By Stacey Venzel
One of the distinguishing traits of a turtle is that it does not have teeth. Instead of dentures, turtles have mouths specialized for their diet.
Despite not having true teeth, uniquely shaped bones help turtles in different ways, from a pointy mouth bone for hatching to knife-like ridges for grinding food. Though humans are not in their food chain, turtles do have strong, often sharp mouths that can cause damage to soft tissue if provoked.
Turtles can bite because this is how they eat, with the exception of the matamata, which usually vacuums up its food. Snapping turtles and hawksbill sea turtles have beak-like jaws for tearing apart fish and marine sponges. Herbivorous turtles, like the Galapagos tortoise, have cusps or or serrated jaws for eating plants and fruits.
DANGER TO HUMANS
If a turtle is scared or threatened it usually flees, though some turtles are less likely to bite than others. Alligator snapping turtles have powerful jaws that can cut down to the bone—or even snap a broomstick in half after a couple tries—but they are still more likely to swim away than fight back if they are in a dangerous situation.
CAN THEY KILL YOU?
Turtles are not killers. Even though they are capable of biting, they rarely exhibit aggressive behavior. Biting is usually a sign of self-defense or maybe curiosity if a tortoise mistakes your painted toenails for a cherry.
While, technically, turtles do not have teeth, reptiles and birds are born with a specialized projection on their mouth to help them break through the eggshell. This “egg tooth” is only seen in hatchlings and is not a true tooth. Once born, the special tooth-like structure is of no use and over the course of the first few weeks it either falls off or is worn away.
Karen Eckert, David Gulko, Sea Turtles: An Ecological Guide (Honolulu, Mutual Publishing, 2004), 38, 71.
Dangerous Encounters, Video: “Bayou Beasts: Gator snapper biting force,” Nat Geo Wild, September 12, 2012,http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/_/videos/gator-snapper-bite-force/.
Carl J Franklin, Turtles: An Extraordinary Natural History 245 Million Years in the Making (St. Paul, Voyageur Press, 2007), 29-30, 40, 42.
Whit Gibbons, Judy Greene, Turtle: The Animal Answer Guide (Baltimore, The John Hopkins University Press, 2009), 17-19, 83, 97.