To start the article with a bang, we’ll jump right in the middle of the topic: no, tortoises do not have teeth. Their far ancestors had, but modern tortoises do not, and they don’t need them anyway.
That’s because, despite the lack of teeth, turtles have no problems procuring, breaking, and chewing through their meals, whether of plant or animal origin.
How does that work? That’s exactly what we will be discussing today! So, let’s discuss it!
Anatomy of a Tortoise Mouth
Tortoises are unique and, shall we say, rather weird animals. Their mouth is no different.
Unlike most reptiles that come with, let’s say, normal mouths, tortoises possess a beak-like structure that serves as a powerful tool for dismembering and obliterating prey.
To understand this unique anatomical appendix, consider the following:
- The beak’s structure – The beak itself consists of several layers. One layer is bone and is designed to provide the beak with its astounding internal hardness and durability. The bony part also protects the sensitive internal tissues. On top of the bone comes a softer layer of muscles, blood vessels, and nerves, which provide the beak with tactility and nutrients. Then you have the outer layer, which consists of hardened keratin, the same substance that makes up hoofs, nails, horns, and other similar structures.
- The beak is an ever-growing structure – The tortoise’s beak grows pretty much for the rest of the animal’s life. The only difference is that it grows at different speeds, slowing down as the animal gets older and exhibits a slower metabolism. Interestingly, only the keratin layer grows, not the bone. The keratin layer requires adequate maintenance and trimming; otherwise, the beak will grow too much, causing pain and eventually rendering the reptile unable to eat anymore.
- The muscle structure – The tortoise’s facial muscles build a complex system, incorporating jaw and neck muscles as well. All of these muscle groups work in tandem to enhance the animal’s biting force tremendously. This allows tortoises to obliterate hard-shelled animals and break their food into smaller pieces to ease the digestive process.
- The same structure functions as a self-defense tool – Tortoises don’t hesitate to bite when threatened. Because they are limited in their ability to use their legs as defensive tools, they make up for it in biting force and ferocity. Tortoises can inflict severe wounds, some species more than others, which acts as a deterrent against many predators.
- Communication – Tortoises can also communicate verbally, which many people don’t expect at first. Tortoises can produce a variety of sounds, including coughing, grunting, snorting, hissing, clicking, and squeaking, depending on their intentions. Depending on the sounds themselves and their intensity, frequency, and intonation, tortoises can transmit fear, discomfort, excitement, pain, etc.
As you can see, tortoises have a complex mouth structure with a variety of uses beyond eating.
Eating Habits of Tortoises
Most tortoises qualify as herbivorous, but this is rather deceiving. That’s because the majority of tortoises are actually omnivorous but prefer an herbivorous diet if possible.
To understand these reptiles’ diet and feeding behavior better, consider the following points:
- Food diversity is a must – Tortoises require a varied diet with multiple food items. Greens, veggies, fruits, leaves, flowers, various plants, insects, worms, and even carrion are common foods for pretty much all tortoises. Food diversity is critical for these reptiles to provide them with the proper nutrients.
- Daily eating – While tortoises have relatively slow metabolisms, they still eat more frequently than other reptiles. Especially as juveniles, when their metabolisms burn faster. A healthy adult tortoise may require daily meals but can skip a day once in a while. Generally speaking, tortoises require approximately 5-6 feedings per week, depending on the species and the tortoise’s size, appetite, age, and feeding preferences.
- Food hydration – Tortoises cover much of their water needs with the very food they’re eating. So, it’s important to feed your tortoise foods rich in water as often as possible.
- Dietary changes with age – Tortoises’ diets and feeding behavior change with age. Hatchlings and juveniles (typically by the age of 2) consume predominantly more animal-sourced nutrients. Animal protein and fat are essential for supporting the reptile’s accelerated metabolism during its juvenile phase. The adult individual steers, slowing toward a more vegetarian diet with only minimal animal-sourced nutrients.
- Some foods are toxic – There are a variety of banal food items that are toxic to tortoises. These include avocados, rhubarb, nightshade plants (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants), onion, garlic, highly-processed foods, etc. These typically contain harmful components like solanine, oxalic acid, or persin, which can cause a variety of health issues. Including respiratory problems, kidney failure, digestive upset, anemia, nervous system issues, and many more.
As an interesting point, wild tortoises have different feeding habits than captive-bred ones.
Tortoise Biting Ability
As innocuous as they may seem, tortoises are actually scary strong when it comes to biting force. By scary strong, I mean when compared to other pets that you may own because tortoises aren’t that powerful when compared to alligators or crocodiles.
Even so, these reptiles have no issue delivering up to 200-250 Newtons of force, with some claiming values up to 435 Newtons.
The problem here is that there haven’t been any definitive studies on the biting force of all tortoise species, so it may be difficult to set a clear range.
But, as a general idea, the snapping turtle can deliver approximately 1,000 psi with one bite. This is more powerful than a bear, a Great White shark, a dog, and a lion.
So, comes the question, can a turtle bite your finger off? Yes, depending on the species. The snapping turtle can certainly do that if you’re not careful. Other turtles are nowhere near as strong, especially if they’re small.
To put your mind at ease even more, tortoises aren’t aggressive biters. They will only bite if they feel trapped or threatened or out of confusion, mistaking your hand for food.
But they almost never have bad intentions. They prefer to reserve their biting energy to chewing their food.
Why Tortoises Don’t Need Teeth
The main reason why tortoises don’t need teeth has to do with their diet. These animals are overwhelmingly herbivorous, so they have no use for teeth. Plus, their beak’s structure makes up for the lack of teeth.
The front portion of the beak acts as a pair of scissors, cutting and lacerating the food, while the hind section is wider and serves as a grinding tool.
This anatomical structure is enough for the turtle to grind and masticate its food properly before steering it toward the main digestive system. The digestive system itself is adapted to breaking down fiber-rich foods that require plenty of grinding.
The gut is long and muscular, and the food undergoes several digestive processes that include smashing, grinding, and chemical decomposition via the reptile’s strong acid juices.
So, tortoises don’t really need teeth to consume their food properly. They also don’t need them for hunting, when eating live prey, or for defense purposes. The beak, combined with the overall biting force, fulfill those roles just fine.
In conclusion, tortoises don’t have teeth, but they don’t need them either.
This makes these animals that much more fascinating, thanks to their unique anatomy and physiology.