Turtle 101

Turtles have been around for centuries and yet we know very little about these cute reptiles that hang around our pond. Whether you have a pet turtle or wild turtle residing with you, here is a little Turtle 101 crash course on your favorite pond friend.

Turtles are among the oldest and most primitive groups of reptiles found all over the world in almost every type of climate.  They have hard shells that protect them from predators. The shell is a modified ribcage and part of its vertebral column, according to the Animal Diversity Web (ADW) at the University of Michigan. The top part of the shell is called the carapace, and the bottom is called the plastron. The shell is made up of about 60 bones that are covered by plates called scutes. Scutes are made of keratin, the same material that makes up humans' fingernails. Fun new fact!

According to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), the turtle order, Testudines (or Chelonia), splits into two suborders, Cryptodira and Pleurodira, based on the method in which they are able to retract their heads and feet into their shells. Pleurodires pull their heads in sideways and Cryptodires draw their heads straight back into the shell. Then these suborders are further split into 13 families, 75 genera and more than 300 species. Who knew there were so many types of turtles?

The most common names that are often interchangeably used for these reptiles are "turtle” and "tortoise", but according to the San Diego Zoo there are distinct differences between these species. Turtles are adapted for aquatic life and spend most of their lives in water. They are equipped with webbed feet or flippers and a streamlined body. Freshwater turtles live in ponds and lakes, and they climb out of the water onto logs or rocks to bask in the warm sun. Tortoises are land animals. Their feet are round and stumpy, adapted for walking on land. They also dig burrows with their strong forelimbs, and slip underground when the sun gets too hot.

If you are in the market for a turtle, your best bet is to only buy pond turtles that are native to your region but the following is a list of aquatic turtles that can adapt and live in a range of temperatures: Red Eared Sliders, Painted, Map, Musk (stinkpots), Mud, and Snapping turtles.

Keeping your turtles safe around your pond is something to consider. You will need to build a fence or a wall to keep the turtles from wandering off and to keep predators from getting in and attacking them. For small and shallow ponds, you might want to think about putting a wire mesh cover over the top of the pond. Larger ponds are recommended as they give turtles protection from predators as they won’t be able to catch a turtle that dives into deeper waters or that is basking out in the middle of the pond on a partially submerged log.

Like fish, many pond turtles can survive freezing cold winters because at around 50°F they go into a state of hibernation or brumation. As the temperatures drop into the 60’s, pond turtles will begin to eat less and eventually stop eating all together. When it drops to 50°F, the turtles will lay on the bottom of their pond and hibernate. Some breeds like the Mud and Musk turtles will choose to dig into the mud while breeds like the Red Eared Slider will just lay on the bottom. Proper turtle care involves only letting healthy turtles hibernate. Juveniles due to their size don’t handle cold temperatures as well as fully grown turtles so alternate accommodations should be made like building a tank for winter. Winterize your pond by turning off water features as they can cause the water temperature to cool considerably.  Also consider a submersible water heater, a floating heater, and a deicer to keep the pond from freezing over. The exchange of gases will allow the turtles to breathe easily underwater.

Diet is important for turtles but they are pretty easy to feed. "Most water turtle species are omnivorous, and will eat fresh green produce as well as feeder fish and worms," says resident PetSmart veterinarian, Nick Saint-Erne, DVM, CertAqV. "There are also pelleted diets for them that are nutritious and easy to use.

According to Saint Erne, "Turtles and tortoises are good pets because most of them are relatively small; they are quiet and easy to care for if provided with the correct habitat and diet". There are so many reasons to be fond of turtles and/or to have one as a pet. They come in all shapes, colors, and sizes and are the ultimate conservationists.  They extract water and nutrients from the smallest bites and store the water in their bodies for when they need it. Turtles also need to bask in the sun so if you love to sunbathe, you may have found your perfect companion. They are easy to love since they are beautiful, cute (yes they do have personalities), cheap, easy to take care of, always listen, teach you responsibility, will not hurt you, and are an instant best friend. They can also provide an element of intrigue and beauty to your water garden. So if you’re considering an addition to your pond, strongly consider the beloved turtle.