May 23 is World Turtle Day, celebrating the tortoise and the turtle. Started by the American Tortoise Rescue (ATR) in 2000, the annually celebrated day shines a spotlight on care, conservation and awareness of the oldest living reptiles in the world.
Based in Malibu, California, ATR is the leading advocate for the care, rescue and protection of these ancient reptiles. Placing over 1,000 tortoises and 2,000 turtles into caring homes over the past 25 years, ATR also rescues abandoned pets and offers helpful advice for looking after sick turtles. Dedicated to the day, ATR promotes the education of turtles and tortoises, encouraging discussion and research into further safeguarding practices.
The two are often confused. Generally, turtles live and swim in the sea while tortoises are land-based. However, scientifically, "turtle" is used to describe any member of the order Testudine, which includes both turtles and tortoises!
There are seven species of turtle: The flatback sea turtle (Natator depressus), olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta), Kemp's ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) and hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), of which the latter four are classified as endangered or critically endangered.
Turtles can be found in most of the world's oceans, with the exception of the Arctic and Antarctic. As adults, these omnivores can measure up to between 0.61 meters and 2.7 meters (2-9 feet) in length and can weigh up to 680 kilograms (1,500 pounds). All have a carapace (hard shell) except the leatherback, which has bony plates underneath leathery skin.
There are many species of tortoise, including the now-extinct Abaco tortoise (Chelonoidis albuyorum) and the saddle-backed Rodrigues giant tortoise (Cylindraspis vosmaeri). Most species of tortoise are herbivorous, with a few exceptions eating worms and insects.
Tortoises have the longest lifespans of any animal. In fact, the oldest ever tortoise (named Tu’i Malila) recorded was given to the Tongan family in 1777 by British explorer Captain Cook and lived to a grand old age of 188.
Giant tortoises move at a very leisurely pace of 0.27 kilometers per hour (0.17 miles per hour). Although tortoises are known for giving rise to the saying “slow and steady wins the race” from the Aesop fable The Hare and the Tortoise, the fastest recorded speed of a tortoise on land is a relatively zippy 8 kilometers per hour (5 miles per hour)!
In the wild, both tortoises and turtles are at risk from illegal hunting and poaching, oil spills, artificial light from coastal cities, and non-recyclable waste. As pets, these long-living reptiles can suffer greatly from improper care and handling.
Even if you like your reptiles fighting villains in the mean streets of New York City, carrying the four elephants of the Discworld through space or kidnapping Princess Peach, we can all do our part to ensure these majestic creatures are preserved, whether as pets or in the wild.