Why do Barnacles Attached to my Turtle? How Do I Remove Them?

If you’ve ever seen anything underwater, then you’ve likely seen barnacles that attach themselves to things like shipwrecks or even other marine life. Some barnacles can be razor-sharp, and they’re avoided by divers who don’t want to receive a deep laceration from one of them.

Barnacles may also attach themselves to turtles, who are also denizens of the water, and that’s what we’re going to be exploring today. We’re going to take a look at what barnacles are and why they attach themselves to turtle shells. We’ll also discuss whether or not you can remove them from your turtle.

What are Barnacles?

Barnacles are a confounding species due to their distinct lack of mobility, which is a concept that’s alien to a species that’s as mobile as we are. Believe it or not, barnacles are related to shrimp and other crustaceans, though they’re a lot less versatile than some of their close relatives.

These creatures don’t spend their whole lives immobile, as barnacles are typically mobile when they’re in their larval stages. When a barnacle finds somewhere to live, it will use a few mechanisms to attach itself to the host, which is a turtle, in this case.

Barnacles can either stick themselves to a turtle’s skin or create a form of biological cement that will latch them onto a turtle’s shell. Barnacles are what are known as filter feeders, meaning that they get their nutrients by filtering the water that they run through, grabbing any small organisms that they can, and consuming them.

This is why barnacles tend to attach themselves to structures where there is plenty of water movement, such as near beaches where they can expect wave action to bring them nutrients. However, they can also filter plenty of water by attaching themselves to a moving creature like a turtle.

Why Do Barnacles Attach to Turtle Shells?Like we just mentioned, barnacles feed themselves by filtering water, and a turtle is a great place to attach themselves to because turtles spend a lot of time moving around. A barnacle that has attached itself to a turtle’s shell will see more water and nutrients than a barnacle that has cemented itself to something like a reef or a shipwreck.

Another reason why barnacles tend to attach themselves to turtles is because a turtle’s shell provides one of the best places for a barnacle to cement itself to. This is because a barnacle will typically only be able to attach itself to something that’s rigid, as they have more difficulty with softer materials.

Since a turtle’s shell is hard, it’s easier for a barnacle to form a bond between itself and the rigid layer of the shell using its biological cement. However, since barnacles are rather slow, even when they’re younger, it’s hard for them to get to a turtle and attach themselves to it in most cases.

Many barnacles will attach themselves to turtles when the turtles are sleeping or otherwise unable to get away from the barnacles. This is also one of the reasons why barnacles are associated with poor health in turtles, as slower turtles are more likely to end up with them.

The Relationship Between Barnacles and Turtles

The relationship between barnacles and turtles isn’t quite symbiotic, but it isn’t really parasitic either. This is because barnacles certainly benefit from attaching themselves to the shells of turtles in the water, but turtles don’t often have many negative effects caused by these barnacles.

Of course, this depends on the exact kind of barnacle that has attached itself to a turtle and where it has attached itself on a turtle’s body. Turtles are rather intelligent animals, and they take notice when they have a new passenger that wasn’t there before, and some turtles even have ways to remove them.

Turtles have been seen removing barnacles from their bodies with the help of their flippers, but that’s only if they can reach them. In most cases, barnacles attach to turtle shells, where they’ll be out of reach of the reptile’s flippers and they will likely spend their whole lives there.

Sometimes, barnacles may fall off of turtle shells when turtles swim close to rocks and they get sheared off of the shell. In most cases, barnacles are beneath the notice of turtles that live in the wild, and they’re just seen by the turtles as another fact of life.

Can You Remove Barnacles From Turtle Shells?

While you can certainly try to remove barnacles from a turtle’s shell, you’ll have to consider the toughness of the biological adhesive that barnacles secrete. This cement can stick a barnacle to a turtle’s shell tightly, and a barnacle may not be as easy to remove from a turtle as you expect it to be.

We’ve also mentioned how barnacles can get rather sharp, and if you’re trying to remove a barnacle from a turtle’s shell and you slip, you may give yourself a nasty cut. If you’re trying to remove barnacles from a turtle, make sure that you wear thick protective gloves that will ensure you don’t get injured.

Another thing to consider is the shell of the turtle. Since you’ll have to use a lot of force to remove a barnacle from a turtle’s shell, there’s a possibility that you may end up damaging the shell. 

If you intend to remove barnacles from a wild turtle, then you may even get in trouble if you do so in the United States without the proper permit. This is because removing barnacles from a turtle that lives in the wild is seen as a violation of the Endangered Species Act. This is because it’s considered a form of animal harassment.

Does it Hurt Turtles to Remove Barnacles From Them?

We’ve already mentioned the possibility of damaging a turtle’s shell if you remove a barnacle that’s stuck to it tightly, but will it hurt a turtle to remove a barnacle? In most cases, it won’t hurt a turtle to remove a barnacle from its shell, but this changes if the barnacle is embedded in the animal’s skin.

Some barnacles may attach themselves to the skin of a turtle, and this is where the removal of the barnacle can result in injury to the turtle. Since the underlying layer of skin will also be removed when you take off a barnacle, it’s recommended that you avoid trying to do so altogether.

Are Barnacles Harmful to Turtles?

In the vast majority of cases, barnacles are just along for the ride with the turtles that they’re attached to. They will rarely even harm a turtle because they’re reliant on the turtle that they’re attached to for their very survival. After all, why would you kill your number-one accomplice when gathering food?

However, this only applies to most cases, as there are some fringe cases where barnacles can harm turtles. This typically happens to turtles that are slower than the rest of the pack, as it’s a lot easier for barnacles to latch onto them and hitch a ride.

Each additional barnacle on the shell of a turtle impedes its hydrodynamic profile because the barnacles create more drag on the otherwise streamlined surface of the turtle. In practical terms, each barnacle will cut down on the speed of the turtle until the point where there are too many barnacles on a turtle.

When the number of barnacles on a turtle reaches a critical mass, then the turtle will have its mobility severely hampered, making it a less efficient hunter. A turtle that struggles to swim is one that struggles to eat, and a turtle that struggles to eat is one that will struggle to survive.

Can Barnacles Kill Sea Turtles?

If a sea turtle is overloaded with barnacles, then it will eventually slow down and it may die sooner than its compatriots. Another potential issue is that there are too many barnacles attached near a turtle’s mouth, making it impossible for them to eat. However, barnacles themselves will never kill a sea turtle due to their inherent danger.

In fact, the removal of a barnacle may be more likely to kill a sea turtle than the barnacle itself, especially if the barnacle is attached to the turtle’s skin. If a barnacle is removed from a turtle’s skin, it will leave behind an open wound that can get infected and potentially kill the sea turtle.

How Do Turtles Control Barnacles?

Turtles can manage the number of barnacles attached to them using some of the methods that we mentioned earlier in this guide. For example, if there are too many barnacles on a turtle’s shell, it will swim closer to hard rocks that can scrape the barnacles off of its shell.

We’ve also mentioned how turtles have learned to remove barnacles using their flippers, but this is typically only possible early on when a barnacle is still producing the required cement to attach itself. As long as a turtle doesn’t have too many barnacles on it, it will tend to be content with the existence of a few stowaways.

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