There are many species of turtles in the world—more than 300, in fact. They have a varied diet that depends on a lot of factors such as location, breed, and time of year. There are also a lot of misconceptions about what turtles eat, so I’m here to clear all of that up.
So, to begin with, what do turtles eat?
The simple answer is that turtles eat whatever works for their specific species. Some turtles are herbivores, some are carnivores. Herbivores will eat grasses, leaves, and fruits. Carnivorous turtles eat fish, worms, insects, and small mammals. Most turtles are omnivores, however, who eat whatever is close by.
It’s a lot more complicated than that though, as you probably guessed. For example, did you know that the shape of a turtle’s jaw plays a role in what foods it prefers? Let me explain this and so much more.
What does a turtle’s jaw have to do with its diet?
If you look at the teeth and jaws of various animals in the world, you’ll notice that they each have their own unique shapes and sizes. Those aren’t accidents of nature. An animal’s teeth and jaws are designed to efficiently cut, chew, and swallow specific foods.
In the case of turtles, this mechanism of food consumption varies wildly between species.
Most turtles have an upper and lower mandible in a beak-like shape, but the similarities end there. When a turtle’s preferred food source is soft and easy to bite, it doesn’t need a strong jaw, for example. If a turtle’s food is tough or even alive and feisty, a stronger jaw is necessary.
To see this difference in action, we have only to look at the food differences and eating habits between a snapping turtle and a painted turtle.
The gentle painted turtle
The painted turtle has a gentle demeanor and easy-going attitude. It also happens to be an omnivore. It will eat almost any plant or animal matter that you offer it. However, it’s not a strong-jawed turtle.
Painted turtles like worms, small fish, lettuce and other leafy greens, and insects. Notice that all of these foods are soft, small, and easy to chew. They’re perfect for the painted turtle’s jaw.
While worms, insects, and fish are all alive and may put up a struggle, they’re not strong. It’s not likely that any of these live food options would be able to hurt a painted turtle, so they don’t need strong jaws to contend with dinner.
The mighty cranky snapping turtle
In comparison to the painted turtle, a snapping turtle is a strong, grouchy, dangerous fellow. They have large heads which makes room for more muscles to slam those treacherous jaws shut.
A snapping turtle’s jaw can snap shut at an astounding 208 newtons of pressure. To put that into perspective, humans can average between 200 to 600 newtons of bite pressure.
Snapping turtles need to have this much power because they are known to feast on other turtles! Imagine the kind of jaw strength required to get through a turtle’s shell.
Snapping turtles are also omnivores, just like painted turtles, but their diets differ in size. They can tear and bite tougher plant matter and can even eat larger prey such as birds, small mammals, and other reptiles.
More turtle jaw shapes
Aside from the strength and power behind a turtle’s jaws, there is also the shape to consider. Even though most turtle mouths have a beak-like shape, there is so much more to their mouths than meets the eye.
Upon closer inspection of a sea turtle’s mouth, for example, you may notice tiny serrated edges. Other sea turtles have sharper, more pointed cusps than others. Each type has evolved to eat a very specific diet. But we’ll explore that a little later.
That turtle has lips!
It’s true, there are some turtles who don’t have the typical turtle beak. Instead, they have lips which they use to help suck their meals into their mouths. Most lipped turtles are also soft-shelled turtles. Even so, they eat many of the same things as other species.
What variety of foods do turtles eat?
Now that you understand how turtle jaws can affect the food choices they have, we can look deeper into what specific foods turtles eat. Keep in mind that with more than 300 species of turtles, this list could go on forever. I won’t make you read every food possible, but I have narrowed the list down to some good examples.
What kind of vegetation do turtles eat?
Wild turtles are opportunistic feeders. They lack the speed and agility of other reptiles, so they’re not likely to chase down their meals. For this reason, turtles have adapted to eating whatever is nearby.
For herbivore and omnivore species of turtles, plants are the easiest source of nutrition. Turtles have been known to eat grasses of all kinds, leaves from bushes and shrubs, tender sprouts and shoots, as well as low-hanging fruits and berries. Turtles love mushrooms and flowers, too.
Some sea turtles have been seen eating a variety of sea grasses and seaweed. One kind of grass, Thalassia testudinum, is called “turtle grass” because so many turtles love eating it. They also love algae.
Some turtles just love clover, collard greens, carrot tops, kale, dandelion greens and flowers, and parsley.
What animal matter do turtles eat?
This is where things get really interesting. Remember all that talk about turtle jaws? It was important to point out the different sizes, shapes, strengths, and features that turtle mouths have because most of them eat meat or animal matter of some kind.
What animal matter a turtle can eat depends largely on its jaws and mouth.
What animal matter do sea turtles eat?
Certain types of sea turtles have serrated edges in their beaks. This is used to scrape algae and to cut through sea grass. But that kind of jaw would not work well for meat, would it?
Another species of sea turtles, the leatherback, eats jellyfish! It would not be able to do this with a serrated or smooth beak, so leatherbacks evolved a special jaw. They have two sharp, pointed cusps that can grab onto jellies, sea squirts, and other soft-bodied sea animals.
Other sea turtle varieties eat shrimp, lobster, crabs, urchins, and fish of all sizes. Some other seafoods include mollusks and soft corals. Even though the sea sponge has spines and toxins dangerous to other animals, the hawkbill sea turtle is immune.
What animal matter do terrestrial turtles eat?
Turtles that spend more time on land are called terrestrial turtles, but it’s worth nothing that they love the water, too. These turtles can travel across land to pick their favorite foods.
Land turtles love worms, grubs, and insects of various types. Their main diet will depend on the area they live in, their jaw type, and the time of year. They enjoy snails and caterpillars in the spring and summer, while they may find more worms and beetles in the fall, for example.
Remember our cranky friend the snapping turtle? He’s not the only one who likes to eat small mammals, frogs, toads, and reptiles.
You may be shocked to know that both sea turtles and terrestrial turtles have both been witnessed eating carrion. That is a fancy word for dead things and decaying flesh.
What do captive turtles eat?
As a pet owner, after reading this long list of possible food sources, you may be worried. How can you possibly provide such a variety to your pet turtle? Will you have to dig up worms, catch bugs, and go fishing every day?
Relax! Pet turtles are much easier to feed than it may seem. Thanks to pet stores, there are lots of turtle feeding options available. Some stores carry “gut-loaded” insects that turtles absolutely love. These are insects that have been fed an incredibly nutrient-packed diet. Some favorites include mealworms, waxworms, and crickets.
You can also buy “feeder fish” and pellets. Before you feed anything from your kitchen or clippings from your yard, be sure to ask your vet. Not all foods will be suitable for all pet turtles.
What do baby turtles eat?
Baby turtles don’t always copy the diet of their parents. What I mean is that some species of turtles may be known as vegetarians, but their hatchlings often eat anything they come across, including other animals.
The main issue facing baby turtles is their size. They are quite small when they hatch, and they move so slowly, it’s hard for them to find food. They must be even more opportunistic than their parents. If that means a vegetarian turtle needs to snack on a few worms now and then to survive, they’ll do it.
Pet baby turtles, on the other hand, should be fed according to your vet’s instructions. Baby turtles need a different balance of nutrients than an adult turtle does. Feeding a baby turtle well now will ensure a healthy, happy adult turtle later.
How often do turtles need to eat?
In the wild, turtles will eat whenever they can. If they’re munching on grasses, leaves, and other vegetation, they can take their time and be picky. For species that must catch food—such as the leatherbacks who eat jellyfish—they don’t have that luxury.
If a wild turtle must catch its food—fish, insects, small mammals, and birds—they need to be careful, cautious, and a little lucky. They move quite slow, while their prey is usually fast.
Because of that, wild turtles may go days between meals. Don’t worry though. They are designed to handle a day or two without a good meal.
What about feeding a pet turtle?
Pet turtles are lucky. They get to be fed every day. As long as your vet says it’s okay, and you always feed the highest quality foods, you might even switch to every other day feedings.
Make sure baby and juvenile turtles don’t skip meals, though. They need all the nutrition they can get.
Do turtles eat lettuce?
Yes! In fact, some turtles love lettuce. Wild turtles can sometimes be pests in unprotected gardens. Raising the beds will often prevent turtle problems though, so they’re not a big worry.
Pet turtles also love lettuce, but be warned! Iceberg lettuce has next to no nutritional value. It is not a good choice for pet turtles. Stick with dark, leafy lettuces. The darker the color, the more nutrients it has.
Can I feed my turtle kitchen scraps?
Turtles would appreciate any kind of veggie scraps you’d like to give, but be sure it’s a safe and nutritious snack. Your turtle should not be fed exclusively from your table scraps.
That said, they love the parts of fresh vegetables that some people don’t eat. They love the tops of carrots, for example. They’d happily eat some green, leafy veggies like dark lettuce and spinach, if you want to share.
Can I feed my pet turtle chicken, fish, or beef from the grocery store?
Please do not feed pet turtles chicken, beef, fish, or other meats purchased from the grocery store. These are not natural foods for turtles and can cause serious health issues.
Yes, sometimes turtles eat carrion, as mentioned above, but that’s not the same as feeding your pet turtle a fat steak each week. Store-bought fish is not the same as the fish they’d be eating in the wild, so please don’t risk it.
Turtles come in many sizes and types, so it’s no wonder that they have such a varied diet. Whether it’s plants, animal matter, or both, turtles really know how to chow down. They’re kind of like humans in that sense!
Be sure to ask your veterinarian what the best food is for your pet turtle. In fact, it can’t hurt to ask about feeding wild turtles, if you’re lucky enough to have them in your area.
What do turtles eat in a pond?
Wild turtles that live in and near ponds often eat water-based plants, small fish, algae, insects, and any vegetation that grows around the pond. Larger and stronger turtles, such as snapping turtles, may also eat mice and small mammals, birds, and other reptiles.
What do turtles eat in the ocean?
Fish, jellyfish, sea sponges, crustaceans, and sea vegetation. However, this depends on the species.