Turtles are reptiles of the order Testudines (all living turtles belong to the crown group Chelonia), most of whose body is shielded by a special bony or cartilaginous shell developed from their ribs. The order Testudines includes both extant (living) and extinct species. The earliest known turtles date from 215 million years ago, making turtles one of the oldest reptile groups and a more ancient group than lizards and snakes. About 300 species are alive today and most are highly endangered.
Turtles cannot breathe in water, but they can hold their breath for various periods of time.
Like other reptiles, turtles are "cold blooded" (or poikilothermic "of varying temperature"). Like other amniotes (reptiles, dinosaurs, birds and mammals), they breathe air and do not lay eggs underwater, although many species live in or around water. The largest turtles are aquatic.
The largest chelonian is the Great Leatherback sea turtle, which reaches a shell length of 200 cm (80 inches) and can reach a weight of over 900 kg (2000 lb or 1 short ton). Freshwater turtles are generally smaller, but with the largest species, the Asian softshell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii, a few individuals have been reported up to 200 cm (80 inches). This dwarfs even the better known Alligator Snapping Turtle, the largest chelonian in North America, whih attains a shell length of up to 80 cm (31 inches) and a weight of about 60 kg (170 lb).
Giant tortoises of the genera Geochelone, Meiolania and others were relatively widely distributed around the world into prehistoric times and are known to have existed in North and South America, Australia and Africa. They became extinct at the same time as the appearance of man and it is assumed that humans hunted them for food. The only surviving giant tortoises are on the Seychelles and Galapagos Islands and can grow to over 130 cm (50 inches) in length and weigh about 300 kg (670 lb).
The largest ever chelonian was Archelon ischyros, a Late Cretaceous sea turtle known to have been up to 4.6m (15 ft) long.
The smallest turtle is the Speckled Padloper Tortoise of South Africa. It measures no more than 8 cm (3 inches) in length and weighs about 140 kg (5 oz). Two other species of small turtles are the American mud turtles and musk turtles that live in an area that ranges from Canada to South America. The shell length of many species in this group is less than 13 cm (5 inches) in length.
Turtles are broken down into two groups, according to how they evolved a solution to the problem of withdrawing their neck into their shell (something the ancestral Proganochelys could not do): the Cryptodira, which can draw their neck in while contracting it under their spine; and the Pleurodira, which contract their neck to the side.
Most turtles that spend most of their life on land have their eyes looking down at objects in front of them. Some aquatic turtles, such as snapping turtles and soft shelled turtles, have eyes closer to the top of the head. These species of turtles can hide from predators in shallow water where they lie entirely submerged except for their eyes and nostrils. Sea turtles possess glands near their eyes that produce salty tears that rid their body of excess salt taken in from the water they drink.
Turtles are thought to have exceptional night vision due to the unusually large number of rod cells in their retinas. Turtles have colour vision with a wealth of cone subtypes with sensitivities ranging from the near Ultraviolet (UVA) to Red. Some land turtles have very poor pursuit movement abilities, which are normally reserved for predators that hunt quick moving prey, but cvarnivorous turtles are abe tomove their heads quickly to snap.
Turtles have a rigid beak. Turtles use their jaws to cut and chew food. Instead of teeth, the upper and lower jaws of the turtle are covered by horny ridges. Carnivorous turtles usually have knife sharp ridges for slicing through their prey. Herbivorous turtles have serrated edged ridges that help them cut through tough plants. Turtles use their tongues to swallow food, but they cannot, unlike most reptiles, stick out their tongues to catch food.
The upper shell of the turtle is called the Carapace. The lower shell that encases the belly is called the Plastron. The carapace and plastron are joined together on the turtle's sides by bony structures called Bridges. The inner layer of a turtle's shell is made up of about 60 bones that includes portions of the backbone and the ribs, meaning the turtle cannot crawl out of its shell. In most turtles, the outer layer of the shell is covered by horny scales called Scutes that are part of its outer skin, or epidermis. Scutes are made up of a fibrous protein called Keratin that also makes up the scales of other reptiles. These scutes overlap the seams between the shell bones and add strength to the shell. Some turtles do not have horny scutes. For example, the Leatherback sea turtle and the Soft shelled turtles have shells covered with leathery skin instead.
The shape of the shell gives helpful clues to how the turtle lives. Most tortoises have a large dome shaped shell that makes it difficult for predators to crush the shell betwee their jaws. One of the few exceptions is the African pancake tortoise which has a flat, flexible shell that allows it to hide in rock crevices. Most acquatic turtles have flat, streamlined shells which aid in swimming and diving. American snapping turtles and musk turtles have small, cross shaped plastrons that give them more efficient leg movement for walking along the bottom of ponds and streams.
The colour of a turtle's shell may vary. Shells are commonly coloured brown, black or olive green. In some species, shells may have red, orange, yellow or grey markings and these markings are often spots, lines, or irregular blotches. One of the most colourful turtles is the eastern Painted Turtle which includes a yellow plastron and a black or olive shell with red markings around the rim.
Tortoises, being land based, have rather heavy shells. In contrast, acquatic and soft shelled turtles have lighter shells that help them avoid sinking in water and swim faster with more agility. These lighter shells have large spaces called fontanelles between the shell bones. The shell of a Leatherback turtle is extremely light because they lack scutes and contain many fontanelles.
Skin and Molting
As mentioned above, the outer layer of the shell is part of the skin, each scute (or plate) on the shell corresponding to a single modified scale. The remainder of the skin is composed of skin with much smaller scales, similar to the skin of other reptiles. Turtles and terrapins do not molt their skins all in one go, as snakes do, but continuously, in small pieces. When kept in aquaria, small sheets of dead skin can be seen in the water (often appearing to be a tin piece of plastic) having been sloughed off when the animal deliberately rubs itself against a piece of wood or stone. Tortoises also shed skin, but a lot of dead skin is allowed to accumulate into thick knobs and plates that provide protection to parts of the body outside the shell.
By counting the rings formed by the stack of smaller, older scutes on top of the larger, newer ones, it is possible to estimate the age of a turtle, if you know how many scutes are produced in a year. This method is not very accurate, partly because growth rate is not constant, but also because some of the scutes eventually fall away from the shell.
Terrestrial toroises have short, sturdy feet. Tortoises are famous for moving slowly, in part because of their heavy, cumbersome shell but also because of the relatively inefficiet sprawling gait that they have, with the legs being bent, as with lizards rather than being straight and directly under the body, as is the case with mammals.
The amphibious turtles normally have limbs similar to those of tortoises except that the feet are webbed and often have long claws. These turtles swim using all four feet in a way similar to the dog paddle, with the feet on the left and right side of the body alternately providing thrust. Large turtles tend to swim less than smaller ones and the very big species, such as Alligator Snapping turtles, hardly swim at all, preferring to simply walk along the bottom of the river or lake. As well as webbed feed, turtles also have very long claws, used to help them clamber onto riverbanks and floating logs, upon which they like to bask. Male turtles tend to have particularly long claws and these appear to be used to stimulate the female while mating. While most turtles have webbed feet, some, such as the Pig Nosed Turtle, have true flippers, with the digits being fused into paddles and the claws being relatively small. These species swim in the same way as sea turtles.
Sea turtles are almost entirely aquatic and have flippers instead of feet. Sea turtles "fly" through the water, using the up and down motion of the front flippers to generate thrust; the back feet are not used for propulsion but may be used as rudders for steering. Compared with freshwater turtles, sea turtles have very limited mobility on land and apart from the dash from the nest to the sea as hatchlings, male sea turtles normally never leave the sea. Females must come back onto land to lay eggs. They move very slowly and laboriously, dragging themselves forwards with their flippers.
Although many turtles spend large amounts of their lives underwater, all turtles and tortoises breathe air and must surface at regular intervals to refill their lungs. They can also spend much of their lives on dry land. Aquatic respiration in Australian freshwater turtles is currently being studied. Some species have large cloacal cavities that are lined with many finger like projections. These projections, called "Papillae", have a rich blood supply and increase the surface area of teh cloaca. The turtles can take up dissolved oxygen from the water using these papillae, in much the same way that fish use gills to respire.
Turtles lay eggs, like other reptiles, which are slightly soft and leathery. The eggs of the largest species are spherical, while the eggs of the rest are elongated. Their albumen is white and contains a different protein than bird eggs, such that it will not coagulate when cooked. Turtle eggs prepared to eat consist mainly of yolk. In some species, temperature determins whether an egg develops into a male or female: a higher temperature causes a female, a lower temperature causes a male. Large numbers of eggs are deposited in holes dug into mud or sand. They are then covered and left to incubate by themselves. When the turtles hatch, they squirm their way to the surface and head toward the water. There are no known species in which the mother cares for the young.
Sea turtles lay their eggs on dry, sandy beaches. Immature sea turtles are not cared for by the adults. Turtles can take many years to reach breeding age and in many cases breed every few years rather than annually.
Researchers have recently discovered a turtle's organs do not gradually break down or become less efficient over time, unlike most other animals. It was found that the liver, lungs and kidneys of a centenarian turtle are virtually indistinguishable from those of its immature counterpart. This has inspired genetic researchers to begin examining the turtle genome for longevity genes.
Turtles are divided into three suborders, one of which, the Paracryptodira, is extinct. The two extant suborders are the Cryptodira and the Pleurodira. The Cryptodira is the larger of the two groups and includes all the marine turtles, the terrestrial tortoises and many of the freshwater turtles. The Pleurodira are sometimes known as the side necked turtles, a reference to the way they withdraw their heads into their shells. The smaller group consists primarily of various freshwater turtles.
The first proto-turtles are believed to have existed in the early Triassic Period of the Mesozoic era, about 200 million years ago and their shell, which has remained a remarkably stable body plan, is thought to have evolved from rows of protective armour plates that gradually fused to one another and eventually to the reptile's ribs and vertebrae as well, creating a complete shell that offered protection at every stage of its evolution. By the late Jurassic, turtles had radiated widely and their fossil history becomes easier to read.
Their exact ancestry is disputed. It was believed that they are the only surviving branch of the ancient clade Anapsida, which includes groups such as procolophonids, millerettids, protorothyrids and pareiasaurs. All anapsid skulls lack a temporal opening, while all other extant amniotes have temporal openings (although in mammals the hole has become the zygomatic arch). The millerettids, protorothyrids and pareiasaurs became extinct in the late Permian period and the procolophonoids during the Triassic.
However, it was recently suggested that the anapsid-like turtle skull may be due to reversion rather than to anapsid descent. More recent phylogenetic studies with this in mind placed turtles firmly within diapsids, slightly closer to Squamata than to Archosauria. All molecular studies have strongly upheld this new phylogeny, though some place turtles closer to Archosauria. Reanalysis of prior phylogenies suggests that they classified turtles as anapsids both because they assumed this classification (most of them studying what sort of anapsid turtles are) and because they did not sample fossil and extant taxa broadly enough for constructing the cladogram. As of 2003, the consensus is the Testudines diverged from other diapsids between 200 and 279 million years ago.
The earliest known fully shelled turtle is the late Triassic Proganochelys, though this species already had many advanced turtle traits and thus probably had many millions of years of preceeding "turtle" evolution and species in its ancestry. It did lack the ability to pull its head into its shell (and it had a long neck) and had a long, spiked tail ending in a club, implying an ancestry occupying a similar niche to the ankylosaurs (though only through parallel evolution).
Turtle, Tortoise or Terrapin?
Although the word "turtle" is widely used to describe all members of the order Testudines, it is also common to see certain members described as terrapins, tortoises or sea turtles as well. Precisely how these alternative names are used, it at all, depends on the type of English being used.
- British English normally describes these reptiles as turtles if they live in the sea; terrapins if they live in fresh or brackish water; or tortoises if they live on land. However, there are exceptions to this where American or Australian common names are in wide use, as with the Fly River turtle.
- American English tends to use the word turtle for all freshwater species, as well as for certain land-dwelling species (box turtles). Oceanic species are usually referred to as sea turtles and tortoise is resticted to members of the "true" tortoise family, Testudinidae. The name "terrapin" is typically reserved only for the brackish water diamondback terrapin, Malaclemys terrapin; the word terrapin being derived from the Algonquian word for this animal.
- Australian English uses turtle for both the marine and freshwater species but tortoise for the terrestrial species.
To avoid confusion, the word chelonian is popular among veterinarians, scientists and conservationists working with these animals as a catch all name for any member of the order Testudines.
Turtles are killed and eaten and used for food, unnecessarily
The flesh of turtles was, or still is, considered a delicacy in a number of cultures. Turtle soup has been a prized dish in Anglo-American cuisine and still remains so in some parts of the Far East.
Guilinggao jelly was a Chinese medicine preparation containing powdered shell of a certain turtle species; these days, though, it is typically made with only herbal ingredients.
"Harvesting" wild turtles is legal in Florida and a single seafood company in Fort Lauderdale was reported (2008) as buying about 5000 pounds of softshell turtles a week. The "harvesters" (hunters) are paid about $2 a pound; some manage to catch as many as 30-40 turtles (500 pounds) on a good day. Some of the catch gets to the local restaurants, while most of it is exported to the Far East; Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates (2008) that around 3000 pounds of softshell turtles are exported each week via Tampa International Airport.
Rising Demand For Turtles In China
A rising demand in China for turtles for food and medicine has led to the round up of thousands of turtles from Florida's lakes, ponds and canals.
"Asian countries are causing the near extinction or extinction of every species of turtle they have over there, so now they're turning to the United States to supply their insatiable demand for turtle," said Matt Aresco, a turtle biologist from the Panhandle.
The trend which biologists worry about threatens the species survival.
Alabama and Texas, amongst other states, have recently restricted or banned the harvest of turtles and these states have cutt off access, now the harvesters (turtle theives) have focused more and more on Florida's turtles.
The so called harvesters (turtle theives) target the larger turtles, the ones old enough to reproduce. Wipe out these and soon all turtles will be gone.
Special Information on Atlantic Green Turtles
Green Sea Turtles are listed as threatened or endangered throughout their habitat.
The Green Sea Turtle is found world wide in warm ocean waters.
A gentle vegetarian, feeding mainly on sea grasses and algae.
The most valuable of all reptiles, they are killed for their skins, calipee, meat and shells.
Exploitation has already caused extinction of populations in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.
In parts of Florida (Indian River) more that 50% of the Green Sea Turtles are afflicted with fibropapilloma tumors.
The largest of the hard shelled marine turtles: common adult weight of 150 kg anjd length of over 100 cm.
Hatchlings: 4 to 5 cm in length.
Green Sea Turtles that nest at Ascension Island forage along the coast of Brazil and so must make a migration of 1000 km to reach their nesting site!