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Why Don’t Tortoises Have Teeth?

(Last Updated On: January 26, 2023)

Tortoises can bite, munch, and pull things around with their mouths. This implies using teeth, which most animals possess, but tortoises have different anatomy.

Instead of teeth, tortoises have strong beaks. They consist of an upper and lower jaw, both of which have a set of ridges or hard slabs of bone.

These beaks allow tortoises to grab food or objects, which can then be guided into their mouths using a tongue. Tortoises can rub the two ridges together to grind food and pull with their necks to tear pieces of food from larger wholes.

There are some drawbacks to not having teeth. Even still, tortoises evolved without teeth, using creative means of getting around any disadvantages.

Why Didn’t Tortoises Evolve to Have Teeth?

Tortoises don’t have teeth because they do not need them for survival.

As reptiles, they evolved with a lifestyle that enabled them to gain everything they needed without using teeth. Animals that have teeth require them for tasks such as:

  • Hunting
  • Self-defense
  • Digesting food
  • Carrying items

No Hunting

Tortoises are foragers. They don’t hunt for the food they eat, so they don’t need to attack any prey. Tigers, foxes, wolves, and other animals need teeth to kill their prey and rip the meat off the carcass.

Although some tortoises are omnivores and eat meat, they’re opportunistic eaters and only do so when they can find it. If they find a dead carcass with meat they can eat, they can rip it off with their strong beaks.

Better Means of Defense

Many animals use their teeth for self-defense. Tortoises already have the best defense mechanism in the form of their carapace.

Instead of fighting back with teeth and claws, tortoises hide in their shells and wait until their attacker gets tired.

Complex Digestion

Many animals with teeth need to chew their food to break it down so it’s easier to digest. Tortoises, on the other hand, don’t.

A tortoise’s digestion accommodates the lack of food and water found in its natural environment.

So, tortoises can break down the food’s water and nutrient content with their digestive tract, so they don’t need to chew on anything to digest it properly.

No Need To Carry

Animals with teeth often use them to carry things. For example, felines pick up their offspring with their teeth, but tortoises don’t.

When their offspring hatch, tortoises leave their young to fend for themselves. There’s no need to develop teeth for grooming or child-rearing.

How Do Tortoises Eat with No Teeth?

Tortoises may not have teeth, but they have strong, sharp beaks to help them eat food. This is paired with large tongues that push the food down their throats.

When it’s time to eat, tortoises extend their neck and bite the food in front of them.

Though they may not have teeth, tortoises still have mandible strength. They can easily bite down on vegetables and meats and pull them into their mouths.

Food doesn’t fall out due to their large tongue, despite the lack of teeth. The tongue is a muscle that guides, holds, and pushes food where it needs to go.

Tortoise Mouth Anatomy

Tortoise mouths have three major components that help them eat:

  • Beak
  • Tongue
  • Salivary glands.

Tortoise beaks are less comparable to teeth and more like nails. The beaks grow continuously, so tortoises have to eat rough food to grind them down.

If a tortoise were to lose the tip of its beak, it would grow back eventually.

The closest thing tortoises have to “baby teeth” is the keratinous little bump on the front of the snout they use to hatch. According to the Journal of Zoology, this bump is called a caruncle, and hatchlings use it to break the egg’s surface. Once they’re out, the caruncle falls off.

According to the Journal of Morphology, the tongue fills the most space inside a tortoise’s mouth. The muscle is elongated and thick, and large, sharp papillae cover the surface. These bumps, which we normally call “taste buds,” enable tortoises to grip their food while it’s in the mouth.

Then, there are the salivary glands located on the mouth’s floor. Tortoises have two salivary glands, one on each side of the tongue.

do tortoise chew their food?

Do Tortoises Chew Their Food?

Tortoises tear off pieces holding food in their beaks and pulling. They don’t chew food like humans.

Once the food is in their mouths, tortoises grind the bone slabs that make up their beaks forward and backward. Tortoises guide the food down their throat using this motion and the help of their tongue.

Most pieces of food are large and unchewed by the point of swallowing. Tortoises don’t need to grind their meals into smaller sizes because their effective digestive system breaks down the whole food independently.

Salivary glands assist this because tortoise saliva contains unique enzymes that soften and break down food before it travels into the digestive tract.

It isn’t known why tortoises developed these special salivary glands over developing teeth. Evolution settled for the glands instead because they wouldn’t use them for hunting or self-defense.

Another theory is that tortoises used to have teeth, but the trait died out due to lack of use. According to Nature, a stem turtle called Proganochelys once had teeth. There may be a closer ancestral relative to the tortoise with this biological trait that has yet to be discovered.

Can Tortoises Taste Food?

Tortoises can taste food, as they have large taste buds all over their tongue. Still, many believe these taste buds – or papillae – only serve the purpose of gripping the tortoise’s food. However, tortoises have a taste pore at the center of their tongue.

Tortoises use this to develop preferences on flavor and texture. Genes and upbringing determine the exact composition of the taste pore.

Depending on the characteristics inherited from its parents and the foods it’s used to eating, a tortoise will favor certain foods over others.

Tortoises are opportunistic eaters. Theoretically, they shouldn’t discriminate against food since they need the nutrients to survive.

However, developing a sense of taste is evolutionarily advantageous, which can help a tortoise determine which foods have more nutrients than others.

Do Tortoise Bites Hurt?

Despite not having teeth, tortoises have strong jaws that connect to sharp bone ridges at the front of their mouths. These make up the beak. The sharp ridge can break off, but it’s sturdy, especially when biting into soft flesh.

How much a tortoise bite hurts depends on its size and species. Bigger tortoises will have a stronger bite. Those with the strongest bite force include:

  • Hingeback tortoise
  • Elongated tortoise
  • Red-footed tortoise
  • Yellow-footed tortoise

Notice that all four tortoises are omnivores. Herbivore species don’t bite as hard since fruits and vegetables aren’t as difficult to chew as meat.

Do You Have to Trim Tortoise Beaks?

Tortoise beaks grow continuously and are regularly sanded down by eating rough food. If the beak grows too long, however, the tortoise may not be able to eat properly.

At times, domestic tortoises are provided with soft food diets. Their beaks then grow too long, so they need to be trimmed by a human.

Beak trimming is risky, and you could harm your tortoise if you’re inexperienced. So, it’s wise to bring your tortoise to a reptile vet, who can trim the beak using a professional grinding tool.

Can Tortoises Get Beak Cavities?

Although tortoises don’t have teeth, their beak can rot. Like humans, who can develop cavities, tortoises can develop stomatitis, which is beak rot.

A tortoise’s mouth contains a lot of bacteria, but this usually doesn’t affect healthy tortoises. The problem arises when the tortoise has a mouth or beak injury.

The injury can get infected, and that infection can spread to the rest of the mouth. The tissue around the mouth area deteriorates, and if the infection gets bad enough, it may reach the tortoise’s bones.

Beak rot can affect a tortoise’s ability to eat properly. If treated early on, the beak will grow back. If left untreated for too long, the tortoise may have trouble eating for the rest of its life.