TurtleWorld Turtle Day, May 23, is an annual celebration of turtles and tortoises, but it's also an occasion to raise awareness about their disappearing habitats around the world. Having thrived for more than 200 million years, these endearing creatures are certainly worthy of celebration and awareness. At Shedd Aquarium, you’ll find least 17 species of turtles that will connect you to the living world and, we hope, inspire you to make a difference. You can start in your own backyard—and maybe that’s the Great Lakes region.

The Great Lakes basin is home to at least 10 turtle species, several of which you can see at Shedd. One of the most impressive is the Blanding’s turtle, Emydoidea blandingii. Medium-sized and semiaquatic, this turtle has a dark olive domed carapace, or upper shell, speckled in yellow. Also look for its bright yellow throat and chin. Males are easy to identify by the dark edge on the upper jaw, like a mustache.

Once found throughout the Great Lakes region, Blanding’s turtles can now only be found in small, scattered territories. Populations continue to shrink due to habitat loss from both fragmentation and development, poaching for the pet trade, collisions with cars and predation on eggs, hatchlings and adults by skunks and raccoons, whose booming populations, free of natural predators, have thrown the food web out of whack.

To compound matters, Blanding’s turtles also mature slowly, taking up to 20 years to reach breeding age. Fewer turtles are making it. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists Blanding’s turtles as endangered throughout its midwestern range, which includes Canada’s Great Lakes region, on its Red List of Threatened Species. The turtle is also on the Illinois endangered species list.

You might have met one of Shedd’s Blanding’s turtles during an animal program. One, a female, was rescued in 1988 after being struck by a car during her nesting migration. She arrived in critical condition and was carefully tended for more than a year before she was rehabilitated. Although she’s blind in one eye, she satisfies her voracious appetite using her excellent sense of smell. She cannot be returned to the wild, but she’s a powerful ambassador for native wildlife, illustrating the importance of habitat conservation in the Great Lakes.

You can be an ambassador for turtles and tortoises by learning as much as you can about them and helping to educate others. Get involved by volunteering with habitat restoration projects, like Shedd’s Great Lakes Action Days (dates to be announced soon). You might also help with endangered and threatened species monitoring programs through your local county forest preserve district.

If you are lucky enough to meet a turtle in the wild, you can make a difference by not taking it home—every individual is critical to the health of dwindling populations. And if you choose to help a turtle cross the road (where so many get hit by cars), make sure you put it on the side it was moving toward. Most likely it’s a mom heading to or from a nesting site, and you’ll be helping to ensure future generations.

Happy World Turtle Day from Shedd Aquarium!

Sam Bugg