What Do Turtles Need to Live?

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Turtles are reptiles — not amphibians as commonly believed — that depend on their natural environment for life. Because those environments can differ significantly, turtles have adapted in size, weight, lifestyle, dietary needs, and even color to survive in the wild. There are 320 turtle species existing today, and about 50 of those are kept as pets.

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Young turtle on expanse of pebbles

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Turtle facts and food

Turtles cover a wide array of characteristics and have a variety of needs depending on their species. Turtles can be 3 inches to 8 feet long, and weigh up to 1,800 pounds. All turtles breathe air, yet turtle species inhabit a surprising variety of terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems on every continent in the world except Antarctica.

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A few turtle species are herbivores, surviving only on plants. But most turtles are omnivores, meaning they eat meat and plants, surviving primarily on insects, worms, and leafy vegetation. Even types of sea turtles forage through sea grass and sometimes eat smaller marine creatures. The leatherback turtle, for instance, eats jellyfish almost exclusively. Turtles have strong jaws and beaks, but no teeth.

Land turtles

Tortoises, land turtles, and box turtles live on dry land and can even exist in desert conditions. These turtles require a regular source of fresh water that is separate from their living conditions. Land turtles also need extremely dry weather and consistent temperatures so that they can keep warm. Land turtles do not have to spend as much time basking as marine turtles because their non-marine environment is naturally warmer.

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Tortoises specifically live exclusively on land and can in fact drown easily in water because they are not strong swimmers. They usually have domed shells and are a burrowing species thanks to their flat, spade-like front feet. Many tortoise species are endangered even though individuals can live as long as 50 to 100 years. Tortoises require large environments and specific humidity levels.

Marine turtles

Marine turtles and sea turtles live in rivers, lakes, oceans, and areas where they have access to both land and water. Found in the Indian Ocean and the beaches of the Eastern Pacific, sea turtles migrate significant distances and come ashore primarily to lay eggs. They are still air breathers and must be able to reach the surface to breathe.

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All marine turtles need access to sunlight to warm themselves and may spend hours basking on beaches or river banks to maintain their temperature. Types of sea turtles include green, hawksbill, loggerhead, leatherback, and olive Ridley. Sea turtles are endangers — unfortunately, three types of sea turtles are listed as critically endangered.

Protection and predators

All turtles can fall prey to larger predators, so need places that can provide protection such as plants, rocks, logs, caves, and even overhanging river banks. Places of protection also provide the turtles somewhere to build nests and lay eggs. Most sea and freshwater turtles leave the water only to bask in the sun (necessary for metabolism) or lay eggs.

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Whether on the land or in the water, turtles have a few predators they must watch for such as large birds, mammals, and even other turtles. Newly hatched turtles are the most vulnerable to predators. Interesting, some turtle species have developed unique defense responses such as quickly jumping into the water while basking, alerting other turtles to follow their lead.

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