May 23: National Turtle Day

National Turtle Day is not an occasion for dressing up like one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles–although you certainly can if you want to. Instead, it’s a day meant to bring awareness to the struggles of real turtles. Because while the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles could hold their own in a fight, real turtles need our help. Started by the American Tortoise Rescue (ATR) in 2000, World Turtle Day (which falls on May 23 this year) celebrates the world’s longest-living reptiles while calling attention to to their declining numbers due to numerous threats.

IFL Science states that people often don’t know the difference between turtles and tortoises. To further add to the confusion, tortoises and turtles are both reptiles from the order of Testudines; they’re just in different classification families. As for the difference: Turtles live and swim in the sea while tortoises are land-based. IFL Science also offers a few other cool facts:

Hawksbill Sea Turtle
  • There are seven species of sea turtles: flatback sea turtle, olive ridley sea turtle, leatherback sea turtle, green sea turtle, loggerhead sea turtle, Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, and hawksbill sea turtle. (Aren’t those fun names?!) The latter four are classified as endangered.
  • Turtles can be found in all the world’s oceans except the Arctic and Antarctic.
  • The smallest adult turtles are 2.4 inches long and weigh just a few ounces. The largest adult turtles are 9 feet long and weigh 1,500 pounds.
  • Tortoises have the longest lifespan of any animal. The oldest recorded was a tortoise that hatched in 1777 and was given in that year by British explorer Captain James Cook to the Tongan royal family. This tortoise, named Tu-ii Malila, died in 1965 at the age of 188!
  • Most tortoises are herbivorous, with a few exceptions eating worms and insects.
  • Giant tortoises move at a very leisurely pace of 0.17 miles per hour, a fact that gave rise to the phrase “slow and steady wins the race” from the Aesop fable The Tortoise and the Hare. The fastest recorded speed of a turtle on land is 5 miles per hour.

Turtles have been around for about 200 million years, but are rapidly disappearing due to the exotic food industry, illegal hunting and poaching, habitat destruction, oil spills, artificial light from coastal cities, and non-recyclable waste. The American Tortoise Rescue promotes education, discussion, and research into further safeguarding practices.

One of the priorities of the American Tortoise Rescue is to ask pet stores and reptile shows to provide proper information to the buyer. Turtle owner, Ben Zoltak, has written a thorough article detailing what a potential turtle owner needs to know. Reasons Not to Buy a Turtle or Tortoise lists these points:

  1. Some species can live for a very long time, which creates the problem of what will become of your turtle if it outlives its owner
  2. They require hundreds of dollars in upkeep each year.
  3. They need room, a minimum of 70 gallons of tank space for red-eared sliders.
  4. They need fresh fruit, vegetables, mice, and insects to eat.
  5. They do not really interact with or particularly like humans.
  6. They can transmit salmonella.
  7. If dumped into the wild, they can endanger local populations. Red-eared sliders are considered one of the world’s 100 most evasive species.

Another priority of the American Tortoise Rescue, which has rescued 4000 turtles and tortoises since its start, it to prevent illegal trade of turtles and tortoises. The National Turtle Day website suggests the following ways to help save turtles for the generations to come.

  • Never buy turtles from a pet shop as it increases demand from the wild.
  • Never remove turtles from the wild unless they are sick or injured.
  • Always report cruelty or sales of turtles less than four inches (these are illegal) to your local animal control shelter.
  • Always help a turtle cross a busy street by picking it up and placing it on the roadside in the same direction it was going.
  • Write letters to legislators asking them to keep sensitive habitat preserved and to prevent off shore drilling that can lead to more endangered sea turtle deaths.

Last year, in honor of World Turtle Day, Metro posted Twenty-Five Ways to Love Turtles. Check it out this May 23, and post your own findings on how to celebrate the day.

Thanks to Blake Gilmore for providing the turtle photos!

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