Well I can’t believe I missed this, but I definitely missed World Turtle Day yesterday. I remember a teacher I had in high school, a very fantastic woman, who had a pet tortoise in the classroom, named Ortoise. He would wander around during class, so you had to make sure not to move your chair without looking, or put your feet down. Anyway, she was a great teacher, and I’ve always loved turtles anyway. So, here you go, a repost from Caitlin R. Kiernan, because she’s awesome, and there’s not much else I would want to say about it anyway:
Yes, today was World Turtle Day. I suspect not a lot of Americans spend a lot of time thinking about turtles. But they’ve always been among my favorite reptiles, even when I include all those wonderful extinct groups. Indeed, turtles are a relic of an all but vanished branch of the Reptilia, the Parareptilia. Of all the many and varied forms of parareptiles that once thrived, only the Order Testudines (turtles and tortoises) survived beyond the Triassic Period. Long before the evolution of either lizards or snakes, there were turtles. There may have been turtles even before the first crocodylomorphs appeared in the Late Triassic. The oldest known turtle, Odontochelys semitestacea, was described in 2008 from 215/220-million-year-old fossils from the Late Triassic of Guizhou, China. Unlike all living (and most known fossil) turtles, Odontochelys had teeth.
Turtles are, evolutionarily and ecologically, a success story. They’ve survived two major extinction events (the Triassic-Jurassic extinction and the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction) and many less catastrophic mass extinctions. They’ve diversified, from terrestrial ancestors, to take advantage of fresh-water and marine environments, and many species (mostly within the Superfamily Testudinoidea) have returned to dry land, and include the modern tortoises and box turtles. Over the course of their evolution, turtles have produced some giants. The largest-known turtle is Archelon ischyros, from the Upper Cretaceous of North America, which was more than four meters (13.5 feet) long, and about 4.87 meters (16 feet) wide from flipper to flipper. The largest-known freshwater turtle, the living Asian softshell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii), is only about half that size, but still measures a very respectable six+ feet (about two meters) in length. The largest land species known is the bizarre horned Meiolania of Australia and New Caledonia, which reached lengths of eight and a half feet. And they are among the longest-lived of vertebrates, with some individuals of a few species boasting a longevity in the neighborhood of 200-250 years.
Estimates of the number of living turtle species vary widely, from 250 to 330 (depending of variations in classification schemes, and never mind species as yet discovered). And worldwide, an enormous number of these species are currently endangered or threatened. It has been estimated that about 75% of Asia’s ninety tortoise and freshwater turtle species have become threatened.* All marine species are endangered. And even those taxa not officially listed as endangered face vanishing habitat, climate change, human predation, and threats from pollution on such a scale that it’s not unreasonable to consider most living turtles in danger of extinction. Numerous species have already become extinct due to the actions of human beings.
Around the globe, turtles figure prominently in our myths, folktales, and religions. In Hindu mythology, the world is believed to rest on the backs of four elephants, who stand on the shell of a turtle. In Hinduism, Akupara is a tortoise who carries the world on his back. It upholds the Earth and the sea. But, in truth, at this point in the history of life of earth, the fate of all turtles (and elephants, for that matter) rests on the back of humanity. Will a single species of primates, and one that only dates back 195,000 years, be the end of a reptilian dynasty stretching back to the earliest days of the “Age of Reptiles”?
*Hilary Hylton, “Keeping U.S. Turtles Out of China,” Time Magazine, 2007-05-08.
(Portions of the entry were adapted from relevant Wikipedia articles.)