Though their shells provide very effective protection, most turtles will bite to protect themselves if necessary. This is especially prevalent among wild turtles, but pet turtles may bite as well. While this is a relatively minor concern for owners of small turtles, bites from large turtles can cause severe damage.
It's In the Name
Some turtles are notorious for defending themselves by biting. Snapping turtles -- of both the common (Chelydra serpentina ssp.) and alligator (Macroclemys temminckii) varieties -- are named for the manner in which they typically greet large animals -- by striking their heads forward quickly and biting anything within reach. While these turtles are willing and able to cause serious injury, they only do so in defense -- given space, they will generally retreat.
Who Are You Calling Soft?
Softshell turtles (Apalone ssp.) are sometimes large, primarily aquatic turtles that defend themselves vigorously if captured. Like common snapping turtles, softshell turtles have very long necks, which allow their mouths to reach almost all the way around their bodies. Even small softshell turtles can give a painful bite; bites from large softshell turtles may be very serious.
Even commonly kept species, such as red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), yellow-bellied sliders (Trachemys scripta scripta) and cooters (Pseudemys ssp.), may bite if frightened. Turtles have varying personalities; some seem to tolerate handling and human interaction well, while others do not like being handled, and will attempt to bite. Biting is not limited to aquatic species; while box turtles (Terrapene carolina) usually react to threats by hiding inside their shells, some specimens will bite if handled carelessly.
Though all tortoises are primarily vegetarian and would not consider your flesh appetizing, they are opportunistic eaters. Accordingly, tortoises taste anything that looks like it may be food -- including new items in their enclosure. Occasionally, in the process of exploring, tortoises may attempt to taste the feet of their keepers. Tortoises do not typically bite in defense, though large species have the capability of delivering a bad bite. Like tortoises mistaking your toes for fruit, carnivorous species can mistake wiggling fingers for prey, which they may then bite. This is one of the reasons that young children should not be left with turtles unattended.
While captive bred turtles are always preferable to wild caught individuals, this is especially true if you want lots of interaction with your pet. Even among those species that are usually inoffensive, captive bred individuals are even more calm around humans. Of all the terrestrial species common in the pet trade, captive bred Russian (Agrionemys horsfieldii) and red-footed tortoises (Geochelone carbonaria) are perhaps the least likely to bite. Captive bred painted turtles are usually very docile, for those desiring aquatic species.
- New York State, Department of Environmental Conservation: Snapping Turtle
- Animal Diversity Web: Macrochelys Temminckii
- Tortoise Group: Desert Tortoise FAQs
- Melissa Kaplan's Herp Care Collection: Taming and Training Reptiles FAQ
- Animal Diversity Web: Apalone Ferox
- ReptileChannel.com: South American Red-Footed Tortoise