Sea turtles are large, air-breathing reptiles that inhabit tropical and subtropical seas throughout the world. Their shells consist of an upper part (carapace) and a lower section (plastron). Hard scales (or scutes) cover all but the leatherback, and the number and arrangement of these scutes can be used to determine the species.
Sea turtles come in many different sizes, shapes and colors. The olive ridley is usually less than 100 pounds, while the leatherback typically ranges from 650 to 1,300 pounds! The upper shell, or carapace, of each sea turtle species ranges in length, color, shape and arrangement of scales.
Sea turtles do not have teeth, but their jaws have modified “beaks” suited to their particular diet. They do not have visible ears but have eardrums covered by skin. They hear best at low frequencies, and their sense of smell is excellent. Their vision underwater is good, but they are nearsighted out of water. Their streamlined bodies and large flippers make them remarkably adapted to life at sea. However, sea turtles maintain close ties to land.
Females must come ashore to lay their eggs in the sand; therefore, all sea turtles begin their lives as tiny hatchlings on land. Research on marine turtles has uncovered many facts about these ancient creatures. Most of this research has been focused on nesting females and hatchlings emerging from the nest, largely because they are the easiest to find and study.
Thousands of sea turtles around the world have been tagged to help collect information about their growth rates, reproductive cycles and migration routes. After decades of studying sea turtles, much has been learned. However, many mysteries still remain.
Sea turtles have long fascinated people and have figured prominently in the mythology and folklore of many cultures. In the Miskito Cays off the eastern coast of Nicaragua, the story of a kind “Turtle Mother,” still lingers. Unfortunately, the spiritual significance of sea turtles has not saved them from being exploited for both food and for profit. Millions of sea turtles once roamed the earth’s oceans, but now only a fraction remain.
Only females come ashore to nest; males rarely return to land after crawling into the sea as hatchlings. Most females return to nest on the beach where they were born (natal beach). Nesting seasons occur at different times around the world. In the U.S., nesting occurs from April through October. Most females nest at least twice during each mating season; some may nest up to ten times in a season. A female will not nest in consecutive years, typically skipping one or two years before returning.
Researchers do not yet know how long baby turtles spend in the open sea, or exactly where they go. It is theorized that they spend their earliest, most vulnerable years floating around the sea in giant beds of sargasso weeds, where they do little more than eat and grow. Once turtles reach dinner-plate size, they appear at feeding grounds in nearshore waters. They grow slowly and take between 15 and 50 years to reach reproductive maturity, depending on the species. There is no way to determine the age of a sea turtle from its physical appearance. It is theorized that some species can live over 100 years.
The earliest known sea turtle fossils are about 150 million years old. In groups too numerous to count, they once navigated throughout the
world’s oceans. But in just the past 100 years, demand for turtle meat, eggs, skin and colorful shells has dwindled their populations. Destruction
of feeding and nesting habitats and pollution of the world’s oceans are all taking a serious toll on remaining sea turtle populations. Many breeding
populations have already become extinct, and entire species are being wiped out. There could be a time in the near future when sea turtles are just
an oddity found only in aquariums and natural history museums – unless action is taken today.
Green, leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles are classified as Endangered in the United States under the Endangered Species Act, while the loggerhead and olive ridley sea turtles are listed as Threatened. Internationally, green and loggerhead sea turtles are listed as Endangered (facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), while hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are listed as Critically Endangered (facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future), olive ridley seaz turtles are listed as Endangered (facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future), and leatherback sea turtles are listed as Vulnerable (facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future).
KINGDOM – Animalia
PHYLUM – Chordata
CLASS – Reptilia
Class Reptilia includes snakes, lizards, crocodiles, and turtles. Reptiles are ectothermic (cold-blooded) and are vertebrates (have a spine). All
reptiles have scaly skin, breathe air with lungs, and have a three-chambered heart. Most reptiles lay eggs.
ORDER – Testudines
Order Testudines includes all turtles and tortoises. It is divided into three suborders. Pleurodira includes side-necked turtles, Cryptodira includes
all other living species of turtles and tortoises, and Amphichelydia includes all extinct species.
SUBORDER – Cryptodira
Suborder Cryptodira includes freshwater turtles, snapping turtles, tortoises, soft-shelled turtles, and sea turtles.
FAMILY – Cheloniidae or Dermochelyidae
Sea turtles fall into one of two families. Family Cheloniidae includes sea turtles which have shells covered with scutes (horny plates). Family
Dermochelyidae includes only one modern species of sea turtle, the leatherback turtle. Rather than a shell covered with scutes, leatherbacks have leathery skin.
GENUS and SPECIES
Most scientists currently recognize seven living species of sea turtles grouped into six genera.
There are many things each of us can do to help sea turtles survive. First, we must remember that we share the oceans and the beaches with many other species. Second, become informed about the things that are killing sea turtles or destroying their habitat. Elected officials and other leaders are making decisions on issues that affect sea turtles almost every day. As an informed citizen, you have the power to influence the outcome of
these issues by making your voice heard. One way to keep informed about important issues is to join and support groups like the Sea Turtle Conservancy, which monitor issues and encourage their members to get involved.