10 Surprising Facts About Turtles

May 23†is World Turtle Day. It was started in 2000 by the American Tortoise Rescue organization to help people celebrate and protect turtles and tortoises around the world. In general, the term turtle is used for aquatic species, and tortoise refers to turtles that live on land.

Turtles and tortoises have a higher risk of extinction than many other vertebrates due to their ongoing capture from the wild for food, pets, medicines, cosmetics and other uses. There have been 327 species of turtles identified globally, and up to 54 percent of those are considered threatened.

You can help the conservation of turtles by taking a few steps in your own community:

  • Never buy a turtle or tortoise from a pet shop. This only increases the demand of their capture from the wild.
  • Never take a turtle or tortoise from the wild yourself.
  • If you see a tortoise crossing a road, pick it up and set it in the same direction it was going. Donít try to make it go back, it will only turn around and try again.
  • Report the sale of any turtle or tortoise that is less than four inches. This is illegal throughout the United States.

10 Fun Facts that Make Turtles and Tortoises Unique

1. Turtles have been on Earth for over 200 million years.

To put it into perspective, dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago. Turtles evolved before mammals, birds, crocodiles, snakes and lizards. They are one of the oldest and most primitive groups of reptiles on the planet.

African Spurred Tortoise (Geochelone sulcata) in the grass

African Spurred Tortoise

2. You can identify males and females by the sounds they make.

Determining the gender of a turtle can be a tricky business. You can look for signs such as the shape of their bottom shell or location of their anus. But if you have the chance to hear a turtle, typically the males will grunt and the females hiss, especially during mating.

3. They can breathe through their skin.

Some species can absorb oxygen through the skin by their neck and tail. This allows them to stay submerged for extended periods and during hibernation in colder climates.

Normally, turtles breathe through their lungs like we do. But a turtleís shell prevents them from breathing like most animals whose lungs can expand. Instead, turtles have specific muscles to pull the body organs away from the lungs in order to fill them with oxygen.

4. Turtles live on every continent except Antarctica.

Both aquatic and land turtles and tortoises are well-adapted to many different environments, from the tropics to temperate regions. The smallest is the American bog turtle at a mature size of 3 to 4 inches (7 to 10 centimeters) long. The largest are leatherback sea turtles that can reach 9 feet (2.5 meters) long and weigh up to 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms).

Aldabra giant tortoise on changoo island

Aldabra Giant Tortoise

5. Female turtles can store sperm for up to four years after mating.

After a single mating, female turtles may keep sperm in specialized areas in their bodies and be able to lay fertilized eggs for many years.

All turtles lay their eggs on land, even if they live in water. A female will dig a hole with her legs, lay her eggs, then cover them with sand or dirt for camouflage. She will never revisit the nesting site. All baby turtles must fend for themselves after hatching. In the case of sea turtles, this could explain why only one hatchling in a thousand is expected to make it to adulthood.

6. Certain species can live over 100 years.

In one documented case, an Indian Ocean Giant Tortoise estimated to be 50-years-old was captured as an adult. It continued to live another 152 years in captivity after that. For Galapagos tortoises, 80-years-old is considered middle-aged.

The size of a turtle is not an accurate way to tell its age. Turtles typically reach full size in their first 10 years. They continue to grow after that, but very slowly.

Galapagos Tortoises

Galapagos Tortoises

7. A turtleís shell is made of 60 separate bones connected together.

Each of these bone plates is covered by what are called scutes. The scutes are similar in structure to fingernails and provide additional strength and protection. The pigment melanin is also present in scutes, which contributes to the intricate designs and colors in some species.

Most land tortoises have high domed upper shells as protection against predators. Whereas, aquatic turtles often have flatter, aerodynamic shells shaped for swimming.

8. They can drown.

One deep breath can last a turtle for several hours, and some freshwater turtles can stay underwater for many days. They do this by lying still on the bottom and using very little oxygen.

But similar to water snakes, crocodiles, alligators, dolphins and whales, turtles can drown if unnaturally kept underwater for too long.

9. Turtles see colors.

Scientists have found that turtles have good eyesight and are particularly sensitive to the color red. This could explain why some turtles have brightly colored markings.

Turtles also have excellent hearing, smell and sense of touch. Even their shells contain nerve endings. They can feel the touch of a predator immediately and retract into their shells for protection.

Sea Turtle Hatchling

Sea Turtle Hatchling

10. The temperature of a sea turtle nest determines the gender of the hatchlings.

More female hatchlings will be produced during warmer temperatures, and more males during cooler temperatures. After about two months of incubating in the nest, the eggs will begin to hatch and all the hatchlings will emerge as a group to find their way to the sea.

This typically happens at night. Itís thought that the hatchlings can perceive the brighter light reflected off the water, and itís been shown bright artificial lights near a beach can distract them. Due to this threat, many beachfront communities in Florida have introduced laws requiring lights to be shut off or shielded during the nesting and hatching season.

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Sue H
Sue H12 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne R4 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne R4 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

Thomas M
Thomas M5 months ago

Thanks for posting

Shae Lee
Shae Lee8 months ago

Thank you for sharing♥

hELEN hEARFIELD8 months ago


Marija M
Marija M8 months ago

Interesting, tks very much for sharing.

Lesa D
Past Member 8 months ago


thank you Zoe...

Beverly D
Beverly D12 months ago

I too love turtles and in no way could I ever come up with how very many I have assisted on highways during my life thus far. Thanks & God bless~

Nellie K Adaba
Nellie K Adaba2 years ago

I love turtles and tortoises.