gopher tortoise kevin mainPhoto by: Kevin Main

Shellebrating the Diverse World of Turtles

Authors: Rachel Fedders & Betsie Rothermel

“At Archbold Biological Station, we spend so much time tracking and studying Gopher Tortoises, I sometimes need reminding that there are lots of other turtle species in Florida!” says Rachel Fedders, a Research Assistant in the Archbold Herpetology Program. In fact, Florida is home to more than 30 species, found across the state from sandy scrub to forested hammocks, from springs and swamps to ocean shores. “Most folks know the basic facts about turtles,” says Fedders, “they are cold-blooded reptiles, have shells, and lay eggs. In honor of World Turtle Day on May 23rd, we’d like to share some lesser-known information about our shelled friends, including some of the challenges they face and how to help protect them.”

“It’s a common misconception that all turtles live in the water,” says Dr. Betsie Rothermel, director of Archbold’s Herpetology Program. “While it’s true that many turtles are highly aquatic, Gopher Tortoises and Box Turtles live entirely on land.” Even aquatic turtles can naturally be found quite far from water – this doesn’t mean that they are in trouble. Female turtles may travel a mile or more into the upland to find suitable nesting sites. “In general, don’t move turtles,” advises Rothermel. “They are probably on a critical mission and moving them outside their home territory will confuse them. Plus, moving or interfering with protected species like sea turtles and Gopher Tortoises is against the law.”

This then begs the question: What if I see a turtle crossing a road? “Please keep an eye out and be ready to brake for turtles crossing the road,” implores Fedders. “If it is safe to do so, turn on your hazard lights and pull over, and pick up and carry the turtle across the road in the direction it is going.” Be aware that some species of turtle are long-necked and may bite in self-defense. Fedders adds, “to keep your hands out of reach, hold the back edge of the shell with one hand and support the belly with the other, like carrying a food tray. Please don’t lift a turtle by its tail, as that is painful and can injure it.”

Another way to help turtles is to prevent domestic dogs from freely roaming. “Many tortoises and other turtles end up in wildlife rehabilitation clinics every year due to injuries inflicted by dogs,” explains Rothermel. “Likewise, keep household garbage contained to avoid boosting numbers of raccoons, coyotes, and other natural predators.”

softshell turtle rebecca tucker cropPhoto by: RC Tucker

Florida Softshell Turtle

Despite what you may have seen in cartoons (and unlike a hermit crab), a turtle cannot ditch its shell, any more than other vertebrate animals could exist without their spine and rib cage. Based on 260 million-year-old fossils, the earliest turtle ancestors did not have a full shell, but rather enlarged rib bones which evolved over millennia, growing and merging to form complete body armor. Some turtles, like box turtles, can completely retract into their shell, while others, like snapping turtles and softshell turtles, have somewhat reduced shells that exchange a degree of protection for greater agility in the water and on land. Regardless, the bones of the shell are integral parts of their skeleton.

Today, turtles face unprecedented threats, including rapid habitat destruction and a changing climate. “In most turtles, sex is determined not by genetics, but by the temperature at which the eggs incubate.” Rothermel explains. “Temperature changes of just a few degrees skew the hatchling sex ratios. In extreme cases, the unbalanced sex ratios can lead to population extinction.” Diseases are another threat. Turtle Fraservirus 1 (TFV1) is an emerging disease that causes weakness, lethargy, runny nose, and difficulty breathing, and can result in death. “When you combine habitat loss, climate change, and emerging diseases, we start to wonder how many of these amazing creatures will be able to hold up under the pressure,” Fedders laments.

Countless organizations and individuals across the state, country, and internationally continue to fight diligently for the survival of turtles. “We know more about these animals than ever before, which puts us in a better position to conserve them,” concludes Rothermel. This World Turtle Day, and every day, let’s “shellebrate” these unique and resilient animals.

You are encouraged to report sick or dead turtles to the Florida Wildlife Commission here.

More World Turtle Day information can be found here.