From a tiny baby bog turtle to a massive leatherback, turtles come in many shapes and sizes. Whether gliding through the open ocean or slowly trudging across desert plains, these fascinating animals can be found in almost every ecosystem around the world.
The U.S. is home to a rich variety of freshwater and sea turtles with 57 species -- that’s approximately 18 percent of the world’s turtles. Started in 2000, World Turtle Day gives us the opportunity to bring attention to and protect these remarkable reptiles, along with their habitat around the world. Turtles play a vital role in the ecosystem, helping spread seeds on land and supporting other marine life by sea.
To celebrate these marvelous homebodies, we’ve collected some fantastic facts and an excellent collection (or should we say, shellection) of turtle photos!
Named for its distinct hawk-like beak, the hawksbill sea turtle can be seen gliding through coral reefs, shallow coasts and lagoons in the Caribbean Sea (like at Virgin Islands National Park) and the western Atlantic Ocean (like at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina). The hawksbill has one of the most specialized diets, feeding almost exclusively on sea sponges. The sponges attract the hawksbill to coral reefs, where its special beak allows it to reach into the crevices of the coral to find its sought-after sponges. Its strikingly colorful shell is a sight to see, but be careful not to get too close! The hawksbill is critically endangered, and its nesting and feeding habitat need to be carefully preserved. Find out what you can do to help sea turtles. Photo by Caroline S. Rogers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
No one actually painted this turtle -- it gets its names from its red bottom-shell (called the plastron) and yellow striped head and feet. This common turtle is found across much of the continental U.S., and prefers shallow aquatic habitat -- generally settling in ponds, slow-moving rivers and marshes. Known for basking in the sun (like the one pictured here from Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico), this colorful turtle can be seen soaking up some rays on top of logs, rocks and mats of floating plants. All that time in the sun is is necessary to keep this cold-blooded critter warm, while helping to maintain its shell thickness and density. Photo by Lawrence Rafter (www.sharetheexperience.org).
America’s smallest turtle will leave you in awe at how cute it is. The bog turtle only grows to be about 4 inches long, slightly longer than a business card! Named for where it’s found, the bog turtle calls the diverse bog (a wetland that only gets water from precipitation) ecosystem home. The bog turtle requires the small, specialized and varied habitat of the shrub wetlands for activities like foraging, nesting, hibernating and sheltering. This tiny turtle, while adorable, is critically threatened by habitat degradation and wetland destruction. Pictured here is a baby bog turtle at the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. Photo by Rosie Walunas, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Closely resembling a pancake with legs, this special “softshell” turtle lacks the rotund shell that sets turtles apart. Turtle shells are generally made of fused bones, with a thick layer of hard keratin that protects them. The keratin layers are known as shields or scutes. Instead of scutes, a softshell turtle actually has a shell made of a hard layer of skin that lacks bone plates. This flattened shell ends up helping the turtle, as it’s one of the fastest swimming freshwater turtles around. This aquatic creature can also absorb oxygen through its skin, allowing it to remain submerged for up to 5 hours. This Jar-Jar Binks-esque turtle was found at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Photo by Andrew Freed, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Known for their exceptionally large heads, loggerhead sea turtles are the most abundant of all marine turtles in the U.S. They are found in areas like Georgia’s Cumberland Island National Seashore, and Florida's Biscayne National Park and Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. These carnivorous creatures love to eat jellyfish, conches, crabs and even the occasional fish. While turtles are relatively solitary creatures, hatching season fills beaches with an abundance of hatchlings. The hatchlings make the journey at night, breaking out of their shells using their caruncle -- a single temporary tooth grown just for this purpose. Loggerheads generally hatch between late June and mid-November, and typically nest near the Gulf Stream or Gulf of Mexico. Photo of a bale of just hatched loggerheads by Dawn Child, U.S. Geological Survey.
Nothing bland about this turtle! The Blanding’s turtle can be found in the northeast U.S., stretching from New England all the way to the upper Midwest at Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway. For a freshwater turtle, it has one of the longest lifespans, living to be about 70 years old -- an age comparable to sea turtles. This long life gives it a need for adventure, as the Blanding’s often traverses uninhabited or undisturbed areas. The Blanding’s feeds and breeds in temporary pools of water, so it makes larger land movements than most other turtles. Like some other turtle species, a Blanding's gender is determined by the temperature at which nests are incubated -- hotter temperatures lead to females and cooler temps for males. Given its penchant for travel, it’s likely that the Blanding’s turtle is the famous turtle that crossed the road to get to the other side. If you see a turtle in the road, make sure to stop and help it out! Photo by Tina Shaw, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The box turtle is one restless reptile, often found moving across fields or even roads throughout much of the central and eastern U.S. If you do see a turtle crossing the road, check out U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s tips to make sure these reptiles make it to the other side of the road. The box turtle has one of the best protection systems around -- a hinged bottom shell that allows it to ‘box’ itself in for protection against predators. This hinged bottom shell folds up, completely closing the shell. The box turtle’s shell is also the easiest way to tell the turtle’s age -- just count the rings on the scutes of the shell. If you’d like to see the box turtle, travel to a wildlife refuge like Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge in Wisconsin or Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. Photo of an ornate box turtle courtesy of Chicago Zoological Society/Lincoln Park Zoo.
With a range stretching from the Rocky Mountains to the eastern seaboard, the common snapping turtle is an American classic. The second largest freshwater turtle in the U.S., the snapper can weigh up to 75 pounds and can grow to 14 inches in length. This creature is nocturnal, and spends most of its day sitting camouflaged at the river bottom waiting for food. If you do see a snapping turtle on land, watch out! Snapping turtles can’t contract their bodies into their shells for protection like other turtles, which leads to them being relatively aggressive on land. If you can hear its hiss, you’re probably too close. Photo taken at the Mingo National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The leatherback sea turtle is the largest turtle -- and one of the largest reptiles -- in the world. This behemoth can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, stretch over 6.5 feet long and has a flipper span of 8 feet. It’s also the only sea turtle that doesn’t have a hard, bony shell. The leatherback’s top shell is actually made of leather-like skin with ridges that overlay bones. Because the leatherback can handle colder water than most turtles, it has the widest global distribution of all reptile species. The pacific leatherback will often take a 7,000-mile trans-Pacific journey to move from its nesting grounds to its foraging grounds on the U.S. West Coast. You can also see the leatherback in the Atlantic at places like the one pictured here at Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge in St. Croix. Photo by Shannon Borowy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Ridley me this! What’s one of the smallest sea turtles in the world, only growing to be about 2 feet in length? That’s right -- it’s the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. This terrifically tiny turtle calls the Gulf of Mexico home. The Kemp's ridley displays one of the most unique synchronized nesting habits in the natural world, where wave upon wave of females come ashore and nest in what is known as an "arribada," which means "arrival" in Spanish. Females come back to the same nesting site year after year, whereas male Kemp’s ridleys spend their entire life in the water. Kemp’s ridleys are a famed visitor of Padre Island National Seashore in Texas. Check out the park’s tips on experiencing your own hatching release. Photo of a hatching release by National Park Service.
While turtles are notoriously slow, they can swim much faster than they can walk. The average green sea turtle clocks in at around 20 miles per hour at its fastest swim. These turtles would definitely beat the hare in a water race, no questions asked! These beautiful and gentle creatures are best seen in the coastal waters -- including places like Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Virgin Islands National Park and Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida. Green sea turtles are highly loyal to their natal beach and will swim 500-800 miles to reach their nesting site, a trip that takes up to 30 days. These gentle giants are the largest of all the hard-shelled sea turtles. While their size certainly sets them apart, green sea turtles are known for their green-colored fat, which is thought to come from their herbivorous diet (and give them their name). Photo by Daniel W. Clark, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
While all tortoises are turtles, not all turtles are tortoises. The land-bound tortoise is easily distinguishable from its turtle cousins by its high dome-shaped shell and elephant-like legs. Clocking in at only 0.2 mph, the mojave desert tortoise is pretty slow-going. A desert tortoise can live over 100 years, aided by its diet of leafy greens and restful attitude. The desert tortoise is one of the most elusive inhabitants of the desert, spending 95 percent of its life underground. With its strong forearms, the tortoise digs burrows to escape the desert temperatures. If you’re lucky, you can see this unhurried creature is at Joshua Tree National Park in California. Photo of a baby tortoise hatching by Kristina Drake, U.S. Geological Survey.
A close cousin of turtles, the terrapin is the link between the land-locked tortoise and mostly-aquatic turtle. The terrapin spends most of its time divided between land and water, and has a shell that is somewhere in between the turtle’s streamlined one and the tortoise’s high dome. The diamondback terrapin lives in brackish waters (waters with higher salinity than freshwater, though not as much as seawater) along the Atlantic coast -- extending from Cape Cod in Massachusetts all the way to Corpus Christi in Texas. While the diamondback prefers the salty waters, it requires periodic trips to freshwater for its health. Places like Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia are the perfect home for the diamondback. Photo by Christina Mohrmann, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The incredible variety of these robust reptiles that can be seen on public lands across the country will leave you in turtle awe. As always, keep your distance and leave their home exactly how you found it.
When considering turtles for pets, please keep in mind that they live long lives and need a lot of care. Purchasing a turtle less than four inches is actually against the law and the pet trade can be a leading cause for why turtle species are declining.