Home » Can A Tortoise Survive Without Its Shell? [Here’s Why It Won’t Live]
can a tortoise be removed from its shell?

Can A Tortoise Survive Without Its Shell? [Here’s Why It Won’t Live]

(Last Updated On: September 10, 2022)

Tortoises differ from other reptiles because they have a hard outer shell, not just scales.

Tortoises are born with shells, which grow during their physical development. Their bones, nerves, blood vessels, muscles, and tissues are fused to their shells, which means that shell loss or removal would kill a tortoise because they’re part of the skeletal structure.

A tortoise’s quality of life and overall wellness depends on the integrity of its shell. The shell is strong and capable of healing from breakage, but being dropped and bad falls can cause permanent damage.

Can a Tortoise Live Without a Shell?

Tortoise shells aren’t separate from the body. The top of the shell (carapace) is connected to the tortoise’s spine, while the underside of the shell (plastron) supports the ribs and other bones.

Without the shell, the tortoise’s entire skeletal structure would collapse. A tortoise without a shell is like a human without a skeleton; it can’t survive without it.

Aside from the skeletal structure, the shell is a vital part of the tortoise’s capillary and nervous system. The outer shell isn’t made of bone, and there’s more to a tortoise’s shell than is readily apparent.

The underlayer of the shell is made of bone, which protects the tortoise’s internal organs. The visible top layer is keratin, containing blood vessels and nerves.

If the shell breaks or is fractured, the tortoise would bleed profusely.

Why Do Tortoises Have Shells?

Tortoises are natural foragers who survive by being defensive more than offensive. They’ve evolved to hide in their shells and dig tunnels to avoid extreme weather and predation.

Tortoises have shells for the following reasons:

Helps Them Dig

The oldest chelonian species didn’t have a full carapace; it had a wide ribcage. Developmental biologists believe that the bone structure eventually grew and morphed into the iconic chelonian shell.

Experts theorized that they evolved with shells to make digging easier. The way the shells are shaped means that they anchor the tortoise’s limbs to have an easier time burrowing.


Tortoises may not be able to detach themselves from their shells, but they can hide in their shells. This way, they can protect themselves from predators when attacked and while brumating.

Keep Them Cool and Hydrated

Tortoises are cold-blooded (ectothermic) animals, unable to regulate their body temperature.

When things get too hot or the air is too dry, tortoises shade themselves from their environment by hiding in their shells. This ensures they maintain their optimal body temperature and don’t lose any more moisture when the conditions are wrong.

are tortoise attached to their shells?

Store Nutrients

According to Food Analytical Methods, tortoises use their shells to store nutrients. A strong, healthy shell enables them to survive brumation and when food is scarce.

Is My Tortoise Losing Its Shell?

A tortoise isn’t capable of losing its shell.

Tortoises shed skin on their shell as they grow, but this doesn’t mean they’re losing their shell. If you notice that your tortoise’s shell is deformed, it means that the tortoise has metabolic bone disease (MBD) or the shell is broken.

Metabolic bone disease is an umbrella term that describes a disorder that causes a tortoise’s shell to soften up or grow abnormally. If the disorder is severe, it may seem like the tortoise is losing its shell.

You should also take your tortoise to the vet if you notice that the shell is cracked. Tortoises don’t molt and grow new shells. So, if it does lose a piece of its shell, it’ll be at risk of infection and even death.

If you notice a tortoise’s shell flaking off, this is normal. Skin and shell shedding is common, especially in growing tortoises. You should only be concerned if large pieces of the shell begin to fall off.

What Does a Tortoise Look Like Without a Shell?

Inside a tortoise’s shell, you’ll find its organs, muscles, blood, and bones. Many people believe that tortoise shells are a separate structure from the rest of the body.

It doesn’t help that many of us grew up watching cartoons where a tortoise or turtle removes its shell, revealing a smooth, green body underneath. However, this isn’t an accurate representation.

Because tortoise shells are connected to the rib cage and spine, you would immediately be met with the tortoise’s internal organs if the shell were opened.

There’s no skin under the shell because the shell is the skin that protects the inside.

Can a Tortoise Be Removed from Its Shell?

Under no circumstances should a tortoise ever be removed from its shell, as doing will cause extreme pain before killing them. A tortoise’s shell is fused with its ribcage and spine.

The shell is full of nerve endings, and the tortoise will feel everything if you try to pull it out. Because of the blood vessels in the shell, the tortoise will bleed to death.

Certain metabolic bone diseases can soften up the shell and deform it to the point where it seems like the tortoise can slip out of the shell.

However, no matter how deformed the shell is, it’s still attached to the internal skeletal structure. So, severe shell deformation needs to be addressed before the tortoise dies.

Can a Tortoise Regrow Its Shell?

Tortoises are born with shells, and that’s the shell they keep for the rest of their lives. If the shell is cracked and the damage is serious enough, the tortoise won’t recover because shell regrowth is impossible.

However, tortoises can heal their shells as long as the layer under the upper keratin layer isn’t damaged.

According to the Italian Journal of Zoology, tortoises develop scars where injured. It was noted that naturally-occurring shell injuries were mostly observed in the posterior zone of the carapace.

Surface cracks on the upper layer of the shell can heal after a few weeks. Anything deeper than that may require surgery to ensure the tortoise’s internal organs are not compromised.

Even a surface-level shell crack can become fatal if not treated properly. This is because bacteria can enter the crack and eat away at the tortoise’s shell, causing further cracks until the shell deteriorates.

Are Tortoises Born with Their Shells?

A tortoise’s shell forms along with the tortoise itself in the egg. The shell is fully formed when the baby tortoise hatches, albeit much softer than an adult tortoise’s shell.

Tortoises don’t molt and grow a new shell; they keep the same shell they are born with for their entire lives. The shell grows along with the rest of the body, provided the tortoise is eating well.

The outer keratin layer will flake off as the tortoise and shell grow. This ceases once the tortoise has reached its full adult size.