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Home > Turtles > Are Turtles Born with Shells? Growth Stages Explained

Are Turtles Born with Shells? Growth Stages Explained

painted turtle hatchling crawling along shoreline of pond

You may already know that female turtles leave the ocean at night and dig a nest in the sand to lay their eggs. They then cover their eggs with sand and head back into the ocean, leaving their eggs to incubate for the next few weeks. You may even know that turtle eggs look like soft ping-pong balls, but what you may not know is that when they hatch, and the baby turtle emerges, each one already has its shell.

These shells aren’t the hard and heavy shells that adult turtles are known to have, instead, they’re soft and small. As the turtle develops, their shells become harder, which is essential for their survival. There is so much to learn about these hatchlings and how they develop, so continue reading to discover the fascinating growth stages of a turtle.


The 4 Growth Stages of a Turtle

1. Turtle Eggs

close up turtle eggs on ground
Image Credit: Sunset Paper, Shutterstock

A female turtle can lay around 110 eggs in a nest, which is called a clutch. However, this does vary between the different turtle species, with some laying an average of 50 eggs and others laying up to 200 eggs. It is possible, and even likely, that one nest will have hatchlings from several males. Eggs must be laid in the sand and not the water for them to hatch because the embryos breathe air while in the eggs. This is possible due to the membranes in the shell that allow air in.

A turtle egg is about the size of a ping pong ball and is typically round, unlike the oval shape of a chicken egg. They feel similar to bird eggs and are cream-colored. You’ll be able to distinguish these eggs from other similar-looking eggs such as snake eggs, because they will be buried. Not all eggs in a clutch will develop into a hatchling, as some can be infertile.

Interestingly, it’s the temperature of the nest that determines whether the majority of the eggs will be female or male. Eggs buried in warmer temperatures will have more females, and eggs buried in cooler temperatures will result in a higher number of males.

Once the mother has laid her eggs and concealed the clutch, she’ll return to the ocean, never to come back and leaving her eggs to incubate until they hatch. This will usually be around 3 months.

2. Hatchlings

Newly hatched baby turtles
Image Credit: Florida Chuck,Shutterstock

Once one baby turtle has hatched, the others will follow soon after, and together they will climb and break out of their covered hole, instinctively making their way to the ocean. It’s important that these baby turtles exit together because one cannot break out of the chamber alone due to their small size and the hole’s depth, so they must work together.

Once out of the nest, the turtles will work toward the ocean altogether or in groups as a survival tactic. Turtles left behind will be easier to spot by their predators and will have a lower chance of surviving their journey.

Hatchlings instinctively know to go straight to the ocean once they’ve exited their chamber because they’re attracted to light, and the ocean will be the brightest light because the moonlight reflects on the water. Once they enter the water, these hatchlings will swim for several days to reach the deep ocean waters.

3. Juvenile Turtles

Human holding a Painted Turtle
Image Credit: Scottslm, Pixabay

A turtle will have the same shell as an adult that they had when they hatched because they cannot leave their shell, nor can they grow a new one. However, if damage occurs to the shell, the cracked parts can regrow. Their shells are a part of their body, connected by nerves, ribs, and their spinal cord. It has feeling, which is how a turtle knows when they are being touched. Removing their shell would cause extreme pain and kill them.

A juvenile turtle is a turtle that is older than a hatchling but younger than an adult turtle. It is similar to the teenage phase that humans grow through. Juvenile turtles will move from the deep ocean waters that they reached as a hatchling to the coastal regions because this is where the foraging grounds are and where they will consume the food they need to grow into adult turtles. The downside is that it is a lot more dangerous because it’s also home to many predators, like large sharks and killer whales.

The juvenile phase can be anywhere from 7 to 50 years, depending on the type of turtle.

4. Adult Turtles

terrapin turtle having sun bath
Image Credit: scuba design, Shutterstock

When the turtle reaches adulthood, they will move once again. This time from the coastal regions back to where they were born. They do this to mate and, for the females, lay their eggs. Interestingly, female turtles typically will go back to the same beach that they hatched on and will lay their eggs there. They will continue to do this for every nesting season, which occurs between March and October, and may have up to seven clutches during that one season.

Although dependent on the species of turtle, turtles can live anywhere from 10 to 150 years but most commonly live to around 30 years. A few turtles with a shorter lifespan are Box Turtles, Map Turtles, Mud Turtles, Reeves Turtles, and Spiny softshell Turtles. Spotted Turtles, among others, can live for much longer. The larger the species of turtle, the longer it is likely to live.

divider-turtle What Happens to a Turtle’s Shell When It Dies?

Apart from being eaten or attacked by predators in the wild, a large number of turtles die each year because of humans and their impact. Around 1,000 turtles die every year because of eating plastic, with the majority of these being young turtles. They also often die from being tangled in fishing nets, being caught on fishing hooks, being hunted for their meat, eggs, and shells, and due to the destruction of their habitats because of new buildings and other coastal development.

When a turtle dies, their body will decompose quickly, but the shell will not. The shell is part of the turtle’s skeleton and consists of bone, the rib cage, and the spinal cord. The shell can take around 50 years to decompose, so many pet owners keep the shell of their passed turtles as a keepsake. In the wild, other sea creatures may live in empty turtle shells, or you may stumble upon a sand-filled one on the beach.

Empty turtle shell
Image Credit: Jesse Blanchard,Shutterstock

divider-turtle Conclusion

A turtle is born with their shell, and they will have the same one until they die. Hatchlings have soft shells, but as they grow and develop, these shells will harden to protect them from danger and keep them warm. Although turtles decompose quickly when they die, the shells will likely stay intact for around 50 years, which is longer than the lifespan of some species of turtles that only live for around 10 years. Other types of turtles can live as long as 150 years!

Featured Image Credit: JJ Gouin, Shutterstock

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