Heads up—or maybe that’s heads out. Today is World Turtle Day, an annual observance established in 2000 to celebrate and protect turtles and tortoises around the world. Shedd’s chelonians (the collective term for turtles) include 33 marine, freshwater and terrestrial species, totaling 88 individuals, from nearly every major bioregion on Earth. Look for them by exhibit.
Green sea turtle Nickel (pictured above) represents greens in tropical and temperate ocean waters around the world. She’s the queen of the reef—what more can we say?
The Amazon has mind-boggling biodiversity, and that extends to turtle species. We exhibit 11 of the 15 species found in the Peruvian Amazon. Look for these standouts:
Red-footed and yellow-footed tortoises usually stomp around the Forest Low-Water Season habitat, stopping to munch on a bowl of chopped fruits and veggies. You also might meet one during an Amazon animal encounter. Just next door, mata matas—ambush hunters in the guise of lumps of leaf litter—hang out front and bottom in the Forest/Rainy Season habitat. Continuing to the two Forest High-Water Season habitats, the large, handsome turtles with the thin black facial stripe are Hiliare’s, or Cadago, side-necked turtles. The interesting little twist-necked turtle, with its beautiful scarlet “cap,” lives in the aquatic focus habitat at Floating Meadows.
For the grand finale of your Amazon turtle tour, check out the giant river turtles in the River Channel habitat. The females of this species are the real giants, with shell lengths of more than 2½ feet. Except for the tortoises, which retract their heads in the familiar S-shaped curve of their neck vertebrae, all the Amazon aquatic turtles are classified as sidenecks. A side-necked turtle can’t withdraw its head into its shell. Instead, when threatened, it tucks its head sideways under the eave of its shell.
Alligator snapping turtle Guinness weighs more than 100 pounds. But you only might see the back half of him if he has crawled up on his ramp. Guinness has training (and feeding) sessions, same as the marine mammals, at a haul-out area built onto the back of his habitat. A few habitats over, try to find the small, shy eastern mud turtle among the sunfish and topminnows.
Islands and Lakes
The ringed sawback turtles you’ll find in the Map Turtle exhibit fit the profile of a species in jeopardy, and, in fact, they have been classified as a federally threatened species since 1986. Because of their extremely limited range in southern Mississippi and eastern Louisiana, they have been especially hard hit by habitat destruction and water-quality deterioration. They suffer high mortalities in areas with heavy motorboat traffic. The attractive turtles have also been severely overcollected for the pet trade. Several of the turtles you see here hatched at Shedd.
Granddad might be the main attraction in the Rivers gallery, but don’t overlook the colorful red-bellied short-necked turtles that keep him and the other Australian lungfish company. These smaller turtles are active, and they like to bask, so they’re always in view. Several of them hatched at Shedd. In the Australia habitat, the imposing (and endangered) Fly River turtle looks more like a sea turtle with its front and back flippers. But it is a freshwater turtle native to streams, rivers and lagoons in Australia’s Northern Territory and New Guinea. These turtles are opportunistic omnivores, feeding mainly on the fruit and leaves of wild figs, but they’ll also plant themselves under the nests of tree-dwelling mammals, such as flying fox bats, and eat any babies that fall out. Later they regurgitate hairballs. Both turtle species are protected in Australia, but not in other parts of their ranges.
You might meet more turtles during an animal encounter in the galleries: our native spotted turtle and Blanding’s turtle (both state protected, mainly due to habitat loss), the widely distributed midland painted turtle, or the charming little Japanese pond turtle.
Turtles have been around in the same basic form—body in a bony box—for 200 million years. It’s a great design, but it can’t protect dwindling numbers of wild freshwater turtles from the exotic food industry, habitat destruction and an unsustainable pet trade. Sea turtles face other threats, including entanglement in fishing nets, especially shrimp trawls, loss of nesting beaches to development and, as Nickel so graphically illustrates, collisions with motorboats.
We can help turtles. Use Shedd’s Right Bite wallet card to make sustainable seafood choices. Practice pesticide-free gardening to keep toxins out of our waterways. Leave wild turtles in the wild (although it’s okay to help one across a road, in the direction it’s headed, if you can do so safely.)
If you are looking for a pet turtle, contact organizations such as the Chicago Herpetological Society for a rescued or professionally bred animal, along with the information you’ll need to properly care for your new friend. Remember that turtles are long-lived; adopting one can be the beginning of a decades-long (and infinitely rewarding) relationship. You can also support Shedd’s conservation initiatives, which include sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation efforts and protection of areas with prime turtle habitat, through its annual fund.
And, of course, be sure to visit Shedd Aquarium, where every day can be World Turtle Day.
Karen Furnweger, web editor