Do turtles have teeth?

A turtle's serrated jaws

Written by Tan Ching San

San is currently studying Marine Biotechnology at Xiamen University Malaysia. By joining TCS as an intern, she hopes to gain field experience, learn about conservation work, and turtles in general.

5 Apr 2021

Have you ever wondered whether turtles have teeth? It is surprising to know that today’s turtles including freshwater turtles, sea turtles, terrapins and tortoises are the only reptiles that do not possess any teeth. However, researchers have discovered fossils of turtle teeth. “Odontochelys,” a creature that is also known as a “toothed turtle” used to exist about 200 million years ago. Their fossilised remains revealed that some prehistoric turtles had teeth in both their upper and lower jaws.

The only turtles with teeth are the young ones. Turtle hatchlings are born with a single tooth. This single tooth is commonly known as the egg-tooth or caruncle. All newly-emerged hatchlings has an egg tooth that helps them break out of their egg. This egg tooth is located at the front of the upper jaws. The egg tooth eventually falls off a few months after the turtle hatches. It is a modified scale and not a real tooth.

A turtle’s diet contains proteins such as fish, insects and pellets, meat, fruits and vegetables. Turtles feed on various food without teeth. To survive, turtles have beaks or jaws like birds instead that helps them with the chewing, biting and tearing of their meals before swallowing. These beaks are sharp and continue to grow throughout the turtle’s life. Moreover, turtles also use their pointed beaks to protect themselves from predators.

You can tell what food a turtle feeds on by looking at its mouth. Depending on what species the turtle is, they have powerful and oddly shaped beaks that help them to eat. Turtles can have sharp beaks or flat beaks depending on whether they are carnivorous, herbivorous, omnivorous or whether they are sea turtles.

Carnivorous turtles have a horny hooked beak which allows them to pierce, crush shells and kill their prey as they feed on a lot of meat. The musk turtle is one example of carnivorous turtles. Unlike carnivorous turtles, herbivores turtles (e.g. river terrapins) have broad, flat beaks for cutting and mashing plants, fruits and vegetables. They have tough, short beaks with tiny ridges in serration along the edge and cusps that act like teeth to eat their food.

For omnivorous turtles (e.g. cooters, painted turtles and map turtles), they have beaks that are a combination of carnivorous and herbivorous beaks to help them eat both meat and plants. The omnivorous beaks are robust and pointed but not as pointed as that of carnivorous turtles and look much like a herbivorous turtle.

Sea turtles swallow their prey using their tongues. Sea turtles are generally carnivorous and they often use their tongues to lure the small prey like small fish and insects underwater and pull them in their mouth then close their jaws and swallow the prey with ease. Their preys include such as crab, sea urchins and clams. Sea turtles such as leatherback and green turtles have spikes in their mouth that allow them to feed on jellyfish without getting stung.

Some turtles – softshell turtles also have soft lips instead of sharp beaks such as spiny softshell turtles and Florida softshell turtles. These turtles such their prey into their mouths then swallow their prey whole.

References:

  1. TurtlePets.com. (4 March 2020). Do turtles and tortoises have teeth? All you need to know! Retrieved 4 March 4 2021. Link.
  2. Giraud, V. (23 May 2019). Turtle teeth? Tooth brushing facts for World Turtle Day. Retrieved 4 March 2021. Link.
  3. UCSB ScienceLine. (15 October 2001). Do turtles have teeth. Do only some types have teeth? If so, do the teeth fall out like ours? Retrieved 4 March 2021. Link.
  4.  Keefe, A. (10 April 2018). Do Turtles Have Teeth? The Answer is Complicated. Retrieved 5 March 2021. Link.
  5. Yates, B. (26 October 2020). Do turtles have teeth? Retrieved 5 March 2021. Link.
  6. JalJeev. (n.d.). Do Turtles Have Teeth? [How Do Turtles Chew Their Food?]. Retrieved 5 March 2021. Link.
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