Turtles are an order of reptiles known as Testudines; characterized by a shell developed from their ribs. Turtles were historically considered part of a group of reptiles known as Anapsida but more recent studies place them with other modern reptiles in Diapsida, usually closer to Archosauria (crocodilians and birds[a]) than Lepidosauria (tuataras, lizards and snakes). Modern turtles are divided into two major groups, the Pleurodira (side necked turtles) and Cryptodira (hidden neck turtles) which differ in the way the head is retracted. There are 360 recent (after 1500) species of turtles and include tortoises and terrapins. They are widely distributed across the world's continents and oceans.
Turtles are the only vertebrates with a complete shell. It is formed mainly of bone; the upper part is the domed carapace, while the underside is the flatter plastron or belly-plate. Its outer surface is covered in scales made of keratin, the material of hair and fingernails. The carapace bones develop from ribs which grow sideways and develop into broad flat plates that join up to cover the body. Turtles are ectotherms—commonly called cold-blooded—meaning that their internal temperature varies according to the ambient environment. However, because of their high metabolic rate and adaptations to conserve heat, leatherback sea turtles have a body temperature noticeably higher than that of the surrounding water.
Turtles are generally opportunistic omnivores and feed mainly on plant material and sedentary animals. Turtles are classified as amniotes, along with other reptiles, birds, and mammals. Like other amniotes, they breathe air and do not lay eggs underwater, although many species live in or around water. Many turtles migrate short distances seasonally; the sea turtles are the only reptiles that migrate long distances to lay their eggs on a favored beach.
Turtles have appeared in myths and folktales around the world. Some terrestrial and freshwater species are widely kept as pets. Turtles have been hunted for their meat, for use in traditional medicine, and for their carapaces. Marine turtles are often killed accidentally as bycatch in fishing nets. Turtle habitats around the world are being destroyed. As a result of these pressures, many species are threatened with extinction.
The word turtle is derived from the French tortue or tortre ("turtle, tortoise"). It is a common name and may be used without knowledge of taxonomic distinctions. In North America, it may denote the order as a whole, while in Britain, the name may be exclusive to sea turtles; as opposed to freshwater "terrapins" and heavy-footed, land-dwelling tortoises. In Australia, which lacks true tortoises (family Testudinidae), non-marine turtles were traditionally called tortoises but in more contemporary times, turtle has been used for the entire group.
The name of the order, Testudines //, is based on the Latin word for tortoise, testudo. It was coined by German naturalist August Batsch in 1788. The order has also been historically known as Chelonii (Latreille 1800) and Chelonia (Ross and Macartney 1802) which are based on the Ancient Greek word for tortoise: χελώνη (chelone). Testudines is the official order name due to the Principle of Priority. The term chelonian is used as a formal name for members of the group.
The largest living species of turtle, and fourth largest reptile, is the leatherback turtle which can reach over 2.7 m (8 ft 10 in) in length and weigh over 500 kg (1,100 lb). The largest known turtle was Archelon ischyros, a Late Cretaceous sea turtle up to 4.5 m (15 ft) long, 5.25 m (17 ft) wide between the tips of the front flippers and estimated to have weighed over 2,200 kg (4,900 lb). The smallest living turtle is the speckled padloper tortoise of South Africa, measuring no more than 10 cm (3.9 in) in length.
The shell of a turtle is unique among vertebrates and serves to protect the animal and provide shelter from the elements. It is primarily made of bone, and consists of two parts, the carapace which usually contains 50–60 bones and covers the back of the animal while the plastron has 7–11 bones and covers the belly. They are connected by lateral extensions of the plastron. The carapace is fused with the vertebrae and ribs while the plastron is formed from bones of the shoulder girdle, sternum, and gastralia (dermal bones). During development, the ribs grow sideways into the carapacial ridge, unique to turtles, entering the dermis of the back to support the carapace. The development is signaled locally by fibroblast growth factors including FGF10. The shoulder girdle in turtles is made up of two bones, the scapula and the coracoid. Both the anterior and posterior pelvis of turtles are located within the shell and hence are effectively within the rib-cage; the trunk ribs grow over the shoulder girdle during development.
The outer surface of the shell is covered in epidermal scales known as scutes which are made of keratin, the same substance that makes up human hair and fingernails. Typically, a turtle has 38 scutes on the carapace and 16 on the plastron; 54 in total. Carapace scutes are divided into "marginals" around the margin, "vertebrals" over the vertebral column, in many species an extra singular scute between the first marginals called the "cervical" is present, and "costals" between the marginals and vertebrals. Plastron scutes include gulars (throat), humerals, abdominals, femorals and anals. The side necked turtles of the Pleurodira have an extra plastral scute called the "intergular." Turtle scutes usually interlock like mosaic tiles, though in some species, like the hawksbill sea turtle, the scutes on the carapace can overlap.
The shapes of turtle shells vary with the adaptations of the individual species, and sometimes with sex. Land-dwelling turtles tend to have more domed shells, which appear to make them more resistant to being crushed by large animals. Aquatic turtles have flatter, smoother shells which allow them to cut though the water. Sea turtles in particular have streamlined shells which reduce drag and increase stability in the open ocean. Some turtle species have ridged, lumped, or spiked shells which provide extra protection from predators and camouflage against patterned backgrounds. The humps of a tortoise shell may tilt its body when it gets flipped over, allowing it to flip back. In male tortoises, the lead edge of the plastron is thickened; it is used for butting and ramming during combat.
Shells vary in flexibility. In tortoises, the plastron and its extensions lock the sides of the carapace together, giving it even greater crushing resistance. Some species, such as box turtles, lack the extensions and instead have the carapace bones fully fused or ankylosed together, creating a single unit. Several species have hinges on their shells, usually on the plastron, which allow them to expand and contract. Softshell turtles have rubbery edges, due to the loss of bones. The leatherback turtle has hardly any bones in its shell, which instead consists of thick connective tissue covered in leathery skin.
Jackson (2002) suggested that the turtle shell can function as a pH buffer. To endure through anoxic conditions, such as winter periods beneath ice or within anoxic mud at the bottom of ponds, turtles utilize two general physiological mechanisms: their shell releases carbonate as a buffer, and takes up lactic acid.
Head and neck
The turtle's skull is unique among living amniotes; it is solid and rigid with no openings for muscle attachment (temporal fenestra). Muscles instead attach to recesses in the back of the skull. Turtle skulls vary in shape; from the elongated skulls of softshells to the broad and flattened skull of the mata mata. Some turtle species have developed proportionally large and thick heads, allowing for greater muscle mass and stronger bites. Turtles that are carnivorous or durophagous (eating hard-shelled animals), such as Mesoclemmys nasuta, have the most powerful bites, in its case 432 N; species that are insectivorous, piscivorous or omnivorous have lower bite forces. Living turtles lack teeth but have keratin sheaths lining the edges of the jaws. These sheaths may have sharp edges for cutting meat, serrated ridges for clipping plants or broad plates for crushing mollusks.
The necks of turtles are highly flexible, possibly to compensate for their rigid shells. Some species, like sea turtles, have short necks while others, such as snake-necked turtles, have very long ones. Despite this, all turtle species have eight neck vertebrate; a consistency not found in other reptiles but paralleled in mammals. Some snake-necked turtles have both long necks and large heads and thus have difficulty lifting them when not in water.
Limbs and locomotion
Turtles are slow-moving on land, because of their heavy shells; a desert tortoise moves at only 0.22–0.48 km/h (0.14–0.30 mph). By contrast, sea turtles can swim at 30 km/h (19 mph). The limbs of turtles are adapted for various means of locomotion and habits; most have five toes. Tortoises are specialized for terrestrial environments and have column-like legs with elephant-like feet with short toes. The gopher tortoise has flattened front limbs for digging in the substrate. Aquatic turtles have more flexible legs and longer toes with webbing, getting them thrust in the water. Some of these species, such as snapping turtles and mud turtles, mainly walk along the water bottom, much as they would on land. Others, such as terrapins, swim by paddling with all four limbs with the simultaneous retraction of the opposing front and hind limbs, helping them maintain their direction while thrusting.
Sea turtles and the pig-nosed turtle are the most specialized for aquatic locomotion. Their front limbs have evolved into flippers while the shorter hind limbs are shaped more like rudders. The front limbs provide most of the thrust for swimming, while the hind limbs serve as stabilizers. Sea turtles such as Chelonia mydas rotate the front limb flippers like a bird's wings so as generate a propulsive force on both the upstroke and on the downstroke. This is in contrast to similar-sized freshwater turtles (measurements having been made on young animals in each case) such as Mauremys caspica, which use the front limbs like the oars of a rowing boat, creating substantial negative thrust on the recovery stroke in each cycle. In addition, the streamlining of the marine turtles reduces drag. As a result, marine turtles produce a propulsive force twice as large, and swim six times as fast, as freshwater turtles. The swimming efficiency of young marine turtles is similar to that of fast-swimming fish of open water, like mackerel.
Compared to other reptiles, turtles tend to have reduced tails, but these vary in both length and thickness among species and between sexes. They are especially large in snapping turtles and the big-headed turtle, the latter of which uses its tail to balance itself while climbing. The cloaca is at the base of the tail, and the tail itself houses the reproductive organs. Hence, males have longer tails to accommodate the penis. In sea turtles, the tail is longer and also somewhat prehensile; males use it to grasp females when mating. Several turtle species have spines on their tails.
Turtles make use of vision to find food and mates, to avoid predators, and to orient themselves. The retina's light-sensitive cells include both rods for vision in low light, and cones with three different photopigments for bright light, where they have full color vision. There is possibly a fourth type of cone that detects ultraviolet; hatchling sea turtles respond experimentally to ultraviolet light, but it is unknown if they can distinguish this from longer wavelengths. A freshwater turtle, the red-eared slider, has an exceptional seven types of cone cell.
Sea turtles orient themselves on land by night, using visual features detected in dim light; they use their eyes in all conditions from clear surface water to muddy coasts and the darkness of the deep ocean, and with their heads above water. Unlike in terrestrial turtles, the cornea, the curved surface that lets light into the eye, does not help to focus light on the retina, so focusing underwater is handled entirely by the lens, behind the cornea. The cone cells contain oil droplets placed to shift perception towards the red part of the spectrum; this improves color discrimination. Visual acuity, studied in hatchlings, is highest in a horizontal band with retinal cells packed about twice as densely as elsewhere; this gives the best vision along the visual horizon. Sea turtles do not appear to use polarized light for orientation as many other animals do. The deep-diving leatherback turtle lacks specific adaptations to low light, such as large eyes, large lenses, or a reflective tapetum; it may rely on seeing the bioluminescence of prey when hunting in deep water.
Turtles have no ear openings; the ear drum is surrounded by a bony otic capsule, which is absent in other reptiles, and covered with scales. They have higher hearing thresholds compared to other reptiles, reaching up to 500 Hertz in air, while underwater they are more attuned to lower frequencies. Among sea turtles, the loggerhead has been shown experimentally to respond both by behavior and by evoked electrical signals to low sounds, with maximal sensitivity between 100 and 400 Hertz.
Turtles have both olfactory (smell) and vomeronasal receptors along the nasal cavity; the latter of which is used to detect tiny particles. Experiments on green sea turtles showed they could learn to respond to a selection of different odorant chemicals (such as triethylamine and cinnamaldehyde) detected by olfaction in the nose. Such signals could be used in navigation.
Respiration for many amniotes is achieved by the contraction and relaxation of specific muscle groups (i.e. intercostals, abdominal muscles, and/or a diaphragm) attached to an internal rib-cage that can expand or contract the body wall thus assisting airflow in and out of the lungs. The ribs of turtles, however, are, uniquely, fused with their carapace and external to their pelvic and pectoral girdles. This rigid shell is not capable of expansion, so the turtles have had to evolve special adaptations for respiration. The lungs of Testudines are multi-chambered and attach directly to the carapace above while below, connective tissue attaches them to the viscera (organs). They have multiple lateral and medial chambers, the numbers of which vary between taxa, and one terminal chamber.
The lungs are ventilated using specific groups of abdominal muscles attached to the viscera that pull the lungs ventrally during inspiration, where air is drawn in via a negative pressure gradient. Specifically, it is the turtle's large liver that pulls or pushes on the lungs. Ventral to the lungs, in the coelomic cavity, the liver is attached to the right lung by the ventral mesopneumonium, and the stomach is directly attached to the left lung, which is attached to the liver by the ventral mesentery. When the liver is pulled down, inspiration begins. Supporting the lungs is the post-pulmonary septum, which is thought to prevent the lungs from collapsing. In expiration, the contraction of the transversus abdominis muscle propels the viscera into the lungs and expels air under positive pressure. Conversely, the relaxing and flattening of the oblique abdominis muscle pulls the transversus back down which, once again, draws air back into the lungs. Auxiliary respiratory muscles include the pectoralis during inspiration, and the serratus during expiration.
Although many turtles spend large amounts of their lives underwater, all turtles breathe air and must surface at regular intervals to refill their lungs. Immersion periods vary between a minute and an hour depending on the species. Some species can respire though the cloaca, which contains large bursae (sacs) that are lined with many finger-like projections which take up dissolved oxygen from the water.
Turtles share the linked circulatory and pulmonary systems of vertebrates, where the heart pumps deoxygenated blood through the lungs, and then pumps the returned oxygenated blood through the body's tissues. The turtle cardiopulmonary system has both structural and physiological adaptations that distinguish it from other vertebrates. Turtles have a large lung volume; they can shunt blood through non-pulmonary blood vessels, including some within the heart, to avoid the lungs while they are not breathing; they can hold their breath for much longer periods than other reptiles; they can tolerate the resulting low oxygen levels; they can moderate the increase in acidity during anaerobic respiration by chemical buffering; and they can lie dormant for months, in aestivation or brumation.
The heart has two atria but only one ventricle. The ventricle is subdivided into three chambers; a muscular ridge enables a complex pattern of blood flow, so that the blood can be directed either to the lungs via the pulmonary artery, or to the body via the aorta. The ability to separate the two outflows varies between species; the leatherback has a powerful muscular ridge enabling almost complete separation of the outflows, supporting its actively swimming lifestyle, whereas the ridge is less well developed in freshwater turtles like the sliders (Trachemys).
Turtles are capable of longer periods of anaerobic respiration than many other vertebrates. This process breaks down sugars incompletely to lactic acid, rather than all the way to carbon dioxide and water as in aerobic respiration. They make use of the shell to buffer the increasing acidity of the body fluids that this causes.
The turtle bladder consists of tissues of transitional epitheliums which allow for it to expand while some muscle fibers facilitate contraction. Ureters are connected at the muscular base and the bladder is connected to the cloacal opening by a short urethra. In sea turtles, the bladder is singular while in most freshwater turtles, it is bi-lobed. Sea turtle bladders are have to two small accessory bladders, located at the sides to the neck of the urinary bladder and above to the pubis. Arid-living tortoises have bladders which serve as reserves of water, storing up to 20% of their body weight in fluids. The fluids are normally very low in solutes, but higher during droughts when the reptile gains potassium salts from its plant diet. The bladder stores these salts until the tortoise finds fresh drinking water. To regulate the amount of salt in their bodies, sea turtles and diamondback terrapins secrete excess salt in a thick sticky substance from their lacrimal glands. When on land, sea turtles may appear to be "crying".
Turtles, like other reptiles, have a limited ability to regulate their body temperature; this varies between species, and with body size. Small pond turtles regulate their temperature by crawling out of the water and basking in the sun, while small terrestrial turtles move between sunny and shady places to adjust their temperature. Large species, both terrestrial and marine, have sufficient mass to give them substantial thermal inertia, meaning that they heat up or cool down over many hours. The Aldabra giant tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantea) weighs up to some 60 kilograms (130 lb), and is able to allow its temperature to rise to some 33 °C (91 °F) on a hot day, and to fall naturally to around 29 °C (84 °F) by night. Some giant tortoises seek out shade to avoid overheating on sunny days. On Grand Terre Island, food is scarce inland, but shade is scarce near the coast, and the tortoises compete for space under the few trees on hot days; large males may push smaller females out of the shade, and some then overheat and die.
Adult sea turtles, too, have large enough bodies that they can to some extent control their temperature. The largest, the leatherback, can swim in the waters off Nova Scotia which may be as cool as 8 °C (46 °F); their body temperature has been measured at up to 12 °C (54 °F) warmer than the surrounding water. To help keep their temperature up, they have a system of countercurrent heat exchange in the blood vessels between their body core and the skin of their flippers; the vessels supplying the head are insulated by fat around the neck.
Diet and feeding
Most turtle species are opportunistic omnivores; land-dwelling species being more herbivorous and aquatic ones being more carnivorous. Generally lacking speed and agility, most turtles feed either on plant material or on sedentary animals like mollusks, worms and insect larvae. Some species, such as the African helmeted turtle and snapping turtles, eat fish, amphibians, reptiles (including other turtles), birds and mammals; they may take them by ambush but also scavenge. The alligator snapping turtle has a worm-like appendage on its tongue which it uses to lure fish into its mouth. Tortoises are the most herbivorous group, consuming grasses, leaves, and fruits. Many turtle species, including tortoises, supplement their diet with eggshells, animal bones, hair and droppings for extra nutrients.
Turtles generally eat their food in a straightforward way, though some species have special feeding techniques. The yellow-spotted river turtle and the painted turtle filter feed by skimming the water surface with their mouth and throat open to collect particles of food. When the mouth closes, the throat constricts; excess water is pushed out through the nostrils and the gap in between the almost closed jaws. Some species employ a "gape-and-suck method" where the turtle opens its jaws and expands its throat widely, sucking the prey in.
The diet of an individual within a species may change with age, sex, and season, and may differ between populations. In many species, juveniles are generally carnivorous but become more herbivorous as adults. With Barbour's map turtle, the larger female mainly eats mollusks while the male eats mostly arthropods. Blanding's turtle may feed mostly on snails or crayfish depending on the population. The European pond turtle has been recorded being mostly carnivorous much of the year but switching to water lilies during the summer. Some species have developed specialized diets such as the Mekong snail-eating turtle, the hawksbill, which specializes on sponges, and the leatherback, which feeds on jellyfish.
While popularly thought of as mute, turtles make various sounds to communicate. Tortoises may bellow when courting and mating. Various species of both freshwater and sea turtles emit numerous types of calls, often short and low frequency, from the time they are in the egg to when they are adults. These vocalizations may serve to create group cohesion when migrating. The oblong turtle is particularly vocal; producing sounds described as clacks, clicks, squawks, hoots, various kinds of chirps, wails, hooos, grunts, growls, blow bursts, howls and drum rolls.
Turtles are the only reptiles that migrate long distances, up to thousands of kilometers in marine species; some non-marine turtles such as species of Geochelone (terrestrial), Chelydra (freshwater), and Malaclemys (estuarine) migrate seasonally over much shorter distances, up to around 27 km (17 mi), to reach favored egg-laying sites. Such short migrations are comparable to those of some lizards, snakes, and crocodilians. Both young and mature sea turtles undertake far longer migrations. They nest in a specific area, such as a beach, leaving the eggs to hatch unattended. The young turtles leave that area, migrating long distances in the years or decades in which they grow to maturity, and then return seemingly to the same area every few years to mate and lay eggs, though the precision varies between species and populations. This "natal homing" has appeared remarkable to biologists, though there is now plentiful evidence for it, including from genetics.
The mechanism by which sea turtles navigate to their breeding beaches remains unknown. One possibility is imprinting as in salmon, where the young learn the chemical signature, effectively the scent, of their home waters before leaving, and remember that when the time comes for them to return as adults. Another possible cue is the orientation of the earth's magnetic field at the natal beach; there is experimental evidence that turtles have an effective magnetic sense, and that they use this in navigation. Proof that homing occurs is derived from genetic analysis of populations of loggerheads, hawksbills, leatherbacks, and olive ridleys by nesting place; for each of these species, the populations in different places have their own mitochondrial DNA genetic signatures which persist over the years, showing that the populations are distinct, so that homing must be occurring reliably.
When sensing danger, a turtle may flee, freeze or withdraw into its shell. Freshwater turtles flee into the water, though the Sonora mud turtle may take refuge on land as the shallow temporary ponds they inhabit make them more vulnerable. When startled, a softshell turtle may dive underwater and bury itself under the floor. If a predator persists, the turtle may bite or discharge from its cloaca. Several species produce foul-smelling chemicals from musk glands. Other tactics include threat displays and, in the case of Bell's hinge-back tortoise, playing dead. When attacked, big-headed turtle hatchlings squeal, possibly startling the predator.
Turtles have a very low encephalization quotient (relative brain to body mass), and their hard shells enable them to live without fast reflexes or elaborate predator avoidance strategies. Nevertheless, case studies exist of play behaviour in some turtle species. In the laboratory, turtles (Pseudemys nelsoni) can learn novel tasks and have demonstrated a long-term memory of at least 7.5 months. Similarly, giant tortoises can learn and remember tasks, and master lessons much faster when trained in groups. Tortoises appear to be able to retain operant conditioning nine years after their initial training.
Turtles have a wide variety of mating behaviors, but do not form pair-bonds or social groups. In green turtles, females generally outnumber males, and as a result, most males copulate with multiple partners throughout their lifespan. Most terrestrial species are sexually dimorphic, with males larger than females; fighting between males often establishes a dominance hierarchy for access to mates, including in the Galápagos tortoise. For most semi-aquatic and bottom-walking aquatic species, combat occurs less often; males of these species instead often use their size advantage to mate forcibly. In fully aquatic species, males are often smaller than females, and rely on courtship displays to gain mating access to females.
Courtship and mounting
Courtship varies between species, and with habitat; it is often elaborate in aquatic species, both marine and freshwater, but minimal in the semi-aquatic mud turtles and snapping turtles. A male tortoise bobs his head, then immobilizes the female by biting and butting her before mounting. Female choice is important in this method, and the females of some species, such as green sea turtles, are not always receptive. As such, they have evolved behaviors to avoid the male's attempts at copulation, such as swimming away, confronting the male followed by biting, or taking up a refusal position with her body vertical, her limbs widely outspread, and her plastron facing the male. If the water is too shallow for the refusal position, the females resort to beaching themselves, as the males will not follow them ashore.
All turtles fertilize internally; mounting and copulation can be difficult. In many species, males have a concave plastron that fits with the female's carapace. In species like the Russian tortoise, the male has a lighter shell and longer legs. The high, rounded shells of box turtles are particular obstacles for mounting; the male eastern box turtle leans backwards into position and hooks onto the back of the female's plastron. Aquatic turtles mount in water; female sea turtles support the mounting male while swimming and diving. During copulation, the male turtle forces his tail under the female's to allow for their cloacas to align and he can insert his penis. Some female turtles can store sperm from multiple males and their egg clutches can have multiple sires.
Forced copulation occurs in some species. The male scorpion mud turtle approaches the female from the rear, and often resorts to aggressive methods such as biting the female's tail or hind limbs, followed by a mounting.
Eggs and hatchlings
Turtles, including sea turtles, lay their eggs on land, although some lay eggs close to or in shallow water which rises and falls in level. While most species build nests and lay eggs where they forage, some travel miles. The common snapping turtle walks 5 km (3 mi) on land to lay eggs, while sea turtles travel even further; the leatherback swims some 12,000 km (7,500 mi) to its nesting beaches. Most turtles prepare a nest for their eggs; females usually dig a flask-like chamber in the substrate. Other species lay their eggs in vegetation or crevices. Females choose nesting locations based on environmental factors such as temperature and humidity, which are important for developing embryos. The number of eggs laid varies from 10 to over 100 depending on the species. Larger females can lay eggs that are greater in number or bigger in size. Compared to freshwater turtles, tortoises deposit fewer but larger eggs. Females can lay multiple clutches throughout a season, particularly in species that experience unpredictable monsoons.
Most mother turtles do no more in the way of parental care than covering their eggs and immediately leaving, though some species guard their nests for days or weeks. Eggs vary between spherical, oval and elongated and between hard- and soft-shelled. Most species have their sex determined by temperature; in some species, higher temperatures produce females and lower ones produce males, while in others, intermediate temperatures produce males and both hot and cold extremes produce females. There is experimental evidence that the embryos of Mauremys reevesii can move around inside their eggs to select the optimal temperature for development, thus influencing their sexual destiny. In other species, sex is determined genetically. The length of incubation for turtle eggs varies from two to three months for temperate species, and four months to over a year for tropical species. Species that live in warm temperate climates may go though embryonic diapause.
When ready to hatch, young turtles break out of the shell using a sharp projection on their upper beak. Hatchlings dig out of the nest and find cover in vegetation or water. Some species remain in the nest for longer, be it for overwintering or to wait for rain to soften the soil for them to dig out. Young turtles are highly vulnerable to predators, both in the egg and as hatchlings. Mortality is high during this period but significantly decreases when they reach adulthood. Most species grow rapidly during their early years and slow down when they are mature.
Turtle can live very long lives; a Galápagos tortoise collected by Charles Darwin in 1835 died in 2006, living for at least 176 years though most wild turtles do not reach that age. Turtles keep growing new scutes under the previous scutes every year, allowing researchers to estimate how long they have lived; they age very slowly. The survival rate for adult turtles can reach 99% per year.
Zoologists have sought to explain the evolutionary origin of the turtles, and in particular of their unique shell. In 1914, Jan Versluys proposed that bony plates in the dermis, osteoderms, fused to the ribs beneath them, later called the "Polka Dot Ancestor" by Olivier Rieppel. The theory accounted for the evolution of fossil pareisaurs from Bradysaurus to Anthodon, but not for how the ribs could have become attached to the bony dermal plates.
More recent discoveries have painted a different scenario for the evolution of the turtle's shell. The stem-turtles Eunotosaurus of the Middle Permian, Pappochelys of the Middle Triassic and Eorhynchochelys of the Late Triassic lack carapaces and plastrons but have shortened trunks, broadened ribs and elongated dorsal vertebrae. Also in the Late Triassic, Odontochelys has a partial shell consisting of a complete bony plastron and an incomplete carapace. The development of a shell reaches completion with the Late Triassic Proganochelys, with its fully developed carapace and plastron. Turtle shells may have originally been adapted for digging and a fossorial lifestyle.
The oldest known members of the Pleurodira lineage are the Platychelyidae, known from the Late Jurassic. During the Late Cretaceous and Cenozoic, members of the pleurodire famililes Bothremydidae and Podocnemididae became widely distributed in the Northern Hemisphere due to their coastal habits. The oldest known softshelled turtles and sea turtles appear during the Early Cretaceous. Tortoises originated in Asia during the Eocene. A late surviving group of stem-turtles, the Meiolaniidae, survived in Australasia into the Pleistocene and Holocene.
The turtles' exact ancestry has been disputed. It was believed they were the only surviving branch of the ancient evolutionary grade Anapsida, which includes groups such as procolophonids, and pareiasaurs. All anapsid skulls lack a temporal openings while all other extant amniotes have temporal openings. It was later suggested that the anapsid-like turtle skull may be due to reversion rather than to anapsid descent. Fossil evidence has shown that early stem-turtles possessed small temporal openings.
Some early morphological phylogenetic studies have placed turtles closer to Lepidosauria than to Archosauria. By contrast, several molecular studies have strongly upheld the placement of turtles within diapsids; some place turtles within Archosauria, or, more commonly, as a sister group to extant archosaurs, though an analysis conducted by Tyler Lyson and colleagues (2012) recovered turtles as the sister group of lepidosaurs instead. A 2012 molecular analysis of 248 nuclear genes from 16 vertebrate taxa suggests that turtles are a sister group to birds and crocodilians (the Archosauria). The date of separation of turtles and birds and crocodilians was estimated to be . Through genomic-scale phylogenetic analysis of ultraconserved elements (UCEs) to investigate the placement of turtles within reptiles, Nicholas Crawford and colleagues (2012) similarly suggest that turtles are a sister group to birds and crocodilians.
The first genome-wide phylogenetic analysis was completed by Zhuo Wang and colleagues (2013). Using the draft genomes of Chelonia mydas and Pelodiscus sinensis, the team again concluded that turtles are likely a sister group of crocodilians and birds. The external phylogeny of the turtles is shown in the cladogram below.
Modern turtles and their extinct relatives with a complete shell are classified within the clade Testudinata. The most recent common ancestor of living turtles, corresponding to the split between Pleurodira and Cryptodira, is estimated to have occurred around . Robert Thompson and colleagues comment that extant turtles have very low diversity, given the group's age. Diversity increased steadily in their analysis, speciation occurring at a greater rate than extinction, except for a single rapid increase around the Eocene-Oligocene boundary some 30 million years ago, and a major regional extinction at roughly the same time. They suggest that global climate change caused both events, as the cooling and drying caused land to become arid and turtles to become extinct there, while new continental margins exposed by the climate change provided habitats for other species to evolve. The cladogram, from Nicholas Crawford and colleagues 2015, shows the internal phylogeny of the Testudines down to the level of families. The analysis by Thompson and colleagues in 2021 supports the same structure down to family level.
Differences between the two suborders
Turtles are divided into two extant suborders: Cryptodira and Pleurodira. Turtles in the two groups differ in the way the neck is retracted for protection. Pleurodirans retract their neck to the side, anterior to the shoulder girdles, whereas cryptodirans retract their neck back into their shell. These motions are enabled by the morphology and arrangement of cervical vertebrae. Sea turtles (which belong to Cryptodira) have mostly lost the ability to pull their heads into their shells.
The shape of the head differs between the two suborders, as the jaw musculature is associated with different bones in the two groups. The adductor muscles in the lower jaw create a pulley-like system in both subgroups; however the bones that the muscles articulate with differ. In Pleurodira, the pulley is formed with the pterygoid bones, but in Cryptodira the pulley is formed with the otic capsule. Both systems help to vertically redirect the adductor muscles to create a powerful bite.
A further difference between the suborders is the attachment of the pelvis. In Cryptodira, the pelvis is free, linked to the shell with flexible ligaments. In Pleurodira, the pelvis is sutured, joined with bony connections, to the carapace and to the plastron; there is a pair of strong columns of bone at the posterior end of the turtle, linking the two parts of the shell.
Turtles are widely distributed across the world's continents, oceans and some islands with terrestrial, fully aquatic, and semi-aquatic species. Sea turtles are mainly tropical and subtropical, but leatherbacks can be found in temperate areas of the Atlantic and Pacific. Living Pleurodira all live in freshwater and are found only in the Southern Hemisphere. The Cryptodira include terrestrial, freshwater and marine species; these range more widely. The world regions richest in (non-marine) turtle species are the Amazon basin, the Gulf of Mexico drainages of the United States and parts of South and Southeast Asia.
The northern limits for terrestrial species are likely set by constraints on reproduction, as time for breeding is reduced since northern living turtles may hibernate for half their lives. Some turtles are found at high altitude; for example, the species Terrapene ornata occurs up to 2,000 m (6,600 ft) in New Mexico. Conversely, the leatherback sea turtle, Dermochelys coriacea, can dive over 1,200 m (3,900 ft). Gopherus species can tolerate body temperatures from below freezing to over 40 °C (104 °F), though they are most active at 26–34 °C (79–93 °F).
Among vertebrate orders, turtles are second only to primates in the percentage of threatened species, with 51–56% of all 360 modern (after 1500) species considered threatened and 60% considered threatened or extinct. Turtles face many threats, including habitat destruction, harvesting for consumption, the pet trade, light pollution, and climate change. Asian species have a particularly high extinction risk, primarily due to their long-term unsustainable exploitation for food and medicine; about 83% of Asia's (non-marine) turtle species are considered threatened. Turtle extinction is progressing much faster than during the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction; at the current rate, all turtles could be extinct in a few centuries.
Turtle hatcheries can be set up when protection against flooding, erosion, predation or heavy poaching is required. Chinese makerts have sought to satisfy increasing demand for turtle meat with farmed turtles; in 2007 it was estimated that over a thousand turtle farms operated in China. All the same, wild turtles continue to be caught and sent to market in large numbers, resulting in what conservationists have called "the Asian turtle crisis". In the words of the biologist George Amato, the hunting of turtles "vacuumed up entire species from areas in Southeast Asia", even as biologists still did not know how many species lived in the region. In 2000, all the Asian box turtles (Cuora spp.) were placed on the CITES list of endangered species.
Harvesting wild turtles is legal in some American states; and there has been a growing demand for American turtles in Asia. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimated in 2008 that around 3,000 pounds of softshell turtles were exported each week via Tampa International Airport. However, the great majority of turtles exported from the US between 2002 and 2005 were farmed.
Large numbers of sea turtles are accidentally killed in longlines, gillnets and trawling nets as bycatch. A 2010 study suggested that over 8 million had been killed between 1990 and 2008; the Eastern Pacific and the Mediterranean were identified as among the areas worst affected. Since the 1980s, the United States required all shrimp trawlers to fit their nets with turtle excluder devices which prevent turtles from being caught in the net and drowning. More locally, other human activities are affecting marine turtles. In Australia, Queensland's shark culling program, which uses shark nets and drum lines, has since 1962 killed over 5,000 turtles as bycatch; including 719 loggerhead turtles and 33 critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles.
Native turtle populations can also be threated by invasive ones. The central North American red-eared slider turtle, has been labeled among the "world’s worst invasive species"; being distributed globally due to the pet trade. They appear to compete with native turtle species in eastern and western North America, Europe and Japan.
World resting on four elephants on the back of the World Turtle. Western depiction of "The Hindu Earth", 1877
Sea turtle in Aboriginal rock art, 1600–1900
Poster for 1898 production of The Turtle at the Manhattan Theatre, Broadway
Terrapin shell leg rattles worn by lead Cherokee woman dancer, 20th century
Turtles have featured in human cultures across the world since ancient times. They are generally viewed positively despite not being "cuddly" or flashy; their association with antiquity and old age have contributed to their endearing image. In Hindu mythology, the World Turtle, named Kurma or Kacchapa, supports four elephants on his back; they in turn carry the weight of the whole world on their backs. The turtle is one of the ten avatars or incarnations of the god Vishnu. The yoga pose Kurmasana is named for the avatar.
World Turtles are found in Native American cultures including the Algonquian, Iroquois, and Lenape. They tell many versions of the creation story of Turtle Island. One version has Muskrat pile up earth on Turtle's back, creating the continent of North America. An Iroquois version has the pregnant Sky Woman fall through a hole in the sky between a tree's roots, where she is caught by birds who land her safely on Turtle's back; the Earth grows around her. The turtle here is altruistic, but the world is a heavy burden, and the turtle sometimes shakes itself to relieve the load, causing earthquakes. A "cosmic turtle" and the island motif reappear in Gary Snyder's 1974 novel Turtle Island, and again in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series as A'Tuin the Great, starting with the 1983 novel The Colour of Magic; it is supposedly of the species Chelys galactica, the galactic turtle, complete with four elephants on its back to support Discworld.
A turtle was the symbol of the Ancient Mesopotamian god Enki, from the 3rd millennium BC onwards. An ancient Greek origin myth told that only the tortoise refused the invitation of the gods Zeus and Hera to their wedding, as it preferred to stay at home; Zeus ordered it to carry its house with it, ever after. Another of their gods, Hermes, invented a seven-stringed lyre named the with the shell of a tortoise. Other cultures too used turtle shells to make music: Native American shamans made them into ceremonial rattles, while Aztecs, Mayas and Mixtecs made ayotl drums. In China, the turtle was one of the four sacred animals in Confucianism, while in the Han period, steles were mounted on top of stone turtles, later linked with Bixi, the turtle-shelled son of the Dragon King. Marine turtles feature significantly in Australian Aboriginal art. The army of Ancient Rome used the testudo ("tortoise") formation were soldiers would form a shield wall for protection.
In Aesop's Fables, "The Tortoise and the Hare" tells how an unequal race may be won by the slower partner. Lewis Carroll's 1865 Alice's Adventures in Wonderland features a Mock Turtle, named for a soup meant to imitate the expensive soup made from real turtle meat. In 1896, the French playwright Léon Gandillot wrote a comedy in three acts named La Tortue; it was "a Parisian sensation" in its run in France, and came to the Manhattan Theatre, Broadway, New York in 1898 as The Turtle. More recently, turtles have featured in comic books and animations such as of the 1984 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Some turtles, particularly small terrestrial and freshwater species, are kept as pets. The popularly of pet turtles increased in the 1950s, and the US become the largest supplier, particularly of farm-bred red-eared sliders, in the international pet trade. The demand for exotic pets has led to an increase in illegal wildlife trafficking. It is estimated that 21% of the value of live animal trade is in reptiles, with turtles being the most popular members of the group. Poor husbandry of tortoises can cause chronic rhinitis, overgrown beaks, hyperparathyroidism, constipation, various reproductive problems and injuries from dogs. In the early 20th century, people in the United States have organized and gambled on turtle races.
As food and other uses
The flesh of captured wild turtles continues to be eaten in Asian cultures, while turtle soup was once a popular dish in English cuisine. Gopher tortoise stew has been popular with some groups in Florida. The supposed aphrodisiac or medicinal properties of turtle eggs created a large trade for them in Southeast Asia. Hard-shell turtle plastrons and soft-shell carapaces are widely used in traditional Chinese medicine; Taiwan imported nearly 200 metric tons of hard-shells from its neighbors yearly from 1999 to 2008. A popular medicinal preparation based on herbs and turtle shell is guilinggao jelly. The substance tortoiseshell, usually from the hawksbill turtle, has been used for centuries to make jewellery, tools and ornaments around the Western Pacific; hawksbills have accordingly been hunted for their shells. Trade of tortoiseshell was internationally banned in 1977 by CITES.
A tortoiseshell comb; the material was expensive and decorative, and widely used for small items.
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