World Turtle Day 2020

World Turtle Day is celebrated to raise awareness, increase knowledge and respect for all turtles, tortoises, and terrapins, which all belong to a group of reptiles called Testudines. It is thought that these animals have existed for over 200 million years.

World Turtle Day 2020
Galapagos tortoise

There are over 320 known species of Testudines, of which most are vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered (IUCN RedList of Endangered Species). These amazing shelled creatures can be found on every continent except Antarctica.

Galapagos turtle
Galapagos turtle

The distinction between turtles, tortoises, and terrapins is based on the particular habitat they are adapted to live in. A group of turtles is called a bale.

Turtles

Sea turtles spend most of their lives in water with webbed feet or flippers to assist in swimming as they gracefully glide in the oceans. Their shells are flatter and more streamlined to assist in swimming. They are not able to come out of their shell, and their shell grows with them. Sea turtles seldom leave the oceans except to lay their eggs in the sand. Sea turtles can hold their breath underwater for up to 7 hours.

Sea turtle

Fresh water turtles live in ponds and lakes but do come out of the water to bask in the warm sun. Some turtles are carnivores and eat meat while others are herbivores or omnivores. Turtles are cold-blooded and have a very long lifespan of 80-100 years of age. They can weigh up to 160 kg depending on their species and habitats.

Galapagos turtles
Galapagos turtles
Tortoises

Tortoises are large slow-moving, land-dwelling animals. Their feet are round and stumpy which are adapted for walking on land. They also have a larger dome-shaped carapace. Tortoises are not good swimmers but will venture into puddles or swamps to drink and clean themselves. They also dig burrows with their strong front limbs to use as a safe place from predators and shelter. Tortoises are herbivores eating grasses and low lying shrubs, weeds, fruit, and cacti.

Galapagos tortoise
Galapagos tortoise

Galapagos tortoises are considered to be the giant of all tortoises in the world (Galapagos.org). Males can weigh more than 230 kg. They have thick strong legs to support their weight and spend a lot of time still to conserve energy. The Galapagos tortoises are native to only 7 of the 21 Galapagos Islands and have life spans of 100 years in the wild.

Terrapins

Terrapins are snappy little aquatic animals that live both on land and in fresh water lakes, ponds, swamps, and rivers. Terrapins are cold-blooded and need to get their heat from the sun, so they will often be seen basking in the sun on rocks. Terrapins are aggressive and will bite if approached. Life expectancy is approximately 30 years in the wild.

Terrapins are omnivores as their diet consists of mollusks, frogs, insects, crabs, fish, algae, and other aquatic plants. They do not have teeth but their powerful jaw makes up for it in crushing crabs, snails, and other food. They have large rear feet which are webbed and helps with swimming.

They are much smaller than turtles and tortoises and grow up to 20-35 cm, however, there are some giant species of terrapins; e.g. snapping turtles which can grow up to 60 cm.

Terrapin basking in the sun, Maasai Mara
Terrapin basking in the sun, Maasai Mara

All turtles, tortoises, and terrapins are protected by their hard upper and lower shell, this provides protection from predators. The top part of the shell is called the carapace and the bottom is called the plastron which together makes up approximately 30% of their body weight.

The shell is made up of approximately 60 bones covered by plates called scutes. Scutes are made of keratin. Their shells contain nerves and are living, therefore, it must be protected, and never be cut, or trimmed as it would cause them extreme pain.

Galapagos turtle
Galapagos turtle
Leopard tortoise

Leopard tortoises are the 4th largest species of tortoises in the world. They have a very attractive high domed carapace with their own unique markings. Adults can weigh up to 18kg and reach approximately 48cm in length. Their habitat is in Southern and Eastern Africa. Their diet consists of grasses, shrubs, and succulent plants.

Leopard tortoises are very defensive, and their head will retreat into their carapace as they make a swift exit.

Leopard tortoise, Maasai Mara
Leopard tortoise
Conservation

Sea turtles play a vital role in the land and ocean ecosystems and should be protected just like all other wildlife species.

In the sea they maintain healthy ocean bed sea grass and coral reefs, which supports other marine life habitats. They assist in balancing marine food webs and nutrient recycling from water to land. On land, they provide nutrients to beach and dune systems.

Sea turtles lay up to 100 eggs in nests in the sand and lay 3 – 7 nests during the summer nesting season. Not all eggs hatch and not all hatchlings will survive. The unhatched eggs and hatchlings that didn’t survive provide a very good source of nutrients to the dune vegetation, which also provides food for the growing hatchlings.

Galapagos tortoise
Galapagos tortoise

Many cultures revere turtles and consider them their ancestors. Turtles play an important part in ecotourism. They provide a source of income for local people who have created businesses for turtle watching tours. Turtles are very charismatic and people travel far and wide to see them.

Educating people to save and protect turtles is an ongoing effort around the world.

Galapagos tortoise

Galapagos tortoise

Humans are the main threat to the turtle population. Turtle threats include loss of habitat, poaching, and illegal pet trade. Turtles are slaughtered for their eggs, meat, skin, and shells. Sea turtles often get caught up in fishing nets.

Studies have shown that a large number of human drugs and chemicals are being absorbed by sea turtles. Everything we throw away, flush down our toilets and sinks, pesticides and fertiliser from our plants, lawns, and farms end up in the ocean. Turtles are ingesting drugs, chemicals, and plastics which are having detrimental impacts on their health.

Turtles are still being hunted for their shells to be made into jewellery and trinkets.It is crucial to “Say No” to purchasing any turtle shell products.

Galapagos tortoise with a smooth billed Ani perched on its back
Galapagos tortoise with a smooth billed Ani perched on its back

Never buy turtles/tortoises as pets from pet shops. Never remove a turtle/tortoises from the wild unless they are sick or injured. If you see a turtle/tortoise crossing the road or a busy path, carefully pick it up and move it along in the same direction. If you try to turn it around it will turn itself around again and go back in the same direction.

Galapagos tortoise
Galapagos tortoise

 Report any illegals sales of turtles/tortoises to a local animal control centre or vet. Protect their habitats. When going on wildlife tours be respectful of turtles/tortoises habitats and keep a 5 – 7 metre distance.

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