Crying Turtles: Deciphering Fact From Fiction

Table of Contents

Introduction to turtles and tears

Turtles are one of the oldest and most fascinating creatures on the planet. They live a long life, encased in their sturdy shells, they seem to move through life in their unique, unhurried way, thriving both on land and in water. But there’s one aspect of their behaviour that raises many eyebrows, making us ask the question, “Do turtles cry?” If you’ve ever witnessed a turtle with seemingly moist eyes, it could be easy to assume that they’re crying just like humans do. However, the real story is much more interesting and takes us on a journey into the life of these captivating creatures.

Sea Turtle Underwater
Sea Turtle Underwater, Credit: Wikimedia/dronepicr

The truth about turtles crying

When we, as humans, refer to crying, we are usually talking about the process of shedding tears in response to an emotional state , be it sadness, joy, or even frustration. The idea of crying, therefore, is deeply tied to our experience of emotion. However, with turtles, the process is quite different, and to understand it, we must shed our human-centered view. Turtles do appear to ‘cry’, but it’s not an emotional process. Their ‘tears’ serve a biological function , which is pivotal for their survival.

The turtle’s secret: the 'tears' aren't what you think

The ‘tears’ of a turtle are not as they seem at first glance. When you spot a turtle with water trickling down from its eyes, it’s easy to assume that it’s crying, especially when you view it from a human perspective. But the reality is a sneaky adaptation of the turtle in response to its environment. You see, sea turtles have a special salt gland situated near their eyes. This gland functions as a tiny, biological factory that produces a slightly salty fluid, effectively dealing with the excess salt their bodies have to deal with, especially after feeding in salty seawater. This fluid trickles out from their eyes, creating the illusion of a crying turtle.

Turtles in different environments

The phenomenon of turtle ‘crying’ is not exclusive to sea turtles but is observed in various turtle species, albeit for different reasons. Let’s delve a little deeper into this. Land turtles or tortoises may also display ‘crying’ behaviour. For them, it’s more about maintaining their eye health, especially in dry, dusty environments. These ‘tears’ help keep their eyes clean and moist, protecting them from potential harm. On the other side, for sea turtles, ‘crying’ is a vital process for regulating their salt intake, serving as a sort of in-built desalination system, helping them survive in their salty aquatic habitats. Regardless of the environment they inhabit, one thing remains constant – the ‘tears’ are more about turtle health and less about their emotional state.

Land Turtle or Tortoise
Land Turtle or Tortoise, Credit: Wikimedia/Kevstan

Turtle 'tears' and human misunderstandings

Throughout history, many cultures have spun tales and myths surrounding the sight of a ‘crying’ turtle. Some believe that turtles cry out of sadness, while others surmise that they do so when sensing danger. Some even hold the view that a turtle’s ‘tears’ can cure ailments! Such beliefs, while fascinating, veer away from the scientific truth. The ‘tears’ of a turtle are not an expression of sadness, fear, or any supernatural attribute. They are a simple, yet remarkable, biological process that aids in their survival and well-being.


As we wrap up our investigation into the world of turtles and their ‘tears’, we can safely conclude that emotions are not a factor. While it might seem on the surface that turtles ‘cry’, it’s essential to recognise that they are not expressing emotions like humans do, which is the very basic notion associated with crying. Crying is the gateway of releasing emotional extremes. Hence, turtles merely engage in a unique biological process tailored to their survival needs, be it keeping their eyes clean or managing their salt levels.

Close-up of a Turtle's Eye
Turtle's Eye, Credit: wikimedia/Chicocvenancio


Biological Function: The processes and phenomena which allow living organisms to live, grow, and develop.


Emotional State: A person’s internal feeling condition, which can influence thinking and behavior.


Adaptation: Changes in an organism’s structure or habits that help it adjust to its environment.


Desalination: The process of removing salt, especially from sea water so that it can be used for drinking or irrigation.



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