Turtles are known for several characteristic traits that are not shared by many others in the animal kingdom. Perhaps most notable is their shell which helps protect them from predators. Although there are some turtles that can hunt smaller animals, most are primarily herbivores. The anatomy of this animal adapts as much to what they eat as to how they do it. This includes your entire gastrointestinal system, the beginning of which is your mouth. Since turtles are known primarily as prey rather than predators, do they need teeth?
Let’s answer this question!
Do sea turtles have teeth?
There is some confusion about the use of the word “turtle”. In some places, especially in North America, the word “tortoise” is used to describe all kinds of animals within the order of reptiles known as Testudines. However, in other English-speaking regions, turtle generally refers only to sea turtles. In these areas, freshwater tortoises are known as galapagos and tortoises are known as tortoises.
For our purposes, we will refer to all of them as turtles, but we will still see them as separate groups. To begin, we analyze whether aquatic turtles have teeth. Some species of sea turtles include:
- Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas)
- Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)
- Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta)
- Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)
- Kemp’s olive ridley turtle (Lepidochelys kempii)
As for some types of freshwater or semi-aquatic turtles, we find:
- Pond slider (Trachemys scripta)
- Pig-nosed Tortoise (Carettochelys insculpta)
- Spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata)
- Razorback musk turtle (Sternotherus carinatus)
Although turtles have certain common physical characteristics, each group also has its own unique characteristics. The shape of the head and mouth can vary considerably between species. Some will have a hooked beak structure, reminiscent of various species of birds. Others will have a much more rounded mouth and some, like pig-nosed turtles, have bumps that are different from the others.
As for whether sea turtles have teeth, the answer is no. In fact, no species of turtle has teeth. The reason is that they are not required to eat their food. Unlike many predators that have canines to kill their prey and eat their meat, turtles do not need to attack in the same way.
Not having teeth does not mean that a turtle’s mouth is soft. Turtles have a keratin border that lines their jaws that is very hard and sometimes serrated. These edges can be very sharp and appear like a jagged ridge, making them look a bit like a row of teeth. However, they are not dental structures like real teeth.
Do turtles have teeth?
As stated above, tortoises are a type of tortoise that essentially constitute tortoises. Examples of different species of turtles include:
- Red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria)
- Common box turtle (Terrapene carolina)
- Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni)
- Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)
- Santiago Island Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis darwini)
Land tortoises also don’t have teeth. Although they can develop serrated keratin edges like many sea turtles, they tend to do so to a lesser extent. The force of a turtle’s bite will vary depending on the individual species. Generally, it correlates with the strength they need for what they eat, something that we will explain later.
How do toothless turtles eat?
The diet of a turtle will depend on the individual species. Some are completely herbivores, while others can be carnivores or omnivores. In fact, some tortoises previously thought to be herbivores have been seen stalking and eating live prey.
What the turtle eats will be reflected in its anatomy, as some will need sharper mouths to consume certain foods. In general, we can see that carnivorous tortoises have the strongest bite, especially durophagus tortoises. Durophagus tortoises are those that feed on hard-shelled animals, requiring stronger bites to break through meat.
Other tortoises can only eat relatively soft foliage, which means they don’t need a very strong bite. Although they do not have teeth, they will use the ridges of their keratinous mouths to chew their food for digestion. This is often a slow process that helps break down food before swallowing and is another reason why many people think that turtles have teeth.
Do snapping turtles have teeth?
As they are a species of turtle, snapping turtles do not have teeth. However, they are particularly known for their bite. There are several species of snapping turtles, but they all belong to the Chelydridae family. The best known is the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). They are a type of freshwater turtle and are omnivores in their diet.
Common snapping turtles have a very strong bite that can be used to eat a variety of prey and other foods. Although their eggs are vulnerable to scavengers from birds and other animals, adult snapping turtles are often the highest animal in their food chain. They generally own their domain and have little reason to fear. It is for this reason that they are not usually afraid of people.