The answer to the question – Do all turtles have tails? – is ‘Yes’. All turtles have tails.
Some have tiny tails that can not be seen since they are hidden under their shell and some have long tails, tails that are almost as long as the turtle itself. Females generally have shorter tails.
There are very few species where adult females have longer tails, an example is Natator depressus (flatback turtle). However, with almost every turtle species, males have longer tails.
So what functions do tails provide to turtles? To some turtles, these appendages have no significant day-to-day function but in all turtles, it is necessary for the survival of the species especially as it plays an important role in reproduction.
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Functions of a Turtle’s Tail
The tail plays many vital roles. It plays an important role during reproduction.
In some turtles, it helps with balance. It also protects the cloaca, and it is also used when gravid females lay eggs.
The tail plays a vital role in reproduction
While the tail isn’t used to keep balance in their day-to-day movement, the tail plays a vital role in reproduction. Male turtles have their reproductive organs.
This makes the tail essential to the survival of the species. Females however do not have a reproductive organ in their tails.
However, females do have the cloaca on the tail. This is the opening that leads to the reproductive organs. The male penis can be found at the base of the tail.
As the male turtle matures and nears reproductive maturity, its tail grows rapidly. At this point, the tails of males are usually several times larger than the tails of females of a similar age.
In many turtles, their tails are longer than their limbs.
During mating, the male’s tail also aids in keeping hold of the female, the tail is also used to locate the cloaca and helps in penetration. The tale also protects the male from other interested males during the mating process.
The sensitive nature of the tail ensures that the male can easily locate the cloaca of the female. Because of the anatomy of the turtle, locating the cloaca is impossible without a tail. The male turtle releases the sperms into the cloaca.
Although females do not have their reproductive organs in their tails, it is still essential for reproduction. Most of the time, the female covers the cloaca using their tails.
Hovering during the mating period, females move their tails to the side or upwards. This allows the male to have access to the cloaca.
The tail protects the cloaca
As mentioned already, the female covers the cloaca with their tails except during mating. It isn’t only females that have cloacas, males do as well.
The cloak serves several functions. In both males and females, the cloaca permits sexual intercourse as both the male and the female have to bring their cloacas together before the male can insert the penis into the female’s cloaca.
Females also use the cloaca to release eggs during nesting. Both males and females use the cloaca to expel bodily waste (excrement). As you can see, the cloaca is a vital organ.
Both males and females use the tail to protect the cloaca.
The tail helps with movement
Unlike other animals such as mammals, fish, and even other reptiles, the tail doesn’t play an important role in the movement of the animal.
For many animals such as crocodiles, cheetahs, and many others, the tail is essential to their movements. Crocodiles, alligators, and many other aquatic reptiles use their tails to propel themselves forward when swimming.
However, the tail helps the turtle to maintain balance in uneven terrain. Most freshwater turtles bask on rocks and any object that sticks out of the water such as tree branches and driftwood.
The turtle uses the tail to keep balance as it climbs on such objects.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do turtle tails grow back?
As a turtle matures, the tail grows longer and bigger. In males, the tail becomes quite long in no time.
You may be wondering if a turtle can grow back its tail if it loses part of it in an accident. Unfortunately unlike some other reptiles such as gargoyle geckos that can grow back their tail when they lose it, the turtle cannot grow back its tail.
If part of the tail of a young turtle is nipped off, the tail will continue to grow back; the part that has been nipped off will never grow back.
Why should you not lift a turtle by the tail?
Sadly injuries to pet reptile tails are quite common. It is common for an inexperienced pet owner to attempt to lift a reptile by the tail. This leads to injuries.
Minor injuries to the tail will heal eventually. You may have to see a qualified herp vet if your turtle injures its tail.
Seeing a qualified herp vet is important if the injury is severe and not just a small cut. With treatment and care, the tail should heal in no time.
Most tail injuries should take a few weeks to heal while serious injuries can take up to a year.
How you handle your turtle is essential if you wish not to injure your turtle. Don’t ever lift your turtle by the tail.
This can be tempting when you attempt to handle a snapping turtle. They have massive tails and a vicious temperament when out of water. It may be tempting to lift one by the tail but that is wrong.
If you come across a tail crossing a road and you wish to move it, don’t lift the reptile by the tail. Rather lift it by the shell.
You can also move the turtle onto a tarp or a wheel barrel and move it that way. The video below provides information on how to move a turtle across a road.
Do sea turtles have tails?
The size of the tail can be reliably used to tell females and males apart in mature individuals. Females have short tails.
Tails that barely go beyond the shell and don’t extend beyond the back flippers. Males on the other hand have long tails. Their tails generally extend beyond the back flippers.
In both males and females, the cloaca can be found on the tail. This is the opening for urinary digestive and reproductive trails.
Can a turtle live without a tail?
As we have mentioned, the tail is essential to reproduction as the male reproductive organs are housed here. The tail also serves to protect the cloaca.
However, it has little impact on anything else. The lack of a tail should not stop the chelonian from living a full and healthy life.
Why do adult male turtles have longer tails than adult female turtles?
You may have noticed that male turtles tend to have thicker and longer tails than females have. This is considered the easiest method of differentiating males from females.
While males have tails that generally go beyond their hind limbs, females have tails that usually extend beyond the shell but not beyond the hind legs.
Also, the length between the end of the plastron and the cloaca is generally larger with male turtles than it is with female turtles. While there is no exact reason why female turtles generally have short tails, there is a reason why males have long tails.
The male tail also contains the reproductive organ of the turtle, something the female tail doesn’t contain. The female tail helps to shelter the cloaca.
Can turtles retract their tails into their shell?
Many turtle species can retract into their shells. Some such as box turtles can retract fully into their shell and close their shell completely.
Such turtles can retract their tails into their shells. However, not all turtles can do this.
The snapping turtle is unable to retract its tail into the shell. Sea turtles are also unable to retract their tail into their shell.
Which turtle has the longest tail?
The turtles with the longest tails are the snapping turtles and the big-headed turtle (Platysternon megacephalum).
The big-headed turtle is closely related to snapping turtles. In fact, they used to belong to the same family as snapping turtles and they do resemble snapping turtles.
The tail of the big-headed turtle can reach a length of 6 to 7 inches.
Snapping turtles are turtles that belong to the family Chelydridae. These turtles include the alligator snapping turtle, the Suwannee snapping turtle, the Central American snapping turtle, and the common snapping turtle.
All of these turtles have long tails. Their tails are generally almost as long as they are.
The bigger the snapping turtle, the longer the tail will be since the tail is usually almost as long as the shell. The largest snapping turtle is the alligator snapping turtle which is endemic to North America.
The alligator snapping turtle reaches a carapace length of 14 to 30 inches so their tails are usually just as long.
The turtle’s tail is important to the survival of the species as males house their reproductive organs within their tails. As such all turtle species have tails.
Similarly, all turtles also have tails. If a turtle lacks a tail then it must have lost it.
So do all turtles have tails? Yes, all turtles have tails.
These include freshwater turtles, sea turtles, and tortoises.
Apart from the reproductive function of the tail, this section of the chelonian also protects the cloaca. Among some species, the tail even helps them maintain balance.
Because of how important the tail is, it is essential that you handle your turtle carefully and never lift it by the tail.