If you grew up reading the Aesop fable about the tortoise and the hare, you'll know the turtle is not the fastest animal in that race. However, the actual speed of turtles might surprise you. Some species move 1 mile per hour on land, and sea turtles can set impressive records in the water, especially when threatened.
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"Turtles" is a term referring to sea turtles, freshwater land turtles, and tortoises. So, determining turtle speed depends on the type and species. Clearly, a turtle's strong shell is his best defense against predators. Turtles are attached to their shells; they are not resting inside. Pulling themselves into their shell is their first defensive impulse, but evading is sometimes necessary, and that's when water gives turtles a speed advantage.
Turtle speed on land
What's the fastest turtle on land? Although it's hard to determine definitively, the freshwater river cooter is thought to be the fastest land turtle. It's capable of running quickly, approximately 1.5 feet per second from water to land and back. They spend part of their days basking in the sun on rocks and logs, and when they are disturbed or threatened, they bolt into the water quickly. Water is their primary habitat; that's where they're safest.
Softshell turtles, such as the smooth softshell turtle and the spiny softshell turtle, move a little slower at up to 3 miles per hour. Among the fabled tortoises, the Seychelles giant tortoise has a documented land speed of .23 miles per hour. However, both land and sea turtles swim three to four times faster in the water than they do on land. Unlike tortoises, who can't swim, turtles are strong swimmers.
Turtle speed in the sea
In the water, turtles are swift and agile. Sea turtles, also called marine turtles, move three to four times faster in the water than on land, which is good because they spend most of their time in the water. Sea turtles have strong flippers. The front flippers thrust the turtle forward, while the back flippers act as rudders for steering. Shells are cumbersome on land, but in water, they become streamlined and are efficient for cutting through the waves.
Marine turtles achieve speeds of up to 10 knots while migrating through the sea. Green sea turtles, for instance, are able to swim 300 miles in 10 days at speeds between 1.5 and 6.3 miles per hour. Leatherback sea turtles are faster, swimming up to 22 miles per hour. Even hatchlings are strong swimmers. Within 30 hours of hatching, baby turtles can swim a 25-mile distance if they reach the water from their sandy nests.
Freshwater turtle speed
Land turtles, such as cooters and red-eared sliders, also swim well thanks to webbed feet allowing them to paddle through rivers and ponds. Other land turtles, including snapping turtles and alligator turtles, actually walk along the bottom of water bodies. Larger freshwater turtles don't swim as quickly as smaller freshwater turtles, but the average freshwater turtle swimming speed is 10 to 12 miles per hour.
Types of sea turtles
There are seven types of sea turtles, and each has both a scientific name and a common name related to a physical characteristic. The common names of sea turtles are loggerhead, green turtle, leatherback, hawksbill, olive ridley, flatback, and Kemp's ridley — the most endangered of all sea turtles.
All marine turtles lay eggs on shores, usually in sandy environments. While the habitats sometimes overlap, each species of sea turtle lives, eats, swims, and mates in different geographical areas. The loggerhead sea turtle is the only species not listed as endangered on the American Endangered Species Act, but it is documented as threatened. Otherwise, sea turtles are an endangered species.