13 Turtle-ly Awesome Photos for World Turtle Day
From a tiny baby bog turtle to a massive leatherback, turtles come in many shapes and sizes. Whether gliding through the open ocean or slowly trudging across desert plains, these fascinating animals can be found in almost every ecosystem around the world.
The U.S. is home to a rich variety of freshwater and sea turtles with 57 species -- that’s approximately 18 percent of the world’s turtles. Started in 2000, World Turtle Day gives us the opportunity to bring attention to and protect these remarkable reptiles, along with their habitat around the world. Turtles play a vital role in the ecosystem, helping spread seeds on land and supporting other marine life by sea.
To celebrate these marvelous homebodies, we’ve collected some fantastic facts and an excellent collection (or should we say, shellection) of turtle photos!
Hawksbill Sea Turtle
Named for its distinct hawk-like beak, the hawksbill sea turtle can be seen gliding through coral reefs, shallow coasts and lagoons in the Caribbean Sea (like at Virgin Islands National Park) and the western Atlantic Ocean (like at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina). The hawksbill has one of the most specialized diets, feeding almost exclusively on sea sponges. The sponges attract the hawksbill to coral reefs, where its special beak allows it to reach into the crevices of the coral to find its sought-after sponges. Its strikingly colorful shell is a sight to see, but be careful not to get too close! The hawksbill is critically endangered, and its nesting and feeding habitat need to be carefully preserved. Find out what you can do to help sea turtles. Photo by Caroline S. Rogers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
No one actually painted this turtle -- it gets its names from its red bottom-shell (called the plastron) and yellow striped head and feet. This common turtle is found across much of the continental U.S., and prefers shallow aquatic habitat -- generally settling in ponds, slow-moving rivers and marshes. Known for basking in the sun (like the one pictured here from Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico), this colorful turtle can be seen soaking up some rays on top of logs, rocks and mats of floating plants. All that time in the sun is is necessary to keep this cold-blooded critter warm, while helping to maintain its shell thickness and density. Photo by Lawrence Rafter (www.sharetheexperience.org).
America’s smallest turtle will leave you in awe at how cute it is. The bog turtle only grows to be about 4 inches long, slightly longer than a business card! Named for where it’s found, the bog turtle calls the diverse bog (a wetland that only gets water from precipitation) ecosystem home. The bog turtle requires the small, specialized and varied habitat of the shrub wetlands for activities like foraging, nesting, hibernating and sheltering. This tiny turtle, while adorable, is critically threatened by habitat degradation and wetland destruction. Pictured here is a baby bog turtle at the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. Photo by Rosie Walunas, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Spiny Softshell Turtle
Closely resembling a pancake with legs, this special “softshell” turtle lacks the rotund shell that sets turtles apart. Turtle shells are generally made of fused bones, with a thick layer of hard keratin that protects them. The keratin layers are known as shields or scutes. Instead of scutes, a softshell turtle actually has a shell made of a hard layer of skin that lacks bone plates. This flattened shell ends up helping the turtle, as it’s one of the fastest swimming freshwater turtles around. This aquatic creature can also absorb oxygen through its skin, allowing it to remain submerged for up to 5 hours. This Jar-Jar Binks-esque turtle was found at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Photo by Andrew Freed, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Loggerhead Sea Turtle
Known for their exceptionally large heads, loggerhead sea turtles are the most abundant of all marine turtles in the U.S. They are found in areas like Georgia’s Cumberland Island National Seashore, and Florida's Biscayne National Park and Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. These carnivorous creatures love to eat jellyfish, conches, crabs and even the occasional fish. While turtles are relatively solitary creatures, hatching season fills beaches with an abundance of hatchlings. The hatchlings make the journey at night, breaking out of their shells using their caruncle -- a single temporary tooth grown just for this purpose. Loggerheads generally hatch between late June and mid-November, and typically nest near the Gulf Stream or Gulf of Mexico. Photo of a bale of just hatched loggerheads by Dawn Child, U.S. Geological Survey.
Nothing bland about this turtle! The Blanding’s turtle can be found in the northeast U.S., stretching from New England all the way to the upper Midwest at Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway. For a freshwater turtle, it has one of the longest lifespans, living to be about 70 years old -- an age comparable to sea turtles. This long life gives it a need for adventure, as the Blanding’s often traverses uninhabited or undisturbed areas. The Blanding’s feeds and breeds in temporary pools of water, so it makes larger land movements than most other turtles. Like some other turtle species, a Blanding's gender is determined by the temperature at which nests are incubated -- hotter temperatures lead to females and cooler temps for males. Given its penchant for travel, it’s likely that the Blanding’s turtle is the famous turtle that crossed the road to get to the other side. If you see a turtle in the road, make sure to stop and help it out! Photo by Tina Shaw, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The box turtle is one restless reptile, often found moving across fields or even roads throughout much of the central and eastern U.S. If you do see a turtle crossing the road, check out U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s tips to make sure these reptiles make it to the other side of the road. The box turtle has one of the best protection systems around -- a hinged bottom shell that allows it to ‘box’ itself in for protection against predators. This hinged bottom shell folds up, completely closing the shell. The box turtle’s shell is also the easiest way to tell the turtle’s age -- just count the rings on the scutes of the shell. If you’d like to see the box turtle, travel to a wildlife refuge like Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge in Wisconsin or Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. Photo of an ornate box turtle courtesy of Chicago Zoological Society/Lincoln Park Zoo.
Common Snapping Turtle
With a range stretching from the Rocky Mountains to the eastern seaboard, the common snapping turtle is an American classic. The second largest freshwater turtle in the U.S., the snapper can weigh up to 75 pounds and can grow to 14 inches in length. This creature is nocturnal, and spends most of its day sitting camouflaged at the river bottom waiting for food. If you do see a snapping turtle on land, watch out! Snapping turtles can’t contract their bodies into their shells for protection like other turtles, which leads to them being relatively aggressive on land. If you can hear its hiss, you’re probably too close. Photo taken at the Mingo National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Leatherback Sea Turtle
The leatherback sea turtle is the largest turtle -- and one of the largest reptiles -- in the world. This behemoth can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, stretch over 6.5 feet long and has a flipper span of 8 feet. It’s also the only sea turtle that doesn’t have a hard, bony shell. The leatherback’s top shell is actually made of leather-like skin with ridges that overlay bones. Because the leatherback can handle colder water than most turtles, it has the widest global distribution of all reptile species. The pacific leatherback will often take a 7,000-mile trans-Pacific journey to move from its nesting grounds to its foraging grounds on the U.S. West Coast. You can also see the leatherback in the Atlantic at places like the one pictured here at Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge in St. Croix. Photo by Shannon Borowy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle
Ridley me this! What’s one of the smallest sea turtles in the world, only growing to be about 2 feet in length? That’s right -- it’s the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. This terrifically tiny turtle calls the Gulf of Mexico home. The Kemp's ridley displays one of the most unique synchronized nesting habits in the natural world, where wave upon wave of females come ashore and nest in what is known as an "arribada," which means "arrival" in Spanish. Females come back to the same nesting site year after year, whereas male Kemp’s ridleys spend their entire life in the water. Kemp’s ridleys are a famed visitor of Padre Island National Seashore in Texas. Check out the park’s tips on experiencing your own hatching release. Photo of a hatching release by National Park Service.
Green Sea Turtle
While turtles are notoriously slow, they can swim much faster than they can walk. The average green sea turtle clocks in at around 20 miles per hour at its fastest swim. These turtles would definitely beat the hare in a water race, no questions asked! These beautiful and gentle creatures are best seen in the coastal waters -- including places like Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Virgin Islands National Park and Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida. Green sea turtles are highly loyal to their natal beach and will swim 500-800 miles to reach their nesting site, a trip that takes up to 30 days. These gentle giants are the largest of all the hard-shelled sea turtles. While their size certainly sets them apart, green sea turtles are known for their green-colored fat, which is thought to come from their herbivorous diet (and give them their name). Photo by Daniel W. Clark, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Mojave Desert Tortoise
While all tortoises are turtles, not all turtles are tortoises. The land-bound tortoise is easily distinguishable from its turtle cousins by its high dome-shaped shell and elephant-like legs. Clocking in at only 0.2 mph, the mojave desert tortoise is pretty slow-going. A desert tortoise can live over 100 years, aided by its diet of leafy greens and restful attitude. The desert tortoise is one of the most elusive inhabitants of the desert, spending 95 percent of its life underground. With its strong forearms, the tortoise digs burrows to escape the desert temperatures. If you’re lucky, you can see this unhurried creature is at Joshua Tree National Park in California. Photo of a baby tortoise hatching by Kristina Drake, U.S. Geological Survey.
A close cousin of turtles, the terrapin is the link between the land-locked tortoise and mostly-aquatic turtle. The terrapin spends most of its time divided between land and water, and has a shell that is somewhere in between the turtle’s streamlined one and the tortoise’s high dome. The diamondback terrapin lives in brackish waters (waters with higher salinity than freshwater, though not as much as seawater) along the Atlantic coast -- extending from Cape Cod in Massachusetts all the way to Corpus Christi in Texas. While the diamondback prefers the salty waters, it requires periodic trips to freshwater for its health. Places like Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia are the perfect home for the diamondback. Photo by Christina Mohrmann, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The incredible variety of these robust reptiles that can be seen on public lands across the country will leave you in turtle awe. As always, keep your distance and leave their home exactly how you found it.
When considering turtles for pets, please keep in mind that they live long lives and need a lot of care. Purchasing a turtle less than four inches is actually against the law and the pet trade can be a leading cause for why turtle species are declining.
1. Green sea turtles are what they eat!
Green sea turtles are unique among sea turtles in that they are primarily herbivores, eating mostly seagrasses and algae. This diet is what gives their cartilage and fat a greenish color (not their shells), which is where their name comes from.
Learn more about green sea turtles
2. Sea turtles lay their eggs in a nest they dig in the sand with their rear flippers. The group of eggs is called a clutch.
They usually lay 100-125 eggs per nest and will nest multiple times, about two weeks apart, over several months. As soon as the eggs hatch (roughly 2 months later), the hatchlings dig out of their nest. This process generally takes a few days. Once they emerge, the tiny turtles hurry to the sea and make their way offshore into the open ocean. Sea turtles face many threats, but those that survive to become adults are decades old.
New leatherback sea turtle hatchlings.
3. Sand temperature is very important.
The sex of sea turtles, like many other turtles, is determined by the temperature in the nest. Cooler incubation temperatures produce male hatchlings and warmer incubation temperatures produce female hatchlings. Temperatures that fluctuate between the two extremes will produce a mix of male and female hatchlings.
Watch the video below to learn about research on alarming trends as global temperatures rise, and fewer male turtles are hatching from the nesting beaches.
4. Hawksbill turtles use their beaks to help extract their favorite prey.
Hawksbill turtles are typically found on coral reefs which are home to their preferred food—sponges. The shape and sharpness of their beak enables them to reach into small holes and crevices in coral reefs to find food.
Learn more about hawksbill turtles
Hawksbill turtle. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (CC BY 2.0)
5. One sea turtle species nests during the day.
Most sea turtles nest at night—Kemp’s ridleys are the only sea turtles that routinely nest during the day.
Learn more about Kemp’s ridley turtles
Kemp's Ridley sea turtle.
6. Leatherback sea turtles have existed in their current form since the age of the dinosaurs!
Leatherbacks are highly migratory, some swimming more than 10,000 miles a year between nesting and foraging grounds. They are also accomplished divers with the deepest recorded dive reaching nearly 4,000 feet—deeper than most marine mammals. They have spiny “papillae” lining their mouth and esophagus—these spines help them trap and consume their main prey species, jellyfish.
Learn more about leatherback sea turtles
7. Loggerheads spend the first 7 to 15 years (average 12 years) of their lives in the open ocean.
Then they migrate to nearshore coastal areas where they continue to grow and mature. Through satellite tracking, researchers have discovered that loggerheads in the Pacific have a highly migratory life stage. Hatchlings enter the ocean from nesting beaches in Japan and Australia. Some individuals undertake a trans-Pacific developmental migration across the Pacific Ocean to feeding grounds off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, Peru and Chile. That's nearly 8,000 miles!
Learn more about loggerhead turtles
8. Sea turtles don’t retract into their shells.
Unlike other turtles, sea turtles cannot retract their flippers and head into their shells. Their streamlined shells and large paddle-shaped flippers make them very agile and graceful swimmers. In the water, their rear flippers are used as rudders, for steering.
Close up of a Hawaiian hawksbill. Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Don McLeish
9. Some turtles nest in large groups, called "arribadas," Spanish for "arrival." Only the two ridley turtles, Kemp’s ridley and the olive ridley, display this arribada nesting behavior.
During an "arribada," large groups of females gather offshore and come onto the beach to nest in large numbers, generally over a period of several hours. There are many theories on what triggers an arribada, including offshore winds, lunar cycles, and the release of pheromones by females. Many turtles come ashore together and many nests are laid and hatch at the same time. This reduces the numbers of eggs and hatchlings that can be killed by predators.
Learn more about olive ridley turtles
Learn more about Kemp’s ridley turtles
Olive ridley sea turtles nesting en masse during an "arribada" on Playa Ostional, Costa Rica on September 9, 2004. Photo: Michael Jensen.
10. Sea turtles are deep divers and can stay underwater for long periods of time.
As reptiles, sea turtles breathe air, but they have the ability, under natural conditions, to remain submerged for hours at a time. They even sleep underwater. Most sea turtles spend their entire life at sea, only returning to nesting beaches to lay eggs. However, in the Pacific Islands, green turtles often come ashore to bask on the beach.
Learn five ways you can help sea turtles
Turtles are reptiles.
Turtles have a hard shell that protects them like a shield, this upper shell is called a ‘carapace’.
Turtles also have a lower shell called a ‘plastron’.
Many turtle species (not all) can hide their heads inside their shells when attacked by predators.
Turtles have existed for around 215 million years.
Like other reptiles, turtles are cold blooded.
The largest turtle is the leatherback sea turtle, it can weigh over 900 kg! (2000 lb)
Turtles lay eggs.
In some species of turtle the temperature determines if the egg will develop into a male or female, lower temperatures lead to a male while higher temperatures lead to a female.
Some turtles lay eggs in the sand and leave them to hatch on their own. The young turtles make their way to the top of the sand and scramble to the water while trying to avoid predators.
Sea turtles have special glands which help remove salt from the water they drink.
Many turtle species are endangered.
In this article, we seek to take a closer look at the tortoise (latin: Testudinidae), examining amazing examples of the species through exploring elements of history, defining features, as well as the nature of these noble creatures.
We spend some time exploring some of the key species of tortoise, both domestic and wild, taking a closer look at the temperaments and defining features of those which make great pets, and exploring some of the fascinating history of those best observed from afar.
We’ll also be learning about the conservation needs of the tortoise along the way, and the conservation status of each breed mentioned will be listed.
On this note we’ll also be exploring the tragedy of species extinction, and how and why this happened.
Lastly, we’ll be concluding with some final thoughts involving the legality of ownership of domestic tortoises, as well as the correct way to interact with a tortoise in the wild.
We hope this article will serve as a useful all in one guide to the nature of this fascinating animal group, giving a nod to the considerations you should take before ownership, as well as what we can do to help preserve the 40-50 different species still living on Earth today.
Pet Tortoise Species
There are many different types of tortoises suited to life as domestic pets. On the whole, these shy creatures can become great lifelong friends, (depending on the age span of the breed, of course) and are docile and gentle companions.
Greek Tortoise (Testudo graeca)
Conservation status: Vulnerable (threatened)
- Small in size
- Active in daytime
- Beginner friendly
- Enjoy interaction
- Long lifespan
The Greek tortoise is one of the more common breed of tortoise, and makes an ideal pet, particularly for those new to tortoise ownership.
As they are small, many owners only need to buy one enclosure for the duration of the tortoise’s life. Greek tortoises are most active in the day time, making them great pets to watch and interact with – which this breed genuinely enjoys.
It is worth noting, however, that this breed of tortoise does have a lifespan of around 125 years, so potential owners really need to consider if they’re willing to have a lifelong companion.
Leopard Tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis)
Conservation status: Least Concern (Safe)
- Medium in size
- Attractive markings
- Don’t enjoy being handled
- Enjoy interaction
- Do not hibernate
Leopard Tortoises make great companions for those looking for larger pets. They have stunning dapples on their shell, which is where they get their name.
These tortoises do not like being handled, but as they are of medium size, when they reach adulthood they typically cannot be easily lifted anyway!
Leopard tortoises do enjoy interaction, however, and, as they do not hibernate, you can spend time with your pet all year round.
Red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria)
Conservation status: Vulnerable (threatened)
- Medium in size
- Attractive markings
- Not shy
- Curious in nature
- Prefers humid environment
This breed of tortoise is perfect for owners looking for a pet with character. They are curious in nature and far less shy than other species, meaning you can have great interactions with your companion.
As they prefer a more humid environment, they may require extra equipment in their enclosure such as a heat lamp or humidifier.
The red-footed tortoise is one of the few tortoise breeds to require meat in their diet, and will happily munch on baby mice or chicks.
The balance between meat and plant matter should be carefully monitored, as too much protein can weaken your pets shell.
Indian Star Tortoise (Geochelone elegans)
Conservation status: Vulnerable (threatened)
- Small in size
- Attractive markings
- Doesn’t need to hibernate
- Able to be handled
- Better for experienced hands
While the Indian star tortoise can be considered a little fragile or temperamental to care for, experienced handlers promise that once you have the correct set up, owning an indian star tortoise becomes the same as any other tortoise.
However, it still might be advisable to steer clear of this breed if you’re a novice in reptile care. The indian star tortoise has beautiful markings upon its shell, which makes it a lovely pet to observe, and as they don’t need to hibernate, they can be seen all year round.
As they are a smaller breed, they can also be handled but it is worth noting that they can be very shy at first. However, they typically will open up to you given time.
African Spur-thighed tortoise (Geochelone sulcata)
Conservation status: Vulnerable (threatened)
- Large in size
- Set up needs to reflect adult size
- Shy when small
- One of the most interactive tortoises
- Doesn’t need to hibernate
If you’re looking for a tortoise you can have a close lifelong bond with, and you have the space for a larger pet, then an African Spur-thighed tortoise may be the perfect choice.
They do not need to hibernate, and while shy when small, when adult they are a breed that enjoys interaction and will even come to you for attention.
Of course, it is very important to note that if you raise your shelled baby from a hatchling, you’ll need to make sure you have the space and set up to accommodate your tortoise’s large size when fully grown.
Hermann’s Tortoise (Testudo hermanni)
Conservation status: Near Threatened
- Medium in size
- May require certification to own
- 50+ years lifespan
- Requires indoor habitat
- Needs to hibernate
Probably the most common tortoise we envisage when we think of a pet tortoise, Hermann’s tortoises were very popular in the 1970’s and 80’s.
Nowadays, due to mishandling and the breed becoming near threatened, many countries require specific certification for the ownership of Hermann’s tortoises.
Unlike some of the other tortoises on this list, once they reach around three years old, Hermann’s tortoises will need to hibernate.
These tortoises also are not suited to colder environments, and will need a heated indoor enclosure to best mimic their natural environment.
While there have been individuals of this species who have lived to over 100 years, the lifespan of a Hermann’s tortoise is usually around 50 years, and therefore will constitute a lifelong commitment.
Russian Tortoise (Agrionemys horsfieldii)
Conservation status: Vulnerable (Threatened)
- Small in size
- Also known as: Afghan tortoise, Central Asian tortoise, Horsfield’s tortoise
- 75+ years lifespan
- Can hibernate, bur does not need to
The Russian tortoise is another popular choice of tortoise to be kept as a domestic pet. Small in size, and with charming features, many fall in love with this breed.
However, it is important to note that with a lifespan averaging 75 years, and many well cared for tortoises exceeding this, owning a Russian tortoise constitutes a lifelong commitment.
As this species of tortoises’ hibernation patterns are reflective of their environments, if kept solely as an indoors pet, owners will find their tortoise is active all year round.
This species also needs to be fed a well researched diet, as it is susceptible to a build up of toxins found in certain foods, which can make your shelled friend quite unwell.
Wild Tortoise Species
There are a variety of different tortoises which are unsuited to domestic settings, best viewed in the wild, or at a designated reserve or zoo, and sadly many of these fascinating creatures are endangered.
Hunting for food and medicine, damage to natural habitat, and the introduction of predators are all common reasons as to why the numbers of certain tortoise species are so dwindled.
Galápagos Tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra)
Conservation status: Vulnerable (threatened)
- Largest Tortoise
- Long lifespan (150 years +)
- Observed by Charles Darwin
- Many giant tortoise subspecies are extinct
- Expresses mutualism
Probably the most typical species that comes to mind when thinking of tortoises, the Galapagos tortoise is the largest of all tortoises, and has an equally large and fascinating history to match.
First discovered by sailors in the 16th century, the Galapagos tortoise, as its name might suggest, is native to the tropical Galapagos islands.
The Galapagos tortoise was observed by Charles Darwin on his second voyage of the Beagle. He noted that the tortoises living upon humid highlands appeared greatly different to those who lived on dry low lowlands, the former having a domed shell, larger size, and shorter neck, and the latter being smaller, with a flatter shell and long necks.
It was this crucial observation which helped give Darwin grounding and development to his famous theory of evolution.
The giant tortoise and its 15 subspecies have had an unstable history, mostly due to the interventions of man. Of the original 15 subspecies, only 10 remain today.
Species became extinct due to over exploitation of the creatures for use in medicine, food, as well as destroying their habitats and introducing non-native animals such as pigs and rats.
Over the years Galapagos tortoises numbers dwindled, reducing from 250,000 to only 3,000 in the 1970’s. Luckily, intensive conservation work has helped increase these numbers to around 19,000, which while a great improvement, is still a fraction of what the numbers of this tortoise once were.
A final fascinating fact about these majestic creatures is that they practice mutualism. This the interaction with other types of animal for the mutual benefit of both parties.
For the Galapagos tortoise, this interaction involving being groomed by indigenous birds who consume the parasites found on their skin. The bird gets a filling meal, and the tortoise is freed of annoying itches.
Maybe the Galapagos tortoise shows us as humans the benefits of caring and healthy mutualistic interactions between species.
Desert Tortoises: Agassiz and Sonoran (Gopherus agassizii and Gopherus morafkai)
Conservation status: Vulnerable (threatened)
- Found in the USA and Mexico
- Can be domesticated but suited to experts
- Medium Size
- Lives in underground burrows
While these two species of tortoise can be domesticated, as they require a more specified environment, including a yard that they can burrow in, they are best reserved for experts. However, as they are native to the USA (mostly in the Mojave desert), you have seen one of these species in the wild.
Because they live in a harsh desert environment, the desert tortoises are some of the more hardy of the tortoise breeds.
They are able to survive imbalances in their diet, such as a lack of water, and can survive both high and very low temperatures in their underground burrows.
Pinta Island Tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdonii)
Conservation status: Extinct (as of 2012)
- Also known as Abingdon Island tortoise
- The last of its kind ‘Lonesome George’ died in 2012
- Large in size
- Wiped out due to hunting
The Pinta Island tortoise is one of the 5 now-extinct species of giant tortoise. Its last known individual Lonesome George died in captivity in 2012 at the age of 101.
While this species of lowland giant tortoise shares most of the characteristics of its 10 surviving breeds, the Pinta Island Tortoise is particularly important due to the message the fate of this species sends.
As you’ll no doubt have noticed, the majority of tortoises on this list are threatened, and sadly this is almost entirely down to the habits and exploitation by humans.
The hunting, removal of habitat and introduction of non-native animals have caused the tortoise one of the oldest animal families to become endangered on a widespread level.
Tortoise Species, Care, and Conservation
Tortoises are wise, soulful creatures, with a lifespan that can cross decades and even centuries.
Tortoises such as ‘lonesome George’ have captured the hearts of nations, and, while they have always been a popular pet option, in recent years they’ve become a great alternative for families and individuals with allergies, as well as being suited to those looking for a lower maintenance pet suited to living in smaller spaces.
In this article we’ll be taking a closer look at a wide range of tortoise species, from those that make great pets, to those you’re more likely to find in the wild or in a zoo.
We’ll also be taking a peek at the animal as a whole, as well as learning the key differences between tortoises and their amphibious turtle and terrapin counterparts.
The tortoise (latin: testudinidae), is a land-dwelling reptile from the Chelonian family, and are of the suborder ‘Cryptodira’, which is characterized by the ability to retract the neck and head back into a protective shell.
Common tortoise species include the Greek tortoise (Testudo graeca), and the Russian tortoise (Agrionemys horsfieldii) – but, it is the giant tortoise, also known as the Galapagos tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra) that many of us picture in our minds.
Most prevalent in Asia and Africa, these creatures can also be found the in the Americas. Due to their popularity as pets, particularly in the 1970’s, it isn’t too uncommon to find the occasional wild tortoise in other countries also.
All breeds of tortoise are terrestrial, meaning they live on land, and, as their varied countries of origin might suggest, tortoises can live in a vast range of habitats.
While most prefer semi-arid habitats, tortoises can also be found in grassland, deserts, evergreen forests, tropical islands, and even mountainsides.
Probably most common knowledge is a tortoise’s long lifespan, which typically ranges from 80-150 years.
However, over the years there have been many individuals which have stood out from their exceptionally long lives. Some tortoises even became famous for their advanced age, such as Adwaita, an Aldabra giant tortoise.
While her age was not verified, she was believed to have been around 255 years of age when she died in 2006. The longest living tortoise whose age has been confirmed is Johnathan, a Seychelles Giant tortoise hatched in 1832.
Currently aged 187, Jonathan is the oldest known terrestrial animal in the world.
In regards to diet, most tortoises are herbivores, but there are some species that enjoy live food. In general, the plant matter tortoises consume include grasses, leafy greens, flowers, weeds, and sometimes fruit.
For those of the species that are omnivores, the meat included in their diet is usually reserved to worms, insects, and carrion.
While these items encompass the general diet of tortoises, different subspecies can vary wildly in their dietary requirements.
Of course, probably the most defining feature of a tortoise is its shell. The shell is made up of two parts, the carapace, which is the top, typically domed part, and the plastron, which is the underside.
Similar to a tree, the rings on the carapace can be used to give an estimation of a tortoises age, but this is certainly not an exact science.
While you may have seen tortoises leaving their shells in cartoons, in real life the tortoise’s spine and rib cage are attached to the carapace, meaning there is no tortoise without its shell.
All tortoises also have distinctive hind limbs (front legs). These legs are column-like, and reminiscent of an elephant’s.
Tortoises vs. Turtles
The most common mistake people make when referring to tortoises is confusing them with turtles. While many think the term is interchangeable, while they are similar, tortoises and turtles are two different species.
One of the biggest differences between the two is that where all tortoises are terrestrial, most turtles are aquatic. Tortoises have heavy, rounded shells, whereas turtles shells are far lighter and streamlined.
These species also differ greatly in the appearance of their limbs, with turtles having webbed feet with long claws, compared to a tortoise’s strong elephantine legs.
In regards to diet, where the majority of tortoises are mainly herbivores, most turtles are omnivores. The biggest difference between the two species is most certainly lifespan.
As previously mentioned, tortoises live for up to 150 years, where as turtles live a fraction of that, with a range of around 20-40 years.
Legality of Tortoise Interaction and Ownership
Because they are so threatened, there are many laws and regulations in place for the interactions with wild tortoises, as well as legal requirements for ownership.
These are often highly reflective of the breed of tortoise, with typically less regulations upon unthreatened breeds compared to those who are endangered.
In the Wild
In the USA, tortoises are protected by law even when in the wild.
Interactions with tortoises such as touching, disturbing, or harassing a wild tortoise are illegal, in short, tortoises are to be viewed and enjoyed, but left well alone. Collecting tortoise remains are also illegal.
The only time when it is acceptable to handle a wild tortoise is if you find one in danger, such as walking across a road. If this is the case, then simply lift up the tortoise, keeping it level, and gently carry it to the side of the road in the direction it was heading.
Of course, if you find a wild tortoise noticeably injured, then you should also notify the respective authorities.
As Domestic Pets
The rules and regulations of tortoise ownership in the USA really vary from breed to breed, most commonly if you have had your tortoise for many decades, then some of the more recent rulings will no apply to you.
Most medium to large tortoises will require microchipping, the same as any other pet, allowing them to be identified should they go for a wander or fall into unfriendly hands.
If your pet is too small for a microchip, then you may be required to gain certification of your ownership, with elements such as unique defining features clearly outlined, to ensure your tortoise can be linked back to you if need be.
The breeding of tortoises, however, is an entirely different ballgame. Almost all species will require a licence should you wish to breed them, and breeding and distributing tortoises without one is a criminal offense.
Tortoises are fascinating creatures that visually harken back to prehistoric times and have hundreds and hundreds of years of fascinating history.
From shaping scientific theories to buoying scientific research, and sadly becoming figureheads for conservation efforts, the tortoise has a list of fascinating facts about as long as it’s lengthy lifespan!
With 40-50 known species, and even more subspecies, the tortoise family is full of a wealth of different characters, each of whom have perfectly adapted to survive in their natural habitat.
As previously mentioned, due to many human inflicted factors, many of this wonderous species are endangered, making conservation and a change in attitudes essential for the species’ overall survival.
Many breeds are well-suited to domestication and can create interesting and highly rewarding pets, and while they can require specified set ups, once these are established, owning a tortoise can be as simple as owning any other pet.
Unlike more common pets such as dogs and cats however, due to their hefty lifespan, tortoises really are a lifelong commitment, and ownership should not be taken lightly.
If you’ve dreamed of a tortoise for many years but do not feel you can give such a level of commitment, then there are many tortoise charities and conservation groups which would certainly benefit from your time and support.
However, if you take the time to learn about tortoises, you may find that you can offer a wonderful home for one of these beautiful reptiles.
Pictures awesome turtle
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Let's check out some cool facts about these amazing reptiles that can be found on every continent around the world.
How many species of turtle are there?
Turtles live mainly in the water. (Image by Marcello Rabozzi from Pixabay)
There are more than 300 species of turtle that live all over the world. Turtles, tortoises and terrapins have been around for over 200 million years!
There are many types of turtles, but people often use the name turtle to describe tortoises and terrapins too.
The difference? Turtles live mainly in water and are great swimmers. Tortoises live on land and have flat feet for easy walking. Terrapins live in water and land but mostly near swamps, rivers and ponds. All species lay eggs.
What sound do turtles make?
Different turtle species have been known to make strange sounds that you wouldn’t expect to come out of a turtle.
Some turtles sound like a person burping and some sound like dogs barking.
Some turtles sound like an old man yelling, some sound like a remote control airplane and some even sound like chickens clucking!
How long can turtles live?
Tortoises live on land and have flat feet. (Pixabay)
The oldest known tortoise was Adwaita who lived at the Alipore Zoological Gardens in India and lived to be an estimated 255 years old!
The second oldest tortoise was Tu’i Malila from the island of Tonga, who was cared for by the royal family and lived to be 188 years old.
Jonathan the tortoise, who lives on the Island of Saint Helena, is currently the oldest living tortoise in the world. In 2019, Jonathan will be 187 years old.
Maybe they live so long because of their healthy diets and protective shells they use to hide in when danger is near!
How does a turtle's shell work?
Turtles are completely attached to their shells — it’s impossible for them to come off. In fact, shells grow with the turtle.
A turtle shell is made up of 50 bones in the turtle’s skeleton and includes their spine and rib cage.
Almost all species of turtle can retract their heads and legs into the inside of their shell when they sense danger but not all can.
Shell Shocked: 15 Amazing Sea Turtle Photos
To accompany this gallery of amazing images submitted to the 2014 Through Your Lens Photo Competition, here are some fun facts about these shell dwellers.
Sea turtles can live for more than 100 years.
We Mean, Really Old
Fossils of ancient sea turtles date back to more than 100 million years ago, making these critters some of the oldest animals on the planet.
To rid their bodies of excess salt, sea turtles have a gland that empties into their eyes that makes it seem like they are crying. These "tears" also help keep sand out of the eyes of female sea turtles when they're digging their nests.
Leatherback sea turtles routinely dive more than 1,000 feet, but can reach depths of more than 3,000 when seeking prey.
According to World Wildlife Fund, leatherback, hawksbill and Kemp's ridley sea turtles are listed as critically endangered; loggerhead and green turtles are listed as endangered; Olive ridley sea turtles are considered to be vulnerable; and flatback turtles do not have sufficient data to establish endangerment status.
They Need Your Help
In addition to making environmentally friendly choices, you can help save sea turtles by donating to a conservation agency or by volunteering at your local beaches.
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10 totally awesome facts about turtles!
Here at Nat Geo Kids we’re turtally mad about turtles, that’s why we’ve put together these ten terrific turtle facts!
These magnificent creatures come in all shapes and sizes and live in a number of different environments. They all belong to a group of reptiles called Testudines, which includes turtles, tortoises, and terrapins.
From giant, slow-moving land-dwelling tortoises and snappy terrapins basking in their fresh-water lagoons, to the graceful strokes of a sea turtle gliding through our oceans – check out our ten totally awesome turtle facts, below!
Love animals? You’d love our magazine!
Ask your parents to check out Nat Geo Kids magazine!
1. Turtles belong to one of the oldest reptile groups in the world – beating snakes, crocodiles and alligators!
2. These creatures date back to the time of the dinosaurs, over 200 million years ago – woah!
3. Turtles are easily recognised by their bony, cartilaginous shell. This super-tough casing acts like a shield to protect them from predators – some turtles can even tuck their head up inside their shell for extra protection!
4. Just like your bones, a turtle’s shell is actually part of its skeleton. It’s made up of over 50bones which include the turtle’s rib cage and spine.
Did you know that we have a FREE downloadable Sea turtle primary resource? Great for teachers, homeschoolers and parents alike!
5. Contrary to popular belief, a turtle cannot come out of its shell. The turtle’s shell grows with them, so it’s impossible for them to grow too big for it!
6. What a turtle eats depends on the environment it lives in. Land-dwelling turtles will munch on beetles, fruit and grass, whereas sea dwellers will gobble everything from algae to squid and jellyfish.
7. Some turtles are carnivores (meat eaters), others are herbivores (plant eaters) and some are omnivores (a mixture of the two!). Many baby turtles start life as carnivores but grow to eat more plants as they mature.
8. Turtles are ‘amniotes’ – they breathe air and lay their eggs on land, although many species live in or around water.
9. These cold-blooded creatures have an incredibly long life span. The oldest ever recorded, named Tu”i Malila, of Tonga Island, passed away at the grand old age of 188!
10. Sadly, many species of turtle are endangered! 129 of approximately 300 species of turtle and tortoise on Earth today are either vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered, according to the IUCN. Threats include loss of habitat, poaching and the illegal pet trade.