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The Tortoise's Shell

Many tortoises are able to be identified by their shell, from the shell's shape, design , color and patterns. The shell also plays a vital part in protection, and making the tortoise feel secure. Not much has changed in over 200 million years of evolution. Tortoise's basic shell form and function is still the same.

The shell is divided in two parts, the upper part is called the Carapace and the bottom shell is called the Plastron. Plastron and carapace are joined together with bony structures (scutes) called bridges. The inner layer of the shell is made out of bones. Including the backbone and the ribs. Tortoises shell is covered with bony scales called Scutes. Scutes are made of keratin, a substance found in hair and nails of mammals. Melanin in scutes is the reason for various pigmentation and different designs.

Individual Scutes make up the complete shell of the tortoise. These scutes consist of Nuchal Scutes, Vertebral Scutes, Costal Scutes, Marginal Scutes, Pygal shield, Gular Scute, Anal Scutes, Femoral Scutes, Abdominal Scutes, Pectoral Scutes, Humeral Scutes and the Bridge.

When tortoises hatch, their scutes are not technically joined together. Over time the scutes will slowly grow and fuse together. Keratin found in these scutes and or shell has amazing regenerative abilities. Damage to the shell will heal or regenerate over time. Tortoise's shell design can tell how particular species live or where they originate from. Many tortoises have large high domed shells. Such shells make it difficult for predators to get ahold of them with their jaws and crush the tortoise. Other species of tortoise have soft shells, such as the Pancake Tortoise (Malacochersus tornieri) . This soft design helps them squeeze in between rocks to hide from predators. While aquatic turtles have flat and streamlined shell. Such shell is designed for improved swimming and diving. 

The shell of the tortoise is an amazing adaptation with many features. Tortoises are able to feel touch. Many times, tortoise keepers will find there tortoise rubbing its shells on a base of a plant to scratch that unreachable itch. The shell as well as their skin and cloaca is able to absorb and take in moisture. This is the reason for soaking your tortoise, it ensures proper hydration. The shell is also susceptible to infections such as 'shell rot'.  Shell rot is usually acquired from dirty environments, such as dirty water or moldy bedding. It occurs when bacteria starts flourishing on the shell of a tortoise and will eventually cause it to have a white moldy appearance and will eat away the tortoise's shell. A cleaner, dryer environment and cleaning the tortoises shell over a few weeks with Hibiclens and Betadine will stop any shell rot growth.

Many tortoise keepers ask if a cream or ointments can or should be applied to the shell of the tortoise to keep it from looking dryed out. Tortoises shell needs to be able to breath and absorb moisture. Its best to keep the shell clean and free from ointments, they do attract dirt to stick to the shell and during hot days it might cause the tortoise to overheat. If creams or topical products are used, they should be used sparingly.