Why Turtles Without a Shell Cannot Survive? Information + Fun Facts

If you search ‘What is a turtles without a shell called?’ on google, you will come across the funniest answer DEAD. But why isn’t it possible for a turtle with no shell to survive when a hermit crab is able to switch shells? In fact, hermit crabs can easily crawl out of their outgrown shell and enter into a new one. It’s because the shell of a hermit crab is not attached to its body, whereas the shell of a turtle is the part of its body.

I know that there are plenty of question popping up in your head right now. For instance, can a turtle leave its shell? Can turtles come out of their shell? Can turtles feel their shell? Are turtles attached to their shells? What do turtles look like without a shell? Are turtles born with shells? Do turtle shells grow? But don’t worry. In this article we have tried our best to answer all your queries. We are going to share some turtle shell facts so you don’t get bored.

Tortoise and turtles would not be able to survive without their shell. It’s because their shell is both their skin and ribcage. Imagine any vertebrate animal. Now imagine a vertebrate animal without its skeleton and skin. It makes sense, right?

turtles without a shell

Of course, there are a few exceptional cases where a turtle without a shell has been born. But it is probably due to some birth defect and structural deformity. Such turtle born without a shell is unable to survive. This in turn makes it easy to understand the immense importance of a shell for a turtle. Shell-less turtles are just like a bone-less human.

Just like porcupine has spines to defend itself from predators, turtles and tortoises have their shells to protect themselves. In addition, the shells also protect them from harsh weather conditions such as direct sunlight and UV rays. Thus preventing them from overheating and desiccating. But these are not the only functions that this anatomical structure serves. There is more to it which we are going to find out in this article.

Fun fact: Did you know that the color of a turtle or a tortoise’s shell varies from dark brown to black and olive green. In addition, some unique species also have exceptionally eye-catching markings that are gray, red, or orange.

Now you know that a shell is a turtle’s defense mechanism. So, without it, they won’t be able to survive on this planet for a very long time. Plus, it helps in their sunbathing habits. In fact, tortoise or a turtle with no shell is just like a human with no bones and skin. Creepy. I know. But there is a lot more that will amaze you. Just keep reading!

Reason #1: It’s their defense mechanism against predators

We have already talked about how turtles without their shell cannot resist falling into the prey; here, we will talk more about why their shells are their only means of self-defense.

turtles without a shell

But first, let’s dig a little bit more about a turtle’s shell anatomy. The shell of a turtles is in fact turtle skeleton system. You can further divide it into three main parts. The upper part of the top part is known as carapace. It is extremely thick for protection against direct sunlight (which we will talk about next); Plastron is the lower part of the bottom. The third part is the bridge that acts as a glue that holds the upper and lower parts together. I think now you can picture how a turtle without a shell will look like.

Fun fact: Some species of the order Testudines (turtles and tortoise) can bring their upper part, the carapace, and the bottom part, the plastron, together. The prime importance of doing so is to enclose the vulnerable parts of the body- the tail, limbs, and head.

But why do turtles have shells? There are several theories regarding the evolution of thick and hard shells in turtles. Originally the shells of the turtles were evolved to help their ancestors in digging. Digging required strength, and it was accomplished by their ribs broadening and flattening, thus adding stability to the forearms. But since giving and taking is the rule of the planet, the broadening of the ribs took the ancestor turtle’s ability to move faster and flee. Eventually, their speed was compensated by growing the shells thicker and thicker until full-sized, armored shells were evolved.

Every known species has some means of surviving its enemies and predators, and for turtles, their heavy shell is a blessing in disguise. Thus, adding to our information about why can’t a turtle live without its shell!

Reason #2: The shell is their skeleton

Just as the bones make up the human skeleton, keratin and bone makes up the shell of a turtle. As we have mentioned earlier that a baby turtle without shell will look like a lump of flesh; here’s a picture of turtle without shell to tell you how does a turtle looks without its shell.

turtles without a shell

Fun fact: 60 bones make up the inner layer of both the upper and lower part of the shell of a turtle. These include ribs, backbone, as well as breastbone.

If you know the anatomy of the human skeleton, you will know that human bones have names according to their location in the body. Just like that, the upper part of the carapace of the turtle’s shell consists of ribcage and spine. Simultaneously, some unique bones comparable to the human clavicle and sternum are fused with the bottom part of the plastron. The rest of the bones, such as the limbs bones and the neck bones, are located under the skin.

Just as human bones start to weaken with age and calcium and Vitamin D deficiency, nutrient deficiency also affects the health and growth of the turtle’s shell. In fact, a baby turtle with no access to calcium and vitamin D will be unable to survive past a few months. Here’s a picture of empty turtle shell which will help you to understand turtle bone structure.

Just imagine how a turtle without its shell will be missing so much in its life- the entire ribcage, vertebrates, spine, and around forty or fifty bones. One of the most important reasons why a turtle out of the shell will not be able to survive.

Reason #3: The shell of a turtle or tortoise is their anatomical skin

If we dig a little deeper into studying the individual components that make up the rough and tough shell of a turtle, we will come across a complex structure with both bone and skin. Such structures have been named dermal plates that are like thickened skin that resembles bone. In addition, a layer of skin also covers dermal plates. It is called scutes, and has both vascular supply and nerve endings. Scutes are, in fact, composed of overlapping pieces of keratin, which is essentially the same material that human hair and nails are made up of. Turtles and humans- a tale yet to uncover!

Fun fact: Both the carapace and the plastron have nerve endings.

Since there are gazillions of nerve endings innervating the scutes and the dermal plates of a turtle’s shell, a turtle is indeed able to feel its shell and it is one of the turtle shell uses. A turtle is sensitive to pressure and touch, and you might want to avoid holding a turtle too tight, or otherwise, you might hurt its feeling! Tiny creature, hard on the outside, soft on the inside!

Another point to add here is that the materials that the shells of these testudines can vary from one species to another. For instance, softshell turtles have all the other elements- keratin and dermal plates but lack the scutes. Instead, solidified and thickened skin protect their shell.

Just like a human cannot survive with its skin, a turtle without a shell can not make it past a few days.

Reason #4: Shell helps turtles to bathe in the sun

If you have watched cartoon turtle without shell, you might have come across the scene where a turtle comes out of its shell and hangs it on a tree, and then wears some cute beach outfit to bathe in the sun. It looks so adorable. But that is why turtle without shell cartoon is not a reality and the purpose is only to make kids happy. In reality, a turtle out of its shell is likely to desiccate and dehydrate under direct sunlight.

Not only the dark colors of the turtle’s shell aid in absorbing direct sunlight, but it also helps turtles to maintain their inside temperature so that they don’t die of absorbing too much heat. Thus, another reason why a turtle without a shell will be unable to survive for long.

Reason #5: A turtle without a shell is exposed to other micro-organisms

Remember how a burn victim is often kept in a sterilized environment so that he may not get exposed to tiny infectious organisms. It is because the protective barrier of his body, the skin, is no more there to provide defense against microbes. A turtle without a shell is just like a burn victim who is an open invitation to micro-organisms for infestation and death. Another reason why a turtle or tortoise without a shell cannot survive.

Fun Fact: Turtle are able to hide in their shells if they sense danger and a turtle in its shell looks absolutely adorable. Here is a picture of a turtle hiding in shell.

Reason# 6: Shells help turtles to make vitamin D

Just as humans skin has proteins that help to capture the UV rays and their conversion to Vitamin D, the shell of the turtle is also a part of the skin that is crucial for its bone growth. It also absorbs UV rays.

Fun Fact: Children can make pet turtles sick by randomly painting their shells, thus interfering with UV absorption.

If you are fond of watching the discovery channel, you might have watched the documentary where turtles were found dead with their shells covered with paint. It didn’t make much of a sense then. But now, if you think about it, the skin which captures Vitamin D essential for a turtle’s survival, is unable to do so because of a thick barrier (the paint). Thus, having intact shells is crucial to a turtle’s survival. A turtle shell painted is equal to a turtle shell removed.


A turtle without its shell is like a human or any other vertebrae without its spine, ribs, and other bones. While cartoons have created the myth that turtles can come and go from their shell, it’s not true because the shell is their body part, and Testudines cannot simply ditch any part of their body.

Besides defending the body against predators and other harmful micro-organisms such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi, shells also protect turtles from harsh weather conditions. They can grow with the turtle just like human bones.

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