Turtles and tortoises absolutely would not live without their shell. Their shell is, functionally, both their rib cage, and their skin.

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No vertebrate animal would be able to survive without these parts of their anatomy.

It would be easy to assume otherwise, however. Hermit crabs are popular pets that are well-known for crawling right out of an old shell and into a new one when they outgrow it.

The difference, however, is that the hermit crab’s shell is not attached to his body. In fact, their bodies don’t even make those shells. Hermit crabs borrow the empty shells of other expired invertebrates.

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Five Reasons Why Turtles Without Shells Won’t Survive

Five Reasons Why Turtles Without Shells Won’t Survive

The ancient Odontochelys semitestacea is the closest visual example of how a shell-less turtle would look. Image source

If you imagine how a turtle or tortoise looks without its shell, you will quickly realize why it would not survive. It is the equivalent of looking into the body cavity of an animal that was opened up for dissection in a biology class.

You would be able to see all of the organs and internal structures, and they would be exposed to everything – the dry air, bacteria, predators, even falling out if the animal was flipped upside down.

However, if you were to go back 260 million years, you would be able to find the turtle’s prehistoric ancestor, Odontochelys semitestacea (toothed turtle with a half-shell). This animal is the closest visual example of how a turtle without its shell would look.

Its ribs and body had already broadened, and the lower ribs had even fused into a plastron, but it had not yet developed a carapace (top portion of the shell).

Aside from its lack of a carapace and presence of teeth, it’s believed to have looked similar to our modern-day chelonians.

A modern day turtle’s shell is essentially their identity.


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Cartoons and other sources have perpetuated the myth that a turtle can come and go from its shell. The idea indeed doesn’t seem very crazy at first. Usually, skin is pliable. Bones are inside of the body. If hermit crabs can ditch their shells, then why not turtles and tortoises?

However, as soon as you realize that the animal’s skin and bones are fused with the shell, it is very apparent why they would never be able to leave it and why they would not be able to survive without it.

Most people are aware that turtles hide from predators in their shell, but the shell has so many other vital functions.

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Even in a peaceful world with no predator-prey dynamic, turtles wouldn’t last without this fundamental structure in the same way that other vertebrate animals wouldn’t last without their skin, spine, and ribs.

While we all know their shells, few people know the sounds turtles make – read on and learn more!