On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

World Turtle Day

African Sulcata (African Spurred Tortoise). By Alexey Krapukhin.

Image via Wikipedia

May 23rd, 2011 marks the twelfth annual World Turtle Day, as established by the nonprofit organization and animal sanctuary American Tortoise Rescue and cosponsored by the Humane Society of the United States. Located in Malibu, California, American Tortoise Rescue was established by husband and wife team Marshall Thompson and Susan Tellem in 1990 to advocate for the protection and conservation of all members of the order Testudines, which includes tortoises as well as both land and sea turtles. World Turtle Day was created in 2000 “to increase respect for and knowledge about one of the world’s oldest creatures,” says Tellem.

Turtles first appeared on earth around 215 million years ago, making them one of the oldest reptile groups to still exist. Currently, there are fourteen extant families within the order Testudines, made up of approximately 300 unique species. They range in size from the tiny speckled padloper tortoise, about 3 inches in length and 3 ounces in weight, to the critically-endangered leatherback sea turtle, which can attain a length of 10 feet from head to tail and weigh over 2,000 pounds.

Turtles and tortoises flourished on this planet for hundreds of millions of years before the arrival of modern humans. However, due to habitat destruction and the food, medicine, and exotic pet industries, approximately 72% of all living turtle species are currently threatened with extinction, according to findings by the Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission. What can we, as the species responsible for this ancient order’s rapid decline, do to protect the world’s turtle populations from further decimation? American Tortoise Rescue gives these tips:

  • If you’re considering a turtle or tortoise as a companion animal, never buy from a pet store, as this increases the demand for turtles to be taken from the wild. Always adopt from a rescue. Likewise, never remove a turtle from the wild, unless the animal is sick or injured and in need of medical attention.
  • If you see a turtle or tortoise trying to cross a busy street, and it is safe for you to do so, stop and move the animal to the side of the road in the direction s/he was headed.
  • If you witness the illegal or cruel sale of turtles or tortoises, report it to the appropriate authorities. It is especially important to report any sale of turtles under 4 inches in length, as selling baby turtles is illegal in the United States due to the high risk to humans of salmonella contamination.

Turtles and tortoises have not only existed as a species for an extraordinary amount of time; they are also renowned for their incredibly long lifespans as individuals. Adwaita, a male Aldabra giant tortoise living in the Alipore Zoological Gardens of Kolkata, India, was said to be 255 years old when he died in 2006, although his true date of birth has not been verified. Officially, the world’s longest-lived vertebrate animal was Tu’i Malila, a radiated tortoise given to the royal family of Tonga in 1777 by Captain James Cook. After a long and pampered life, which included meeting Queen Elizabeth II when she visited the country in 1953, Tu’i Malila died in 1965 at the age of 188, still in the care of the Tongan royal family.

Scientific studies into the turtle genome are only just beginning to unlock the secret to these hardy creatures’ astonishing longevity. Is there anything we, as humans, can learn from the “turtle way of life” to help us prolong our own time on this earth?

  • Eat lots of leafy green vegetables and drink plenty of water – but don’t overdo it. After all, turtles, like most reptiles, have such slow metabolisms that they can go without food or drink for months at a time.
  • Don’t get weighed down with material goods. Turtles carry everything they need on their backs.
  • Be kind to others and keep those you love close to you: you never know when you might need someone to help you get back on your feet.
  • It’s fine to be shy sometimes, but don’t forget to pop your head out of your shell and try something new every once in a while.
  • Most of all, take things slow. We all know what happened to that precocious hare.
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