On the surface, turtles look like they have the best protective mechanism – their shell. It’s kind of like a permanent plate of armor against predators, rocks, and debris, right? WRONG.
Thing is, sea turtles (the turtle species that sharks can eat) don’t exactly have any enemies in the sea. They eat the occasional jellyfish, lay some eggs on a beach if they’re lucky, and just swim around. Turtles aren’t exactly a threat to other animals – but this doesn’t matter in the animal kingdom. Sharks have got to eat, too.
If you’re still curious about the relationship between sharks and turtles, and how on earth sharks can eat turtles, you’ve come to the right place!
So…can sharks eat turtles?
Yes, sharks can eat turtles. It doesn’t matter what age the turtle is – whether it’s an adult or a juvenile – because if a shark is hungry and comes across a turtle, they will eat it in the same way they would eat a fish.
In fact, in most cases, sharks are one of the many predators for baby turtles. Baby sea turtles are hatched on beaches and left to swim back to the ocean.
An abundance of obstacles get in the way, leading to a depleting sea turtle population. There’s no easier way to catch food for a shark than swallowing an unsuspecting baby sea turtle whole.
Which sharks eat turtles?
Technically, any shark can eat a turtle if they’re looking for a food source. Great White sharks and Tiger sharks are two of the most common species of sharks that eat turtles, which is most likely because they share the same habitat.
Hammerhead sharks can eat turtles, though they are more likely to aim for the smaller ones (around the size of a stingray).
In terms of which turtle species can be eaten by sharks, smaller turtles are more likely to be eaten by sharks. That won’t stop sharks from attempting to eat the larger ones, however.
Leatherback turtles are the largest sea turtles, reaching to around 8 ft long in maturity. Next in the size scale are Green turtles and Loggerhead turtles who amount to 6 ft in length, Hawksbill and Flatback reach around 4 ft long, and then Olive Ridley and Kemp’s Ridley turtles reach up to 2 ft long.
This means that Leatherback turtles are far less likely to be eaten by sharks compared to an Olive Ridley or Kemp’s Ridley turtle because of the ginormous size difference.
However, not all sharks eat turtles! Reef sharks, for example, don’t have the bite force to bite through a turtle shell, which is why you will see turtles and Reef sharks swimming somewhat harmoniously together. Reef sharks are more likely to eat hatchlings as they only eat foods around the size of a hamburger.
How can sharks eat turtles?
So, we’ve established that sharks eat turtles. The next question is, how? Don’t turtles have a huge shell to protect themselves?
It all comes down to the type of shark. Some sharks will have a much more powerful bite force than other sharks, which means they can puncture and tear through a turtle shell.
As the shell of a turtle is part of the turtle’s body, once it is punctured, the turtle is done for. Not the greatest protective shield from sharks, is it?
Tiger sharks and Great White sharks have the strongest bite force out of most other sharks, which is why they eat the most turtles. Other sharks of a smaller bite force are more likely to eat smaller turtles.
It’s not just about the bite force, however. Tiger sharks and Great White sharks have been feasting on turtles for centuries, which is why they have adapted a special tooth that is designed to puncture through a turtle’s shell.
In most cases, a shark will aim to bite the shell or the fin of the turtle. Sea turtles can be fast and nimble, so a shark will naturally just aim for whatever they can sink their teeth into.
Once they get a hold of the shell, they will trash their powerful heads around to lodge their teeth into the shell, which will then puncture the turtle’s vital organs.
Both Tiger and Great White sharks have the same method of killing a turtle, but sometimes, a Tiger shark will have a slightly more morbid method. Instead of going straight for the shell, they will attempt to tear off the fins so the turtle can’t swim away easily.
How do turtles protect themselves from sharks?
Turtles aren’t born with much of a protective or defensive mechanism when they are hatchlings. It’s a bit of a cruel world for a baby turtle, because they are expected to make their way to the ocean themselves.
However, their one defense mechanism is that they make the journey to the ocean in groups in an attempt to not single any turtles out.
The only way hatchlings can survive the impressive amount of predators is by swimming really fast. Their shells haven’t hardened yet, but that doesn’t mean they can’t out-swim predators.
The shell of a turtle will harden as they grow, and they will also grow a protective layer of skin underneath this. Leatherback turtles are the only turtles that don’t have a fully hardened shell, but their size is usually too intimidating for a shark to eat, anyway.
As far as protective strategies go, that’s it for a turtle. They can swim very quickly and they have the unique ability to swim horizontally, which makes it harder for predators to bite them.
However, they don’t have the ability to pull their limbs and heads into their shells like a tortoise, which would be a very useful skill.
In short, yes – sharks can eat turtles. Sharks are possibly the best apex predator in the ocean, which means that almost nothing will get in the way of them eating their next meal. Turtles might have a protective shell and they might be speedy in the water, but that unfortunately won’t keep them safe forever.