What Happens To Turtles When They Die? (The Actual Facts)

Turtle about to die

Turtles can live for many years, but…

What happens to turtles when they die? Like all animals, turtles decompose after death. A foul odor is released as their body decomposes, and gases form in their dead body. These gases that get created inside the dead turtles increase their buoyancy and make them float on water.

However, sometimes turtles that appear lifeless may simply be brumating or resting. So, before deciding what to do with a dead turtle, determine if it is truly dead. During brumation, turtles may appear dead but are actually not. Try stimulating the turtle and look for cues, such as foul odors and decomposition, to make sure that the turtle is actually dead.

Dealing with the death of a beloved pet is never easy. Use the following information to ascertain that your turtle is dead and then decide what to do with its body and shell.

What Exactly Happens To Turtles When They Die?

Decomposition is the main process that occurs after the death of an animal. When animals die, tissues immediately begin breaking down, supported by bacteria, fungi, and various microorganisms.

If you suspect that your turtle has died, it’s a good idea to verify that it’s actually dead. Here are the main signs of a dead turtle:

  • It remains completely still.
  • It floats on the water.
  • It does not respond to stimulation.
  • It does not flip over when placed on its back.
  • It produces an offensive odor.

The first indication that your pet is dead is when it remains lifeless. You may notice that it hasn’t moved in several days. But, it may be brumating and not actually dead. So try stimulating it.

But, understand that if it’s brumating, it may not immediately respond. You can try flipping it over on its back or see if it floats on the water.

The most obvious sign of a dead turtle is an offensive odor. If the turtle is dead, it will begin decomposing instantly, but it may take one or two days to start smelling bad.

Five Stages Of Decomposition Of A Dead Turtle

Turtles decompose relatively quickly. Tiny microorganisms feed on the tissues, producing gases.

The gases carry an obnoxious, unpleasant odor and occur during the second stage of decomposition. There are five total stages, including:

  • Fresh,
  • Bloat,
  • Active decay,
  • Advanced decay, and
  • Dry.

The fresh stage starts when the heart stops beating. The turtle starts to warm up or cool down, matching the temperature of the environment. In a cool room, the turtle decomposes slower. In a warm setting, the decomposition process occurs faster.

The bloat stage is when the annoying odors appear. The accumulation of gases inside the turtle causes the abdominal area to bloat. The bloated body is likely to float when placed in water.

Depending on the environment, active decay may occur within several days or several weeks. Instead of bloating, the turtle cadaver starts to wither. The smells attract maggots, insects, and other critters to aid decomposition.

When the maggots and insects stop feeding on the corpse, it reaches advanced decay. This stage lasts for several months or years. Again, the duration depends on the environment.

Eventually, the only remains left are the dry bones of the turtle and its shell.

Why Turtle Shells Decompose Slowly?

While the soft tissues, including skin and organs, decompose quickly, the hard shell takes a long time to decay.

The turtle shell is comprised of various bony elements, including the ribs and parts of the pelvis. It protects the vital organs and sometimes the head, due to the hard structure.

Scutes cover the top of the turtle shell, the oddly shaped patterns that you see on the turtle’s back.

The scutes and the various colors and patterns that appear make turtle shells attractive and interesting. Some people keep the turtle shell to remember their pets while others keep it for decoration.

The turtle shells remain behind after everything else decomposes. Eventually, the shells still slowly decay, but it may take years before they become extremely brittle and dry. To delay this process, there are various preservation techniques.

What to Do with a Dead Turtle?

If you don’t want to save the shell, there are a few ways to properly dispose of the remains:

  • Bury it in your backyard.
  • Take it to a vet clinic.
  • Give it to a taxidermist.
  • Contact animal control.

Some turtle owners choose to bury their dead pets in the backyard. Not all regions allow this practice. Check your local ordinances before making your own pet cemetery.

Besides burying animals, most cities don’t allow people to throw away dead animals. You can’t wrap it in plastic and toss it in the trash.

There are three places where you can dispose of a dead pet. The first option is to take it to a vet. The veterinarian can cremate family pets, leaving you with something that you can bury or keep in an urn.

Veterinarians can also get rid of your dead turtle free of charge if you don’t want the shell or the remains.

A local taxidermist may want a free turtle to harvest the shell. Check your area for taxidermists, you can contact one or two to see if they are interested.

Some animal control agencies allow you to drop off dead animals. They offer this service to prevent people from throwing away roadkill and dead animals found on residential properties.

How To Preserve The Shell Of A Dead Turtle?

If you want to keep the turtle shell, you need to first remove any remaining flesh and tissue. It may take a year or longer for the innards to completely disintegrate.

There are a few methods for speeding decomposition so that nothing remains, but the shell:

  • Use cadaver-cleaning beetles.
  • Bury the dead turtle in the ground.
  • Store the turtle in a metal drum.

Taxidermists often use a specific species of beetles to help clean off the bones of animals. A colony of dermestid beetles can eat all the flesh of the dead turtle within several days.

Unfortunately, establishing the colony of beetles is hard work and takes several months.

The next two options are a little easier. You can bury the turtle in a mesh bag, covered in a plastic bag, several feet under the earth.

Dig the turtle up in five months to check the decomposition. If flesh remains, rebury the turtle and wait another month or two.

Another method is to store the turtle in a metal drum or sealed container that you can leave outdoors. Place the turtle in a mesh bag before sealing and then set it in a spot that gets full sun. The insides should completely decompose within several months.

Related Further Reading:

How To Remove The Remains Of A Dead Turtle Without Waiting for Decomposition?

Decomposition may take months unless you use beetles. Another option is to manually cut the remaining flesh and tissue from the shell.

Always wear gloves when handling a dead turtle and cleaning out the shell.

Using a sharp utility knife, cut the seam where the skin meets the shell. Slowly and carefully cut the skin away from muscle and tissue.

After opening the abdominal area, remove the organs and innards. Try to remove as much of the flesh and guts as you can.

The next step is to remove the skeletal structure from the shell. Cut the shoulder girdles and then pull the legs free. Cut where the joints meet the shell and then scrape the flesh from the inside of the shell.

Allow the shell to dry out for several days and then scrape the final bits and pieces of flesh.

Scrub the inside of the shell with hot water and an old toothbrush. This should help get rid of anything that still sticks to the inside. The remaining organic matter aids decomposition, so get the shell as clean as you can.

Instead of scraping decomposing flesh, boiling the turtle loosens the tissue. The flesh should peel from the shell, but you’ll still need to complete some scraping and deboning.

After thoroughly cleaning the shell, allow it to dry for another day or two and then apply a lacquer. The lacquer seals the shell and protects the scutes from decay.

Related Further Reading: Can Turtles Hear? (On Land, Underwater, And Music)

Related Questions About Dead Turtles

Is it bad luck if a turtle dies? A dead turtle should not bring bad luck, even if you believe in superstitions or the flow of energy throughout the universe. However, numerous religions, cultures, and traditions consider it bad luck to leave dead things in your home instead of promptly disposing them.

Does a turtle die if it flips over? Turtles can still breathe when flipped over, so they won’t die from the position. If the turtle remains stuck for some reason, it may eventually die from lack of food and hydration. Luckily, most turtles can right themselves when flipped over, but it depends on the shell. Dome-shelled turtles find it easier to flip over. With a flat shell, flipping back over requires more effort.