“Try to be like the turtle – at ease in your shell” – Bill Copeland

First, let’s gets some facts straight.

What is a turtle, a terrapin and a tortoise?

A turtle roams the seas and the oceans but the tortoise roams the land and the terrapin is in the middle he roams the land as well as the water(freshwater, brackish and marshy swamps).

In America, the word turtle and terrapin are used interchangeably.

 

Introduction to Elder Mutant Ninja Turtles 

Before Google, in the ancient days within some communities if people were confronted with a problem so they would take it to the elders for it to be resolved most wisely.

A well-traveled elder would be considered wiser because he is well experienced than one settled in a single location.

Similarly, if the animals had to resolve their problems they would ideally approach the turtles in the water and tortoises on land for wisdom.

They are one of the oldest living creatures (on average they live for 80-100 years) and the turtles are clearly well traveled with the leatherback turtle holding the record for traveling over 16,000 km (10,000 miles) each year (I would like to point out that distance in a straight line from north to south of India is around 3000 km).

Navigators 

These marvelous elders are among the best navigators to swim the earth and then return to the beach they are born many years later.

They navigate using the magnetic fields of the earth and a lot of this is still a mystery to us.

So, if you ever find yourself lost and need to find your way ask a turtle.

Evolution

Today let’s talk about the wise and cutest reptiles on this planet and how they evolved.

Turtles, tortoises, and terrapins belong to the order Testudines whose first specimen dates back 250 – 220 million years ago. Eunotsaurus africanus the ancestor was a small land dwelling reptile inhabiting a semi-arid environment. They were unique in the way in which their ribs were turned back and were exceptionally thick.

The timeline makes them among the most primitive beings to inhabit the earth. (Talk about wisdom coming from age)

Turtles evolved from their land dwelling cousins around 110 million years back.

Four distinct families evolved:

  • Toxochelyidae – Extinct
  • Cheloniidae – Six Species alive today
  • Protostegidae – Archelon – Extinct
  • Dermochelyidae – One species alive today

The Archelon meaning ‘ruling turtle’ lived around 75-65 million years ago. This animal was a behemoth measuring 12 feet and weighing in around 2 tons. A giant that roamed the oceans.

 

Anatomy of Elder Mutant Ninja Turtles 

The shell in turtles is reminiscent of the round hunchback of the elders and their shell is divided into two parts: Upper part called the ‘carapace’ and the bottom part called ‘plastron’  

Its carapace comprises of the broadened fused ribs and vertebrae. The leatherback is an exception in which the backbone is not fused.

Turtles cannot retract their heads and limbs inside their shells. It is an adaptation that helps them be more aerodynamic in the water.

Their shell is covered in a layer of keratin which forms ‘scutes.’  And these scutes are their distinctive features which are counted to identify different species of turtles.

These leatherback shells, however, is covered with a thick leathery skin supported by tiny bones instead of scutes. The above adaptations of a flexible body help the leather back dive to depths of up to 3000 feet.

Lacking teeth like most elders the turtle’s mouths are shaped like a beak, sharp and well suited for crushing and tearing food. The leatherbacks have a special adaptation for feeding on jellyfish, the mouth and throat are lined with a series of backward pointing spines called ‘papillae’ to prevent the prey from escaping.

Male and females do not differ externally until sexual maturity. The male has a longer and thicker tail compared to the female as the base of the tail houses the reproductive organ. Additionally, male turtles (except leatherbacks) have elongated curved claws on the front flippers to grasp the female.

 

Species in India

Now I am going to let you meet the elders of India. Think about what advice you wish to seek from them.

 

Olive Ridley first in Elder Mutant Ninja Turtles

Olive in the name is taken after the olive color of the carapace of the turtle. Ridley origin is unclear.

The Olive Ridley is closely related to Kemps Ridley the former distinguishing the latter by the fact that they are found in the warm waters of the Atlantic, pacific and Indian Oceans. Olive and Kemp Ridley are the smallest of the sea turtles and weigh around 45 kgs.

Primarily carnivorous feeding on jellyfish, crabs, and shrimp. Occasionally they feed on algae and seaweed as well.

It has been found that Olive Ridley travels thousands of kms in the oceans and return to the beaches where they were born to lay eggs. They arrive in thousands and this phenomenon is called ‘arribada’ (Spanish for arrival).

Females lay about 110 eggs and may nest twice a year.

Places to see them in India

In India, the coast of Orissa is the largest mass nesting site for the Olive Ridley in the world followed by Mexico and Costa Rica.

Gahirmatha and Rushikulya beach are important nesting sites in India and the best place to see these beautiful animals.

In a rare event 80, Olive Ridley hatchlings made their way to the sea from the Versova beach, Mumbai in March 2018. This was the first sighting after about 12-15 years.

This event was after the beach was subject to a massive cleanup drive which began in 2015 by Afroz Shah and many altruistic volunteers. Nearly 5 million kg of debris was cleared from the 3km shoreline.

Even though being relatively the most abundant among the sea turtles, they are threatened.

 

Hawksbill second in Elder Mutant Ninja Turtles 

 

Hawksbill Turtle

As the name suggestive of the narrow pointed head and mouth that resembles a hawk’s beak.

Found in tropical waters, especially near reefs where their preferred diet is sponges.

Like other turtles, they make long migrations and mate every 2-3 years.

These turtle’s hard shells protect them from most predators except man.

 

Green turtle third one in Elder Mutant Ninja Turtles 

 

Green Turtle

Named after the color of their skin and not their shell these green hulks weigh up to 150kgs.

There are two types of green turtles one habiting the Atlantic (Europe and North America) and the other the eastern Pacific region. Currently, scientists are discussing whether these are separate species or subspecies.  

These giants are herbivores primarily feeding on algae and sea grass.

Being an Octogenarians unlike the others leave the water to sunbathe other than nesting (Please pass the sunscreen).

 

Loggerhead forth one in Elder Mutant Ninja Turtles  

Loggerhead Turtle

 

Termed after the big head which resembles a log these are the largest hard-shelled turtles.

They are the most abundant turtles in the waters of America.

Their powerful jaws aid them to feed on hard shell creatures like crabs and conch. However, they also eat jellyfish, algae and seagrass.

 

Leatherback

 

Leatherback Turtle

The only surviving member of its family, the leatherback is the largest sea turtle alive today.

Weighing over 800kgs with an average length of around 6 feet. This giant is unique is so many ways. Leatherbacks are the most widely distributed reptiles, found in tropical and temperate waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and the Indian Ocean and even in the Mediterranean Sea.

They can regulate body temperature through a blood circulation mechanism known as a countercurrent heat exchanger. This helps it swim in cold waters and dive to icy depths.

The leatherbacks primary food is jellyfish. (Jelly good and soft when one has no teeth)

Leatherback undertakes the longest migrations from their feeding to nesting grounds.

 

Records in India

Sea turtles have been recorded along the east and west coast of India in all of the States, however, development and other factors have had an impact on the occurrence of turtles at these sites over recent years.

In the below chart I will highlight the important places where nesting has been recorded in the near past.

Places in which sightings recordedOlive RidleyHawksbillGreenLoggerhead*Leatherback
West Coast: Gujarat
Maharashtra
Lakshadweep islands
West Bengal
Orissa
Andhra Pradesh **
Tamil Nadu **
Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Notes:

These ticked locations may not necessarily be the nesting sites; they may also be foraging and or migratory sites where the turtles have been observed.

*Loggerhead turtles are recorded near the coast of India however there nesting sites are outside India mostly in Sri Lanka.

** Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh are the two states where all five species of turtles have been recorded in the past. Tamil Nadu has recorded 4 species of sea turtles nesting on its beaches in the past.

Currently, Olive Ridley is only observed to be nesting in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

Tamil Nadu plays an important role in research and conservation of sea turtles.

 

Threats

Currently, the major threats facing our elders are the pollutions in the oceans, being caught as bycatch in the fishing nest, hunting for their meat, eggs and skin and nesting sites being destroyed due to development.

 

Pollution

Large scale destruction of oceanic habitats by the dumping of garbage in the oceans has led to a decline in the food source of the turtles. Additionally, plastic is found in the stomach of turtles that eat it mistaking it for jellyfish.

 

Fishing

Turtles caught as bycatch by fishing trawlers are the leading cause of the death of these aquatic reptiles.

TED (No, not the bear) Turtle Excluder Device is designed to help turtles swim out of fishing nets when they are caught.

Environmentalists and governments around the world are urging the fishing communities to use these devices to fish. Making the use of TED mandatory and enforcing stricter legislation will help.

 

Hunting

Turtle meat and eggs are still a delicacy in many parts of the world. Turtle skin and shells are sold as accessories and ornaments.

 

Nesting sites

Turtles use the same nesting sites year after year and rampant urbanization and destruction of nesting sites are a grave threat. Hatchlings head for the ocean instinctively, following the reflection of the moon over the surface of the water; however artificial light leads the hatchlings away from the ocean and to their death. Studies show that artificial light even in the ocean disorients turtles and prevent them from reaching deeper waters.

A rise in the population of feral dogs also poses a threat to these newborns.

Nesting sites must be protected and kept free of hazards so that the turtles have their fair chance of survival.

 

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) status

Vulnerable: Olive Ridley, Loggerhead and Leatherback

Endangered: Green Turtle

Critically Endangered: Hawksbill

 

Conclusion

In many cultures around the world, the turtle is a symbol of good luck and prosperity.

I have a glass turtle in my own home which my mom believes will bring us good luck. This incident is irony with the upcoming future where we would be left with just good luck and relics and imposing bad luck on these magnificent animals.

These wise beings having survived the last Cretaceous extinction and are now fighting for survival.

I believe they are guardians of the oceans and now facing their biggest threats from humanity.

We cannot let the animal kingdom lose their elders.

Sohel Suterwala

 

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Sharad Vats

Born and brought up in New Delhi, it was Sharad’s childhood passion to play cricket for India. While on a holiday in 1990, he saw his first tiger. Little did he know that this one sighting would immerse him into a realm where forests and tigers were all that mattered. Sharad’s experiences as a wildlife photographer have inspired him to observe the tiger’s behavior for over 30 years and motivated him on his own journey as an entrepreneur. He started Nature Safari India Pvt Ltd, with a focus on “Conservation through Tourism.” to align himself to the mission of saving the regal species and repopulating them in India’s forests. In 2006, he set up one of India’s premier jungle lodges in Kanha National Park. Sharad believes that there are many lessons to be learned from a tiger that can be applied successfully to leadership—both in business and in life. Here's a new book by Sharad Vats on management and leadership skills to learn from a Tiger. Buy now on Amazon

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