Turtle Shell & Shedding: Everything You Need to Know

Yellow Bellied Sliders are some of the most popular pet turtles around. They have unique spots on their bodies, are relatively easy to care for, and make all-around great pets. Like other turtle species, the shell of your Yellow Bellied Slider is an important part of your turtle’s body.

Consequently, it’s important that you know about your Yellow Bellied Slider’s shell. If you do not know how the shell works and why your turtle has it, you could end up harming the turtle. For example, did you know that the shell is essentially your turtle’s rib cage?

To learn more about your Yellow Bellied Slider’s shell, keep reading. This guide answers all of your most common questions about your turtle’s shell.

How did turtles get their shells?

Turtles develop their shells in the embryonic state. While they are still embryos, the rib bones fuse with the backbones to form what will become the shell. The upper part of the shell is called the carapace, while the lower part is known as the plastron. These two parts are connected by the bridge, which is a bony material.

It is believed that turtles developed the ability to grow shells for digging purposes millions of years ago, but they are mainly used for protection today. Because the turtle shell is the fusing of rib bones and backbones, most scientists believe that the shell developed as an adaptation to the rib cage.

Can turtles survive without a shell?

No. Turtles cannot survive without a shell. The reason for this is that turtles are actually connected or attached to their shells. The shell is physically a part of the turtle’s body, much like your arm bone is a part of your body. More so, it is essentially the turtle’s rib cage.

If you removed the turtle’s shell, you would essentially be removing the turtle’s rib cage. In other words, turtles would quickly die if you were to remove the shell. Even if they could survive for a little bit without the shell, they would lose their most basic form of protection.

Can they regrow their shell?

If the turtle experiences major damage to its shell, it will most likely die because damaging the shell is equivalent to damaging your rib cage. That being said, the shell is made from living materials, which means the shell does have the ability to regrow and repair itself.

Let’s say that your turtle gets a small crack or hole in its shell. As long as the damage is minimal, the turtle shell will slowly be able to repair itself and regrow the spot. This process is long, though. To speed up the process, many people bring their turtle to the veterinarian who will use bonding material to fix the broken spot.

Do they feel their shell?

Turtles can feel their shell, and they can even tell whenever you touch their shells. The turtle shell is made from bones and covered and scutes, which are essentially plates. The scutes are made up of keratin, which is the same material your fingernails are made from.

There are nerve endings all throughout the bone of the shell, and the nerve endings are sensitive enough that they can feel you touch the top plates. So, be gentle when you are feeling a turtle shell since they can feel everything.

What do they do when inside their shell?

All of the turtle’s internal organs are inside the shells. As a result, a turtle can only pull its head back so far inside the shell. Turtles fit their heads inside the shell by bending their necks in a certain way so that they can maximize the space of the shell. This allows their head to be safely protected inside the shell without cramping the internal organs.

Most of the time, turtles will bring their limbs or head into the shell whenever they are startled. They will sit and wait until they feel the predator has passed.

Do they sleep in their shells?

Many turtles sleep inside their shells on instinct. In the wild, turtles will do this to protect themselves against predators while they’re in their most vulnerable state. Pet turtles also do the same. They will sleep inside their shell on instinct. That being said, not all turtles sleep in their shells. It’s ultimately up to the individual turtle.

Do they change shells?

No. Turtles do not change shells. Instead, the turtle shell is essentially its rib cage. The shell that the turtle is born with is the shell it will have for the rest of its life. With the turtle, the shell will grow to accommodate the turtles growing body.

What happens if a turtle cracks their shell?

What happens when a turtle cracks its shell ultimately depends on the severity of the crack. Less serious cracks or holes can be repaired by the shell. Because the shell is essentially bone, the living material will grow and repair the cracked area.

However, severe cracks can be fatal to the turtle. If the entire shell is crushed, the organs inside will get crushed as well, and the turtle will die. If your turtle has a severe crack and you are worried about its health, you can always take the turtle to the vet. Veterinarians can use bonding materials to bond the turtle shell in the meantime.

Do their shells shed?

Yes and no. The bone part of a turtle shell grows throughout the turtle’s life. This bone does not shed at all, but it grows.

The scutes on top of the bone, though, shed. These plates will shed as the bone grows. The scute shedding process is very similar to your skin shedding. As your body grows, your skin is shed, and new skin cells are constantly taking the place of the old cells. The exact same happens with the turtle scutes.

You can expect your turtle’s legs, tail, and face to shed as well.

How often do they shed?

Most Yellow Bellied Sliders begin shedding when they are between one and three years old. Once the shedding starts, you can expect your slider to begin shedding regularly for the rest of their lives. Most Yellow Bellied Sliders shed every month or two.

What to do if they shed

Once you notice that your turtle has started shedding, it’s important to create a healthy environment for the turtle to swim in. Remove sharp objects that can cause injury, and make sure to maintain the temperature appropriately.

Do you help them or leave it?

As long as your turtle is shedding healthfully, you do not need to help the turtle shed. Just leave it, and the shoot will come off on its own. If you think that your turtle is having trouble shedding its scutes, take it to the vet because some shedding is a sign of deficiencies and health problems.

Why is my turtle scratching its shell?

If your YBS is scratching its shell, you have nothing to worry about. Because your turtle shell is filled with keratin and nerve endings, shells feel sensations, just like your skin. If your turtle feels something on its shell, it will scratch the shell in order to accommodate the sensation.

Final thoughts

As you can see, Yellow Bellied Sliders are interesting creatures, as are turtles as a whole. Unlike most other shelled species, turtles are actually born with their shell and cannot change shells. To remove the turtle from its shell would kill it.

Now that you know the most important information about turtle shells, you can apply this information to your Yellow Bellied Slider. Make sure to pay attention to your turtle’s shell and be gentle when touching it since turtles can feel everything.

If you notice that your turtle shell is shedding, that is completely normal. Yellow Bellied Sliders typically shed every few months. There’s no need to prevent the shedding, but make sure that the aquarium is free of any sharp spots that could injure the turtle during the shedding process.


Chris is a reptile enthusiast, breeder, and blogger from the Milwaukee, WI area. After breeding hundreds of bearded dragons to supply local pet stores and owning many other types of reptiles, he is now focused on sharing knowledge to help owners properly care for their little reptiles friends.

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