Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins, oh my!
Have you ever wondered what a tortoise is? What about a terrapin? Do you know the difference between a turtle, a tortoise and a terrapin? Read below to find out more!
Other than the time they are in their nest and females when they come out of the ocean to nest, sea turtles spend their entire lives in the ocean. Their shells are built to live in this environment; they are mostly flat, hydrodynamic and streamlined so they are able to swim very fast through the water.
Sea turtles use 4 flippers to swim. The front flippers are used to help pull them through the water and help them swim, and their rear flippers are used to help them steer. Using those big, strong flippers, sea turtles can swim one mile in three minutes, or about 20 miles an hour!
Depending on the species, sea turtles eat different things. For the loggerheads, they eat hard-shelled items such as blue crabs, whelks (a type of sea snail) and horseshoe crabs. Leatherback sea turtles eat jellyfish, hawksbills eat sponges, green sea turtles eat seagrass and algae and the Kemp’s ridley sea turtles eat clams, scallops, shrimp and squid.
How would you tell a male sea turtle apart from a female sea turtle? With sea turtles, we can’t tell if a turtle is male or female until they’re a fully grown adult, which for a loggerhead is around 30-35 years old. It’s then you can tell the gender by looking at the length of their tails. Males have very long, thick tails and females have very short tails.
Sea turtles have many threats they encounter throughout their lives. Depending on their size and age, they have different predators. For adult sea turtles, their main natural predators are sharks, orca whales, but sea turtles biggest threats are humans. There are many things that we do that affect sea turtles in a big way. Sea turtles are sometimes caught on a fish hook or stuck in a shrimp net, boat propellers hit them and some of them mistake marine debris as food items.
Box turtles are terrestrial (land) turtles and live in meadows and woodland areas. The only time they go into the water is when they need to cool off because it is warm outside or if they need a drink of water.
Their shells are designed to live on land. Since box turtles can’t swim like sea turtles can, their source of protection is the ability to completely close themselves inside their high, domed shells and seal inside like a little box. Box turtles have a hinge on their plastron (bottom shell) that allows them to completely seal up inside their “box.”
Box turtles are omnivores, meaning they eat fruits, vegetables and meat, like berries, plants and earthworms. The way you can tell a male box turtle from a female box turtle are by the color of their eyes. Males have reddish-orange eyes and females have brown eyes.
A big threat for box turtles is the illegal pet trade. Many people think it is ok to have a box turtle as a pet, but they are very hard to take care of and they can live a long time.
Gopher tortoises are strictly land turtles. They live in long-leaf pine ecosystems, where it’s very dry and can get pretty warm. Gopher tortoises also have a high, domed shell like a box turtle so they can pull themselves completely into their shells as well.
Land turtles don’t have flippers like a sea turtle, but they have very thick, sturdy legs. Their back legs look a lot like elephant feet and their front legs are also thick and sturdy, but they have strong claws for digging.
Gopher tortoises are herbivores, meaning they eat plants like grass, legumes and cacti. Males and female are distinguished by a projection on their plastron (bottom shell) called a gular projection. In males, this projection is long and narrow, whereas the females’ projection is broad and round. Males use this projection to flip over other males that are in their territory.
Construction and development are a big threat for these turtles. Gopher tortoises dig burrows that can be 10 feet deep and 40 feet long. They tend to share this burrow with about 300 other animals who also call it home. So without gopher tortoises, a lot of animals wouldn’t have a home. They are also known as a keystone species. This means that they help maintain the balance of the ecosystem.
Diamondback terrapins are kind of a mix between a land turtle and a sea turtle. They live in the marsh, which is a brackish water area. Brackish water is a coastal vegetated area that is influenced by the ocean tides, so the water isn’t as salty as ocean water. They spend some of their day in the water and other parts of the day on land.
The shells of a Diamondback terrapin are flat and streamlined, but high and domed at the same time. They can pull inside their shells for protection, but it’s a tight fit. The feet of a terrapin are also a mix between a sea turtle and a box turtle. They have webbed feet with claws on them that help them swim as well as scurry up muddy marsh banks.
Out in the marshes, Diamondback terrapins eat fiddler crabs and periwinkle snails. Much like the gopher tortoise, diamondback terrapins are also keystone species. Periwinkle snails are an invasive species, meaning they’re not originally from the United States. These snails eat the Spartina grass (marsh grass), and are capable of turning healthy marshes to mud flats in a matter of days. In coastal areas, the marshes help keep the nearby land above water.
The way to tell a male from a female is by looking at their size. Males are much smaller than the females, only about 4-6 inches long and females are 8-10 inches long. The females need to be bigger because they carry eggs.
Threats for these turtles are cars and crab traps. Female terrapins come out of the marshes to lay their eggs. They look for the highest, driest ground they can find, which is usually near the side of the road. Sometimes they don’t like the side of the road they are on, so they will cross the road to look for a better place to put their eggs. By crossing the roads, they are more likely to be hit by cars. For mostly males and juvenile terrapins, they can get stuck in crab traps, which are submerged underwater, they can’t get out and they can drown.