Visitors to local ponds, rivers or coast lines often cross paths with one or more of the local turtle population. Due primarily to their popularity as pets, the Red-eared Slider in the top picture greets many pond visitors because pet owners have historically released them into local ponds. Their aggressive nature often translates into their pushing out local turtle species from their territory.
When it comes to turtle counting, no one beats The Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group at the IUCN. Their recently published revised taxonomy of the types of turtles that inhabit much of the world consists of 454 separate turtles (317 species and 137 subspecies). North American turtles cover six of the families and fifty-five separate species, with species diversity reaching its highest in the Southeast.
Typically turtles informally divide into three categories, fresh water turtles, tortoises (land turtles), and sea turtles or salt water turtles. By far, the majority of turtle species seen by the average American fits into the first category, fresh water turtles. Press the button to learn more about them. Read more on this page to learn more about native turtle species from other turtle families.
Four native tortoise species walk the North American soils. The least known and largest species, the Bolson tortoise (Gopherus flavomarginatus) inhabits high altitude areas of the a Chihuahuan desert in northern Mexico and areas of New Mexico and Arizona.
Listed as endangered, efforts to protect its critical habitat have been established.
The Texas Tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri), the smallest of the four native tortoise species, inhabits areas of northern Mexico and Southern Texas. Population declines led to its being designated a protected species in 1977.
The Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus), pictured, inhabits sandy soil areas in the Southeastern United States from Florida to the eastern parts of Louisiana. They live year round in large burrows, often measuring thirty feet in length. During the day they emerge to bask in the sun and forage for food, mostly plant life.
The western population population are federally listed as threatened, with habitat loss cited as the cause of declining populations. Florida also lists them as threatened. Georgia designated them the official state reptile in 1989.
The Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii), a Southwest native species with distinct populations in the Mohave and Sonoran deserts. The Sonoran desert population tends to live along rocky hillsides, the Mohave desert population tends to live in flatland areas.
The Mojave population has been listed as threatened. In October 2008 a couple of groups petitioned to have the Sonoran Desert population likewise listed, claiming that population levels have fallen by about 50% during the past twenty years.
Two snapping turtle species (family Chelydridae) inhabit the muddy water bottoms of ponds and streams across most of the Eastern United States: the Common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and the Alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii). Apart from breeding season where they come ashore to lay eggs, they spend most of their lives buried in the river bottom, so seeing one in the wild can be a real treat. The Alligator snapping turtle holds the title of largest water turtle in the United States.
Six Soft-shelled Turtle species, family Trionychidae, inhabit a variety of native water environments from rivers to ponds to drainage areas. In most instances, their large size, flat shells, pointed noses and propensity to bask in the sun, make them easy to spot and identify. They are omnivores that feed on a variety of local plant and animals within their territory.
Seven different sea turtles live and breed in tropical and subtropical oceans of the world. With the exception of the Leatherback, they all grow hard shells.
All seven species have experienced significant population declines over the last couple of decades, and all are considered either vulnerable or endangered.
With the exception of the Flatback and Kemp’s Ridley turtles, sea turtles range extends across the world’s oceans. Their nesting grounds, the world’s beaches, share many similar characteristics. Habitat destruction or human encroachment in their traditional nesting grounds, along with increased fishing in their foraging areas, where they are accidentally captured as byproducts, and pollution are a few of the multiple factors that scientists cite as the primary factors contributing to their decline.<
Six of the world’s seven sea turtle species call beaches around the country their nesting homes. They fit into two different turtle families.
Leatherback Sea Turtles (Dermochelys coriacea), the world’s largest marine turtles, easily reach lengths of over six feet long.
The name leatherback aptly describes its most important physical characteristic. It is the only soft shell sea turtle, and it is also considered warm blooded, with the ability to regulate its body temperature during forays into colder ocean water.
Loggerhead Sea Turtles (Caretta caretta), the most common sea turtle species found along North American coast lines, continue to experience population stress.
While the south Atlantic coastal region and the Gulf of Mexico host most sea turtle nesting sites, several species do visit the West Coast.