Why are you finding thin, triangle-shaped pieces of your turtle’s shell in their vivarium?
You know a turtle usually grows larger as it ages, but you’re not sure how it applies to their shells.
Do they outgrow them?
Will they need a new shell as they get older and larger?
How should you help them go through the growing process safely and in a healthy way?
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Do Turtles Grow Out Of Their Shells?
Turtles, tortoises, and terrapins are not like hermit crabs which outgrow their shells and replace them with new ones. Their shells are part of their body and grow with them.
Like most reptiles which shed their skins, turtles shed the outer portions of their shells when it is time to grow larger.
This process is called shell shedding or peeling.
Their shells are made of keratin, just like human hair, fingernails, and toenails.
You will most often see shed scutes or the outer parts of their carapaces.
Turtles do not just bask to warm up.
Basking in sunlight and heat has the added benefit of speeding up proper shell growth and boosting their immune systems.
Typically, scute shedding happens right before a turtle goes into brumation and right after they emerge from brumation in the spring.
However, there may be other reasons why a turtle, terrapin, or tortoise’s shell is peeling.
Other Reasons Why A Turtle Sheds Its Shell
A turtle will not just shed its shell when it’s growing.
They will also shed to fight off common infections like shell rot and when their shells are injured or damaged somehow.
Shedding also eliminates dirt and living compounds like algae which may interfere with shell growth.
Aquatic types of turtles tend to shed more than terrestrial turtles and tortoises.
This is partially because infection and injury are more likely to occur in the water than on land.
In captive pet turtles, frequent shedding may also happen due to overfeeding or exclusively feeding commercial protein pellets, a too-hot basking area, fungal infections, or high ammonia levels in their water.
When Should I Be Concerned About Shell Peeling?
If you have a pet turtle, you may have already found shed scutes in their enclosure and wondered if they’re okay.
Usually, shell peeling is a perfectly natural growth process, or a healing process, for a turtle.
As long as their scutes, plastron, and sides are each coming off in one piece, your turtle is perfectly healthy.
Don’t force any shedding pieces of shell off too soon, as this may cause injury to your turtle’s shell.
Some turtles will eat their shed scutes once they are off.
Do your best to prevent this, as a shed scute could do some damage to your pet’s throat and mouth if eaten.
If your turtle’s sheds do not come off in whole pieces, they may have an underlying condition, or something may be off in their enclosure.
This is an excellent time to consult with your exotics veterinarian, as improper sheds may be a sign of something seriously wrong with your turtle.
Why Isn’t My Turtle Shedding?
Sometimes, the issue is not your turtle shedding too much or having incomplete sheds, but the opposite. Maybe you haven’t seen any shed scutes at all, even though you know your turtle shells should be peeling and growing.
First, we suggest checking areas around plants and the substrate for shed scutes before contacting your vet.
They may be getting hidden in the decoration or beneath the substrate in your turtle’s vivarium.
It is also possible your turtle may be eating their shed scutes as soon as they come off.
As we’ve mentioned, this may cause a danger to your turtle’s mouth and throat.
If you have an older turtle, the turtle shell peeling just isn’t as noticeable anymore.
This happens to quite a few species of turtle and is not a cause for concern.
If there aren’t any hidden shed scutes, and you have a younger turtle, it may be time to check environmental controls and your nutritional supplements.
A turtle may not shed its shell because its water and basking temperatures aren’t quite right.
Their UV light may also be wearing out.
You should be replacing their UVB bulbs every six months or so. It could also be your turtle isn’t getting enough calcium in its diet.
How Do I Encourage Healthy Turtle Shell Peeling?
As a pet turtle keeper, there are a few ways to help your pet with healthy sheds.
An aquatic turtle needs their water section and source regularly filtered, cleaned, and dechlorinated to limit bacteria and pathogens’ growth in their swimming area.
Keeping their water healthy will help keep them healthy and limit the need for excessive shell peeling. Use a dechlorinating product like this one.
Limit and prevent injury to the best of your ability.
If your pet is injured and in a quarantine enclosure, keep its basking temperature higher than usual.
We recommend somewhere between 80 and 85° degrees Fahrenheit (26-29° C).
Higher temperatures will help facilitate quicker and better healing.
Keep your turtle’s shell healthy through a proper diet and vitamin supplementation.
Use UVB lighting to aid in calcium absorption, proper metabolism, and production of vitamin D3.
Ensure you are supplementing their diets with powdered calcium and regularly feeding them foods with a higher ratio of calcium to phosphorus.
Can A Turtle Live Without Its Shell?
Taking a shell off of a turtle would be the equivalent of taking the skin, spine, and ribcage off of a human.
Their shells are part of their bodies and are both protecting and attached to bones and internal organs.
Their shells protect from predators but also protect from bacteria and other pathogens which could cause infection.
Shells also provide a method of heat regulation and aid in digging and other activities for a turtle which require both strength and leverage.
If you see a turtle shell without a turtle inside, it doesn’t mean the turtle has outgrown or escaped its shell.
It means the turtle or tortoise is dead, and the shell is what’s left of them.
No, turtles do not grow out of their shells.
Modern turtles have evolved shells as part of their bodies, attached to skeletal structure and directly protecting their internal organs from predators and bacteria.
Instead, turtles, tortoises, and terrapins shed their shells’ outer parts, called scutes, like other reptiles shed their skins.