Which name fits the shelled creature to a T?
Turtles. Tortoises. Terrapins. All different, yet much the same. During a visit to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida you can see all of them and learn about how and where they live and what sets each apart.
They are all members of the animal superorder Chelonia, and have been around since the time of the dinosaurs. Their way of life, their body structure and metabolism have enabled them to adapt to all different types of environments.
All turtles are reptiles. A simple way to identify a reptile is to remember the word SCALES. Reptiles have Spines, they are Cold-blooded, they breathe Air through their Lungs, they lay Eggs, and their skin has Scales.
In North America, “turtle” is the name commonly given to chelonians that live in water – freshwater or saltwater. In the Dalton Discovery Center, you will see Luna, our juvenile loggerhead sea turtle, swimming vigorously or sleeping soundly in the large patch reef tank. Native Florida turtles are in a tank they share – warily – with the baby alligators. In the Hall of Invasives next-door, you can see red-eared sliders, members of a ubiquitous but non-native species.
Tortoises are also land animals. They live in dry habitats, cannot survive in water, and generally live very long lives. On the Conservancy is a fenced-in scrubland preserve that is home to many native gopher tortoises. They often can be seen outside of their burrows (they dig long slanted tunnels under the surface, hence the name gopher) munching on prickly pear cactus. Not only do these tortoises not live in water, they don’t even drink it – they get their water supply from the cactus they eat.
So, what about terrapins? How do they differ?
Step inside the Welcome Center, or peek in through a window, and you will see a large tank with two active diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin). Terrapin is the term we use for turtles that live in brackish or slightly salty water. The beautiful diamondback terrapin is found along the eastern coast of North America as far north as Cape Cod. They used to be abundant, but were heavily hunted for the pet trade and for food and their numbers have dwindled. They are also attracted to the baits used in blue claw crab traps, and if those traps do not have turtle excluders built into them, trapped terrapins will drown. They are considered endangered or threatened in much of their range, but conservation efforts have been helping their numbers to recover.