Kids' Questions About Turtles

  turtles

 Q. How many kinds of turtles are there?

 A. About 270 (and still counting)

You can find a big, long list of scientific names names and common names here.
Most of them have links to pictures too!


all about turtles
 Q. How long have turtles been on the earth?

A. About 230 million years

There were turtles on earth before the dinosaurs came along! Here's a place to start learning about the Evolution of Turtles.


questions about turtles
 Q. Where do turtles live?

A. Almost everywhere!

In 230 million years, they have evolved to utilize very different habitats. They live everywhere on earth except the Arctic and Antarctic. The following examples will give you an idea of the different habitats:

The Desert Tortoise lives in a hot, arid environment, eats grasses, and has stumpy feet with toes that are not webbed.

The Malayan Box Turtle lives in a hot, humid, aquatic environment, eats everything, (plants, fish, snails, worms, etc.) that it finds in the water, and has webbed feet.

The little Vietnamese Wood Turtle lives in cool, limestone mountains, eats primarily bugs, worms, snails, etc. and has partially webbed toes (although it almost never swims.)

The Diamondback Terrapin live in brackish (slightly salty) lowland coastal waters of the eastern and southern United States, has fully webbed feet and stays in the water most of the time. It eats crayfish, snails, fish, insects and worms.

There are a variety of Sea Turtles that stay in the ocean all the time, coming ashore only to lay eggs. They have flippers. They travel all over the world.


questions about turtles
Q. Do all turtles have shells?

A. Yes but not all the same kind.

All turtles have some type of shell, but there are big differences in the protection those shells provide. Some turtles, such as the American and Asian box turtles, have a hinge on the lower shell which allows them to go inside their shells and then close up the "doors," front and rear.

The American mud and musk turtles also have hinges, but can't completely close up. Aquatics such as the painteds, cooters, sliders and map turtles have large protective shells, but no hinges. Flesh is exposed, front and rear, even when the turtles are completely tucked in.

The Snapping Turtles are not very well protected by their shells. The lower shell in particular is tiny and doesn't begin to cover the animal. They are shy, not inclined to look for trouble, but if threatened, they will put up a fierce fight.

The Softshell Turtles have leathery shells, a type of thick skin rather than the hard scutes that other turtles have. They stay hidden in water most of the time, and use camouflage for protection. They are also quick to bite if necessary.


questions about turtles
Q. Can turtles take off their shells?

A. No

The turtle's outer shell is made of a thin layer of keratin, like your fingernails. But underneath that layer, there is a layer of bony plates that give the shell its shape. The ribs and vertebrae (backbones) are part of the shell too. So removing the shell would remove part of the skeleton of the turtle. There's a drawing of what the bony part of the shell looks like here. The labels are not in English, but you can see why it's impossible for the turtle to take off it's shell.

questions about turtles
 Q. Can turtles hear? Do they have ears?

A. Yes, and yes.

Turtles don't have any "outer ear," the part that sticks out from your head, but they have all the "inner ear" mechanisms that other animals do. They also have the auditory nerve and brain center required for hearing. The outer ear gathers sound vibrations to make them louder. So turtles do not hear airborne sounds as loudly as you do, but they can sense and interpret vibrations in the environment. Hearing probably isn't very important to a turtle though, because their senses of vision and smell are excellent. The brain center for hearing is quite small by comparison.

questions about turtles
Q. What's the largest turtle?

A. Leatherback sea turtle
95 inches

The largest tortoise is the Galapagos Tortoise. The largest freshwater turtle in the US is the Alligator Snapping Turtle.

questions about turtles
Q. What's the smallest turtle?

A. Speckled Cape padloper tortoise
usually under 3 inches

The Speckled Cape Padloper is a tortoise, so I'll tell you the smallest turtle, too. The Bog Turtle or Muhlenbergs Turtle, usually stays under four inches long. It is endangered.

questions about turtles
Q. Are there any poisonous turtles?

A. Not really, but...

Turtles don't have teeth or fangs the way snakes do, so they have no way to deliver poison into a victim. They don't use venom for protection or predation. But there have been many reports of people becoming ill after eating American box turtles. The poison at work is apparently from mushrooms which are harmful to humans but have no effect on the turtles that eat them.
turtle reproductive behavior
 Q. Do turtles take care of their babies?

A. No, they lay eggs and then go away.

The females try to find a safe place that will be good for the eggs to hatch, and they dig a nest in the ground. Different kinds of turtles look for different kinds of places to nest, but they all dig with their hind legs. When they get the nest just right, they lay the eggs. Some turtles lay just one or two eggs each time, and some lay dozens of eggs at a time. Most turtles leave the nest, but some mothers have been seen guarding their nests to keep the eggs safe from snakes. North American Wood Turtles have been seen doing this in areas where egg-eating snakes are a problem. Burmese Tortoises will sometimes stand guard too. They don't take care of babies once they have hatched though. The hatchlings are on their own.

learn about turtles
Q. How long do they live?

A. Some can live a very long time.

The large tortoises from the Galapagus Islands can live more than 200 years. Some American box turtle have been documented at over 100 years old. Some sea turtles probably live 75 years or more. The common pet, the red-eared slider, can live 40 years or more if they receive good care.

questions about turtles
Q. What should I feed my turtle?

A. That depends on what kind of turtle you have.

 Info on turtle nutrition. / And info on tortoise care.


questions about turtles
Q. What do turtles do in the winter?

A. Many of them brummate.

Brummate is just another word for hibernate. Find out more here: How Turtles Hibernate Through the Winter

questions about turtles
Q. What's the difference between turtles and tortoises?

A. Water!
Or where you live.

In North America, we call them "tortoises" if they live almost entirely on land and don't need constant access to water. We call them "turtles" if they do need constant access to water. This includes box turtles, basking turtles, mud turtles and sea turtles. We use the word "terrapin" only for one type of turtle that lives in brackish (slightly salty) water-- the diamondback terrapin.

In Europe, only sea turtles are called "turtles." Freshwater varieties are called "terrapins" and land based varieties are called "tortoises" including box turtles that need access to water.

In Australia, almost all kinds of turtles, except sea turtles, are likely to be called tortoises. Australia doesn't have any land turtles, just fresh water and sea turtles.

Here's a good word you can use for any of them-- chelonian (kell-OHN-ee-uhn.) That's the name for the scientific "order" that includes sea turtles, freshwater turtles, terrapins and tortoises.


questions about turtles
Q. Can I catch diseases from turtles?

A. Yes, if you're not careful.

Turtles and other reptiles can carry salmonella bacteria. This doesn't bother the turtle but can make humans very sick. It shouldn't be a big problem though, if you take a few precautions.

The way to avoid getting sick is to follow a few normal rules of hygiene. Don't put reptiles in your mouth. Wash your hands carefully with soap after you handle the turtle. Very young children should just look, and not touch reptiles. Don't let reptiles walk (or slither) around in the house; keep them in their cages and tanks.

The most common source of salmonellosis is undercooked food, especially eggs and poultry, not pet turtles.

More info on salmonellosis from reptiles


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Click here for some jokes, legends and links about turtles.


©2000 Mary Hopson, Anchorage, Alaska
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Congratulations! "Turtle Puddle: Kids Questions About Turtles" was reviewed
in my "Surfing the Net with Kids" newspaper column
on 05/13/2009.