Can A Tortoise Leave Its Shell?

Have you ever wondered whether or not tortoises can leave their shells?

Is a shell a fixed part of a tortoise’s body cavity? 

Are these reptiles able to slip in and out of their shells as they grow?

If tortoises can leave their shells, can they survive without them?

These are common questions about tortoises the average person may not know the answers to. 

To fully understand the questions and their answers, you must first know the general anatomy of a tortoise.

turtle shell infographic

Can A Tortoise Leave Its Shell?

Tortoises and wild turtles cannot leave their shells, as the shell is part of their body they are born with and keep for life. There is no way for a tortoise to survive without its shell.

Contrary to what you may have interpreted as a child watching cartoons such as the animated series Franklin, tortoises and turtle species absolutely cannot leave their shells.

The term turtle is an umbrella term applied to hundreds of different species of turtle, including tortoises. 

So, all tortoises are types of turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises. 

While no turtle can leave or live without its shell; we will be focusing on tortoises specifically.

To better understand the reasoning behind this fact, let’s first review the basic anatomy of a tortoise and what a tortoise’s shell is made of.

Tortoise Anatomy

Tortoises are some of the only animals in the world with both an endoskeleton and an exoskeleton

An endoskeleton is the internal skeleton of vertebrates which consists of bones and cartilage. 

Many animals have endoskeletons, including humans. 

An exoskeleton is an external skeletal system of some vertebrates which acts as both support and protection.

No vertebrate animal can survive without its spine. 

A tortoise’s endoskeleton and exoskeleton are connected, meaning its shell is fused to the rest of the bones in its body. 

The exoskeleton consists of the tortoise’s shell. 

The shell comprises two parts and contains the reptile’s spine, ribs, and clavicles (collar bones).

When observing a tortoise’s shell from above, we see the scutes of the shell. 

Scutes are the pieces of the outer shell made up of keratin. 

As a tortoise grows, more scutes will appear, and they will continue to grow and overlap. 

Some aquatic turtles shed their scutes; however, tortoises are strictly land animals, and their scutes will never shed from their shells.

These scutes are the visible part of the upper layer of a tortoise’s shell, known as the carapace

This portion of the shell is domed and acts as a form of armor for the animal.

Below the scutes is the inner bony layer of the upper portion of a tortoise’s shell. 

The tortoise’s spine, clavicles, and rib cage are connected to this inner layer of the tortoise’s exoskeleton.

The lower portion of the shell is known as the plastron

The plastron is flat and connects to the carapace along the sides of the reptile. 

Overall, a tortoise’s shell is comprised of approximately 50 bones fused to create its exoskeleton.

The endoskeleton remaining bones in a tortoise’s body make up the endoskeleton. 

These bones are internal and are protected by other bodily matters such as muscles and leathery skin.

It should now be clear a tortoise’s shell is fused to its skin and endoskeleton and is a vital part of the reptile’s body.

Tortoise Shells and Feeling

Many owners wonder if their pet tortoise can feel when its shell is touched or damaged. 

The shell is made up of various bones and has nerve endings in and around it. 

This means a tortoise can feel when you touch its shell.

These nerve endings are particularly sensitive, and they let the tortoise know when you are petting its shell. 

This also means the tortoise feels pain through its shell.

Even though the shell is outside of the tortoise’s internal body, compare it to one of your bones, such as an arm or leg bone. 

For instance, if you run into a coffee table and strike your shin, you immediately feel pain. 

This works the same way for a tortoise. If its shell is struck, whether on accident or intentionally, the tortoise will feel the blow and ultimately be in pain.

If you were to break a bone, you would be in immense pain and would take time to heal. 

A crack or hole in a tortoise’s shell is similar. 

The injury would cause the animal great pain and would take time to heal.

Although a tortoise’s shell will naturally mend any injuries, a damaged shell should never be left unattended and will most likely require some sort of care or medical attention.

Shell Injuries and Medical Issues

If your tortoise sustains an injury to its shell, there are a few things you should know to ensure a healthy recovery.

Injuries to a tortoise’s shell, such as cracks, ulcers, or holes, may be caused by external and internal factors.

External factors such as a fall, an unsanitary environment, or an unfortunate run-in with another animal or sharp object are possible. 

Possible internal factors affecting a tortoise’s shell include calcium deficiency, lack of sunlight, metabolic bone disease, poor diet, and other turtle sicknesses.

Shell health indicates overall bone health and healthy diets.

Let’s explore the risks in more detail and understand how to prevent these injuries.

External Factors

Falling from any height is dangerous for a tortoise. 

A tumble down the stairs, a fall from furniture, living in an unsanitary enclosure, or an unfortunate run-in with a lawn tool or another animal may leave your tortoise with injuries to its shell or other parts of its body.

These instances may leave your pet with cracks in its shell, broken bones, and even open wounds. 

If an injury like this does occur, it is important to ensure your tortoise is breathing, apply pressure to any areas with intense bleeding, and contact your veterinarian right away. 

While these injuries may not be life-threatening, they are painful, dangerous, and should be prevented at all costs.

The best way to prevent your tortoise from sustaining injuries from a fall is keeping it away from stairs and ensuring any furniture, logs, or porches it has access to are not high enough off the ground to pose a threat. 

Some breeds of tortoises are adventurous and enjoy exploring their enclosure. 

Whether your tortoise is still a baby or a fully grown adult, be sure any furniture they climb on is low to the ground.

If you are a dog owner and a tortoise owner, you should always be sure to supervise their interaction. 

A small tortoise may look like a living chew toy to a larger dog. 

Injuries sustained from being tossed around or bitten by your dog may be severe, so it is best not to leave them alone together.

An injury from a lawn tool such as a weed wacker or a lawnmower is difficult to imagine but still a possibility. 

When you care for your pet turtles’ outdoor enclosure, be sure to lure them to a safe area such as their heated tortoise house or inside your house before beginning your chores.

Shell rot is another factor which may lead to shell injuries. 

Shell rot occurs when a tortoise is living in an unsanitary environment. 

An overly wet environment or exposure to harmful bacteria are possible risk factors. 

It is essential to keep your tortoise’s bedding fresh and free of mold and regularly clean its enclosure. 

An excess of bacteria caused by an unsanitary living environment may cause your tortoise’s shell to form ulcers or cracks. 

It is possible to treat shell rot; however, shell rot may be deadly if left untreated.

Internal Factors

Cracks, ulcers, and decay of a tortoiseshell may be signs of internal problems. 

These include a poor diet, lack of calcium, lack of sunlight, and shell rot. 

You should take preventative measures for all of these risk factors to avoid painful injuries to your tortoise and the possibility of further health issues.

If your tortoise has a nutrient lacking diet and does not receive the proper vitamins and minerals, it may lead to shell deformities. 

It is important to properly care for your pet reptile and to do everything in your power to ensure it is consuming healthy foods and enough of them.

One of the main diet-related factors causing shell problems is calcium deficiency. 

Your tortoise must consume enough calcium with every meal for it to maintain a healthy shell and bones. 

A common warning sign of calcium deficiency in a tortoise is pyramiding. 

This refers to the turtle scutes of the shell raising to form pyramids.

If you feel as though your tortoise is consuming the right amount of calcium, the issue may lie in the oxalic acid content of its food. 

Oxalic acid is a compound found in foods such as spinach, kale, and broccoli preventing proper absorption of calcium in the digestive system.

Improper exposure to sunlight may lead to a lack of vitamin D3. 

This could cause brittle, sensitive skin and increases the possibility of the tortoise developing a softshell. 

These changes will leave the reptile more susceptible to sustaining injuries from daily activities. 

If your tortoise lives in an outdoor enclosure, it is most likely getting enough sunlight and UVB exposure. 

When keeping your tortoise in an indoor enclosure, having the proper lighting and equipment will prevent this lack of vitamin D.

Shell Care and Recovery

Light wear and tear to a tortoise’s shell throughout its life is almost guaranteed. 

Small chips and minor scratches may result from accidentally running into furniture or encountering a rock or sharp root while burrowing. 

Some wear and tear may be beneficial to your tortoise. 

It is common for older animals to develop slight pyramiding. 

If you own a sulcata, an animal is known to burrow, the tortoise scutes with pyramiding will naturally erode over time, and its shell will smooth itself out.

If your tortoise sustains any injury to its shell or any other part of its body, it is important to never leave the injury untreated. 

Even if the wound seems minor, always be sure to seek advice and get a professional opinion on how to treat it.

Turtle shells will naturally heal themselves over time, similarly to how a bone will fuse back together when it is broken. 

Small cracks will most likely close up on their own, but it is important to keep the area clean to prevent infection, and your vet will often prescribe your tortoise antibiotics to help the process. 

Larger cracks may need to be sealed by your veterinarian with a specialized bonding material made specifically for these injuries.

As stated previously, shell rot is dangerous to a tortoise if left untreated. 

Depending on the severity of the condition, several options are available. 

Some shell rot may be treated with topical antibiotics. 

More severe cases may require additional treatments, and you should make inquiries to your animal’s medical provider.

can a tortoise leave its shell

Final Thoughts

A tortoise will never naturally leave its shell, and it should never be forcibly removed. 

A tortoise’s shell is its exoskeleton and is a vital part of its body, fused with the rest of its endoskeleton, skin, and houses the reptile’s internal organs.

For this reason, there are no shell-less turtles or non-shelled turtles, despite what cartoons may have you believe. 

Tortoises will never be without their shells, and they can’t survive without them. 

Since the shell is such an important part of this animal’s body, pet owners need to take proper care. 

Do your best to ward off possible injuries by taking preventative measures to secure your tortoise’s safety.

If your tortoise’s shell suffers from an injury in any way, stay calm and contact a professional for advice on how to care for and heal the wound.

The shell is your tortoise’s home. 

Help your reptile take care of its shell and do your absolute best to provide your pet with a happy and healthy life.

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