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Do Sea Turtles Eat Jellyfish? How They Avoid Getting Stung While Snacking

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Yes, sea turtles eat jellyfish. Sea turtles are opportunistic feeders, which means they eat just about anything they can find. As long as they can catch it, they will eat it.

Sea turtles eat both plants and animals. They’re omnivores, getting their nutrition from both sources.

But what about jellyfish?

It may seem like a strange choice in meals, considering the ocean is full of life, so why jellyfish?

What nutritional value do they get from eating these creatures? How do they avoid getting stung by the jellyfish’s tentacles?

Do Sea Turtles Eat Jellyfish?

Yes, all species of sea turtle eat jellyfish. More predatory species like the Leatherback eat a lot of jellyfish, while herbivores like Green sea turtles eat them on occasion.

Since jellyfish are one of the most abundant creatures in the ocean, it’s not surprising that turtles often snack on them.

Jellyfish are a vital part of the ocean food chain. They eat plankton and small fish, and in turn, bigger creatures like turtles eat them. [1]

Their presence on the menu of sea turtles means their populations stay under control. All creatures in the ecosystem exist in a delicate balance; that’s why the threat of losing species, such as sea turtles, is so worrying.

Sea Turtles Eating Jellyfish
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Do Green Sea Turtles Eat Jellyfish?

Green sea turtles are the only species of sea turtle that is primarily herbivorous, meaning they mostly eat plants.

However, since they are opportunistic feeders, they also eat small creatures like jellyfish if they come across them. [2]

While their diet consists mainly of seagrasses and algae, eating the occasional jellyfish provides them with much-needed nutrients like protein and omega-3 fatty acids.

If opportunities arise, they also feast on small invertebrates, sponges, and fish carcasses.

Do Leatherback Sea Turtles Eat Jellyfish?

Leatherback sea turtles are the largest turtle species and the most carnivorous. Their diet consists mainly of jellyfish and sea squirts, donning them the name “gelatinivores.” [3]

This species can grow to incredible sizes of up to 6 feet long and 2,000lbs. To sustain themselves, they must eat vast amounts of jellyfish. Lucky for them, they have a 100% success rate when “hunting” jellyfish. [4]

The simple jellyfish structures can do little to evade a giant sea turtle, so all leatherbacks must do is find them. This process is much more like foraging than hunting despite having animal prey.

Leatherback Sea Turtles
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What Else Eats Jellyfish?

Jellyfish are a favorite food of many animals, including

  • fish: sunfish, whale sharks, gray triggerfish, salmon, tuna
  • sea turtles
  • crabs
  • seabirds
  • penguins
  • marine mammals: dolphins, whales
  • other jellyfish

Some animals, like the ocean sunfish, eat jellyfish whole. Others, like sea turtles, tear off pieces.

How Do Sea Turtles Eat Jellyfish Without Getting Stung?

Sea turtles are well-adapted to avoid the venomous sting from jellyfish while feeding on them. Their thick shells and keratin beaks create impenetrable barriers, and barb-like projections within their mouths protect their digestive tract.

These adaptations allow them to eat large numbers of jellyfish with little to no consequences.

Thick Shells

Sea Turtles Thick Shells

All sea turtles have a thick, protective shell that covers their bodies. A tough layer of skin covers this bony outer layer and horny scales called scutes.

The shells of sea turtles offer protection from predators and the elements, but they also prevent jellyfish stings.

Related: Can Sea Turtles Go In Their Shell?

Keratin Beak

In addition to their shells, sea turtles have hard beaks made of keratin. This horn-like material also forms human fingernails and hair.

This rigid material covers the turtle’s jaws and is used to tear apart prey. The keratin beak is also impervious to jellyfish stings.

The keratin beak of a sea turtle is powerful and can easily crush the soft bodies of jellyfish.

Specialized Mouth Barbs

Sea Turtles Thick Specialized Mouth Barbs

Barb-like projections line the mouth and esophagus of sea turtles.

These help to retain food items while expelling seawater, but it also protects the mouth from the sting of jellyfish.

When a jellyfish brushes up against a sea turtle’s mouth, the barbs within their mouths snag the tentacles and pull them free from the body. [5]

The sting cells still fire, but they can’t do any damage since they’re not attached to any nerves. They eventually detach from the turtle’s mouth and be swept away by the ocean current.

Protecting The Eyes

Jellyfish stings can also be dangerous to the eyes, so sea turtles have evolved a few ways to protect them.

  1. A nictitating membrane, or the third eyelid, can sweep across the eye to remove debris and irritants.
  2. Thick scales on their eyelids offer additional protection.
  3. Eyes are positioned on the sides of their heads, which gives them a wide field of vision but limits their ability to see directly in front of them. While this may seem like a disadvantage, it protects their eyes from getting stung by jellyfish swimming directly toward them.
  4. Turtles simply close their eyes while eating jellyfish, and their thick eyelids shield them from any incoming stings.

Are Sea Turtles Immune to Jellyfish Stings?

While sea turtles are well-adapted to avoid getting stung by jellyfish, they are not immune to the venom.

It can be painful and even deadly if a turtle is stung by a particularly large or venomous jellyfish.

Are Sea Turtles Immune to Jellyfish Stings
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Why Do Sea Turtles Eat Jellyfish?

Jellyfish are a significant part of the sea turtle diet. They are rich in protein and essential fats, which help turtles grow and reproduce. They are also relatively easy to find and catch.

Nutritional Value

Jellyfish are an excellent source of 

  • protein
  • essential fats
  • several vitamins and minerals.

Protein is critical to the growth and repair of tissues. It is also necessary to produce hormones, enzymes, and other essential molecules in the body.

Essential fats aid the proper function of cell membranes, the insulation of nerve fibers, and the production of hormones.

Easy Prey

Jellyfish are Easy Prey for sea turtles
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Jellyfish are relatively easy for sea turtles to catch. They often congregate in large groups, or swarms, making them easy to find. [6]

They also don’t put up much of a fight. Their soft bodies and lack of muscular control make them easy prey for turtles.

Abundance

Jellyfish are in all oceans, from the poles to the tropics. They are prevalent in coastal waters, where they often form swarms near the shore. [7]

This abundance makes them a reliable food source for turtles.

Do Sea Turtles Eat Jellyfish to Get High?

Do Sea Turtles Eat Jellyfish to Get High
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No, sea turtles do not eat jellyfish to get high.

Jellyfish contain a neurotoxin that can cause paralysis and even death in humans. However, this toxin does not affect sea turtles.

What Else Do Sea Turtles Eat?

In addition to jellyfish, sea turtles also eat:

  • Crustaceans
  • Mollusks
  • Fish
  • Algae, seaweed
  • Seagrasses
  • Sea cucumbers
  • Urchins
  • Crabs
  • Fish
  • Shrimp

Their diet varies depending on the species of turtle and the location.

Turtles that live in areas with a lot of seagrasses eat more of it than turtles that live in areas with less seagrass.

Sea Turtle Species Diet Comparison

Different species of sea turtles eat different types and amounts of food. The green sea turtle is a herbivore that mostly eats seagrass. In contrast, the leatherback sea turtle is a carnivore that mostly eats. [8]

Here is a complete list of the different types of sea turtles and their diets:

SpeciesDiet
GreenSeagrass, algae, seaweed, other marine plants
LeatherbackJellyfish, sea squirts, squid, shrimp, crabs
LoggerheadCrabs, conches, mollusks, shrimp
HawksbillSea sponges, algae, coral, jellyfish, urchins
FlatbackJellyfish, seaweed, crabs, sea cucumbers, mollusks
Olive ridleyCrabs, jellyfish, shrimp, lobster, urchins, algae
Kemp’s ridleyCrabs, fish, shrimp, jellyfish

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, sea turtles do eat jellyfish. They are well-adapted to avoid getting stung by the venomous creatures, relying on them for food.

While different species of turtles eat different types of food, all turtles feast on jellyfish from time to time.

About Sophie Herlihy (Zoologist)

Sophie Herlihy, a trained zoologist, is a lover of true misfit animals. With a specialty in insects, birds, and rodents, she helps the Misfit Animals craft factual and valuable informational pieces on various animals.

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