When you look at a turtle for the first time you might think that its shell is more like a suit of amour. Their legs even look like they’re sticking out of their shell so the turtle can slide them out any time it wants.
Turtles and tortoises can’t live without their shell. They can’t slip it on and off because it’s functionally a part of their ribcage and skin. Their shell has nerve endings which means they can feel when you touch their shell and hurt when it gets damaged. The turtle’s shell has 2 parts; the shell or carapace that has all the stunning patterns is fused to its spin and ribs which means there are nerves, blood vessels, and other living cells fused to that whole structure. The second part is the lower shell or plastron is linked to its chest cavity and is also very important because if it gets damaged, it will put a lot of stress on the whole structure of the shell. Both parts of the shell encase its vital organs like its heart, liver, intestines, kidney, and stomach.
Understanding the anatomy of the turtle’s shell
The shell is mainly made up of 2 main parts the carapace and plastron with a third part being the bridge that connects the two shell parts and its part of the plastron. Scutes are flexible and tough and are made of keratin. These form the outer top layer of the shell. These protect the shell from getting damaged your turtle gets older new scute rings are being added and these rings can help you determine the age of your turtle. Aquatic turtles shed their old scute and it will look like the shell is peeling off. However, not all turtles have scutes, some turtles even have skin over their shell-like the leatherback sea turtle.
This is the dome on your turtle’s back and it’s made of ossified rib bones and backbone that are infused into the dermal plates. On top of the dermal plate is skin that is then covered with scutes that protect the bony plate from cuts, bruises, and scrapes. Some turtles like the map turtle and other sea turtles have a keel that runs down the shell which is mostly present on the shells of aquatic turtles.
The shell consists of several bones including the neural plates, pleural plates, proneural plates, peripheral plates, suprapygal plates, pygal plates.
This bone is located at the center front part of the shell just next to the head and every turtle has only one proneural plate in its shell.
This bone is right after the proneural plate at the front part of the shell. It goes all the way to the midsection of the shell near the tail and most turtles have 8 of these bones.
You will find these bones on either side of the neural plates. They’re long and broad and are usually 16 bones in total.
These bones are just after the neural plates at the tail of the shell and are usually 2 bones.
This is the bone at the tail end of the shell which is only a single bone.
These bones are found along the edge of the carapace. The first bone I attached to the proneural plate and the preural plate near the proneural plate. The peripheral bones go round the edge all the way back to the pygal bone on both sides of the shell. Most turtles have about 22 peripheral plates.
This is the visible part of the shell. Most turtles have 11-13 scutes which are very easy to count. Along the edge of the carapace are 24 small scutes called the marginal scutes. The scutes are divided into lateral scutes, vertebral, and marginal scutes.
This is the scute located just behind the turtle’s head.
This is a single central scute found at the center of the shell which is usually the topmost part of the shell.
These scutes are found just next to the central scute and they’re mostly 4 arranged medially. Both the central and precentral scutes are known as the vertebral.
These scutes are also called coastal and are found on both sides of the central and precentral scutes. They’re 8 in total with 4 on each side of the vertebral.
These are tiny scutes located along the edge of the carapace.
This is the flat underside of the turtle’s shell that includes both the anterior and posterior bridge struts and the bridge. The plastron consists of about 9 bones including 2 epiplastra bones.
Every turtle has 2 epiplastra bones located at the front of the plastron. The 2 bones are located on the right and left sides side by side.
This bone is located right under the epiplastra and it shares a border with the 2 epiplastra bones and the other 2 hyoplastra bones under the epiplastra.
These 2 hyoplastra bones are located right under the epiplastra on both sides. There are also 2 more hyoplastron bones located underneath, so in total there are 4 hyoplastron bones.
These are the 2 bones located underneath the hyoplastron.
These are the bones that fuse the carapace and plastron.
The plastron consists of 6 different types of scutes that include the humeral, pectoral, abdominal, and femoral scutes that follow each other in that order. Turtles can either have triangular or squarish pectoral scutes.
How does the turtle shell grow?
All turtles are born with a shell and although it may be softer when they’re young than when they’re adults, it still provides them with the protection they need. Unlike some other animals, turtles don’t shed their shell and grow a new one as they grow and mature, instead their shell grows as they grow. The shell is a part of their exoskeleton which means it will grow together with the rest of the skeletal system. The scutes grow with time and overlap each other and at times they get shed off.
Can turtles survive if they have a broken shell?
Yes, they can. A broken shell doesn’t necessarily mean the turtle will die, but it’s a very serious condition that needs to get taken care of by a veterinarian. When the shell of a turtle gets a crack or a break, it means the turtle’s body has opened up which can lead to serious infections if it doesn’t get some medical attention. It’s like when you have a gash on your skin or your fingernail cracks.
Sometimes when the turtle’s shell breaks or cracks, it’s not always because of an injury. Unsanitary conditions in its tank or poor diet can lead to ulcers on or around the shell also called shell rot which can be very deadly.
Also, lack of enough sunlight, calcium, and other diseases can cause some shell abnormalities. Some of the signs of shell rot include thyroid problems, liver disease, and kidney damage.
Can turtles heal their own shells?
The most wonderful natural thing about turtles is that they’re capable of healing their shells the same way your broken bones regenerate back to their original shape. The body of a turtle is made up of living, natural, and organic materials that help it to heal itself. However, this doesn’t mean you should leave your turtle to naturally heal without the proper treatment it needs to avoid the development of more serious problems. The smallest fracture of the shell can expose your pet turtle to dangerous bacterial or fungal infections that can kill it. Getting the vet to take a look at it can help in speeding up the healing process and together with applying antibiotics will help in sealing the crack with special bonding material and fighting bacteria that might find their way into the body. It’s easier to fix small cracks and fractures than bigger ones. In case the shell has been severely damaged, your turtle can get a 3D printed prosthetic as a replacement but it won’t function very well when it comes to heat and UV absorption.
What happens if your turtle’s shell broke?
Your turtle might face many dangers if left with a broken shell. Some of these dangers include:
A source of pain and infection
If your turtle accidentally gets its shell broken, its internal blood vessels will come in direct contact with bacteria, dirt, and other pollutants. Although it won’t likely bleed to death, it will face the possibility of getting infections that could be fatal if not treated. A break in the shell will cause your turtle intense pain, the same pain you would feel if you got a spinal injury.
Reduced ability of UV absorption
Some turtle owners may think it’s fine to paint over the shells since it’s a hard surface. This may appear harmless at first, but it will contribute to the decline of your turtle’s health. This is because the outer layer of the shell consists of hardened skin cells. There’s a thin layer of living epithelium above the spine and rib cage that regularly grow into new cells and when these cells reach the surface, they form hardened scutes.
Our skin absorbs UV light which triggers the production of vitamin D and thishelps in the breakdown of the calcium in our bodies. The same mechanism applies in turtles. If your turtle can live with a broken or painted shell, the vitamin D in its body will drop drastically and this will, in turn, affect the calcium levels that will slowly get depleted causing metabolic bone disease.
Higher chances of dehydration or hibernation
Turtles are reptiles which means they’re cold-blooded animals. They can’t internally regulate their body temperature like humans, so they depend on the heat from their surrounding environment. Turtles usually bask early in the morning between 2-8 hours every day. The shell plays a very important part in this process and its dark color helps in absorbing the heat and still protecting its internal organs and preventing them from getting dehydrated.
It’s normal for the turtle’s shell to shed, but if the shell gets compromised and gets an infection, it most likely will not survive the intense heat from the sun. This might cause your turtle to start evading the sun to avoid feeling pain which will lead to an improperly induced hibernation that can be fatal.
Problems with turtle shells
In the same way, other animals can develop problems with their skin and fur, turtles can develop problems with their shells which can be caused by many things including poor diet, improper care, or accidental injuries.
- Your turtle’s shell can develop some irregularities from a lack of calcium, excess moisture in the enclosure, inadequate sunlight, and a dirty habitat.
- Shell rot can be caused by a fungal or bacterial infection.
- Uneven cute growth can cause the shell to develop a deformed shape, brake, crack, chip off, or split.
If you notice some of these symptoms on your turtle’s shell, you should take your turtle to the vet immediately to get a proper diagnosis and treatment.
- Uneven flaking of the scutes
- Discharge of blood from a crack or break
- Soft spots, divots, or pits in the shell
- Strong odor
- Red or off-color on the shell
- A slimy coating that is not algae
- Visible breaks or splits
How to take care of your turtle’s shell
The good news is you can easily take care of your turtle’s shell and keep your pet turtle healthy reducing the risk of shell problems.
Keep the enclosure of the habitat clean
Dirty substrate, unclean water, and rotting food will cause bacteria to form and infect your turtle’s shell. Regular cleaning of the enclosure or tank, removing uneaten food, and ensuring the food and water bowl is clean and replenished with clean water for your turtle will ensure your turtle doesn’t get infections.
Creating a proper habitat
Different turtle species require different living conditions. Always ensure you provide enough space for your turtle to move around and explore in its enclosure or tank and provide the right temperatures and humidity according to your turtle’s needs.
Provide a healthy balanced diet
Different turtles eat different diets and it’s good to research the best foods to give your turtle. Providing a variety of different foods will keep your turtle healthy and also include vitamins, calcium, and mineral supplements to give a well-balanced diet.
Provide enough sunlight
Turtles need enough sunlight every day to keep their shells healthy. Placing UVB lights or tank lights is very useful and a comfortable basking platform or rock will ensure that your turtle can enjoy sunbathing every day.
Remove any obstacles or hazards
Turtles can easily get into more trouble than other pets that’s why you should ensure your turtle doesn’t get stuck in tight spots or obstacles accidentally falling and damaging its shell in the tank of the enclosure.
Inspect your turtle’s shell
You must check your turtle’s shell closely every week for any unusual changes and take it for regular vet checkups for professional care. As soon as you notice any problems, you should take the necessary steps to correct the situation and keep your turtle healthy.
A guide for the essentials you need to keep your turtle’s shell healthy
This is an excellent calcium supplement with vitamin D3 that will help to keep your pet turtle’s bones strong and healthy and other vital body functions. You can sprinkle just a bit on your turtle’s food every day to make sure your turtle eats a well-balanced diet. This will keep your turtle’s shell healthy and looking good.
This turtle basking platform is 20 cm long and it comes with 2 suction cups at the top and 4 support frames at the bottom to keep it steady in your turtle’s tank. This large rectangular floating island design can float between water making it very convenient to place in an indoor tank. It doesn’t stain the water and it provides a good climbing exercise for your pet turtle. It’s also lightweight so it doesn’t add any weight to the tank. Your turtle can get enough vitamin D to keep it healthy and also ensure your turtle is happy.
This commercial turtle food is a blend of different low-fat animal proteins and other different foods that include freeze-dried mealworms, poultry meal, fish meal, corn, freeze-dried shrimp, vitamin-fortified pellets to formulate a unique blend of turtle food. It’s an excellent way of providing your turtle with the proper balance of essential vitamins, minerals, protein, and fat.
This aquarium cleaner uses beneficial bacteria that will help to break down the organic waste and debris. This is an excellent way of keeping your turtle’s tank clean and maintaining the quality of the water. This will keep your turtle strong and vibrant and prevent it from the disease.
A turtle’s shell is very strong and very durable and will protect your turtle from harm. While your turtle can’t survive without its shell, it can survive serious damage to its shell. Turtles can also heal some of the damages done to their shell-like cracks, cuts, bites, and more. You can help treat an injured shell using betadine solution then take your turtle to the vet for more medical treatment.