A turtle is a reptile that has most of its body shielded by a special shell that develops from their ribs and backbones. The earliest known turtles date from 215 million years ago, making turtles one of the oldest reptile groups in the world. There are about 300 species on Earth today, and more than half of these thrive in freshwater. In Florida, there are about 16 commonly spotted freshwater turtles. Different species are mostly distinguished by the color and markings on their shells.
A turtle’s shell offers protection from potential predators, threatened freshwater turtles can rapidly retract their legs and head in the safety of the hard shell (sea turtles cannot do this). The top part of the shell is called a carapace, and the lower portion is called the plastron. The plastron usually has a different color and/or different markings from the carapace. The shape of the plastron reveals the sex of the turtle; a male's plastron is concave and the female's plastron is flat.
Freshwater turtles do not have any visible external ears, but they have all the "inner ear" parts, and the auditory nerve and brain center required for hearing. They don’t hear airborne sounds as well as other animals, but use vibrations to sense and interpret what is happening in their surrounding environment. They also have an excellent sense of vision and smell.
Like other reptiles, turtles are ectotherms, which means their body temperature varies with the ambient environment temperature. Scientists have recently discovered that turtle’s organs do not gradually break down or become less efficient over time, unlike most other animals. They found that the liver, lungs, and kidneys of a one hundred year old turtle was virtually indistinguishable from those of juveniles!
Florida's freshwater turtle population is very diverse, and the 16 or so different species prefer different aquatic environments such as springs, lakes, ponds, wetlands, swamps and canals. Within their preferred habitats, Florida's freshwater turtles spend a portion of their day basking, which helps them regulate their temperature. Sometimes they even bask on top of one another! They regularly bask along banks, on floating logs, and on rocks. At other times, these air breathers can be found floating just below the water surface with only their nostrils protruding above.
Most turtles prefer to live in a habitat that has lots of aquatic plants. Some turtles are omnivores and eat plants and animals, others are vegetarians and eat only aquatic plants. Turtles have no teeth! They use their sharp beaks to catch, cut, and slice through prey, and sever vegetation to eat. Vegetation often has other purposes: turtles sleep amongst it and use it to hide from predators.
Although a lot of their life is spent in water, turtles must return to dry land to lay their eggs. Females dig burrows with their sharp claws, to keep the eggs safe until they hatch. After the eggs are laid, female turtles do not have any other mothering habits, and abandon their nests. Sometimes predators find the nests, and eat the eggs, but if the turtles do survive, they break out of their eggs and claw their way through the dirt to the surface. At this point they only have their instincts to protect them from predators. They make their way to the water, where a host of threats and possibilities, await them.
Some freshwater turtles, can live many years, more than one hundred! However they are under new threats: Florida's aquatic turtles depend on healthy habitats to supply clean freshwater and good food sources. However, human over-development, water pollution, and introduction of invasive species are threatening the future survival of Florida's native turtle species. Highway traffic and hunting are also making a mark on remaining turtle populations.
Freshwater turtles have managed to survive for more than 200 million years on earth. However over the last century, many populations and even species of turtles worldwide have been wiped out, endangered and threatened, due to humans and their ever increasing effect on natural environments. Extra conservation and protection of Florida's freshwater systems is now needed more than ever, to ensure that Florida's freshwater turtles will survive many more years.
Here are some of the turtles featured on our forums:
Common snapping turtle
Florida red belly turtle
Florida softshell turtle
Red eared slider turtle
Suwanee cooter turtle
Yellow bellied slider turtle