It’s World Turtle Day! With the largest collection of turtles at any zoo or aquarium in North America, it’s pretty safe to say that we think turtles are worth shell-ebrating all year long. Visitors are often surprised to learn just how many turtle species live on Earth (hundreds!) and how incredibly diverse this order of reptiles can be. We recently tasked our herpetology department with listing just a few of the most unique species living here at the Aquarium. If you think these three are turtle-ly awesome, there are so many more to discover. (Our point is, GO LEARN ABOUT TURTLES!)
1) Matamata (Chelus fimbriata)
Where in the world: Northern South America and the Island of Trinidad
You might have noticed that this turtle’s head is very flat and looks a lot like a leaf. The Matamata is an ambush predator that sits at the bottom of a waterway waiting for its prey to make that exact mistake. This turtle has poor eyesight, but it has several sensory receptors on the face that allow for it to detect the motion of prey items as they swim nearby. These turtles can also be quite large. They can grow up to around 45cm and weigh nearly 40lbs.
2) Big-Headed Turtle (Platysternon megacephalum)
Where in the world: China, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Lao People’s Democratic Republic
Despite their appearance, these turtles are not related to snapping turtles. They use their hooked beak, strong legs and long tail to navigate the streams in which they live. Fun (but logical) fact: Big-headed turtles cannot pull their head entirely into their shell. As a result, the tops of their head are heavily armored. This species is currently listed as Critically Endangered due to habitat destruction and large numbers being harvested every year from the wild.
3) Pig-nosed Turtle (Carettochelys insculpta)
Where in the world: Papua New Guinea, Northern Australia, and Southern Indonesia
Currently listed as Endangered in the wild, the pig-nosed turtle (also known as the Fly River turtle) is a living fossil as it is the sole living member of a family of turtles that was once more widespread. It has paddles instead of feet on its front legs (like a sea turtle) and a snorkel-shaped snout that gives rise to its common name. It can reach a size of up to around 27” in shell length and weight around 60lbs.
Did you know? Turtles and tortoises are some of the world’s most endangered vertebrates with half or more species threatened by extinction. Scientists and staff at the Tennessee Aquarium and other AZA-accredited institutions are working to save multiple species both in our area and across the globe.