move the tank to that location. You also need to use a UV light when there’s no sunlight or during winter to ensure there’s adequate UV light.
If you choose to use a UV bulb, make sure you get one that emits UV-B light. Still, UVB bulbs are less powerful compared to sunlight, so you need to light them for at least 10 hours during winter to ensure your turtles get enough.
Also, UVB bulbs lose efficiency with time (usually after 6000 hours), so you need to change them after about 6 months.
Ensure you don’t place the bulb too far or too close to the basking spot. When you position the UV light too close, there’s a chance you could burn your turtle’s shell, which can be seen as spots.
2. Lack of adequate nutrition
A lack of vital nutrients can also discolor a turtle’s shell. With this in mind, you need to feed your turtle with a quality feed rich in nutrients required by turtles, such as calcium, vitamin A, protein, and essential amino acids.
Commercial turtle pellets are a nutrient-rich food for your turtle because they are made to meet all your turtles’ dietary needs. Besides, pellets do not crumble quickly, making them an excellent option for aquatic turtles who prefer to feed underwater.
Experts recommend having 25% of turtle diet as pellets. Fortunately, these are readily available in your local pet store.
3. Inadequate protein
Protein is the only macronutrient that a turtle can’t store in its body. As a result, you need to feed your turtle protein regularly to ensure optimum health. Common proteins to include in his diet include insects, worms, and fish. This will make your turtle’s shell sturdier. However, you need to be careful with the amount of protein you’re giving the turtle, as too much of it can cause pyramiding.
4. Inadequate veggies and occasional fruits
Turtles are omnivores, so you also need to make greens and berries a part of their diet. Plant-based ingredients will provide your turtle with the required vitamins, which can boost the functioning of their organs such as eyes and ears and keep their blood vessels healthy. Ensure to add leafy greens such as kale collard, kale, and mustard greens. Be sure to include squash, zucchini, carrots in rotation for a well-balanced diet. Although in moderation, healthy fruits for turtles are apples, berries, melon because they are high in sugars.
5. Contaminated water
Although turtles are generally messy, they require clean water for thriving. If the habitat is too contaminated or polluted, the shell becomes discolored. Here are a few things you can do to maintain healthy water quality in a turtle’s tank.
Make the tank bigger – the larger the tank, the better your turtle lives. With a turtle’s messy nature, keeping the tank larger means less waste in the water—a general rule of thumb is to have 10-gallons of water for every inch. If the shell’s width is 4 inches, you need a 40-gallon tank.
Use a filter – There are filters designed explicitly for turtle tanks. Unlike fish tank filters, turtle tank filters have more filtration capability and can filter more water. Regular filtering will keep the filter working at its best to clean the turtle pee and poop.
Change the water regularly – partial and full water changes are necessary to maintain healthy water quality in your turtle tanks. Partial changes involve removing the sludge using a siphon and refilling with clean water. In addition, consider full water changes weekly.
Monitor water quality – another reason for turtle shell discoloration could be excess chemicals in tank water. To avoid this, you need to regularly test the water to detect ammonia, chlorine, nitrates, and nitrites. Use a test strip to test the chemical level in the water, including the PH, hardness, nitrate, nitrite, ammonia, and chlorine. You can use a conditioner to remove impurities. Check our conditioner recommendation here (Amazon)
Why Is My Turtle’s Shell Turning White?
Shells of Turtles that spend too much time in hard water are likely to become faded. This is because hard water contains a high mineral content that forms due to increased limestone deposits, gypsum, or chalk.
So, when you notice the whitening of the shell, it isn’t a lack of adequate moisture but just the hard water residue.
Another reason for whitening is during the process of scute shedding. The scutes are the outermost layers of a turtle’s shell.
The scutes are made of keratin, or the same element that makes up our nails. Shedding is a normal part of a turtle’s growth.
Scute shedding is vital for growth, but it also helps replenish the keratin in their shell. Sometimes the shedding is profound and heavy where a turtle sheds a massive amount of scutes.
The appearance of a bare shell might leave the shell looking brighter, white, or transparent.
Sometimes the scutes can take too long to detach from the shell. If the attachment is loose, you can softly scratch them to remove them.
However, experts recommended leaving them to fall off to avoid inflicting pain on your hard-shelled friend.
To remove loose scutes easier, dilute vinegar and use the mixture to wet a soft toothbrush. Gently brush off the scutes around the edges where they are loosely attached.
Keep the turtle out of the water for about an hour and then rinse the scutes. The scutes should start to fall off his shell.
Do Turtles’ Shells Change Color?
Yes, a surprising number of turtles will transform color over time. A turtle’s shell changes color with growth where they tend to develop darker shades with age. For virtually every turtle species we have researched, a color change is inevitable to some degree.
The most defined color change can be seen in painted terrapins found in Malaysia, Borneo, and Sumatra. Terrapins usually have a plain gray head with dull red stripes on the top of their head.
When the mating season is due, the male’s head turns white, and the dull red stripes become conspicuous. It’s this change that enables them to find a partner.
The shells of the male river terrapins also turn color from pale gray to almost dark during the mating season. Again, the only reason for this change is to become attractive to partners.
Baby turtles are brightly colored than adults and might show different patterns on the shells. These colors remain for at least a year or two and begin to change. In most cases, the colors become muted or darker. Red-eared sliders, for instance, are bright green as hatchlings, but as they develop into adults, their shells turn dark green, black or brown.
Some species will keep the same color and pattern for their entire lives. Take the painted turtles of North America, for example, those born looking like their parents and will keep the colors and patterns for the rest of their lives.
Some turtles turn to entirely different patterns than what they were as hatchlings. For example, the adult eastern mud turtle grows to a dark brown carapace with a dull yellow-brown plastron. As hatchlings, though, the shell is almost black, and the bottom is bright orange or red with black streaks.
The first years of life are characterized by fading to dark brown and the transformation of the plastron into yellow-brown. Some say they lose their aesthetic sense with age, but this helps them blend with the environment to be safe from predation.
Remember that there isn’t one specific color that a turtle must change to. This is because the turtle’s habitat can also determine how the shell and skin color change over time. A 2006 study published in the Journal of Herpetology shows that both red-eared sliders and painted turtles changed their lower and upper shell colors depending on whether they grew in a white or black substrate.
Because most of these turtle species live in brackish water habitats, it makes sense that they develop darker colors and may dull over time to match the environment. A turtle’s genetics also plays a crucial role in determining whether the turtle develops a darker or brighter shell, more greens than browns, etc.
Can Turtles From the Same Species Have Different Colors?
Yes, turtles from the same species can have different colors depending on subspecies. For instance, there are three subspecies of slider turtles: yellow-bellied slider, red-eared slider, and Cumberland slider turtles.
Each of them has a unique color; the yellow-bellied sliders have a yellow spot on the side of their head behind the eyes, and the plastron is yellow with two black spots at far ends. The red-eared slider turtle has a tiny red patch behind the ear, multiple black spots on scutes, and the plastron is yellowish. The Cumberland subspecies is colored similarly to the yellow-bellied slider turtle but has a narrow yellow stripe behind each eye. It also has wider stripes on the legs and neck.
Other turtles of the same species with different colors are box turtles, including eastern, three-toed, Florida, and Gulf Coast. All four subspecies show varying shell shades.
Albino Turtles? Do Albino Turtles Exist?
While extremely rare, albino turtles are there mainly as pets. Albinism is primarily inherited from one or more mutated genes from parents. The gene interferes with how the offspring’s body produces melanin, leading to albinism. In most cases, albinism is not a dangerous health problem because it’s just a lack of pigmentation.
However, the whitish-yellow color makes them vulnerable to predators since they are extremely easy to spot. It’s probably the reason why it’s almost impossible to find adult albino turtles in the wild. Keep in mind that albino turtles are not the same as white turtles, which can be found deep under the ocean. Diving enthusiasts who dive more profound in the sea may get lucky to see the white sea turtles.
Why Does My Turtle Have Spots? And What To Do?
Some turtles have mutated genes that have caused non-removable spots. These spots won’t feel bumpy or have unusual textures – it’s just the change in appearance. The spots are painless and won’t harm your turtle.
Some spots, however, may be a result of shell rotting or an overgrowth of fungus in the shell. These are easily noticed and feel unusual to touch. Rub your thumb over the spot, and if it feels raised with a different texture, it’s probably not natural. Treating these early can mean the difference between a healthy turtle and a costly trip to the vet.
To treat spots caused by shell rot, you need to use normal betadine from a local drugstore. Other solutions for this include silver sulfadiazine cream and iodine solution. Remove the turtle from the water and let it dry off for about 20 minutes to absorb the medicine. Apply betadine gently to the shell and leave it for about 10 minutes to debride the dead areas of the shell.
You can then use a surgeon’s soft brush or toothbrush to remove any flakes or debris before rinsing with water. You should then dry dock your hard-shelled friend for a day before putting him back in the water. Ensure you put the turtle back to the water to rehydrate. After a few uses of the treatment, the spot will disappear.
Another cause of spots is due to burns from the UVB bulbs. New owners may move the UV light too close to the basking area, emitting too much heat. Turtles are likely to develop dark spots from burns, and the only way if you notice this is to move the UV light further away.
Why Is My Turtle Shell Turning Black?
If your turtle shell is turning darker, it could signal a couple of things. A shell whose edges turn black could be a sign of shell rot. This condition can be hazardous and could spread fast to the rest of the shell if not treated immediately. Other causes of a turtle turning black could be their environment, probably from the substrate or water that causes it to pick the black color.
Are There Turtle Species With Fluorescent Colors?
Unlike many reptiles, turtles are not bioluminescence, meaning they can’t change their color. However, museum researchers on an expedition to the Solomon Islands in 2005 discovered a unique glowing turtle, the first-ever to have been seen.
Dubbed the Hawksbill Sea turtle, it could display a neon reflection at night. After a series of tests and observations, it was shown that the turtle reflected the ocean blue light into various colors. Very little is known about Hawksbill Sea turtles due to their highly migratory nature. Eretmochelys imbricata species is listed as critically endangered, but conservation scientists are laying management plans to conserve it.
What Color Are Eyes of a Turtle?
Just like the shells, different turtles have different eye colors. Even colors of the same species can have different eye colors based on subspecies. As for most female turtles, eye color ranges from brownish-yellow to brown, while males have reddish eye color, which is thought to attract females during the mating season.
A few male species have orange-colored eyes. Some turtle species like cooters have green and yellow eyes. The ornate box turtles have green eyes a well. Wood turtles in central America have bright blue eyes. Others with blue eyes include the brown-roofed turtles of India and Spanish terrapins found in Mexico.
The false map turtle species has two subspecies, including Midwest and Mississippi false map turtles. The Midwest subspecies can be distinguished from its yellow-brown iris and a black bar that runs horizontally through the pupil. On the other hand, the Mississippi subspecies has a white iris and a black pupil without a bar.
The male mangrove terrapins of India and Southern Asia have a light-colored iris, while females of the species have brown eyes.
Do Turtle Eye Color Change?
For most of a turtle’s life, the eye colors stay the same. However, baby turtles are born with slightly more conspicuous colors that may fade with age. The change usually occurs in the first few years of their lives.
Does The Eye Color Affect Turtle Vision?
Currently, very few studies have been conducted to prove whether there’s a difference in how eye colors see various things. However, based on our experience, we can assume there’s no difference. Eye color can barely affect the sharpness of the vision, but it may affect visual comfort in some situations.
It depends on the density of the pigment melanin in the iris because this determines how well various colors of light are absorbed. Precisely, the more the concentration of melanin within the iris, the darker the eyes. And an increased concentration of pigmented cells within the iris means more shade. Hence it can dissipate more light and radiation.
One assumption about turtles is they can have very different visions depending on the experience in the places they live in. turtles that live in the sea might be different from those that spend some time in the land and those that live in deserts. It all depends on how they are adapted to their habitat.
How Do Turtles See Colors?
Until a few years ago, even experts believed that turtles lack a good vision, while some thought they don’t even see colors. According to recent studies, though, many turtles can differentiate colors, some even more colors than humans. Studies have confirmed that turtles possess a gene called CYP2J19 that can be traced back 250 million ago to Archosaur dinosaurs. These were strange creatures believed to have had scaly skin and a head similar to a bird, although it had a snout instead of a beak, and a shell covered the belly. Perhaps it didn’t look as bad, but there are a few similarities with turtles.
The CYP2J19, also known as the red gene, helps turtles to convert the yellow pigments into the red. This means that turtles see more red shades than we do. Every animal has color receptors called cones that enable it to perceive colors. Humans have 3 different cones, and each can detect various colors. Since turtles can see more colors than us, they may have more cones that help them do so.
What Color Are Turtles – Wrap Up
So, most colors may transform into other colors throughout their lifetime. For most, the color changes come in their first years of life, while others will show slight changes when the mating season arrives. The difference in colors and patterns on the shells is not just a pleasing aspect, but also it acts as a defense mechanism depending on their habitat.
If you have a new baby turtle, you can now take some close-up photos of the shell and compare it to other photos you take along the way. It’s a great way to observe the color change over time. If your turtle colors are darkening, it’s probably natural. Most species will move from brighter to darker shells due to the environment and changing.
If your turtle is become discolored in particular areas, it could be due to a deficiency in their diet and a lack of UV light. For this, increase the access to UV light and feed your turtle a variety of foods. If the turtle has whitened and chalky, it could be due to hard water, so you need to use a conditioner to clean it. If the spots are white with unusual texture, it’s probably a shell rot and needs to be addressed accordingly.