Turtles are hard-shelled reptiles who live on land and sea in many parts of the world. They mostly live in solitude, coming out of their shells when they are hungry and tucking back in when they sense danger. These behaviors preserve turtles throughout their lifespan.
Yet, turtles often get eaten up by many predators. After laying their eggs on land, most sea turtles leave them to hatch. The hatchlings have to crawl back into the water by themselves. At this time, they are vulnerable and can be eaten by predators. What predators eat turtles?
Background on Turtles
Traditionally, turtles were found in South Asia and the Southeastern parts of North America. Although some turtles often live on land, the aquatic species have a far greater number. There are many species of turtles and several variants of their lookalike, the tortoise. Depending on its size, color or location, you could be looking at any of the 320 species of turtles.
What Eats Turtles?
Birds, sharks, snakes, dogs, raccoons, snapping turtles, dolphins, killer whales, fire ants, crabs, lizards, coyotes, and carnivorous fish eat turtles.
Typically, larger turtles have a higher chance of surviving in the wild than baby turtles. However, not all turtles (sea turtles, especially) can tuck in their whole bodies. Any exposed body parts can make them vulnerable to attacks.
Let’s look at the predators of turtles one by one.
Turtle Predators: Birds
After turtle eggs become hatched, the hatchlings follow their natural instincts and head into the water. However, they are typically fragile and slow. While these baby turtles race into the water, they fall victim to gulls and other birds on the beach.
On the other hand, like hawks, eagles and other large birds of prey go for medium and large-sized turtles who swim close to the surface. They swoop in to lift the turtle in the air and drop it on the ground. The impact will crack or shatter the turtle’s shell, and the bird can eat the flesh.
Turtle Predators: Sharks
Sharks are master predators that hunt fish, crabs, birds, and other sharks. It isn’t surprising then that turtles are on the menu. Depending on the size of the turtle, sharks can conveniently grab its flipper and tear through the turtle. Tiger sharks are known to hunt for turtles at sea. Their method is to attack the prey from below. This way, they can easily access the fleshy parts of the turtle. In addition, tiger sharks have, over time, evolved and developed teeth that can pierce through shells.
Turtle Predators: Snakes
Typically, a snake would eat turtle eggs rather than take on the hard shell of a grown one. They do not have teeth, so it would be hard to swallow a turtle with its rough exterior. And digesting it would be several times harder. So instead, most snakes consume turtle eggs and spit out the eggshell. They also have a keen sense of detecting turtle nests and could eat the eggs even when the mother is present.
There are, however, giant snakes like anacondas and kingsnakes who are known to eat grown turtles. Anacondas have teeth, strong grips, and flexible jaws, which allow them to constrict their prey and swallow them whole. So, adult turtles can be victims of such snakes.
Turtle Predators: Dogs
Dogs often go hunting for freshly laid turtle eggs.
Sea turtles often leave their eggs on land and return to the water. The only protection the eggs have is a layer of sand. Unfortunately, dogs and foxes have a habit of digging up nests to eat turtle eggs and baby turtles. Since the hatchlings have tender shells, it’s easy for dogs to make a tasty meal out of them.
Turtle Predators: Lizards
Giant lizards make easy prey of hatchlings and young turtles. In fact, most carnivorous lizards enjoy eating turtle eggs. On the other hand, crocodiles have a strong jaw and can break through turtle shells to eat them. As a result, small freshwater turtles often fall victim to crocodiles and other reptiles. Monitor lizards are also known to hunt flatback turtle nests for hatchlings and dine on them.
Turtle Predators: Raccoons
Raccoons are major turtle predators, especially pet turtles. They are fond of stealing eggs and can even carry off smaller turtles. They usually move their meals to places where they can eat them undisturbed. Raccoons can sniff out nests, and they end up having a good time as nests often contain large numbers of eggs.
Turtle Predators: Crabs
Ghost and surf crabs are frequently on the prowl for baby turtles. They have pincers, which they grab onto young turtles and drag the turtles into their holes. Sometimes, ghost crabs also dig into nests and devour the eggs. Hatchlings who get washed up to the shore are usually at risk of being eaten by alert ghost crabs.
Turtle Predators: Killer whales
Compared to other turtles, leatherback turtles have softer shells. Their size makes them less vulnerable to most predators. However, killer whales (orca) have included these turtles in their diet. Most sea turtles cannot retract their heads into the shell. This leaves them vulnerable to killer whales and other predators.
Turtle Predators: Skunks
Skunks often go around on the hunt for easy prey, and turtle eggs fit that category. They mainly eat insects, rats, moles, and fruits. In addition, they also go hunting for turtle nests to find eggs to eat. Turtle egg hunters like skunks, opossums, and dogs are major predators of growing turtles.
Turtle Predators: Other turtles
Although it is not very common for turtles to eat one another, it happens. Turtles become aggressive when they feel that their territory is being invaded or extremely hungry. Snapping turtles often get aggressive when other turtles invade their space. Usually, the bigger turtle could bite the smaller. If a turtle is very hungry and cannot find food, it could feast on hatchlings or smaller turtles nearby.
How do Turtles Protect Themselves?
By nature, most box turtles avoid contact with other animals, except when they are hungry or mating. This lifestyle helps also to hide away from predators.
Turtles have a hard shell that doubles as a refuge and body armor on their backs. When they sense danger, they tuck their bodies into it to wait out the invasion. Unfortunately, this isn’t effective against all predators.
A List of Animals that Eat Turtles
- Killer Whales
- Other turtles
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.