On an Everglades airboat tour in South Florida, visitors can expect to see a variety of turtles. Turtles are reptiles of the order Testudines, known for their special bony or cartilaginous shell, which extends from their ribs and acts as a shield.
The earliest known members of the group date back to 157 million years ago, making them one of the oldest reptile groups – older than snakes and crocodilians. Furthermore, turtles are ectotherms, meaning their internal temperature varies according to their environment.
Species of Turtles in Everglades National Park
The Florida Everglades in South Florida is home to a wide variety of species of turtles. Let’s explore some of them:
- Florida snapping turtle: The Florida snapping turtle is better left alone due to its ability to lunge forward or “snap” at incredible speeds at anything it perceives as a threat. The speed of their bite has been timed at 78 milliseconds! They can be identified by their ridged shell, though more pronounced in young snappers. Spending most of their time in the water, their head is quite large in relation to the rest of their body, with a sharp, prominent snout and a hooked upper jaw used for cutting.
- Florida box turtle: The Florida box turtle is the southernmost subspecies of the common box turtle. Florida Box turtles display a beautiful yellow and black variation on their carapace, which they use to camouflage themselves. Box turtles usually live 50 to 70 years but can live longer than 100. Box turtles spend most of their time on land and eat insects, fruits, berries, and seeds.
- Striped mud turtle: This unique turtle is a smaller species of aquatic turtle with a distinctly oval shell and thrives in waters with low salinity levels. Their shell is typically brown with three stripes, while the head is rust-colored with two small yellow stripes on each side. Their diet primarily consists of insects, worms, snails, seeds, and the remains of invertebrates.
- Florida softshell turtle: Softshell turtles can be found throughout most of the Southeastern United States. Florida softshell turtles have a soft, leathery exterior that is typically dark brown to olive green. They have unique tubular nostrils that extend past their eyes and webbed feet.They are primarily carnivorous and can aggressively bite when they sense perceived threats! This turtle species spends most of its time in water but can often be spotted basking in the sun along the water’s edge.
- Florida red-bellied cooter: The Florida red-bellied cooter has a black, highly domed shell with yellow variations. As the name implies, their unique red belly is their distinguishing characteristic. Cooters are mainly herbivorous and mostly eat rooted aquatic vegetation. This turtle species often can be seen basking on floating logs on sunny days, quickly fleeing into the water once disturbed.
Sea Turtles in the Everglades
Although the Florida Everglades is primarily a freshwater ecosystem, it is also home to about 485,000 acres of saltwater, providing habitat to freshwater and saltwater turtle species. Let’s explore some of the sea turtles that one can expect to find in the Everglades.
- Loggerhead sea turtle: The loggerhead sea turtle is named for its large head, which supports its powerful jaw muscles, allowing it to feed on hard-shelled prey such as conch. Like most sea turtles, this sea turtle lives the entirety of its life in the ocean, only inhabiting sandy beaches in coastal areas as hatchling sea turtles on their way to the ocean or for laying their eggs later on in life.
- Green sea turtle: Green sea turtles are one of the world’s largest species of sea turtles. They are named for the layer of green fat found under their shell, which is most likely the result of their vegetarian diet consisting mostly of seaweed and seagrass. Like most sea turtles, the green sea turtle migrates long distances between their feeding grounds and nesting-mating sites, with record distances exceeding 1,600 miles!
Turtles can be found above and below ground, perfect for trying to spot during our world-famous Everglades airboat journey. They can be found in all warm and temperate waters worldwide, and some migrate hundreds of miles between nesting and feeding grounds.
TURTLE SIZE & APPEARANCE
Known species you will see at Everglades Holiday Park span in length from 3 inches to 6.6 feet and range in weight between 5 ounces to a full ton – 2,000 pounds!
Turtles are separated into two groups depending on how they withdraw their necks into their shells. The Cryptodira withdraw their necks under their spines, while the Pleurodia contract their necks to the side; spotting these differences on a group or private airboat tour is always a great game to play.
They have rigid beaks and use their jaws to cut and chew food. The jaws are covered in sharp, horny ridges rather than teeth. Their upper shell is called the carapace, while the lower shell is called the plastron. They are joined together on turtles’ sides by bony structures called bridges.
Their diets largely depend on the species and the habitat in which they are found. Turtles typically feed on many plants that grow in water, small insects, snails, worms, and even dead marine animals and fish. Due to the importance of protein intake in their growth, wild turtles are mainly carnivorous when they are young and gradually add plants and vegetation to their diets as they age.
Threats to Turtles in the Everglades
Endangered Status and Conservation Efforts
Some species of turtles, such as the green sea turtle and loggerhead sea turtle, are threatened by extinction and are in need of conservation efforts. The green sea turtle is currently classified as endangered due to human activity such as egg harvesting and marine debris they mistake as food, hunting, fishing, and habitat loss.
Meanwhile, the loggerhead sea turtle is currently listed as threatened. The greatest primary threat to the loggerhead populations worldwide is bycatch in fishing gear.
However, there are efforts to conserve sea turtles. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 legally protects all sea turtles and their habitat from human disturbance. Even the disorientation of sea turtles due to artificial lights is considered a violation of the act.
Invasive Species and their Impact on Turtle Habitats
Invasive species are a particular concern for the Everglades ecosystem. They wreak havoc on the environment and threaten the livelihood of native species. Exotic fish devour native fish species, and invasive trees such as the melaleuca tree shade out important indigenous plants. Some invasive species with a significant negative impact include Burmese pythons and lionfish.
Everglades National Park and Turtle Protection
Florida Fish and Wildlife Initiatives
Florida Fish and Wildlife (FWC) takes initiatives to protect turtle species and their habitats by upholding laws to restrict human disturbances. Furthermore, they conduct scientific, conservation, and educational activities about marine turtles.
The Role of the National Park Service
The National Park Service also conserves turtle species and their habitats, designing nesting beaches for hatchling turtles as protected areas. Additionally, they monitor sea turtle nesting activity, fund additional research, and educate the public about the importance of protecting the turtles.
The Turtle’s Role in the Everglades Ecosystem
Turtles play a significant role in the complex Florida Everglades ecosystem. Disturbance of just one turtle can have dire implications for years to come. It is important to acknowledge their role within the fragile ecosystem and make efforts to conserve them.
Turtles and the Everglades Food Chain
Some species of turtle, such as the box turtle and the green sea turtle, begin their lifecycle as a carnivore for the sake of accumulating additional energy while they experience rapid growth and then transition to omnivores as they mature.
So, for example, on an Everglades food chain, the adult turtle species would be considered a primary consumer or secondary consumer (depending on if it eats plants or animals that day), while the tertiary consumer above it would be an alligator, the turtle’s primary predator.
Nesting Habits and Reproduction
The nesting habits between turtles vary depending on the species of turtle. However, what all the turtle species have in common is that nesting females will lay eggs in nests that they dig in the ground. Furthermore, turtles do not provide parental care to their young.
Sea turtles nest in the sand, while freshwater turtles build their nests along the banks of rivers, ponds, or swamps. Female turtles prefer to return to their own place of birth to lay their eggs, often traveling many miles to be able to do so. Some species of turtles, like the striped mud turtle, can take over a year to merge from the nest cavity!
One of the most interesting things about turtle nesting patterns is that the incubation temperature of the nest determines the sex of the turtle. Warmer temperatures result in more females, while cooler temperatures produce more males.
The Everglades Experience: Airboat Rides and Turtle Sightings
Experience the joy of a turtle sighting with an airboat ride, the true Everglades experience.
Interactions Between Turtles and Other Everglades Wildlife
- Turtles are amniotes, meaning they breathe air and lay eggs above ground.
- The word turtle is used differently by region. All chelonians are called turtles in North America, including tortoises and terrapins. In Great Britain, the word turtle is only used for sea-dwelling species.
- The largest turtle ever known was Archelon ischyros, a Late Cretaceous sea turtle known to have been up to 15 feet.
- They stopped having teeth about 150-200 million years ago.
- Contrary to popular belief, a turtle cannot crawl out of its shell. The shell is actually a vital part of the turtle’s skeleton, as much as our ribcage is ours.
- Sea turtles always come back to the same beach they were originally born on to lay their eggs, traversing thousands of miles in the ocean using electromagnetic currents to guide their way.