Turtley Awesome Guest Blog

Lisa Prowant is Ph.D. student at Stony Brook University, studying the threatened eastern box turtle. For fun, you might find this crazy reptile lover wandering the forests and fields near you in search of her favorite scaly, shelled, and legless critters.


BoxTurtle
The eastern box turtle – the turtles I study. They’re almost as cool as sea turtles. Image: Lisa Prowant.

As a born and bred landlubber, I don’t usually write about ocean-related things. I study Eastern box turtles. But, my BFF Catie asked me to write a blog post for you this week, so here goes. She said it could be about anything related to oceans, and since I don’t study anything having to do with oceans that was a bit problematic.

Since I’m a turtle expert, she made a strong-handed suggestion that I write about marine turtles, so I thought I would take this as a learning opportunity for all of us.

When I began writing, all I knew about marine turtles is that they have specialized forelimbs for swimming, they swim very long distances, and that females return to the same beach where they hatched to lay their eggs. I also know that they face many threats like increased ocean pollution, predators, and climate change and that scientists are concerned about the health of their populations.

But in my research, I’ve learned a lot of other cool things about sea turtles. Here are what I think are some of the most interesting facts.

1. There are 7 species of sea turtles, which have been on earth for 110 million years – since the time of the dinosaurs!

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2. Very little is known about population sizes for all sea turtle species. This is because after hatching males do not return to shore. Most of what we know about sea turtle behavior relates to females coming ashore to lay eggs and hatchlings returning to the oceans. And speaking of their amazing swimming abilities, these turtles can stay underwater for as long as 7 hours! They slow their heart rate to as low as 1 beat per 9 minutes to conserve oxygen.

hatchlings
The sex of these green sea turtles was determined by the temperature of their nest! Image: Jeroen Looyé (CC)

3. Sea turtles have temperature-dependent sex determination, meaning the sex of their offspring is determined by the temperature of their nests during incubation, with warmer temperatures producing more females.

4. They vary in size from the small Kemp’s ridley turtle, which weighs between 80–100 pounds, to the enormous leatherback, which can weigh more than 1,300 pounds. Now, that’s a big turtle.

giant turtle
The largest sea turtles, leatherbacks, can weigh more than 1,300 pounds! Image: Flickr user rustinpc (CC)

5. Sea turtles have beaks – yes, you read that correctly, beaks, like a bird! The shape of a turtle’s beak is suited to its diet, which varies by species.

turtle beak
Sea turtles have beaks that vary in size and shape, according to their diet. This hawksbill turtle has a particularly pronounced beak, giving the species its name. Image: Tom Doeppner (CC3.0)
pollution
Even with good vision, turtles dangerously mistake plastic bags for a tasty jellyfish treat. Image: Ben Mierement, NOAA (PD).

6. And their senses are amazing! They don’t have external ears but have eardrums covered by skin. Because of this, they hear low pitched sounds best. And their sense of smell is outstanding! An experiment on Loggerhead turtles suggested that they may actually smell their way back to their home beaches! Their vision, however, isn’t as impressive. When they’re underwater, their vision is pretty good, but out of water they are nearsighted. But even with that “pretty good” vision, turtles are at risk of making some dangerous mistakes – unfortunately for them, plastic bags can look a lot like tasty jellyfish.

7. Of the sea turtles, leatherbacks can withstand the coldest water temperatures (often below 40˚F) and are found as far south as Chile and as far north as Alaska. And that’s pretty impressive for an animal we think of as “cold-blooded”. To stay warm in these cold regions, leatherbacks actually recycle the heat generated by their muscles so that very little body heat is lost.

8. The Green sea turtle gets its name from the greenish shade of its fat, not from the color of its shell (which is typically brown, gray, black and yellow). Note to my parents: thank you for not naming me after the color of my fat.

9. Sea turtles are the first biofluorescent reptile found in the wild. This means that the turtles absorb sunlight into their tissues, and then emit it in colorful displays at night! HOW COOL IS THAT?!?! Scientists believe the turtles use this for communication, hunting, defense, or camouflage. In other words, we have no idea what they use it for – it could be any of those things or something else. Still cool though!

10. Turtles are important components of their ecosystem: Green turtles keep seagrass meadows healthy by preventing them from overgrowing; the meadows in turn provide habitats for manatees, seahorses, and many species of commercially important fish. Hawksbill turtles graze sponges and prevent them from outcompeting corals, keeping coral reefs healthy.

save the turtle
Sea turtle conservation efforts are being undertaken around the world. But their future is still uncertain. Image: Ianaré Sévi (CC3.0)

Well guys and gals, I hope you found this interesting and learned a little something. And in case you were wondering, I intentionally left out information on their current conservation status as to not depress you all. But in case you are interested or in need of a good cry (P.S. sea turtles cry, but not from sadness; they have glands that produce tears to get salt out of their eyes, making it look like they are crying!), you can read more about the plight of the sea turtle here.

To learn more (always a good idea) or to find out how you can help these incredible animals, check out these sites:  Defenders of Wildlife, See Turtles, Sea Turtle Conservancy, Great Barrier Reef Foundation, and the National Aquarium.

Until next time,

Lisa


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