EducationYear of the Turtle

February 12, 2020

They’ve been roaming the earth and surfing the seas for at least 220 million years, and now it’s finally time to properly shell-ebrate them! Our friends at the Tennessee Aquarium, supported by variety of zoological institutions and conservation organizations, have named 2020 The Year of the Turtle.

Turtles are the oldest lineage of reptiles and even pre-date the dinosaurs in the fossil record! Today, there are about 360 known species of turtles, tortoises, sea turtles and terrapins. Collectively known to scientists as “chelonians,” these groups of shelled animals have many things in common but also a few distinct differences:

  • Turtles: The word “turtle” can refer to any member of the chelonian family, but most often means a freshwater species. Although there are always exceptions to the rules, freshwater turtles are usually darker in color with smooth, flattened shells and webbed feet to help them hide and glide through ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers. Here at the Virginia Zoo, we are home to many turtles, including the adorable Virginia-native bog turtles!
  • Tortoises: Tortoises are sometimes referred to as terrestrial, or land-based, turtles. Their defining characteristics usually include pale colored, domed shells (sometimes with ornate patterns) and stubby but strong “elephantine” feet. The Virginia Zoo’s hard-to-miss Aldabra giant tortoises are an example of a tortoise.
  • Sea turtles: These turtles are found in marine environments and are adapted to a life without much time on land at all. The only time sea turtles spend time on land is when females come to beaches to lay their eggs. Sea turtles have flippers rather than feet, and unlike other turtle species, cannot retract their head and legs into their shell. Five species of sea turtle have been observed in the waters off Virginia’s coast.
  • Terrapins: Technically, terrapins are not a distinct group of turtles and the word refers more to local or common names for specific species. Generally, terrapins live in brackish water, or water that is a mix of fresh and salt. Virginia is home to the diamondback terrapin, and the Virginia Zoo is home to one named Lori who can sometimes be seen during Education programs.

Unfortunately, turtles are considered to be some of the most endangered group of vertebrate animals in the world. Their main threats include habitat loss and unsustainable trafficking for the pet trade and consumption. Luckily, there are many ways you can help!

  • Help keep waterways clean: Whether it’s a turtle, tortoise or sea turtle, all chelonians need access to clean water! Make sure to dispose of or recycle waste appropriately, refuse single-use plastics when you can and pick up trash around your neighborhood.
  • Research your pets: Before bringing home any pet, be sure to research thoroughly to make sure it is coming from a reputable source (usually a responsible breeder and not wild-caught) and that you can provide for the animal its entire life. Turtles and tortoises can live over a hundred years and have complex needs.
  • Support conservation organizations: The Virginia Zoo is a proud supporter of the Turtle Survival Alliance,AZA SAFE and many Species Survival Plans which all support multiple species of turtles and tortoises. And while we’ll be tuned into turtles all year long, be sure to join us on Saturday, May 23 for World Turtle Day!

Blog written by Sarah Peterson, Virginia Zoo Visitor Engagement Coordinator