A tortoise’s most iconic feature is its scutes. Aside from aesthetics, scutes are important for a tortoise’s health and safety. Unfortunately, different ailments can affect the scutes.
All tortoise species are vulnerable to shell issues when they’re young. Adjusting the temperature or humidity, diet, soaking time, supplements, or medication may be necessary.
What Are Scutes On A Tortoise?
The scutes are the divisions, or sections, on a tortoise’s shell, shaped like a shield or a rounded square.
The shell of the tortoise is beneath the scutes. The scutes protect the shell, while the shell protects the internal bones and organs.
Scutes are made up of keratin, allowing them to grow, shed, and protect the shell.
Tortoises also have scutes on the plastron (lower portion of the shell). However, the scutes in this area are much thinner than those on the carapace (the upper portion of the shell).
When scutes are damaged, a tortoise will have a harder time defending itself. Damage to the scutes can also lead to infection, which can cause complications in other parts of the body.
Scutes indicate the health of your tortoise. For example, dry scutes can indicate dehydration, while uneven scutes can indicate malnutrition.
Scutes are usually the last symptoms you’ll see on an unhealthy tortoise.
Physical damage to the scutes is long-lasting and often irreversible. For this reason, they’re rarely helpful if you want to check your tortoise’s current health status.
How Many Scutes Does A Tortoise Have?
Tortoises usually have 38 scutes on the carapace and 12-14 scutes on the plastron. Some tortoises have extra scutes, which are split scutes caused by a dividing line, making one scute into two.
How the scutes are arranged depends on the species of tortoise. All species will have different scute patterns and shell shapes, which is part of the diversity of the species.
Common Scute Problems
It’s important to know the common problems scutes have and how to treat them.
Tortoise Scutes Falling Off
Scutes falling off can be a natural process called shedding.
Normal shedding should be a regular occurrence, happening once every few months. You should see new, healthy scutes underneath the peeling ones.
However, tortoises shouldn’t peel constantly. Check the area if you notice constant flaking on your tortoise’s scutes. The chances are that your tortoise was injured, infected, hit itself on a rock, or got parasites.
Treat this injury much like any other wound. Keep it clean and watch out for signs of infection. If the wound is large, consider taking it to a vet for dressing.
Tortoise Scutes Separating
If the scutes are separating, you’re likely dealing with shell growth. However, if the scutes separate from the shell, your tortoise may be in poor health.
Separating From Each Other
Look for a line or gap between the tortoise’s scutes, called a growth line.
This is a normal part of shell growth. When the shell grows, the scutes will need to adjust to cover the new area of the shell.
The scutes will move farther away from each other, causing a growth line. Within this separation, new scutes will grow.
How do you know if separation is healthy or not? The best way to tell is the quality of the separation. Growth lines should be firm and range from yellow to white to tan.
Eventually, this color will change to match the color of the rest of the scutes as the keratin is exposed to sunlight. For example, the new scutes will lighten with age in Russian tortoises, while scutes will darken in sulcatas. Tortoises grow slowly, so expect this change to occur over up to 2 years.
Growth lines are prone to injury, as these spaces will be thinner. They’re more vulnerable to being hit by hard objects and are more sensitive to hot temperatures.
If damage occurs, you can put some tortoise-safe topical medication on the injury, like Neosporin.
Separating from The Shell
Scutes should never separate, even in shedding tortoises. Shedding only happens on the outer layers and shouldn’t affect how the scutes are attached to the shell.
Scutes will separate from the shell when the blood supply is cut off, which may be due to injury, infection, or disease. It can take a while for the scute to come away, as keratin will stay on top of the shell.
Scutes separating from the shell can indicate Metabolic Bone Disease. (MBD). This disease occurs when there is too little calcium or too much phosphorus in the body.
If your tortoise has lost a scute, check to see if the bulbs emit UVB, as not all bulbs do. Replace all UV bulbs after 6 months, as the amount of light they emit after 6 months is not enough for your tortoise.
Ensure that the wattage and distance of your bulbs are correct. Likewise, avoid feeding your tortoise phosphorus-rich food, and prioritize food high in calcium and vitamin D.
While it seems drastic, a tortoise can recover from a lost scute. As long as the problem is addressed, the scute will regrow.
Monitor the exposed spot, as this will be prone to injury and infection.
Flared scutes refer to those which curl outward or upward from the edge. You’ll see this on the marginal scutes or the lowest layer of scutes on the carapace.
In most cases, flared scutes are nothing to be worried about. Flares are expected in many species, particularly in one sex over the other.
The most prominent example of flared scutes is the testudo marginata, which can have extreme flares. In some testudos, this might even look like a skirt.
However, if your tortoise shouldn’t have flares, this can indicate poor shell growth. Ensure that your tortoise is fed a healthy diet and that its habitat has the right conditions.
Flared scutes can’t be fixed or reversed. However, most flares shouldn’t interfere with a tortoise’s quality of life. As long as the cause is addressed, your tortoise should return to a healthy life.
Pyramiding Scutes On Tortoise
Pyramiding refers to the scutes growing upward, creating a triangular shape.
The tips of the pyramid may be rounded or pointed. Some scutes may cause taller pyramids than others, but pyramiding still affects all the scutes.
This abnormal growth often happens within the first 2 years of a tortoise’s life. In healthy tortoises, new scutes grow horizontally, so they can cater to a bigger shell. However, when the scutes grow vertically, it causes pyramiding.
There’s no one definite reason why pyramiding can happen. For example, according to Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology, pyramiding can be caused by a diet high in fiber. Likewise, the African Journal of Herpetology notes that a low calcium-phosphorus ratio can cause pyramiding.
Scutes that are pyramided can’t be fixed or reversed. Thankfully, pyramiding itself won’t harm your tortoise. Extreme pyramiding can hinder a male tortoise from mounting a female.
Extra Scutes On Tortoise
Extra scutes are often called split scutes because one scute is ‘split’ into two, creating two where there should be one. You’ll see this as a line separating the scute into two.
Theories suggest that split scutes are genetic, although some tortoises will be born with them even if their parents do not have them.
Another common theory is that scutes split because of improper incubation. If temperatures and humidity levels are too low, the eggs can hatch with a split scute.
Split scutes are almost always cosmetic and won’t harm your tortoise. Tortoises with split scutes are usually cheaper than other tortoises, and many owners consider them more unique.
Keeping these conditions in mind and watching for signs can prevent these shell problems. Even if tortoises can live with most issues, it’s better to take preemptive measures.