Help me! How can I deflesh a tortoise?

March 22, 2016

I’ve been lucky enough to acquire another beautiful specimen. It arrived in a box (though not from Amazon, despite what the box itself might suggest):

2016-03-17 15.45.01

What’s inside?

2016-03-17 15.45.48

Can it be? It is!

2016-03-17 15.46.14

Now I’ve wanted a tortoise for a long time, because they are (Darren will back me up here) the freakiest of all tetrapods. Their scapulae and coracoids have somehow migrated inside their rib-cages (which bear the shell), and their dorsal vertebrae are fused to the shell all along its upper midline. Just ridiculous. Look, this is what I’m talking about. Compare with the much saner approach that armadillos use to having a shell.

Here’s my baby in left anterodorsolateral view:

2016-03-17 15.46.27

And in right posteodorsolateral:

2016-03-17 15.46.39

Can anyone tell me what species I have here?

Here he is (or she?) upside down, in left posteroventolateral view.

2016-03-17 15.46.54

Come to think of it, can anyone tell me the sex of my specimen?

Here he or she is in anterior view, looking very stern.

2016-03-17 15.47.25

The problem is — and I can’t quite believe this never occurred to me until I had a tortoise of my own — how on earth do you deflesh such a creature? I have no idea (and obviously no experience). Any hints?

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24 Responses to “Help me! How can I deflesh a tortoise?”

  1. Andrew Pearson Says:

    Any good anthills nearby?
    (Works for sheep & kangaroo skulls–ask me how I know)


  2. Do you want to dissect it as well or simply deflesh it? If you’re looking to deflesh it, I would skin the available portions of skin and remove what you can, then leave it in a wood or metal box with mesh on the top, then bury it.

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Just defleshing is fine. I’ve heard ants suggested from several quarters. Would dermestids work equally well?

  4. Fatpat Says:

    Looks like a female to me. Don’t know much about tortoises, apart from mother and mother in law both keep them, but males tend to have a concave plastron, (lower shell). This aids mating as the concave plastron fits the convex shell better. A better fit as it were! Plastron looks pretty flat in your photo.

  5. Brad Says:

    I have a complete softshell turtle in the freezer that I purchased from a grocery store. Quite interested in seeing the replies here, especially if someone posts the best way to separate and save both the complete skeleton and all edible flesh.

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be possible to save both shell and flesh!

    Where do you live, that you can buy turtles in a grocery store?!

  7. Andrew Stuck Says:

    If you can separate the plastron from the carapace without damaging either it might make your job a little easier. As far as sex goes, I’ve read that males’ tails bulge a little where they attach to the body as their genitalia are kept retracted in there. It might be hard to tell though.

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    How would I separate carapace and plastron? They looks pretty well fused together, based on the photos.

  9. Allen Hazen Says:

    Not having tried it myself,my suspicion is that separating the carapace and plastron would involve a saw. Maybe one of the delicate motorized circular saws used by model-makers and other craftsmen would make a narrow enough cut that you could glue the pieces back together again neatly after defleshing?

    Re: comment on armadillos. Was the vertebral column more closely associated with the shell in Glyptodonts than in the (Nine-banded?) armadillo you link a photo of? With a rigid shell and no need to roll up into a ball, having the vertebrae fixed to the shell wouldn’t have been as mechanically dubious a design as it would be for an armadillo.

  10. Allen Hazen Says:

    Hmmm… Having Googled “Glyptodon skeleton pictures” and looked at a few… It looks as if the spinal column of a Glyptodon arches to follow the profile of the shell, more or less, but at least in the forward half of the body isn’t all that close to it. Which, since the shell is purely dermal, not involving the ribs the way a tortoise’s does, makes sense.
    … The rib cage is heavily involved in BREATHING in most mammals. Anybody know about Glyptodon respiration? The ribs are not in contact with the shell, and I suppose they MIGHT have had a bit of freedom to move within it, though (given what I would think was the near incompressibility of the flesh between the rib cage and the shell, probably not much.

  11. kierenpitts Says:

    Have you considered using blowflies? Assuming the flesh isn’t desiccated then you could use blowfly maggots to clear it out. Although you may wish it put some cuts in the skin to allow access. If you get “pinkies” from a fishing tackle shop then rear through the adults (which is simple) then they’ll lay on the carcass (or get them to lay on liver and transfer the batches of eggs). It’s better to get greenbottles (Lucilia sp.) rather than bluebottles (Calliphora sp.) – I think fishing tackle shops call the former pinkies (the maggots are dyed pink) and the latter gentles (maggots) and casters (pupae). The maggots they sell will have finished feeding so you will need to rear them through and use the offspring.

    Alternatively, ask Prof Richard Wall in Life Sciences (@bris) as he may still have Lucilia in culture.

  12. kierenpitts Says:

    It’s perhaps worth saying that I think Dermestids and ants could be slow and also hard to find in sufficient quantities…. whereas blowflies are pretty easy to get.

  13. Mike Taylor Says:

    Excellent suggestions, Kieren — many thanks!

  14. kierenpitts Says:

    No worries at all, hope it helps.

  15. zenlizard Says:

    Hey, it’s Zenlizard, from the DML. As it so happens, I am a wildlife rehabilitator, specializing in herptiles: in the course of my work, I’ve had to dissect/necropsy more turtles than I’ve wanted to. Yes, the best way to actually skeletonize the carcass is with insectoid scavengers, whichever species is easiest/least costly for you to get hold of. Throughout the past several years, I’ve been sending Jim Farlow at IPFW turtle/tortoise carcasses for his anatomical studies: you might contact him as to which insectoid scavengers he finds the easiest to deal with, and what other techniques he uses from there. Once skeletonized, you should separate the carapace/plastron by cutting through the bridge with a small bone saw-a dremel or similar rotary tool works best here. Oh, BTW, that’s a Russian tortoise (_Agrionemys horsfieldii_). If you need further details, pop me an e-mail: zenlizard (at) nookery (dot) org.

  16. Brad Says:

    “Where do you live, that you can buy turtles in a grocery store?!”

    Ottawa, Canada. It was from a store specializing in Chinese groceries, though. This is the second time I’ve purchased an edible Pelodiscus turtle to attempt to skeletonize. I don’t see why saving both the skeleton and the flesh would be impossible, last time I just tried boiling the flesh off the bones and would have succeeded, had I not let the water level in the pot get too low and burned the roof of the skull on the pot. D’oh!

  17. brian engh Says:

    If it’s dessicated & the blowflies don’t work you can use Dermisted beetles. Any university or museum with a zoology dept should have them, and you can order them online. You only need a few to get the colony going. They will however gnaw on keratin and even bone once softer tissues have been consumed, so unlike maggots you need to check on their progress regularly, but also unlike maggots they will get the skeleton really clean.

  18. Mike Taylor Says:

    Many thanks to all for these suggestions. It seems the overwhelming consensus is that this is job best left to invertebrates of some kind. I’ll report progress over time.

    (Those who suggested sawing open the shell: not for me, thanks. I don’t have the right kind of tools, and even if I did, I don’t want to damage the specimen in this way. Not if my tiny helpers can get the job done.)


  19. You should definitely do a dissection of the limbs. Turtle leg myology, innervation and vascular supply is insufficiently studied.


  20. I think dermestids are much easier to manage as a colony than using wild ants, but that’s potentially a personal bias. I strongly dislike flies for prepping out flesh and I think it’s a lot better to skin and deflesh as much of the skeleton as possible when leaving for inverts. The job is much cleaner and controlled this way.

  21. Mike Taylor Says:

    Proper dissection would be great, but I just don’t have the skills and background, or the time, to do this. Just getting the skeleton out, ideally in an articulated state, is all I need.

  22. Isaac Krone Says:

    I’ve defleshed two red eared sliders with use of nothing more than a rice cooker and an uncommonly supportive roommate. First, remove all of the flesh you can. I cracked the plastron to scoop out the nasty bits, but if you don’t do that you can still probably get it nice and clean. Just get off everything you can and leave it in the cooker on keep warm for a few days.

  23. Mike Taylor Says:

    But I imagine this leaves you with a disarticulated set of bones? Ideally, I’d like them still articulated — which is why I think inverts are probably the way to go.

  24. Isaac Krone Says:

    It does leave you with disarticulated bones, but you can manage that easily by chopping off the head and limbs and putting them in different containers within the rice cooker. Turtles aren’t especially difficult to put back together, and it’s incredible to see how tightly the pieces of shell articulate. If you’re lucky, you’ll have an osteologically mature turtle anyway and the shell and skull won’t come apart so much.


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