Turtles are reptiles, most easily distinguished by their shells. These shells can be hard and bony or soft and leathery. Shells are extremely important to protecting turtles from predators. Some turtles can hide inside their shells. Even turtles who cannot hide inside, like sea turtles, are protected from many predators by their hard shell.
Turtles exhibit characteristics shared by all reptiles: they are cold-blooded, have scales, breathe using lungs and lay eggs. However, turtles are the only group of reptiles that have both a shell and a beak (instead of teeth).
There are over 250 species of turtle, broken into three main groups: land turtles, aquatic turtles and marine turtles. Twenty species of turtles have been recorded in North Carolina; all but one, the box turtle, are chiefly aquatic.
North Carolina’s turtle population includes both the smallest and largest species in the world. The bog turtle, found in western North Carolina, is a rare turtle reaching a mere 3-4 inches in length. The leatherback sea turtle is also rare and can have a shell length of more than 72 inches and weigh up to 1,500 pounds.
Some land turtles can also be called tortoises. They spend the majority of their time on land, only occasionally venturing into shallow water. Land turtles tend to have broad, stumpy feet. They can be herbivores or omnivores. Their shells are usually domed, allowing the animal to hide inside. The only land turtle native to North Carolina is the Eastern box turtle.
Aquatic turtles spend most of their time in the water. Although most aquatic turtles prefer fresh water, this group can also include terrapins. Terrapins are the only turtles in the North America that live exclusively in brackish water. The diamondback terrapin is the only salt marsh turtle in North America. Aquatic turtle shells tend to be less domed than land turtles so they can move quickly through the water. Their feet are typically webbed to allow for better swimming. Aquatic turtles are usually omnivores.
Marine (or sea) turtles are found in the ocean. There are seven species of sea turtle worldwide, five of which can be found in North Carolina. Sea turtles have flattened shells to allow them to swim quickly through the ocean. They do not have feet like other turtles, but instead have fins. Sea turtles cannot hide in their shells, so must swim away from their predators. Foods sea turtles eat include crabs, fish and jellyfish. Only the green sea turtle eats much vegetation as an adult.
Whether aquatic or land dwellers, almost half of the world’s turtles are at risk because of habitat degradation, hunting and environmental pollution. In North Carolina, seven species native to the state, including all five sea turtles, are considered threatened, endangered or at risk of extinction.