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Bugs That Look Like Turtles? Meet Tortoise Beetles

Is that a turtle? Nope, it’s a beetle with some very cool features and behaviors! Tortoise beetles are tiny, cute and often striking. More importantly, they know how to protect themselves.  

A tortoise beetle with a golden tortoise-shaped marking on its green shell.
A tortoise beetle. (Photo via Shutterstock)

All in the family 

Tortoise beetles are in the leaf beetle family. It’s a massive group of insects with more than 37,000 different species. Their relatives include cucumber beetles and potato beetles.  


There are more than 3,000 types of tortoise beetles throughout the world. Illinois is home to many kinds, including the golden tortoise beetle and the thistle tortoise beetle. 


The basics 

Tortoise beetles are small, less than a half-inch long. They eat plant material like flowers, leaves and vines. They especially love to nosh on sweet potato plants. Adults communicate using sounds, chemical signals called pheromones and vibrations. This insect has a short life. Once they hatch, they only live for about three months.  


Turtle shells 

They are called tortoise beetles for a reason! They almost look like they are running around with a turtle shell, or carapace, on their back. Except a tortoise beetle’s carapace is made up of its elytra (hard hindwings) and pronotum (a hard plate that covers their thorax).  


Words to know

Fecal: Relating to or resembling feces. 

Matte: Dull or flat, without a shine.

Nosh: To eat food enthusiastically.


Have you ever noticed that some turtles’ carapaces are smooth and domed, while other types have more ridges? It’s the same for tortoise beetles. Depending on the species, the carapace might be completely smooth or it might have spikes.  


Have you ever startled a turtle? What do they do? Pull their head and legs into their shells for protection. Tortoise beetles use the same strategy! They pull in their legs and antennae and lay with their shell flat against a leaf. Their feet tightly grip the surface — they’re not going to budge. A hungry wasp can’t pry them lose to eat the tasty goodness underneath. Whew, what a relief for a tortoise beetle! 


The colors and patterns of their shells can be just beautiful. 

Golden tortoise beetles have gorgeous metallic gold shells. They might look like gold earring glimmering in the sunlight.  

Mottled tortoise beetles have splotches of black and metallic gold on their shells.  

Thistle tortoise beetles have striking lime green shells.  

Clavate tortoise beetles have shells that are clear at the edges with a design that looks like either a turtle or a teddy bear in the center.  


New color, please! 

Some tortoise beetles change colors. They might go from matte to shiny or from one color to another. The golden tortoise beetle might morph to a reddish-brown color when touched. Some tortoise beetle species turn gray when a person casts a shadow over them. 


Do they color shift to hide from a predator? To attract a date? Biologists don’t exactly know how or why they do this. What do you think? Perhaps someday you will be the scientist to discover the reason! 


Mothering instincts 

Is your mom protective? Well so are tortoise beetle mothers. They hang out and watch over their eggs until they hatch. That’s about seven days from when the eggs are laid. Mom continues to watch over her brood while they are larvae, for about three weeks. She sticks arounds until they change into young adults ready to crawl or fly away.  


A poop umbrella 

A tortoise beetle larva on a blade of grass with a fecal shield on its back.
A tortoise beetle larva with a fecal parasol on its back. (Photo via Shutterstock)

When they are very young, in the larval stage, tortoise beetles have spikes with rungs that come out of their rear ends. It almost looks like a tree branch coming out of their butts. They add dead skin and poop to build it up even more.  


They can move this poop umbrella over their body to camouflage themselves. Plus, have you smelled poop? Even if a predator knows there is a snack underneath, the stink will turn their stomach. Smelly, but smart.  


Scientific names for gross stuff 

Do you want to sound smart while talking to your friends about all of this? Need fancy phrases when describing this to the adults in your life? Here are the scientific names. 

  • Insect poop = frass 

  • Spikes with rungs that come out of tortoise beetles rear end = anal fork 

  • Poop umbrella = fecal parasol 

 Now that you’ve discovered these little-known but interesting insects, spread the word. Tell your friends and family all about tortoise beetles. Then see if you can find any this summer! 


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