Turtles, at least mine, will try to chew up anything that looks remotely edible. In fact, it doesn’t even have to look edible. Plastic toys, rocks, poop – you name it. Nonetheless, it’s quite amusing to see them nibble on with their tiny mouths. So, how do their bodies support this insatiable appetite? Do turtles have teeth? Or do they rely on something else?
Do Turtles Have Teeth? Today, there are 356 turtle species, and none of them have teeth. Depending on the species, turtles have sharp beaks, spikes, and strong jaws to chew their food and attack prey. Baby turtles are born with one single tooth, which helps them peck through the egg. But it falls out soon after hatching.
However, their ancestors weren’t so dentally challenged, according to recent scientific findings. An international team of researchers found out that turtles with remnants of teeth lived until 160 million years ago.
Now, let’s tackle some of the most frequently asked questions before exploring how they survive with no teeth.
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Do Snapping Turtles Have Teeth?
No, snapping turtles don’t have teeth. But as primary carnivores, they have a sharp and robust beak that can easily pierce through the skin. Thus, they can take down prey like rabbits, ducks, and fish without much difficulty in the wild.
A snapping turtle also uses its beak in defense when threatened. And mind you, it can cause severe casualties.
Here’s an interesting video that shows a snapping turtle’s biting prowess.
Do Red-Eared Sliders Have Teeth?
Red-eared sliders don’t have teeth. They have serrated ridges on their lower and upper jaw that help with tearing and swallowing food.
They also have tiny beaks made of keratin.
Do Baby Turtles Have Teeth?
Interestingly, yes. Baby turtles are born with one single tooth that serves a critical function in their survival. They use the baby tooth to break the eggshell and come out of it. It extends from the front of their tiny beak.
A turtle’s eggshell has leather-like strength that’s quite difficult to poke through.
However, this keratin-made tooth disappears soon after hatching – within the next few days or weeks.
Do Sea Turtles Have Teeth?
No, sea turtles don’t have any teeth either. Instead, they rely on their tongue to lure prey like critters and small fish. Once they lure the prey using their tongue, they close their jaws and swallow the prey.
Also, some species like leatherbacks and green sea turtles have deadly spikes in their mouth that let them consume jellyfish without getting stung.
Do Leatherback Turtles Have Teeth?
Leatherback turtles don’t have teeth. Alternately, they have hundreds of spikes and a leathery tongue that more than makeup for teeth’s absence. These spikes, known as ‘papillae,’ line the turtle’s mouth all the way down to its stomach.
And the image of a leatherback’s mouth is scarier than it sounds right now. However, it turns out they’ve evolved to have such terrific mouths for a special reason.
Evolution never disappoints, does it?
Although carnivores, leatherbacks are only known to eat jellyfish. The backward-facing spikes help prevent the consumed jellyfish from flooding out the back of the turtle’s mouth.
Do you know leatherbacks can consume 73% of their body weight in jellyfish?
Do Softshell Turtles Have Teeth?
No, none of the existing softshell turtle species have teeth. They don’t have sharp beaks either. So, how do they swallow food? They have soft lips that help to swallow the whole prey/food at once.
So as you can see, turtles don’t have teeth. But depending on their species, they have all evolved to have unique jaws, tongues, or beaks that effectively replace the teeth’ function.
How Do Turtles Chew Food Without Teeth?
Turtles don’t have teeth to bite down food or produce saliva to swallow the food. Most species rely on their beaks to take small bites they can swallow with ease. Depending on the species, they have specialized beaks.
If we go around explaining the substitutes for teeth for every single species, this article will be quite long.
For ease, I have distinguished turtle species into three categories: carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores.
Different Types Of Mouths In Turtles
Actually, you can tell a lot about a turtle’s mouth anatomy by studying its food pattern. Depending on the food available in their natural habitat, turtles have distinctly shaped beaks.
Carnivore Turtle’s Mouth
Carnivore turtles mostly hunt down fish, frogs, and critters. Big ones often even go for ducks and rabbits. Thus, they have sharp, pointed beaks that can swiftly pierce through the skin and tear the flesh into bite-size chunks.
You can take examples of musk and common snapping turtles.
If you’re interested to know more about a snapping turtle’s hunting capabilities, don’t forget to read this article.
Herbivore Turtle’s Mouth
Herbivore species, like river terrapins, have short, flat beaks since they only eat plant-based diets that don’t need too much tearing and shredding. These beaks have tiny ridges in serration along the cusps and edges that act like teeth to cut and mash fruits and veggies.
Omnivore Turtle’s Mouth
An omnivore turtle’s beak borrows features from both of its carnivore and herbivore cousins. For instance, you can look at the beaks of painted turtles and cooters. Their beaks are robust and pointed but not as pointy as a carnivore’s beak.
This kind of beak helps them with eating both meat-based and plant-based food.
Among sea turtles, omnivorous species like loggerheads also have very powerful jaws that can even crush down a hard-shelled prey in an instance.
Now that you know the answer to do turtles have teeth and all the other curious queries that come with it, let’s decode the science behind how they chew their food.
How Do Turtles Bite?
Although turtles don’t have teeth, they use their beaks to bite. The bite’s intensity might differ depending on the species and the shape of the beak. However, most turtles don’t bite until and unless they’re really provoked.
If your turtle has an overgrown beak, his bite may hurt more than usual. I usually get my turtle a turtle-safe sanding bone to keep the beak’s growth in check.
Here’s a calcium-enriched bone for turtles from Zoo Med.
Does A Turtle Bite Hurt?
A turtle’s bite does hurt, but it’s not excruciating pain. If it’s someone with a lower pain threshold, like an elderly or a child, it might be painful and even cause a bit of bruising. However, in most cases, you’ll experience some redness that will go after a few minutes.
I’ve experienced a fair share of accidental bites when my turtles mistook my finger for their food.
I’ve been bitten by a turtle on my arms, fingers, and toes. And if I remember correctly, the bite on the toe by an adult red-eared slider was quite painful.
Do Tortoises Have Teeth?
No, tortoises don’t have teeth either. However, their mouths have pointy edges that function the same way as a bird’s bill. Likewise, they also have pretty strong beaks capable of some serious biting.
Final Words: Do Turtles Have Teeth?
No, present-day turtles don’t have teeth, although their ancestors did.
So, how does a turtle chew food or bite if they don’t have teeth?
Over a million years, they have evolved to have uniquely shaped beaks, tongues, jaws, and even spikes on their mouth that more than makeup for the absence of teeth.