Is your turtle losing color? Most of the time this is not only normal but natural. And sometimes it is the result of a few big, big mistakes!
Have you noticed that your turtle’s shell color has gone from vibrant greens or yellows to darker browns and blacks? Or perhaps your turtle’s shell color has begun to look faded.
What exactly is going on here?
Why Is My Turtle Losing Color?
Here’s the short and sweet of it:
There are two types of discoloration that generally occur with turtles; the transition from bright greens and yellows to darker shades, and the fading of all color. Most of the time the former is natural and inevitable, whereas the latter sometimes suggests a problem.
In this short article, I am going to show you how you can easily identify healthy and unhealthy turtle discoloration.
Do Turtles’ Shells Change Color?
Turtles’ shell color changes as they grow and age. Turtles that are covered in bright greens or yellows as babies often develop into darker colors as they get older. For virtually every turtle species that I have researched, some degree of color change is inevitable.
Red-eared sliders for instance are often bright green as hatchlings. As they develop into adults and age, their shells often become dark green, brown, and black.
Thus, it is perfectly normal and healthy for your turtle’s color to change over time. You should expect this.
Moreover, there isn’t one specific color your turtle MUST change to.
This is because there is evidence that a turtle’s habitat plays a strong role in changing the color of not only its shell but also its skin.
In a study published in the Journal of Herpetology in 2006, both painted turtles and red-eared sliders were found to have changed their upper or lower shell colors depending on whether they had lived on a white or black substrate.
Because most species of commonly held pet turtles live in brackish water habitats, it would make sense that nature selects for turtle shell colors to darken and dull over time to match their surrounding environment.
An individual turtle’s genetics also plays a strong part in whether it develops brighter or darker colors, or more greens rather than browns, etc.
Therefore, if your turtle is behaving normally; eating normally, swimming normally, basking normally, and basically, just doing turtle things AND you have begun to notice it is losing its color, it is most likely simply due to genetics and its environment. It’s completely normal.
What Is Unhealthy Turtle Shell Discoloration?
Although a turtle losing its (bright) color is most of the time completely natural, in some instances it can suggest a problem.
You can spot the difference between these two types of dulling and discoloration quite easily; healthy discoloration and color dulling are almost always uniform over its entire shell. Meaning, if your turtle’s entire shell is turning browner or blacker, it’s okay.
If, on the other hand, one piece is turning a much different color, or if there are blotches of dark browns on a brightly colored shell only on the top or one area, it may suggest a problem.
Usually, this problem is one of the following:
- Your turtle isn’t receiving enough UV light.
- Your turtle isn’t receiving enough nutrition through its diet.
The easiest way to ensure that your turtle receives enough UV light is to:
- Purchase a good UV bulb that emits UV-B light. If it’s been years since you’ve changed your UV light, that’s probably the issue. The amount of UV light that these bulbs produce decays over time.
- Keep your UV light on for 8 to 12 hours a day. Not 2 hours. Not 4. 8 to 12 hours. UV light bulbs are far, far less powerful compared to good old natural sunshine. You’ll need to keep them on during much of the day to not only mimic the natural rhythm of the sun but also to make sure your turtle is getting enough UV light.
And the easiest way to ensure that your turtle receives enough nutrition is to:
- Feed it a good, quality pellet 2-4 times a week for adult turtles. About enough that would fit into its head (about a heaping tablespoon) or enough that it can eat in about 10 minutes. This will take care of A LOT of its nutritional needs.
- Make sure you are supplementing its diet of pellets with other food your species needs. Red-eared sliders, for instance, have a higher vegetable and plant intake than many other species. Feeding them a handful of red-leaf lettuce or kale a day does wonders.
- Offer a cuttlebone. Cuttlebones are an excellent source of calcium for turtles. If you are feeding it a good diet, it likely won’t need this. It basically acts as an insurance policy in case of low calcium.
Why Is My Turtle’s Shell Turning White?
On the other hand, if your turtle’s shell color isn’t darkening or dulling but lightening or whitening, the most likely reason is hard water.
Hard water is simply water with larger amounts of dissolved calcium and magnesium in it. It’s completely harmless to both you and your turtle.
It’s easy to tell if your turtle’s shell has been turning white or lightening due to hard water:
- Your turtle’s shell color will look faded or whitened uniformly over the shell. Basically, it won’t be just in one spot. Unless of course your turtle has been sitting in a bucket of water recently, in which case you’ll see clear hard water marks according to the water height.
- It may look chalky as well. This will look like your turtle’s shell is completely dried out and needs moisture. But it doesn’t. That’s just the hard water residue.
Another possible reason your turtle’s shell has lightened or whitened in color could be due to scute shedding.
Scutes are the outermost part of its shell. They are made of keratin, which is the same substance that makes up your fingernails.
In order to grow larger and keep its shell healthy, your turtle needs to occasionally shed its scutes.
If it’s in a deep shed, where all of the scutes are nearly or ready to fall off, your turtle’s entire shell may look very faded, dull and almost transparent.
Removing them should be easy. You can simply pull them off. If you feel any resistance at all, stop pulling. The scute will loosen and fall off naturally. Don’t force the issue.
If your turtle has some scutes that are having trouble falling off or never sheds, it could potentially cause a problem down the line, as these scutes get “caked into” its shell.
In order to facilitate faster scute shedding, you can:
- Use an old soft toothbrush and apply vitamin E oil or a diluted vinegar solution to the turtle’s scutes.
- Gently rub the vitamin E oil or diluted vinegar solution to your turtle’s loosened scutes, especially around the edges.
- Dry dock your turtle for at least 30 minutes.
- Rinse your turtle off.
Why Does My Turtle Have Spots?
If you have noticed colored spots on your turtle, it could be due to a few reasons.
Firstly, it could be genetic or simply the turtle shell’s natural color pattern. If it looks and feels natural, it probably is. Rub your thumb or finger over the spots. Do you feel anything different? Is the spot raised? Sunken? Have a different texture? If not, it’s probably just natural.
Secondly, it could be fungus or shell rot in the early stages. You can easily identify both of these. If the texture of the spot feels different, it’s not natural and probably one of these.
Treating either of these early often means the difference between a healthy turtle and one that needs an expensive trip to the vet.
Make sure your turtle is dry and apply some silver sulfadiazine cream, betadine or iodine solution to the spots. Keep your turtle dry-docked like this for most of the day. Put your turtle in some water in order to get it re-hydrated for a few hours. Keep up this treatment until the spots have disappeared.
I have seen one other case of a turtle having discoloration on its shell that was not due to nature, shedding scutes, hard water or illness.
It was from burns.
The owner had moved the UV light way too close to the turtle’s basking area. The top of the turtle’s shell had developed several darker spots because it was getting way too hot.
Eventually, the owner realized this, moved the UV light away, and treated it for burns. The turtle soon recovered.
Why is my turtle losing color?
- If your turtle’s colors are darkening it’s probably natural. Most species’ go from brighter to darker colors due to aging and the environment.
- If your turtle’s colors are becoming discolored in particular areas, it may be due to a deficiency in their diet or from lack of UV light. Feed your turtle a variety of foods and give it access to UV light 8-12 hours a day to avoid this.
- If your turtle’s shell has whitened, it’s most likely due to hard water. You can use water conditioners to treat avoid this.
- It may also be from scutes about to be shedded.
- If there are white or discolored spots or parts on your turtle’s shell, it may be from a fungus or shell rot. You’ll need to treat it accordingly.