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Fast or slow, big or small, turtles are a diverse and adaptable species that have roamed this planet longer than we have! Turtles are reptiles with protective shells covering their bodies. They live on land, in the ocean and in lakes and rivers. Shedd cares for more than 75 turtles, located in various exhibits from all around the world.

Two turtles look at one another.

Turtle or Tortoise?

Both sound similar, right? All tortoises are turtles, however not all turtles are tortoises! Tortoises live entirely on land and consume vegetation, some feeding on small insects and worms as well. Turtles mainly live in water and eat both plants and animals. Because of this difference in habitat, turtles and tortoises have differences in their shell structure. Tortoises have more rounded, dome-shaped shells, whereas turtles have flatter, thinner shells.

A tortoise chows down on a lettuce leaf as it sits in grass dappled by sunlight.

A red footed tortoise takes a bite of lettuce as it basks in the sunlight.

A red-headed side neck turtle swims in its habitat at Shedd Aquarium.

A red-headed side neck turtle swims in its habitat.

Turtles are important to our planet's aquatic and terrestrial ecosystem for several reasons, including:

1. They help maintain the health of our oceans

Sea turtles play a vital role in nourishing ocean ecosystems. They help coral reef ecosystems by balancing the food web and recycling nutrients on the ocean floor.

“Turtles have been found everywhere; living on land, in water, and around wetlands. They are an adaptable species that stand a test of time. ”

Jim Watson, senior aquarist

2. They are great scavengers

Scavengers are animals that eat dead or decaying animals and plants. Freshwater turtles fall under this category. By eating up dead fish carcasses, such as carp, they help keep our lakes and rivers clean!

3. They can create a home for other wildlife

Some species of turtles, such as gopher tortoises, are natural born diggers. The tortoises dig themselves a burrow, which is a hole or tunnel for shelter or habitation. That space can also provide shelter for other small animals like burrowing owls, rabbits and bobcats. These burrows allow those animals to escape danger such as forest fires.

A turtle sits on a log with its long neck stretched upwards to look around.

A freshwater turtle sits on a log with its long neck stretched upwards.

A western pond turtle stretches its neck and stares at the camera

A western pond turtle stretches its neck.

An alligator snapping turtle sits in a pebbled habitat with its large bulbous head facing the viewer, opening its hooked beak wide.

An alligator snapping turtle sits in a pebbled habitat opening its hooked beak wide.

Let’s meet some of the turtles of Shedd!

Green sea turtle

The green sea turtle is the largest hard-shelled sea turtle. Nickel is Shedd’s famous rescued green sea turtle.

Fun fact: green sea turtles are not only green on the outside, but also the inside! Their diet consists mainly of algae and seagrasses. This species eats so many greens that the fat under its shell turns green, hence the name green sea turtle.

Green sea turtle Nickel has powerful front flippers that she uses to travel quickly around her Caribbean Reef habitat.

Green sea turtle Nickel has powerful front flippers that she uses to travel quickly around her habitat.

Blanding’s turtle

The Blanding’s turtle is a freshwater species native to North America and northern Illinois. One feature that makes them stand out from the rest is their sunny yellow chins and throat. Blanding’s are listed as an endangered species in Illinois and Indiana, but Shedd has stepped in to give baby Blanding’s turtles a jumpstart at life. This year, Shedd welcomed 29 Blanding’s hatchlings to raise in a naturalistic setting and receive proper nutrition and care. Once they are big enough to escape from predators in the wild, they are released into a protected wetland habitat.

A young Blanding's turtle, still with yellow dots on its black shell, peers up at the camera as it climbs out of the water in its mossy habitat.

A young Blanding's turtle.

A blandings turtle is released into a pond in the wild.

A Blanding's turtle slips off a caregiver's hands as it's released into the wild.

Alligator snapping turtle

The alligator snapping turtle is the largest freshwater turtle species in North America. They have strong jaws, sharp claws and a ridged shell. Not only do they appear similar to alligators, but they are also clever hunters! The species has a secret weapon to lure in their prey: a tongue that looks just like a juicy worm. When a fish, frog, aquatic bird, rodent or smaller turtle is lured in, an alligator snapper's baited trap snaps shut.

Visit an alligator snapping turtle at Shedd in our At Home on the Great Lakes exhibit!

Watch Dante in action in the At Home on the Great Lakes gallery!

Mata mata turtle

The mata mata turtle is a freshwater turtle, home to the Amazon in northern South America. Mata matas have unique leaf-shaped heads with flaps of skin and a long. snorkel-like nose that allows them to reach for air while remaining underwater. These features help them hunt in disguise because they are ambush predators. Ambush hunters capture their prey by waiting and then making a surprise attack. This carnivorous reptile eats mainly fish and aquatic invertebrates. Check them out in Amazon Rising!

A mata mata turtle viewed from above.

A mata mata turtle blends in with a muddy river bottom.

Fly river turtle

The fly river turtle is also known as the pig-nosed turtle because of their long, fleshy snout. Their pig-nosed snout works like a snorkel, allowing them to come up for air while being able to stay submerged and safe from predators. Fly river turtles are mostly aquatic, meaning they rarely come up to land unless a female is ready to lay her eggs. Their webbed flippers are similar to a sea turtle, and they use them to paddle and steer.

Maverick’s is Shedd’s resident fly river turtle, located in Rivers!

A fly river turtle, with one webbed, almost wing-like fin raised as it swims.

A fly river turtle raises its webbed, almost wing-like fin as it swims.

How can I help turtles?

There are several ways you can take action to help protect turtles and their habitats. Shedd offers opportunities for everyone near and far to support the conservation of turtle species around the world.

1. Reduce plastic pollution

Opt for reusables and replace single-use disposable plastic items, like cutlery and straws. Sea turtles will often try to eat straws and other single use plastics. This can be damaging to a turtle’s health and cause problems such as blockage to the nasal passage and difficulty breathing. By opting for paper or reusable straws, you can help reduce the plastic waste in our waterways and promote a safer environment for turtles and other wildlife. Learn more about how to reduce your plastic consumption with Let's Shedd Plastic movement.

Compostable plate, napkin, utensils, and cup sit on a wood surface.

2. Skip the balloons

Having a party? Find an alternative to balloons or skip them all together! Balloons released into the air will end up in the ocean or local waterways where turtles and other animals may mistake them for prey and consume them.

3. Volunteer with Shedd

Make a difference for the aquatic world by joining a Shedd Aquarium Action Day in the Chicagoland area! Take action to restore turtle habitat and protect nearby beaches, waterways and forest preserves. Visit the Shedd Aquarium Action Days page to explore volunteer dates and locations.

Shedd Aquarium Action Days

Make a difference for the local aquatic world! Volunteer and take action for animals on a Shedd Aquarium Action Day to restore and protect nearby beaches, waterways, and forest preserves. You’ll support animals from frogs to fish while having fun and learning along the way.

Read More , on the Shedd Aquarium Action Days page

Join a Shedd Aquarium Action Day to spend a day outdoors, cleaning beaches and restoring habitats.

This blog was written by Emma Kainz, 2022 Summer Marketing Intern