Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins

Alligator Snapping Turtle
Alligator Snapping Turtle at Dauset Trails
    Turtles thrive throughout the world. There are hundreds of species of various sizes from the small box turtle to the giant leatherback sea turtle. With so many species, how do you tell if a "turtle" is a turtle, tortoise, or a terrapin?

Turtles, tortoises and terrapins are classified (Kingdom/Phylum/Class/Order/Family/Genus/Species) in the order Testudines. Although they belong in the same order, their physical differences and habitat preferences separate them into different families.

Turtles
Turtles are well adapted to aquatic life. Freshwater turtles have webbing between their toes that help them paddle through the water. Turtles living in the oceans have feet modified into flippers (see "Leatherback" below) for greater mobility in the water.

 


Leatherback Sea Turtle
Leatherback returning to sea after laying eggs on a beach
The Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) is the largest turtle in the world weighing 2000 pounds and stretching 7 feet long. Instead of a shell, this sea turtle has a leathery skin supported by tiny bones. This flexible body allows it to dive deeper than 4000 feet where the intense pressure would crush the shell of other turtles.

Softshell Turtle
Softshell Turtle at Dauset Trails
The freshwater Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera) also has a flexible, leathery skin instead of a hard shell. Their long neck and long nose allow them to breathe air while remaining below the surface.

Tortoises
Tortoises have a tall, dome-shaped shell useful for regulating body temperature. Their stocky feet have thick wide claws ideal for walking on land and digging. Georgia's native tortoise is the Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus). They live south of the Fall Line which has more suitable habitat.

Gopher Tortoise
Gopher Tortoise at Dauset Trails


Terrapin
Diamondback terrapin
Terrapins
Terrapins are turtles that live near brackish water in coastal areas. Terrapin is derived from the Algonquian Indian word "torope" meaning "a little turtle". The Diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) is found along the entire Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastlines. Long ago, this turtle was a served in restaurants as a soup delicacy.

Whether found crawling on land, swimming in ponds, or swimming in the ocean, turtles appear in a variety of shapes and sizes and have survived mostly unchanged since the time of dinosaurs.

Sources:

http://library.thinkquest.org/07aug/01755/thinkquest/leatherback_sea_turtle.html
http://www.princeton.edu/~paw/web_exclusives/features/features_38.html
http://www.sandiegozoo.org/animalbytes/t-turtle.html
http://www.ceoe.udel.edu/kiosk/diamondbackterrapin.html


Upcoming Events at Dauset Trails:

Saturday April 23 - 11th Annual Bluebirds and Bluegrass Festival
Saturday May 7 - Movie Under the Stars - Showtime at 8:30 pm



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