Slow But Steady – World Turtle Day

May 24, 2009 at 12:12 am | Posted in itchy mouth | 2 Comments
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I din know that there’s a day dedicated for our four-legged shelled friends since year 2000, though I knew 2006 was the Year of the Turtle. But I think the purpose of both events aimed at raising awareness of the plight of turtles and tortoises and to conserve the decreasing population, saving them from extinction. Many species of turtles and tortoises are threatened by habitat loss, pollution of water, egg poaching, collection for the pet trade, as well as for food and traditional medicine. Hence, though they are slow movers, their numbers are certainly going down fast. 😦

Turtles and tortoises hibernate in the temperate countries. This month is the period when many have recently emerged from their long winter hibernation, and begin their search for mates and nesting areas. Hence May 23 has been designated World Turtle Day.

Since it is the World Turtle Day, let’s have a little turtle talk. :p

You will be surprised again, that many people have mistaken or confused between the name ‘turtle’ and ‘tortoise’. There were many times when Itchyfingers heard people pointing at the turtles in ponds and called them ‘tortoises’. Have lost count how many times I corrected children on that.

So, what’s the difference between turtles and tortoises then? Not same meh?

First, the difference is the habitat. Turtles live in water. As such, turtles have webbed feet (like ducks) to facilitate efficient swimming. Sea turtles have flippers. They spend most of their time in water, either the sea or pond, and leaving the water only to lay eggs or to bask under the sun. Most are omnviores.

The Soft-shelled Turtle 

One of the most bizarre-looking turtles, the Matamata (Chelus fimbriatus)
is also one of the largest freshwater turtles. It is from the Northern South

The mouth of the Matamata is wide and the snout is long. The eyes are very
small and they are located by the snout. Can’t help but think that it looks
like it’s snorkelling under water…hahah…
8) Itchyfingers dunnu about
you, but I think Matamata looks damn cute and cool!

Tortoises, on the other hand, are land dwellers so do not need webbed feet. Instead they have rounded legs for crawling. Their shells are also more dome-shaped. Most are herbviores.

The Aldabra Giant Tortoise (Geochelone gigantea) from Seychelles,
is the second largest tortoise after the
Galapagos Giant Tortoise. This is
Astove from our Zoo, a male estimated to be more than 75 year old

Hmmm…sounds simple huh…But to make things complicated, there’s another group named “terrapins”. Frankly, I have not heard of this until few years back when I sent my baby to the vet. The nurse put the word ‘terrapin’ under the ‘pet’s name’ column. Hey! My baby does have a name ok! :O

Anyway, a terrapin “splits its time between land and water, with food sources both on land and water”. It is confusing to me as some people called the most common species of turtles sold as pet, the Red Eared Sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), as terrapins.

My beautiful babies…Toto, piggy-backing on Mei Mei during happier times
together…wondering if they are actually terrapins or turtles..
.This site
says Red ear sliders are turtles 

I remembered reading on some books that the difference lies whether it is American or British English used, so it is kinda interchangeable…can’t remember which is which so did some research and found this explanation on Wiki, which confirmed that I remembered correctly what I read:

“Precisely how these alternative names are used, depends on the type of English being used. British English normally describes these reptiles as turtles if they live in the sea; terrapin if they live in fresh or brackish water (with the exception of Fly River Turtle, also known as Pig-nosed Turtle). American English tends to use the word turtle for all freshwater species, as well as for certain land-dwelling species (eg box turtles). Oceanic species are usually referred to as sea turtles. The name terrapin is typically reserved only for the brackish water Diamondback terrapin. Australian English uses turtle for both the marine and freshwater species…”

Another site also mentioned the same thing, that “the difference between turtles and terrapins is highly debated, and in America any chelonian (shelled reptile) that’s not a tortoise is called a turtle “. According to Wiki, “a terrapin is a specific species of turtle, the Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) that lives in brackish water.”

A sign at the zoo explaining the differences but also mentioned that “some
people use the term ‘turtles’ for ‘terrapins’ as well”

So now you have a clearer idea of the differences between ‘turtles’, ‘tortoises’ and ‘terrapins’? 8)

PS: Itchyfingers congratulate the Singapore first women team to successfully scale Mount Everest! Their pace might be slow in taking five long years to prepare, train and raise fund, but like turtles and tortoises, they are slow and steady and displayed great courage and determination in completing the personal challenge against all odd!

Also see related posts:
> Changing Colours – Mistaken Identities #2
Living in Cold Blood – Mistaken Identities #1
Snake Tales 
> Life in the Mountain – Fraser’s Hill, Malaysia trip #4



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  1. Great post! I always gets very annoyed when people see red-eared sliders and call them ‘tortoises’. I can tolerate ‘terrapin’, but I tend to reserve it for that single species, the diamondback terrapin… all other semi-aquatic and aquatic species are turtles to me. Blame it on all the books on turtles written by North American authors that I read as a teenager.

    I need to do a post about my visit to the Live Turtle & Tortoise Museum in December, and all the interesting species I saw over there. What a shame that so many species are now seriously threatened because of overexploitation for food and the pet trade…

    • Yes, I visited the Live Turtle and Tortoise Museum a few times and each time I would stay at least 1 or 2 hours admiring the many turtles and tortoises. Simply beautiful. Talking to Mr Tan you can really feel his love for his babies…a pity they don’t really have that much space for all.

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