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10.14: Turtles

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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What are these?

This picture might look like a bunch of ping-pong balls, but actually it's a picture of turtle eggs. Notice the soft, leathery shell that is typical of reptile eggs.


Turtles are reptiles in the order Testudines. If you have seen turtles before, what is the most noticeable thing about them? Their shells. Most turtle bodies are covered by a special shell developed from their ribs. Their shells can be bony or cartilaginous, made from a more flexible supportive tissue. About 300 species are alive today, and some are highly endangered. Like other reptiles, turtles cannot regulate their body temperature, except with behavioral means, such as burrowing underground.

Turtles are broken down into two groups, based on how they bring their neck back into their shell:

  1. Cryptodira, which can draw their neck inside and under their spine.
  2. Pleurodira, which fold their necks to one side.

Characteristics of Turtles

Although many turtles spend large amounts of their lives underwater, they can also spend much of their lives on dry land and breathe air. Turtles cannot breathe in water, but can hold their breath for long periods of time. Turtles must surface at regular intervals to refill their lungs.

The position of a turtle's eyes can give a clue to their natural habitat. Most turtles that spend most of their lives on land have their eyes looking down at objects in front of them. Some aquatic turtles, such as snapping turtles and soft-shelled turtles, have eyes closer to the top of the head. These species of turtles can hide from predators in shallow water, where they lie entirely submerged in water except for their eyes and nostrils.

Sea turtles (Figure below) have glands near their eyes that produce salty tears, which remove excess salt taken in from the water they drink.

A species of sea turtle, showing placement of eyes, shell shape, and flippers.

Turtles have exceptional night vision due to the unusually large number of cells that sense light in their eyes. Turtles also have color vision.

Turtles don’t lay eggs underwater. Turtles lay slightly soft and leathery eggs, like other reptiles. The eggs of the largest species are spherical, while the eggs of the rest are longer in shape. When a female is ready to lay her eggs, she places a large numbers of eggs in holes dug into mud or sand. They are then covered and left to grow and develop by themselves. When the turtles hatch, they squirm their way to the surface and head toward the water.

How do Turtles Eat?

Turtles have a rigid beak and use their jaws to cut and chew food. Instead of teeth, the upper and lower jaws of the turtle are covered by horny ridges. Carnivorous, or animal-eating turtles usually have knife-sharp ridges for slicing through their prey. Herbivorous turtles have serrated ridges that help them cut through tough plants.

How Big Are Turtles?

The largest turtle is the great leatherback sea turtle (Figure below), which can have a shell length of seven feet and can weigh more than 2,000 pounds. The only surviving giant tortoises are on the Seychelles and Galápagos Islands and can grow to over four feet in length and weigh about 670 pounds (Figure below). The smallest turtle is the speckled padloper tortoise of South Africa, measuring no more than three inches in length, and weighing about five ounces.

The leatherback turtle can reach up to seven feet in length and weigh over 2,000 pounds.

A Galápagos giant tortoise can grow to over feet ft in length and weigh about 670 lb.


  • carnivorous: Eating other animals.
  • cartilaginous: Made of a flexible, supportive tissue.


  • Most turtle bodies are covered by a special bony or cartilaginous shell developed from their ribs.
  • Turtles cannot breathe in water, although many turtles spend large amounts of their lives underwater.


Use the resources below to answer the questions that follow.

  1. How does cloacal respiration work?
  2. Why is this sort respiration vital for the turtles? Consider a turtles habitat and metabolism in answering this question.
  1. How many populations of leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) are there in the Pacific Ocean?
  2. Why do scientists feel that beaches like Playa Grande are important to the survival of this species? Explain your answer as fully as possible, and consider biotic and abiotic factors.
  3. How could natural selection explain why leatherback turtles favor beaches like Playa Grande?


  1. How are turtles divided into two groups?
  2. How do turtles eat?

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carnivorous Eating other animals.
cartilaginous Made of a flexible, supportive tissue.

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Difficulty Level:
At Grade

Concept Nodes:

7 , 8
Date Created:
Nov 29, 2012
Last Modified:
Aug 30, 2016
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