Can Turtles Live Without Their Shell? (With Photos & Video)

Cartoons and video games have left many of us wondering can turtles come out of their shells?, they can't, and this post will explain why not.
Can turtles live without their shell top image

Can Turtles Live Without Their Shell?

No, a turtle can’t live without its shell.

A turtle’s spine and rib cage are fused to its shell, it’s an integral part of its body.

I’ll go into why turtles have shells further in this post, but the main reasons are to protect the turtle’s internal organs and protect the turtle itself from predators.

Can Turtles Get Out Of Their Shells?

No, turtles can’t get out of their shells, don’t believe what you see in cartoons!

It’s not something they can slip in and out of like we do our clothing.

Where a hermit crab ditches its shell for a larger one as it grows, a turtle’s shell grows with the turtle, so it’s always the perfect size.

That image you have of Koopa chasing after Mario and his shell down the beach in Super Mario World isn’t reality.

What Happens If A Turtle Loses Its Shell?

Simply put, if a turtle lost its shell, or you tried to take a turtle out of its shell, the turtle’s body and innards would be torn apart, and the turtle will die.

How Does A Turtle Look Without A Shell?

If you removed a turtle’s shell you’d be greeted with a truly gruesome sight.

By removing the turtle’s shell you’d tear apart its internal organs.

What’s Inside A Turtle Shell?

Here’s a very insightful video to answer that question for you.

Are Turtles Born With Shells?

Are turtles born with shells?
Baby Turtles Hatching

Yes, turtles have a shell when they hatch out of the egg.

The shell isn’t as hard as an adult turtles shell, but it will harden up and strengthen as the baby turtle grows.

Why Do Turtles Have Shells?

Turtles have evolved to have a shell for the following reasons.

It’s Part Of Their Skeleton

As I said in the intro, a turtle’s spine and rib cage are fused to its shell.

As you can see in the video above, their shoulder and hip bones are connected to their rib cage.

It’s Part Of Their Skin

Not only is the shell part of a turtle’s skeleton, but it’s also part of its skin.

The outer part of the shell is a very complex structure that’s made up of dermal plates (hardened skin that resembles bone), a layer of vascular skin, and scutes.

The scutes protect the turtle’s skin and dermal plates from bumps, scrapes, and bruises.


Turtle tucked in its shell

Turtles aren’t exactly Usain Bolt when it comes to speed, so they need some other method of evading predators.

The turtle’s shell acts like a suit of armor to protect them from being eaten.

A turtles shell carapace also acts as a form of camouflage by blending in with the surrounding environment.

Most turtle species are able to retract their head, legs, and tail into their shell when confronted by danger.

Some species (such as box turtles) can take that a step further by closing the gap between the carapace and plastron so they are completely enclosed.

How Long Can A Turtle Hide In Its Shell?

A turtle can stay hidden in its shell for approx 3-4 days.

It’s a hard-wired natural defense against predators so even a pet turtle will hide if they feel threatened. They won’t come back out until they feel safe.

Absorbing Heat

Turtle basking

The (usually) dark coloration of a turtle’s shell helps them absorb heat when basking in the sunlight or in the case of an indoor pet turtle, beneath a heat lamp.

Turtles are cold-blooded so they rely on the environment around them to regulate their body temperature.

Have you ever noticed on a hot summer’s day you get hotter quickly if you wear dark-colored clothing? That’s how a turtles shell works with absorbing and retaining heat too.

The shell also protects the turtle’s internal organs from overheating and stops the turtle from becoming dehydrated.

Absorbing UVB Light

The shell also absorbs vital UVB light.

Turtles need UVB light to produce vitamin D and metabolize the calcium in their diet which in turn promotes healthy shell and bone growth.

Without UVB a turtle is at risk of metabolic bone disease which can lead to deformities in its shell and bones.

If left untreated, MBD can often lead to death.

Do Turtles Feel Pain From Their Shell?

Yes, they do. A turtle shell is full of nerves so they can feel even the slightest of touches to their shells.

Because of this, always make sure you handle your pet turtle as gently as possible.

Turtle Shell Health

Red eared slider turtle being examined by a vet

As we’ve already established, a turtle’s shell is vital to its survival. A healthy shell should mean a healthy turtle.

I’ll now go over the most common causes of turtle shell problems.


Pet turtles are known to be pretty rough in their aquariums and constantly bump against things, so it’s not uncommon for them the damage their shells.

Sharp edges on anything that goes in the tank should be smoothed to avoid cutting or cracking or damaging your turtle’s shell.

If your turtle lives outdoors, predators like raccoons may inflict injuries on your turtle’s shell.

Not having a tight-fitting lid on your turtle tank is asking for trouble. Turtles are curious creatures and will try and climb out of their tank given half a chance.

An injured turtle is then easy prey for other household pets like dogs.

Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD)

MBD is the turtle equivalent of osteoporosis, which is very painful and often proves to be fatal to your turtle.

It’s caused by a lack of vitamin D and leads to problems in the development of your turtle’s shell and bones.

To avoid your turtle getting metabolic bone disease, make sure you equip its basking area with a high-quality UVB light.


Pyramiding refers to the abnormal upward growth of the shell’s scutes, giving the shell a bumpy or pyramid appearance.

The main cause of pyramiding is overfeeding (particularly excessive protein or fat), it can also be caused by the turtle not getting enough UVB light.

A younger turtle needs to consume more protein in order to grow properly. As a turtle gets older, the growth process slows down so they require less protein in their diet.

Be sure to research the dietary requirements of your specific species of turtle and feed them a balanced diet to keep them healthy.

Retained Scutes

Red eared slider turtle during shell shedding
Turtle During Shell Shedding

Retained scutes are pieces of a turtle’s shell that don’t fall off during shedding.

As your turtle grows, so does its shell. Shedding is where a smaller piece of shell is replaced by a newer (and larger) piece of shell.

Unlike a snake’s skin that is shed in one go, a turtle’s shell is replaced piece by piece.

If your turtle has retained scutes, do not try to remove them yourself because you could injure or harm your turtle.

You should take your turtle to see a vet and have them removed professionally.

Shell Rot

Turtle Shell Rot

Shell rot is the visible effects of fungal or bacterial infection on your turtle’s shell.

It usually presents as pale white or grey patches on your turtle’s carapace and plastron that appear to be sinking or pitting into the shell surface.

The best way of preventing shell rot is by having a high-quality water filter and cleaning your turtle’s tank on a regular basis.

I’ve done an in-depth post on how to treat, prevent, and get rid of turtle shell rot, however, I always recommend contacting a vet for professional advice.

Do Turtle Shells Grow Back?

Yes, a turtle’s shell can grow back as it’s made of keratin (like our fingernails) but the damaged area may not recover its coloration and will have a scar where the damage once was.

However, that doesn’t mean you can just leave your pet turtle to heal by itself if it has a damaged shell.

If the damage to the shell is severe enough, you could leave them vulnerable to infections, long-term health problems, or worse.

If your turtle has any issue with its shell, it’s always best to have your turtle examined by a vet who will determine the best course of action.

Should your turtle need to see a vet, you can find your local turtle vet here.

Closing Thoughts On Can A Turtle Survive Without A Shell….?

Basically, turtles are their shells.

So, can turtles live without their shell? Absolutely not, it’s vital for their existence.

They use it for keeping themselves safe from predators and environmental conditions, and for absorbing heat and UV light.

Check out the turtle section for more guides on keeping your pet turtles happy and healthy.



Hey, fellow fish enthusiast 👋! I'm Paul and I've been an aquarium addict since I won my first goldfish at the fair many years ago. Let me share with you the knowledge that I've gained along the way (and avoid the mistakes I've made!), so you too can create an underwater paradise for your aquatic friends.