Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

It’s Turtles All the Way Down

And what they are saying about our current state of bio awareness and climate change

Rich Sobel
Oct 11 · 9 min read

I love turtles (and tortoises).

I love how they’re slow and steady, infinitely patient, hard working, capable of going the distance alone and have no problem retreating into their shell when things around them get a little too reckless or chaotic.

I really like this retreating into a shell maneuver. I’m a bit of an introvert myself and I’ve constructed a pretty thick virtual shell to retreat into when I need that.

Then when it calms down, they poke out their heads, assess the situation, and if everything looks ok, get on with whatever they were doing before they retreated. If that isn’t wisdom, I don’t know what is!

I think of turtles as one of my “totem” animals. I just resonate with them.

I particularly like the image of an infinite chain of turtles supporting the earth and all the creatures on it.

Turtles are also important to many cultures and have appeared in many creation myths, one of which the title of this article stems from. The turtle is thought to support the heavens or carry the world on it’s back. In a Hindu myth, a turtle carries four elephants on it’s shell which in turn, support the world.

Given that so many cultures revere turtles and assigned to them so many positive virtues, you might think they would ensure that they are protected and encouraged to thrive.

And this is what saddens me. As you’ll see below, that’s not the case at all. Turtle populations are shrinking and some species are becoming extinct.

Why is that happening? And why are we letting it happen?

Is there anything we can do about it?

Let’s look a little closer at turtles and their biology to see what they are “telling us” these days about the state of this planet we call home.

A little turtle biology

Turtles are cold-blooded animals. That means their metabolism and activity level is directly affected by the ambient temperature they find themselves in. This has one distinct advantage; they don’t need to eat to maintain their basic bodily functions. Warm-blooded vertebrates like birds and mammals need to eat to produce enough energy keep their bodies at a constant temperature to maintain their metabolism. Turtles can go fairly long periods without eating and be just fine.

Photo by Aubrey Rose Odom on Unsplash

To alter their metabolism turtles just change to a different environment. You will often see them basking in the sun on a log. This warms up their bodies and increases their metabolism. And if they get too warm, swimming or staying immersed in water helps to cool them down. In biology, we call this behavioural thermoregulation.

In addition, for many species of turtles, the temperature at which their eggs incubate determines the individual’s sex. Warmer temperatures produce females and cooler temperatures, males. With the climate heating up, many species are showing an increase in the number of females to males.

This can be a good thing but when the ratio is too high, it’s too much of a good thing. A little bit higher and there’s more females laying eggs and the population increases. Too few males and the number of matings and eggs starts to decrease and the population numbers start to plummet.

There may be some ways that developing turtles can counteract warming effects on sex determination while still in the egg but these findings are not definitive and need to be further confirmed.

Here’s something you’d never expect.

Turtles are terrible parents!

Once the eggs are laid and incubating, the female takes off, never to see them again. The male never sees them. That’s a pretty nonchalant attitude. Especially as it’s estimated that only about 1 in 1000 baby sea turtles actually makes it to adulthood and sexual maturity. Heck, even some insects I recently wrote about take better care of their larvae.

Maybe it’s because they can’t bear to see all their babies being preyed upon once they hatch? Especially as there’s not much they can do about it to actually protect them.

And sex is not one of their top priorities either. They may mate in consecutive years or every couple of years. Whenever the urge hits and it doesn’t seem to have any known cyclical dependency.

Turtles live almost everywhere on this planet except for Antarctica. So they eat a variety of foods. Turtles can be carnivores, omnivores or herbivores. Some are strict vegans and eat only raw algae (sorry couldn’t resist that one!) Carnivorous turtles eat frogs, fish, invertebrates and small birds while herbivorous turtles eat aquatic plants and seeds.

Which brings up another problem. With so many species going extinct every year due to climate warming, diseases and over predation (think coral reefs being ravaged by starfish as one example), excessive harvesting, and environmental coastal degradation (think beach front property development), their food supplies are endangered and in some cases, disappearing, as well.

There are about 220 species of turtles and of these, only 8 live in the sea. Sea turtles are the ones we hear the most about because they live for so long and are often very large which makes them very media friendly. The 8 kinds are the Black sea turtle, Flatback sea turtle, Green sea turtle, Hawksbill sea turtle, Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, Leatherback sea turtle, Loggerhead sea turtle and Olive Ridley sea turtle.

The largest ones, Leatherbacks, can weigh more than 600 Kg (1300 lb) when fully grown! And several turtles can live more than 100 years. This page has a lot of pictures and great information about sea turtles.

Cool facts: Some sea turtles can hold their breath underwater for up to 5 hours! And some travel over 10,000 miles every year. That’s about half way round the earth.

Like some migrating birds that return to the same tree to nest in every year, sea turtle females return to the same beach from which they hatched to lay their eggs. As far as we know right now, they accomplish this navigational feat using their keen sense of smell combined with sensing and using the earth’s magnetic field.

Interestingly, the internal organs and tissues of very old turtles show no difference due to ageing from immature turtles. This is an area of active research to find out how their organs resist the effects of ageing seen in other animals like ourselves.

Ok, enough for the basic biology.

Interesting trivia: a group of turtles is known as a bale.

Turtles are food

Let’s face it. We humans can be really greedy bastards. Really. You and I included.

It doesn’t matter if an animal is on the endangered list or its numbers are plummeting. If enough people like how it tastes and it fetches a good price, we’ll catch it and sell it to those who like to eat it. Or who need some singular, unique part for traditional medicine. Or desire a unique pet. And then we justify it with ignorance, unsustainable economics, or our “this is what we’ve always traditionally done” BS.

Photo taken from this blog. Source: http://www.turtle-foundation.org

Reminds me of lyrics from one of my all time favourite songwriters, Joni Mitchell in her song, Big Yellow Taxi.

“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

And that’s how it’s going with turtles these days. From wikipedia:

“Between 48 and 54% of all 328 of their species considered threatened, turtles and tortoises are at a much higher risk of extinction than many other vertebrates. Of the 263 species of freshwater and terrestrial turtles, 117 species are considered Threatened, 73 are either Endangered or Critically Endangered and 1 is Extinct. Of the 58 species belonging to the family Testudinidae, 33 species are Threatened, 18 are either Endangered or Critically Endangered, 1 is Extinct in the wild and 7 species are Extinct. 71% of all tortoise species are either gone or almost gone. Asian species are the most endangered, closely followed by the five endemic species from Madagascar. Turtles face many threats, including habitat destruction, harvesting for consumption, and the pet trade. The high extinction risk for Asian species is primarily due to the long-term unsustainable exploitation of turtles and tortoises for consumption and traditional Chinese medicine, and to a lesser extent for the international pet trade.”

The situation in Asia has been called “The Asian Turtle Crisis”. Like I said, we’re greedy bastards.

To give a little credit, efforts have been made to repopulate some species and supply the demand with farmed turtles. In China there are over 1000 turtle farms. There are also turtle farms in Oklahoma and Louisiana that raise turtles for export to China. And in many other places.

And the greed is not just Asian.

It’s still legal to harvest most turtles in Florida. Turtle soup has always been a popular favourite in Anglo-American diets, too.

from this site. Photo by Holly A. Heyser

And I have to admit, that soup looks mighty tasty! Would I eat it if it were served to me? Well, I’m a pescavore and don’t eat meat that’s not fish-based so I’d have to refuse it on that grounds alone. But if I wasn’t, I’d want to know what kind of turtle, how was it harvested, was it farmed or collected from nature and so forth before I agreed to eat it.

To summarize, turtle populations are endangered, threatened or already extinct. As the climate warms, sea turtle sex ratios are spiralling out of control. People still harvest them illegally for food, medicines and to keep as pets.

That’s the story the turtles are telling us.

The good news is these days everybody and their mother is ramping up for putting a stop to and reversing climate change. That’s a very good thing. We can’t do enough to push our government leaders to do the right thing and start buying into agreements they already made commitments to re carbon levels etc.

And even if governments do get on board now, it’s not going to be many years or decades before we see any real changes. That’s not soon enough for many creatures, turtles included.

Many of our turtles and tortoises won’t be able to withstand current conditions for that long. They can’t wait, they need our help now.

We can do that. We can help them right now. No waiting.

In no specific order, here are some organizations who could use your time, energy and/or money to help our shell-backed friends.

And these are just the tip of the iceberg. Don’t see anything you like? Then just search the internet for “turtle conservation projects” and find one close to you that fits your budget and other considerations.

Because if it really is “turtles all the way down”, then I want to be sure they stick around to continue to support this fragile planet or there’s going to be some big time trouble!

Until next time,

Rich

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Rich Sobel

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Rich writes about fascinating creatures and biological issues that affect our everyday lives. Get his free ebook at www.biology4everyone.com.