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Do Turtles Have Scales? (Why And What Are They For?)

By Kerry
Updated on

Have you ever wondered if turtles have scales? I mean, they are reptiles, after all. But you’ve probably never heard of a turtle shedding its scales the way snakes often do.

Well, this article is going to answer exactly that and answer some of your most frequently asked questions on the subject along the way.

Turtle scales

This includes why the turtles have scales, where they are positioned, and many more. By the end of the article, you’ll be able to impress your friends with just how much you know about turtle scales.

(Please feel free to scroll ahead to any section that jumps out at you.) Here goes!

What Are Scales?

Scales are basically small rigid plates that grow out of an animal’s skin to provide protection to the animal.

Scales are most commonly seen on reptiles such as snakes, but they are also present with a great many other animals as well.

Do Turtles Have Scales?

The truth is, while turtles don’t have traditional scales as such, their shell does, however, contain tiny scales, like little teeth, called dermal denticles, which have a lot in common with scales.

So the answer is Yes, turtles do, in fact, have scales of a sort.

Where Do Turtles Have These “Scales”?

Although we have answered this already, it does bear repeating here for clarity. Turtle scales, known as dermal denticles, are located on the turtle’s shell.

Do Turtles Have Scales On Their Skin?

Turtle's skin

Strangely enough, a turtle’s shell does count as its skin. In fact, in total, a turtle’s shell is composed of bones, collagen, skin, and keratin.

All About Dermal Denticles On Turtles

A turtle’s scales, known as dermal denticles, are located on the top of their shell, and they can serve several different functions.

They can provide protection from predators, they can help them move through water, and they can even act as sensory organs.

These dermal denticles look very similar to those found on fish, so it’s not surprising that scientists once believed that they actually evolved from scales.

However, recent research has shown that these are actually quite unique structures.

The dermal denticle is composed of two layers of cells, each containing a nucleus. Each layer has a distinct function. The outer layer contains melanocytes, which produce pigment.

This protects the turtle against UV radiation. The inner layer contains keratinocytes, which form the protective shell.

And together, these two layers serve to protect the turtle from predators who cannot bite through these strong layers.

Dermal denticles help move a turtle through water by allowing it to swim quickly without having to expend energy.

It’s thought that when the turtle dives into the water, its body expands, causing the dermal denticles to scrape off and float up to the surface.

They also serve as sensory organs. When a predator bites into a turtle’s shell, the turtle will sense it and then retract its head back into its shell.

The denticles allow the turtle to see what’s happening around it by detecting light reflected off of the predator’s teeth.

This helps the turtle avoid being eaten by giving it time to retreat inside its shell before the predator gets close enough to attack.

So, I think you’ll agree these multi-purpose dermal denticles are quite something and are much more beneficial to turtles than mere scales would be.

How Did Scientists Discover That Turtles Had Scales?

People studying about turtles

It all started with some old fossils. Back in 1876, paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope was studying fossilized remains of ancient sea creatures.

He noticed something strange about one particular specimen: there were small bumps on its shell.

He sent the sample to his colleague Othniel Charles Marsh, who confirmed that the bumps were indeed scales. But he wasn’t sure how they got there.

Marsh began to study the fossil further and eventually came across an article written by another scientist named Samuel Hubbard.

In the article, Hubbard mentioned that turtles had scales but didn’t say where they were located.

Marsh decided to take a closer look at the fossil and realized that the bumps weren’t scales after all. Instead, they were tiny spikes called dermal denticles.

Do Turtles Have To Shed Their Scales/Shells Like Snakes Have To Shed Their Scaly Skin?

Turtles can and do shed their shells, and they do so every year or so, depending on the species. It’s thought that this helps keep the turtles warm during hibernation, but there’s no real evidence to support this theory.

It’s important to note that when a snake sheds its scales, it doesn’t necessarily lose all of them. Instead, it only loses the ones that are damaged or broken off.

For example, if a snake gets caught up in something, it will often leave behind one or two of its scales.

When a turtle sheds its shell, it does so by simply growing new ones. As a result, the old shell never entirely disappears, and remnants will remain.

How Does A Turtle Shed Its Shell (And In Doing So, Shed Its Denticles)?

There are two main methods by which a turtle sheds its shells:

A turtle sheds its shell in two ways. Firstly, if a turtle wants to grow a new shell, it will first need to molt. Molt means “to change” in Latin and refers to shedding your old shell.

During molting, a turtle will shed its old skin and replace it with a new one.

Secondly, a turtle may choose to shed its entire shell at any time. This happens most commonly in turtles that live in cold climates.

When a turtle chooses to shed its shell, it will begin to eat less and sleep more.

Eventually, it will stop eating altogether and will start to lay eggs. Then eventually, after about five months or so, the turtle will sadly die.

Final Thoughts

So, there you have it; while turtles do not have scales in the traditional sense of the word, they do have something similar, which serves them better than any scales would – they have tiny multi-purpose dermal denticles!

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About the author


Kerry White is an avid dog lover and writer, knowing all there is to know about our furry friends. Kerry has been writing for PetDT for three years now, wanting to use her knowledge for good and share everything she can with new dog owners.Kerry has two dogs herself - a German shepherd called Banjo and a chocolate labrador called Buttons. Kerry knows more than anyone how adjusting to new life with a puppy can turn your life upside down, and she wants to ease some of the burdens through her articles.