What Does a Turtle Look Like Without a Shell? Hopefully, You Will Never Find Out

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Dec. 13 2023, Published 5:23 p.m. ET

A Western Box Turtle faces towards the camera as it stands still within a pile of dirt.
Source: Getty Images

The Gist:

  • A turtle's shell is part of the animal's spine, and removing it would be deadly for the turtle.
  • Keratin, the protein that comprises our nails and hair, is also part of a turtle's shell.
  • The shell of a turtle provides protection from nature, including predators.
  • Softshell turtles look like shell-less turtles, and we have some awesome photos and videos.
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You might be wondering what a turtle looks like without their shell. The answer, unfortunately, is macabre, as an unprotected turtle without their shell is likely dead.

Per the Georgia-based Chattahoochee Nature Center, the shell is made of bone, contains the same protein (keratin) found in human nails and hair, and is part of the turtle's spine. A turtle's shell provides protection from inclement weather, predators, and how the animal soaks in vitamin D from the sun. Any injury to the shell, much like an untreated fracture to a human bone, can lead to infection, and ultimately, death.

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A Green Sea Turtle swims in clear-green-blue water, just above the grey sand.
Source: Getty Images

What does a turtle look like without a shell?

A turtle without a shell is a dead turtle. Unlike a hermit crab (or a cartoon turtle), who can live without their shell and undergo the process of molting, a turtle's shell is part of their skeletal system, per the CK-12 Foundation. The turtle and the shell, therefore, are inseparable.

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Per a Wildlife Explained video, a turtle's spinal cord is part of their shell, and without it, the turtle would be unable to continue living. As described by Grunge, a turtle without their shell would look "gross", especially as the turtle would be separated from its ribs and pelvic bone. (And, well, a turtle kind of needs those to live.)

That doesn't mean that all turtles look the same! In fact, the critically endangered black softshell turtle, as explained on the encyclopedic website Animalia, looks nothing like a typical hard-shelled turtle, with the skin, shell, face, and body differing in various ways.

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The spiny softshell turtle, meanwhile, has a rubbery shell and a nose that resembles a pig, according to the National Wildlife Federation. According to Britannica, there are more than 350 species of turtle, many of which have varying types of shells.

A baby turtle looks out at the sea while laying on the sand several feet before the waves.
Source: iStock
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Is it a turtle without a shell or is it a softshell turtle?

Unfortunately, there aren't really any images out there of shelled turtles without their shells — that's because, as mentioned above, a turtle's shell is connected to their spine. It's pretty much impossible to remove a turtle's insides from their shell without cruelly and bloodily taking apart the creature's body, and turning it into a bloody pile of body parts.

Here's a look at what exactly is inside of a turtle's shell:

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Remember, a turtle will not and cannot voluntarily leave their shell, which is attached to their spine. If you ever do stumble upon what appears to be a live turtle without their shell in the wild, at a zoo, or at a sanctuary, it's actually likely just a softshell turtle.

Softshell turtles actually look exactly how one might picture a turtle who slithered out of their shell to look.

Here are a few images and videos of softshell turtles, which many people mistake for turtles who escaped from their shells.

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A black softshell turtles in murky water
Source: Getty Images

Black softshell turtles, known as Bostami turtles, are seen in the shrine pond of Hazrat Bayezid Bostami within the World Turtle Day in Chittagong, Bangladesh on May 19, 2022

When talking about turtles, the most important thing to note is that many turtle species are endangered and face extinction. Click here for a few ways you can support turtles all around the world!

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