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8 Fascinating Facts About Turtles

Springtime brings turtles out in full force, crossing roads to find mates or a quick meal, so recognizing World Turtle Day on May 23 makes sense. Also known as Testudines, turtles and tortoises are ecologically important — in the ocean they eat seagrasses that thrive on coral reefs and clean up dead fish; on land they dine on invasive plants and provide burrow homes for other animals, such as owls and bobcats. Celebrate these slow-moving dinosaur descendants by learning more about them below.

The Largest Turtles Weigh More Than Some Cows

A Leatherback Sea Turtle in the sand by the ocean.
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Turtles come in all sizes — with more than 356 species, there’s bound to be variation. But leatherback sea turtles, a roaming breed, are the kings of the Testudines order. Feeding mostly on jellyfish, these turtles reach lengths above 6.5 feet and a staggering 2,000 pounds. (For reference, the average Holstein cow — the black-and-white ones on the Ben & Jerry’s containers — are less than 5 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh about 1,500 pounds.)

Their massive size doesn’t keep them in one place, though; leatherbacks are incredibly migratory, traveling more than 10,000 miles each year and clocking in swimming speeds of 22 miles per hour. Even though their bulk (and hard, leathery shells) makes them predators more often than prey, leatherback sea turtles are recognized as an endangered species due to threats from fishnets, ocean pollution, human consumption, and destruction of shorelines where they nest and lay their eggs.

Turtles Don’t Have Teeth

Close up of a Hawks-bill Sea Turtle with its mouth open.
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Just like birds, turtles have beaks, which they use to tear into food or defend themselves against predators. And even though they don’t have any teeth, turtles grind down their dinners easily thanks to mouth ridges that vary based on diet. Carnivorous turtles have more pronounced beaks and ridges, while turtles on a plant-based diet have flatter faces that excel at mashing fruits and greens.

In fact, turtles are the only toothless reptiles. While some young turtles have a single “egg-tooth” that helps them break through shells while hatching, it’s really a hardened scale that falls off soon after.

Most Turtles Live (Happily) Alone

Group of paper airplane in one direction and with one individual pointing in the different way.
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While turtles can be found living near one another in plentiful habitats, they’re not known for thriving in communities. Most turtle species are happy living independent lives as solitary creatures, only interacting with other turtles to mate, travel to nesting grounds, or fight for resources. African helmeted turtles may be the exception, though — these carnivorous reptiles work together in groups to take down larger prey, like birds, at the edges of lakes and ponds.

The Oldest Living Turtle Was Born Before Electricity Was Invented

Vintage light bulbs hanging from ceiling.
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Turtles hardly seem to be in a rush, and maybe that’s because days pass slowly over the course of their long lifespans. While age varies by species, turtles can live for decades. Sea turtles sometimes reach 100 years, while the North American Blanding’s turtle can live to age 70. Countless turtles have been documented for their old age in captivity, and one in particular holds the record for oldest living land animal. Named Jonathan, the 189-year-old (his precise species is up for debate) was born around 1832 and has lived on the island of St. Helena since 1882. While able to roam freely on the estate of the island’s governor with a few tortoise friends, 1,100-pound Jonathan is blind and has lost his sense of smell, although he can still hear and enjoys munching his fruit and vegetables.

Turtle Shells Are Similar To Human Hair

Close up view of a turtle shell.
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A turtle’s most distinctive feature is its shell, which protects the slow-moving reptiles from predators and weather. Turtles are born and die with the same shell; contrary to what cartoons might have us believe, they can’t physically leave their shell in pursuit of a larger one. Shells are made from keratin, the same protein found in human hair and nails, and are connected to the turtle’s spine by about 60 bones. Because turtles can’t separate from a broken shell, punctures or injuries can be a problem, although some species, like the Eastern box turtle, can regrow entire shells if injured.

Turtles Are Often Confused With Tortoises

A Galapagos tortoise walking on dirt.
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Tortoise or turtle — or terrapin? In everyday North American usage, “turtle” is often used as an umbrella term that encompasses all three. But shelled reptiles are also grouped more specifically into these three groups based on their water needs. Turtles spend most of their time in water, with most species usually leaving the ocean only to lay eggs along shorelines. Tortoises are land-based creatures that occasionally get in the water. Terrapins do a little of both, finding their ideal habitat along waterways or swamps, but still laying eggs on land. Over time, tortoises, turtles, and terrapins adapted to their habitats based on this relationship with water; turtles have legs more developed for swimming, tortoises have larger shells protecting them from predators, and terrapins have features that help them do both.

Turtles Are Neglectful Parents

White and yellow turtle eggs buried in the sand.
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Turtles are unlikely to win any “Parent of the Year” awards. They don’t raise their young — they don’t even stick around to see them hatch. Female turtles can lay hundreds to thousands of eggs in their lifetimes; Eastern box turtles have clutches of four or five eggs at a time, while sea turtles lay around 100 eggs at once. After the eggs are hidden in sand or dirt, the mama turtle moves on, leaving the eggs unguarded and the juvenile turtles to fend for themselves.

You can help unaccompanied hatchlings by looking for turtles when mowing your yard, reducing pesticide use on weeds they might eat, and planting bushes or grasses that tiny turtles can seek out for refuge.

Turtles Have Been to Space

Close up of the full moon.
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Turtles are found on every continent, and for a short time, two were even in space. In September 1968, the Soviet Union launched its Zond 5 spacecraft on a mission to orbit the moon. The shuttle wasn’t the first to make the journey during the space race of the ‘60s, but it did have a notable achievement: It was the first spacecraft to circle the moon with living beings on board. Along with mealworms, plants, and bacteria, two Russian steppe tortoises survived the journey, returning to Earth unharmed (though they did weigh slightly less).