About turtles

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Odontochelys semitestacea, a turtle relative from the late Triassic Period in China. This creature spent most of its life in the water, which sparks a debate on why turtle shells developed in the first place. Was it for muscle attachment, protection, or some other reason? Image credit: Ghedoghedo
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Proganochelys quenstedti, a modern turtle relative from the late Triassic Period in Germany. Unlike turtles today, this creature could not draw its head into its shell. Image credit: Claire Houck

Turtles are an ancient lineage, with origins in the Triassic Period, when the dinosaurs were beginning to dominate the land. Modern day turtles are divided into two major groups: the Pleurodira, or “side-neck” turtles that turn their heads sideways for protection, and the Cryptodira, or “hidden-neck” turtles, which draw their heads straight back into their shells. As you can see below, this difference between turtle groups is a result of their neck anatomy.

Side-neck turtles are common in the southern hemisphere (South America, Africa, Australia), while the hidden-neck turtles can be found on every continent except for Australia and Antarctica. Nearly all side-neck turtles spend most of their time in fresh water, while hidden-neck turtles include the sea turtles (including the largest turtle, the leatherback), tortoises (including other giants like the Galapagos tortoises and Aldabra tortoises), and many of the species that live in woodlands, rivers, and ponds.

A "hidden-neck" turtle, at left, is able to curl its neck inside of its body, retracting the head inside of the shell. "Side-neck" turtles, like the one at right, can only turn their heads and necks to the side. Image credit: Chris K and Cait F
A “hidden-neck” turtle, at left, is able to curl its neck inside of its body, retracting the head inside of the shell. “Side-neck” turtles, like the one at right, can only turn their heads and necks to the side. Image credit: Chris K and Cait F

 

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The twist-necked turtles are one of the only members of the Pleurodira (side-necked) group that spends most of its life on land.

Regardless of where they live, nearly every turtle species (with the possible exception of the red-eared slider) is in serious decline. In nearly all cases, this is due to human activity, whether it be collection for the pet trade, hunting turtles or their eggs for food, habitat destruction, or road deaths (see the video below). Several types of turtle, including the Yangtze giant soft-shell turtle, are on the brink of extinction, while others, such as the Burmese roofed turtle, have clung to survival thanks to fast action. In the species profiles that follow, you will find several turtles that live in or near our schools, although some of these individuals under our care might live hundreds or thousands of miles away from their original homes. As Teacher Turtles grows, we hope to expand our focus to dozens of additional species, and reverse the trend of turtle decline by supporting wild populations. Citizen science will be essential to this project, and we welcome new collaborators to join in this mission. If you’re interested in connecting with us, fill out your information on the bottom of this page!

Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina)

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Image credit: Jarek Tuszyński. With such variety in their coloration and shell patterns, Eastern box turtles are very easy to tell apart (with a little bit of practice, of course).
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Mature male turtles usually have red or orange eyes…
...while female box turtles (and babies, and juveniles) have eyes that are almost always brown.
…while female box turtles (and babies, and juveniles) have eyes that are almost always brown.

Teacher Turtles began with student interest in a semi-wild population of Eastern box turtles at Riverside Elementary School in Princeton, NJ. These turtles, which are the only land-living turtles in the northeastern United States, eat a wide variety of foods, from earthworms and insects to fruits, greens, and even poisonous mushrooms. No one knows how long a box turtle might live, although one individual is suspected to have lived for at least 130 years.  Eastern box turtles are primarily a woodland species, and each turtle remains within a small territory (in a favorable location, about 250 meters from its nesting site) for most of its life. This is why collection for the pet trade has been so devastating, since those turtles lucky enough to be re-released into the wild will often wander in search of their old habitat, taking them across roads or developed areas where they might be attacked by dogs or captured yet again. In general, box turtles make terrible pets, since they need a wide variety of foods to stay healthy, like to roam a range more extensive than most keepers can provide, and have a habit of pooping and peeing whenever they are picked up. Yes, they are beautiful animals, but they are best appreciated (and left) in the wild, where they may live their lives as they have for at least the last 5-15 million years. Of course, if you live near a wild area and want to attract box turtles closer to home, you may do so by providing shelters (such as brush piles) where they might like to move in!

Eastern box turtles, like all box turtles, are under threat from collection for the pet trade, habitat loss, and road deaths. They are the state reptiles of North Carolina and Tennessee, and are part of a wonderful program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro:


 

 

Three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis or Terrapene mexicana triunguis)

Three-toed box turtles often (but not always) have a brown, unpatterned shell.
Three-toed box turtles often (but not always) have a brown, unpatterned shell. Image credit: Jerry Oldenettel

Much of what was said about Eastern box turtles also applies to their close cousins, the three-toed box turtles, which are found from Missouri and Kansas south to Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. As their name suggests, they usually have three toes on their back feet, instead of the usual four. In the Riverside School courtyard, a three-toed box turtle named Albert has lived for several years, but he definitely did not get there on his own and must be a released pet. Since three-toed box turtles are not native to New Jersey, Albert has been resettled in another enclosure where he will be monitored more closely, especially during the winter, since temperatures at Riverside School generally get colder than most three-toed box turtles ever experience. In time, we will also be sure to get him some three-toed companions.

The three-toed box turtle is the state reptile of Missouri, and a fascinating project on these creatures has been conducted by the St. Louis Zoo and Washington University for several years:

Ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata)

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Image credit: Patrick Feller

Ornate box turtles live on the Great Plains and in the southwestern deserts; their range stretches from Indiana, Illinois, and South Dakota to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico. Among the turtles found in the Riverside School courtyard is an old fellow named Confetti, who must be another escaped pet. Since ornate box turtles are a separate species from Eastern box turtles, with different habitat requirements, Confetti has now been moved to a separate enclosure, where he now enjoys the company of two other ornate box turtles–Pringles and Tender Chicken.

Ornate box turtle is the state reptile for Kansas.

Red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)

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That red streak behind the eye is very distinctive!
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Yes, they’re cute, but they grow up!

If you’ve seen a turtle in or near the water, look closely at the head. Chances are you’ve seen a red-eared slider, no matter where you go. Popular as pets, and raised in large numbers, many people have bought red-eared sliders over the years, only to release them as they approach adult size. Native to the Mississippi River basin, they have since expanded their range. Mark Eastburn, who has been organizing the Teacher Turtles project, adopted two red-eared sliders, named Guacamole and Kathy, to prevent them from being dumped into the wild. One look at the map below, which shows the worldwide range of this species, shows just how adaptable they have become.

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Image credit: Kikillus et. al. 2010

They are even a problem in Western Australia, which you can see in the video below:

Unfortunately, red-eared sliders are so successful that they often push other turtles out of their habitats, which leads to other turtles’ decline. No matter how cute a baby red-eared slider might look, please don’t take it home, unless you are prepared to care for a large and messy pet for more than fifty years!

Eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys picta picta)

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Image credit: Greg Schechter

In the northeastern United States, if the turtle one might see basking by the water isn’t an invasive red-eared slider, chances are that it’s a painted turtle. Like most turtles in the area, these creatures spend most of their lives in or very near the water, and they eat fish, worms, snails, slugs, and aquatic plants. Three young painted turtles were originally housed at Riverside School, but were recently rehomed at a nearby pond that is fenced off to keep them safe from predators.

Amazingly, painted turtles are one of the only vertebrates (animals with a backbone) that can freeze during the winter months and thaw without any difficulty. To watch a video, click on the link below:

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When we have a chance, we will post some photos and write about how our painted turtles are doing, and we hope to gather data on wild painted turtles through our citizen scientists.

Pink-bellied sideneck turtle (Emydura subglobosa)

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Love that perpetual smile on these turtles!

At present, and probably for the near future, we are only studying one pink-bellied sideneck turtle, which is housed at Riverside School. Her name is Pinky, and she was acquired as a hatchling in 2007. Pink-bellied sideneck turtles, which are also called red-bellied short neck turtles or Jardine River turtles after one of their habitats in Australia, can be found in Papua New Guinea and the extreme north of Australia. They have large heads and powerful jaws for chomping through snail shells, and spend most of their lives in the water. Pinky has also eaten fish on occasion, as well as crabs, crayfish, and the food pellets that she usually eats. Though she doesn’t do it often, she will occasionally bask in the sun, although since she is from tropical areas, she must be brought inside during the winter.

 

Leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis)

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A native to the grasslands (savannas) of eastern and southern Africa, the leopard tortoise is a land-dwelling turtle species which is completely unsuited to swimming, although one giant tortoise was found after floating around in the ocean for several weeks! Leopard tortoises are also popular pets in the United States, and many babies are purchased because they are so cute (as can be seen in the photo above). Unfortunately, these tortoises grow much larger than the average household can handle, and can live for more than 100 years. They are also at risk of pyramiding, a condition in which the shell does not form properly and looks very bumpy instead of smooth. Our two leopard tortoises that are in New Jersey, Leo and Josephine, have rather extreme pyramiding as a result of an improper diet, low humidity, and never having the opportunity to roam around in the sun until Mark Eastburn took them in. Now, they are outside whenever it’s warm, and we are looking forward to seeing posts about wild leopard tortoises thanks to students and teachers at Southern Cross Schools!