May 23
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World Turtle Day 2013

The 23rd of May is World Turtle Day – a whole 24 hours dedicated to highlighting the plight of the hundreds of turtle and tortoise species around the world. These incredible reptiles range from the feisty to the downright funky, so here at ARKive we thought we would join in the celebrations by sharing our top turtle facts and some turtley awesome images!

Common snapping turtle image

The common snapping turtle is a rather feisty species, known for being somewhat short-tempered and aggressive

Top Turtle Tidbits

  • Turtles are found on every continent, except for Antarctica
  • Turtles are thought to have lived on Earth for over 200 million years
  • There are more than 330 recognised species of tortoise and turtle, just 7 of which are sea turtles
  • The sex of most turtle hatchlings is dependent on the temperature at which they are incubated – in many species, low incubation temperatures produce males, whereas higher temperatures lead to the production of females
Flatback turtle image

A mysterious species, the flatback turtle is listed as Data Deficient on the IUCN Red List

Turtle Profile: Flatback turtle

  • The distinctive-looking flatback turtle is distinguished by and named for its extremely flat, round or oval upper shell, which characteristically turns upwards at the rim
  • The flatback turtle is the only endemic species of marine turtle, nesting solely along the northern coast of Australia and on off-shore islands
  • This species has one of the smallest ranges of all the marine turtles, being limited to the tropical waters of northern Australia, Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya
  • This enigmatic species is known to produce the largest eggs and hatchlings relative to its adult body size of all the sea turtle species

Fascinating flatback fact – Over much of its nesting range, the flatback turtle is predated upon by the largest reptile of them all – the saltwater crocodile!

Chaco side-necked turtle image

Any guesses as to how the Chaco side-necked turtle got its name?!

Did you know?

  • Although all turtles and tortoises have a shell, not all of them are able to withdraw their head and limbs into it
  • The shell of a turtle or tortoise is actually made up of many different bones, and is an evolutionary modification of the rib cage and a section of the vertebral column
  • The upper part of the shell is known as the ‘carapace’, while the under part is called the ‘plastron’
Burmese starred tortoise image

The Critically Endangered Burmese starred tortoise has a striking shell pattern

Testudines under threat

Turtles and tortoises belong to the taxonomic order ‘Testudines’, and are among the world’s most endangered vertebrates, with about half of these incredible reptilian species being at risk of extinction. They face a whole host of threats, from pollution and habitat destruction to collection for the pet trade, food or for use in traditional medicines.

One of the most threatened species of all is Swinhoe’s soft shell turtle, also known as the Yangtze giant softshell turtle, which can weigh over 120kg. The historic range of this enormous species has diminished considerably as a result of wetland destruction, water pollution and over-collection of the species for consumption, and the global population of this fascinating reptile now numbers just four individuals, two of which are in captivity.

Swinhoe's soft shell turtle image

Unfortunately, only two individuals of Swinhoe’s soft shell turtle remain in the wild, both of which are male

What is being done to help?

Thankfully, various conservation organisations and individuals are working tirelessly to help save turtles and tortoises from the brink of extinction. Here are some actions being taken to ensure the future survival of these fascinating creatures:

  • Shrimp fisheries are now using Turtle Excluder Devices, which only allow shrimp-sized objects to enter the nets, preventing turtles from being caught as bycatch
  • Many species are now listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that international trade is strictly monitored and controlled – this should hopefully prevent some collection of wild turtles for the international pet trade
  • Some nesting sites are protected during the nesting season to ensure that eggs cannot be collected and subsequently sold
  • Captive breeding programmes and the protection of areas which are known to support turtle populations could ensure the long-term survival of these magnificent reptiles

Are you turtley in awe of sea turtles? Want to learn more about them? Then why not check out our eggshellent new ARKive Education resource – Turtle Life Cycle – and play the turtle-tastic board game!

Find out more about turtles, tortoises and their conservation:

Learn more about reptile conservation:

View photos and videos of turtle and tortoise species on ARKive


Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

Apr 20
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Endangered Species of the Week: Western swamp turtle

Photo of juvenile western swamp turtle in habitat

Western swamp turtle (Pseudemydura umbrina)

Species: Western swamp turtle (Pseudemydura umbrina)

Status: Critically Endangered (CR)

Interesting Fact: The western swamp turtle is the only turtle species that digs its nest with its front legs rather than its back ones.

The western swamp turtle is the most endangered reptile in Australia, where it is found only in a tiny area on the edge of Perth. It inhabits shallow, temporary swamps that only fill during the autumn rains. The western swamp turtle is inactive during the dry summer months, remaining dormant in a hole in the soil or under leaf litter or fallen branches. This species eats only live prey, such as insect larvae, worms and tadpoles, and is unusual in that it produces just one small clutch of three to five eggs each year. The western swamp turtle is long lived, potentially reaching ages of 60 to 70 years.

Although it has always had a restricted distribution, the western swamp turtle has undergone a serious decline in recent decades due to the drainage of its swamps and predation by the introduced red fox (Vulpes vulpes). The slow reproductive rate of this species hampers its recovery, and only one viable wild population remains, with two others now maintained by reintroductions. Fortunately, the sites where this turtle still survives are protected as nature reserves, and fox-proof fences have been erected to protect the turtles. A captive breeding programme for the western swamp turtle is also underway at Perth Zoo.

Find out more about the conservation of freshwater turtles at Conservation International – Freshwater turtles, the IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group and Turtle Survival Alliance.

See images of the western swamp turtle on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

Feb 28
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In the News: Leatherback turtles suffer huge decline in Pacific

The leatherback turtle is disappearing from its most important nesting sites in the western Pacific, according to a new study.

Photo of female leatherback turtle at nesting site on beach

Female leatherback turtle on nesting beach

The study found that the number of leatherback turtle nests in the Bird’s Head Peninsula of New Guinea has dropped by a staggering 78% in the last 30 years. These beaches account for three-quarters of the western Pacific’s nesting leatherback turtles, meaning this decline could have serious consequences for the future of the species in the Pacific Ocean.

Sea turtles have been around about 100 million years and survived the extinction of the dinosaurs but are struggling to survive the impact of humans,” said Thane Wibbels, one of the researchers.

Photo of fishermen with dead, captured leatherback turtle

Fishermen holding a dead, captured leatherback turtle

Leatherback threats

The leatherback turtle is the largest of the world’s turtles, and is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Like all sea turtles, this species faces a range of threats, including entanglement in fishing gear, boat strikes, harvesting of its eggs by humans, and predation of its eggs by feral dogs and pigs. In addition, the leatherback turtle also accidentally consumes plastic bags, mistaking them for its jellyfish prey.

Climate change is also a serious threat to the leatherback turtle. Rising sea levels and increasingly frequent and violent storms may erode nesting beaches and destroy nests, while changing ocean currents are likely to affect the turtle’s prey.

Photo of feral dogs digging up leatherback turtle eggs

Feral dogs are a threat to leatherback turtles, digging up and eating their eggs

The gender of leatherback turtle hatchlings is determined by the temperature at which the eggs are incubated, so warmer sand is likely to produce more females, skewing the species’ sex ratio. In addition, warmer temperatures have been known to cause abnormalities in hatchlings, and to affect the health and development of the young turtles.

In comparison to the Atlantic Ocean, where several nesting populations of leatherback turtles have increased in recent years, the status of the species in other oceans is of greater concern.

The leatherback is one of the most intriguing animals in nature, and we are watching it head towards extinction in front of our eyes,” said Wibbels.

Leatherback conservation

Conservationists have begun programmes to move leatherback turtle nests to more sheltered and shaded areas, where the eggs will be cooler, in the hope of increasing the success rate of hatchlings.

Photo of leatherback turtle hatchling

Leatherback turtle hatchlings face many perils, and very few survive to adulthood

The leatherback turtle is legally protected throughout most of its range, and a variety of other conservation measures are underway to help save this impressive marine reptile. For example, the attachment of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) to fishing nets to reduce bycatch of turtles has been recommended.

However, much still needs to be done to save this marine giant. According to the researchers, a range of conservation measures need to be implemented at nesting beaches and in national and international waters if the decline of the Pacific’s last remaining leatherback stronghold is to be reversed.


Read more on this story at Mongabay – Leatherback sea turtles suffer 78 percent decline at critical nesting sites in Pacific.

Read about our recent Twitter turtle takeover.

View photos and videos of turtles on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive text author

Feb 21
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Turtles take over Twitter – Live Q & A with Professor Brendan Godley

Turtles took over @ARKive’s Twitter account yesterday when turtle expert Professor Brendan Godley answered your burning questions about sea turtles. We loved Brendan’s guest blogs about his turtle research and leatherback turtles, so we were delighted when he offered to take time out of his busy research schedule on Ascension Island to tweet about turtles (in temperatures of 35 °C).

And Brendan wasn’t just feeling the heat on Ascension, but also on our Twitter stream. You tweeted some tricky questions to test his expertise, but we think you’ll agree that he came up turtle trumps! Here are just some of the #turtletweet highlights:

Photo of female flatback turtle digging nest

Female flatback turtle digging nest

Turtles on Ascension

@JellicleKat You’re out on Ascension Island at the moment…how long is the nesting season, and how many females nest there? #turtletweet

In the 1930s it was down to a few hundred but now about 5000 per year. 6 month season. #turtletweet

@inthefieldnews  Sea turtles return to the same beach where they hatched as juveniles to breed…but where do they go in between?

They go to one or more foraging areas that can be many thousands of miles. eg here on Ascension its Brazil #turtletweet

Top Turtle Facts

@eldenney: what’s your most interesting turtle fact? Thanks! #turtletweet

The fact that green turtles can rest at the bottom of the Mediterrannean sea for as long as 10.5 hours #turtletweet

@eldenney Cool! I can’t stay underwater for much more than 30 secs! Green turtles are impressive #turtletweet

Photo of green turtle with turtle barnacles

Green turtle with turtle barnacles on its shell

@clairecjl: Hi Brendan, I was wondering how long it takes leatherbacks to reach full size? #turtletweet

This is still debated, with work to be done but anywhere between 10 and 20 years seem the best estimates to date. #turtletweet

What’s the difference between a turtle and a terrapin?

@lillashaw Hi Brendan, we were debating this in the office the other day… What’s the difference between a turtle and terrapin? #turtletweet

Its semantics N america everything can be a turtle, in UK turtle is sea, terrapin is freshwater, tortoise on land. #turtletweet

Turtles and fishing

@Jess_Cripps Do you think more could be done by fisheries to reduce the bycatch of turtles in their equipment? #turtletweet

I do. Much has been done already TEDS (trawlers), Circle hooks (longlines) and these can be improved #turtletweet

One of the great ongoing challenges is that of how to minimise bycatch in gillnets #turtletweet

Photo of a green turtle trapped in fishing net

Green turtle trapped in fishing net

Which species of turtles are thriving? Which are endangered?

RT @DanielsImage: @ARKive@BrendanGodley How many species of sea turtles are there? Are any thriving? #turtletweet

.@DanielsImage @BrendanGodley Big winners r Atlantic green turtles, ones struggling incl Pacific leatherbacks and hawksbills. #turtletweet

Photof of front on view of a hawksbill turtle

Hawksbill turtle

Why are turtles endangered?

@harrypurplmonky What has happened to make turtles endangered? #turtletweet

Exploited for meat and eggs for a long time &have started to recover where they r protected on beach and sea#turtletweet

Photo of green turtle shells, butchered alive for blood and meat

The shells of green turtles, butchered alive for blood and meat

.@inthefieldnews… what would you say is the biggest threat facing sea turtles worldwide?

as with all marine biodiversity; I would say it fishing followed by climate change #turtletweet

Climate Change

@Jess_Cripps: Do you think turtles will start to breed earlier in response to climate change? #turtletweet

Not yet but it will soon! In Cyprus they are already 90% female…will get worse with inc temps #turtletweet

@eldenney: poor boys! #turtletweet

Photo of Kemp's ridley turtle hatchlings

Kemp’s ridley turtle hatchlings

Plastic Pollution

@Wildlife_Jason: What would you say is the worst problem for #turtles caused by #plasticpollution in our oceans?

“Turtles, partic babies & all leatherbacks eat it..less of a problem than fisheries though” via @BrendanGodley #turtletweet

Photo of green turtle suffocating on plastic bag

Green turtle suffocating on plastic bag

Turtles on film

@WildscreenFest: What part does wildlife filmmaking has to play in #turtle conservation? #turtletweet

@Wildlife_Film: What did you think of the footage of baby green turtles in @BBCNature #Africa?… #turtletweet

As seen on recent #Africa, there is clearly a role. MT are emblomatic #turtletweet

@Podgeosaurus: When filming do you think crews should aid baby turtles, or stay hands off? #turtletweet

Difficult one; up to individs. they shouldnt do is make things worse by releasing in daylight or hold hatchlings back#turtletweet

@lauriebelch why do some populations of turtles hatch in the day when it seems that predation risk is much higher#turtletweet

.@ARKive @lauriebelch very few do, but for obvious reasons we see more of it on film. More starlight cameras needed. #turtletweet

How can we help turtles?

@eldenney: so is there anything we can do to help turtles? #turtletweet

think about seafood choices, climate change and your role, get involved or help those who are.#turtletweet

@DanielsImage: Our support $ only go so far. Are there any organizations to support turtles you favor? #turtletweet

If I was to plump for one I would choose @seaturtle .org which is a one man show, no overheads and has transformed the field

@dodger_wake Some may not like it can we not ‘farm’ the endangered turtles to allow survival rates for eggs to raise then release

It’s done in the Cayman Islands for over 40 years, adults are now returning that were released #turtletweet

Cute or shocking photos?

@wild_photos: Our question for @ARKive’s#turtletweet! What do you think is more powerful in conservation: cute turtle images or ones showing turtle loss?

.@colaciregui @wild_photos @KACHUGABUT pictures of baby turtles always draws a gasp from the crowd! :)

Photo of young hawksbill turtle caught in a fishing net

Young hawksbill turtle caught in a fishing net

Turtle thanks!

@harrypurplmonky Wow what a #turtletweet! TY @ARKive & @brendangodley Harry’s learned so much about turtles & conservation!…

@Wildlife_Jason @BrendanGodley @ARKive Thanks for an informative #turtletweet time! :)


We’d like to join our followers in thanking Professor Brendan Godley for his turtle-takeover – informative, thought-provoking, and turtle-tastic!

Get regular updates from Brendan by following him on Twitter @brendangodley, and check out his recommended top tweeters: @UoExeterCEC, @EcoSoc_Tremough, @LifeNatureMag and @BioBlitzTremou.

Would you like to see more twitter takeovers? What topics would you be interested in? Follow @ARKive and let us know!

Nov 7
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Guest Blog: Sea turtles with Professor Brendan Godley

Brendan Godley image

Professor Brendan Godley

Like many of you out there, the ARKive team find marine turtles utterly fascinating – they have such interesting life cycles, and are so prehistoric-looking yet are totally adorable. Who doesn’t squeal with delight when Crush from Finding Nemo pops up on the TV screen?! We decided to catch up with one of the world’s leading sea turtle experts, Professor Brendan Godley, to have a chat about these wonderful reptiles, and find out more about the conservation work Brendan is involved with.

Hi Brendan, welcome to the ARKive blog! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where and what did you study?

I am Professor of Conservation Science at the University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation in the picturesque Cornish town of Penryn, near Falmouth. Originally from Scotland, I began studying turtles in 1989, as a 19-year-old zoology student, when I took part in a Glasgow University student expedition to Trinidad. I completed a vet degree and then went on to do a PhD on the ecology of sea turtles, including causes of mortality.

Why sea turtles? What is it about them in particular that made you want to study them?

At the tender age of 19, I was intoxicated by the mixture of excitement of seeing turtles crawling out of the dark Caribbean Sea, the joy of being in such a colourful and vibrant place, and the satisfaction of overcoming the trials and tribulations of fieldwork. The fact that sea turtles were of conservation concern and that so much was yet to be known about their biology meant that I found a raison d’être, and my path was set.

Sea turtles are incredible animals; those that nest on Ascension Island live in Brazil, which means they have to swim across the whole Atlantic to breed. Incredibly, some of the females we have observed there have lost all but a stump of one of their front flippers and have still managed to make it. I think this is the kind of robustness that has allowed sea turtles to be among the great survivors.

Where else in the world does your research take you? Do you have a favourite location to work in?

I used to spend ten months of the year in the field, but now I am more UK-based because I need to be at the university during the academic year in order to teach conservation students from around the world. My research group, however, supports long-term monitoring and conservation efforts for green turtles in Northern Cyprus, on Ascension Island, and on the Cayman Islands – all places I often visit for bouts of fieldwork. I really cannot pick a favourite location as they are all so different. I feel lucky to be exposed to the variety of people, habitats, conservation problems and research questions associated with each of these field sites.

Green turtle image

Green turtle swimming over reef

You mentioned green turtles – what are the main threats to this species at present? What are the conservation difficulties for this particular species?

Sea turtles face a range of threats. Principal among these are direct and indirect capture in fisheries, habitat loss and degradation, pollution and climate change. At the moment, the main threat facing green turtles is that they are still quite heavily exploited for food in many places, and some of these harvests may not be sustainable. Many people have heard of turtle soup. This was mainly made from green turtles, millions of which were exploited for centuries, leading to a drastic reduction in their numbers. The good news is that their populations have started to rise very fast in many places where people are not so dependent on the direct exploitation of wild living resources, and where harvests, especially of adult turtles, have been stopped.

What is your green turtle research focus at the moment?

In recent years, we have been trying to take our work away from the nesting beaches, so we have been using techniques such as satellite tracking, genetics and in-water studies to gain an understanding of turtle migratory routes and key foraging areas. We recently collaborated with a crowd of international researchers to analyse green turtle satellite tracking data from around the world. Interestingly, we found that a notable proportion of turtles were utilising the small proportion of sea that is covered by Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). This does not seem to have happened by chance, and may reflect the fact that these areas are better protected, or that sea grasses, which green turtles eat, are featured within Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Either way, it is an intriguing conservation finding. You can read the paper here.

Green turtle image

Green turtle nesting on Ascension Island

That all sounds really interesting! Can you tell us a funny anecdote stemming from your work with green turtles?!

Turtle work can be very tiring, especially in the peak of the season when you’re up working on the beaches all night and the heat makes it difficult to sleep in the day. Equally, green turtles undertake a great deal of work to cover their nests, often moving tonnes of sand and digging a trench up to ten metres long. There was one occasion where one of our students in Cyprus was observing a turtle laying her clutch and must have nodded off. When I returned to team up with the student I couldn’t find him. Amazingly – although luckily not life-threateningly – he had managed to sleep through the process of being almost completely buried by the female as she covered her eggs.

Oh goodness! A lucky escape! Lastly, what is your favourite green turtle photo on ARKive?

There are many beautiful and impactful pictures, but two stood out for me. Firstly, the turtle trapped in the net, as it highlights the threat of the impacts of fisheries.

Green turtle image

Green turtle trapped in fishing net

Additionally, the female nesting in plastic resonates quite profoundly. No matter where I go in the world, even the remotest nesting beaches far from human habitation, plastic is there on the beaches. This is clearly a problem that is going to worsen in coming years.

Green turtle image

Debris on green turtle nesting beach

Those certainly are powerful images. Thanks, Brendan, we’ll catch up with you again soon!

Find out more about green turtles on ARKive.

Learn more about the impacts of plastics on ARKive.


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