Turtles rank among the most loved and common household reptiles on earth. In the order Testudines, there exist 356 species of turtles, terrapins, and tortoises, all of which grow a bony outer shell. Although most turtles live in or near water, different species adapted to varied environments. From freshwater streams to the depths of the oceans, you can find turtles pretty much anywhere. They live on every continent except Antarctica, and every ocean, aside from the Arctic and Southern (Antarctic) Oceans. Some migrate great distances, while others remain relatively close to where they were born their whole lives. While some turtles make great pets, others do better roaming the wild in search of food. However, with such widespread distribution, it begs the question of what do turtles eat?
In this article, we’ll explore what turtles like to eat, as well as how they forage and hunt for food. Additionally, we’ll delve into the different diets of wild, pet, and baby turtles. So, let’s dig in and find out what foods turtles love the most!
What Do Turtles Like to Eat?
With so many species living in diverse environments, it makes sense that each turtle has a preferred diet. While some turtles’ diet primarily consists of plants, others are predominantly carnivorous. That said, most turtles are omnivores and eat a wide variety of foods. To determine what a turtle eats, you just need to examine its physiology, habitat, and available food sources. For example, Galapagos tortoises eat prickly pear cacti, flowers, leaves, and grasses. On the other hand, alligator snapping turtles primarily live on fish, mollusks, amphibians, carrion, and small mammals. However, you can boil down the diet of most turtles to around 15 different foods. They include:
- Leafy greens
- Worms, slugs, and snails
- Insects and bugs
- Sea squirts and cucumbers
- Grasses, weeds, and leaves
While some turtles eat other foods, the items on the list above occur most often. For instance, many turtles will eat carrion when available. In addition, carnivorous turtles may also eat small mammals or amphibians. As turtles don’t care for their young, they’ll occasionally eat their own eggs and the eggs of other animals.
How Do Turtles Forage and Hunt For Food?
The first turtles emerged around 260 million years ago during the Late Permian Epoch. At that time, many turtles possessed teeth, unlike modern, toothless turtles. Without teeth, most turtles today either swallow food whole or bite it into smaller pieces before swallowing. To bite into food, many turtles evolved beaks to bite and chew food. In carnivorous turtles, their beaks appear smooth and razor-sharp, while beaks on omnivorous turtles appear serrated, which helps them cut and break up plant matter. On the other hand, some turtles, such as soft-shelled turtles, evolved soft lips rather than beaks.
Depending on their diet, turtles will use different techniques to hunt or forage for food. They use their well-developed sight to distinguish between patterns and shapes, and some, like sea turtles, can differentiate colors. Turtles can also locate prey and predators via smell. While most turtles can hear, their hearing is less well-developed or suited for hunting prey. Lipped turtles may use their lips as bait to lure in prey. Some turtles will bury themselves at the bottom of a river or lake, and wait for unsuspecting prey to swim by. Soft-shelled turtles excel at swimming due to their lighter frame and webbed feet, which enables them to chase down slower prey. When food is less readily available, some turtles will scavenge for carrion at the bottom of lakes or rivers.
What Do Wild Turtles Eat?
As previously mentioned, turtles eat foods that they’re adapted to eat and which occur abundantly in their environment. That said, some turtles adapted to eat highly specific diets. Sea turtles rank amongst the best examples of diet specialization in turtles. While technically omnivores, hawksbill turtles predominantly live off sea sponges, although they will eat other sea plants and animals. Meanwhile, scientists call leatherback turtles gelatinivores, as their diet almost exclusively consists of jellyfish and sea squirts. On the other hand, adult green sea turtles live primarily on algae and seagrasses. They represent the only one of the seven species of sea turtle that is mostly herbivorous.
Most species of soft-shelled turtles eat strict carnivorous diets. These turtles live in fresh or brackish water, throughout Africa, Asia, and North America. Their diet includes fish, shrimp, crabs, insects, snails, eggs, amphibians, and the occasional small bird or mammal. Meanwhile, many land turtles eat mostly herbivorous diets. Their diet includes mostly grasses, leaves, weeds, flowers, vegetables, and fruits, with some insects and other animal matter. Common fruits and vegetables include dandelions, mustard greens, leafy greens, and berries.
At the same time, some foods are toxic to turtles. In addition to things like dairy, processed meats, and carbohydrate-rich vegetables, several plants can also hurt a turtle if eaten. Toxic plants include amaryllis, avocado leaves and seeds, gardenia, Carolina jessamine, ivy, boxwood, firethorn, poinsettia, primrose, and others.
What Do Pet Turtles Eat?
In the US, people commonly keep turtles as pets. To be exact, more than 2 million turtles currently live as household pets, and their popularity continues to grow. While most people think of turtles as low-maintenance pets, turtles require a surprising amount of specialized care. Turtles require specialized diets, and certain species should avoid certain types of food. Generally speaking, omnivorous turtles will eat a variety of foods including pellet food, feeder fish, insects, fruits, and vegetables. Meanwhile, herbivorous turtles should predominantly eat vegetables and some fruits.
If you own a herbivorous land turtle or tortoise, its diet should mostly consist of leafy greens or vegetables. Popular options include lettuce, kale, and cabbages, along with small amounts of legumes, mushrooms, corn, carrots, and cucumber. Overall, these foods should make up around 70% to 80% of an herbivorous turtle’s diet. The remaining 20 to 30% should include fruits and small amounts of insects or high-protein meats. Low-sugar fruit works best, such as berries and melons, with small amounts of pear, apple, and mango also allowed.
Alternatively, if you own a carnivorous freshwater turtle, you’ll want to feed it predominantly high-protein animal products. For insects and bugs, consider worms, larvae, snails, slugs, crickets, grasshoppers, beetles, and mealworms. In addition, you can include a small amount of crayfish, feeder fish, or shrimp into your carnivorous turtle’s diet. In addition, you can introduce a small amount of turtle pellet food into your pet’s diet. These supplements contain a mix of essential proteins, vitamins, and nutrients and can help your turtle remain healthy. While omnivorous turtles can eat fruit, they should eat fruits in small quantities, and carnivorous turtles should eat little to no fruit at all. Always make sure to source food from reputable sources that avoid using pesticides or other harmful substances.
What Do Baby Turtles Eat?
In the wild, the first food that most baby turtles eat is their own embryonic egg fluid and yolk. This food will satiate baby turtles for several days until they’re strong enough to leave the nest to forage and hunt. Like adult turtles, baby turtle diets vary based on their environment, physical characteristics, and species. Omnivorous baby turtles will eat a variety of grasses, fruits, small fish, insects, and worms. Meanwhile, carnivorous baby turtles will mostly eat grubs, insects, beetles, worms, slugs, snails, small fish, and crayfish. That said, in general, omnivorous baby turtles require more protein than their adult counterparts. Whatever you feed your baby turtle, chop its food into pieces to make eating easier for your pet turtle.
Outside of natural foods, your pet baby turtle could also include a supplement in its diet. You can buy these supplements from pet stores or online, and they come in pellet, flake, stick, or gel form. These supplements contain mostly protein, followed by fat, fiber, ash, and some vitamin and mineral content. Common ingredients in baby turtle supplements include:
- Fish meal
- Corn and soybean meal
- Poultry meal
- Meat meal
- Fish oil
When deciding upon a supplement, make sure to check with your veterinarian or expert staff at your pet store. That way you’ll get the right supplement for your baby turtle that’s optimized for its diet.
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