Types of Turtles and Pet Turtles

picture of a western pond turtle

Visitors to local ponds, rivers or coast lines often cross paths with one or more of the local types of turtles population. Due primarily to their popularity as pets, the Red-eared Slider in the video 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 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.

Depending on the area, native turtle or tortoise species confronts challenges due in large part to habitat loss and or water degradation. This review highlights some of the types of turtles native to North America along with the general

For instance, start with the plight of Map Turtles. All twelve species of Map Turtles were recently listed in CITES Appendix III, meaning cross border trade in these species requires a permit. Two snapping turtle species (family Chelydridae) swim North American waters, the Common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and the Alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii). It's also listed on CITES Appendix III.

Sea Turtle Facts

picture of a sea turtle nesting site

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Seven different sea turtles live and breed in tropical and subtropical oceans of the world.

Six species call beaches around the country their nesting homes. While the south Atlantic coastal region and the Gulf of Mexico host most sea turtle nesting sites, species plus species do visit the West Coast.

Sea turtles share many physical features. With the exception of the Leatherback, all grow hard shells. With the exception of the Flatback and Kemp's Ridley turtles, the range of the species extends across the world's oceans.

All seven species have experienced significant population declines over the last couple of decades, and all are considered either vulnerable or endangered. 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.

Their extended range makes gathering behavioral data problematic. However, sea turtle research, including the production of reliable population statistics, continues to improve. As scientists implement a standard population estimating procedure across regions and species, some of the problems associated with current population estimates will be resolved.

Water Turtles

Members of the family Emydidae, the native water turtles, inhabit freshwater environment across North America. The Western Pond Turtle (Clemmys marmorata), a western species, is listed as endangered in Washington State, with habitat loss cited as a causal factor.

picture of a Yellow-bellied Slider turtle

The yellow-bellied slider, (Trachemys scripta scripta), a relative of the more common Red-headed Slider, inhabits slow moving water bodies like ponds and lakes of the South.

picture of a Peninsula Cooter turtle

The Peninsula Cooter (Pseudemys peninsularis), also known as the Florida River Cooter, lives in slow flowing rivers and streams from Virginia, south through Florida. Above averaged sized turtles, they feed primarily of local plant life. The picture shows a specimen with a colorful green and yellow patterned shell.

picture of a Diamondback Terrapin

Seven different Diamondback Terrapin subspecies (Malaclemys terrapin) represent the Emydidae family, although they present a variation on the Emydidae freshwater preference theme by inhabiting transition zones between the freshwater rivers and salt water oceans of the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico.

Although none of the subspecies grows larger than a foot in length, their shell appearance differs from location to location. Additionally, all of the subspecies share the physical characteristic of having a white face with dark markings.

Box Turtles

picture of an Eastern Box Turtle

North America hosts two native box turtle species.

Four subspecies of the Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) inhabit the forest floors, swamps and grassy areas of the Eastern United States:

  • Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina) exhibits the widest range, extending from Southern New England, south to the Florida state line and west into Indiana, southern Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee.
  • The Three-Toed Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina triunguis) ranges through the South Central United States.
  • The range of the Florida Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina bauri) is limited to the peninsula area.

Two subspecies of the Western Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata), also known as the Ornate Box turtle, inhabit dry and sandy habitats in their range.

The more common subspecies, the Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata), inhabits the grasslands of the central United States from South Dakota, south through Texas. The Desert Box Turtle inhabits the grassland areas of the Desert Southwest regions, south to northern Mexico.

Types of Tortoises

picture of a Gopher Tortoise

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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), pictured above, 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) 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.

Soft-shelled Turtles

picture of a softshell turtle

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 omivores that feed on a variety of local plant and animals within their territory.

World Turtles

picture of a pig-nose turtle

The Pig-nose turtle resides in the rivers of New Guinea and Northern Australia. The picture highlights its flippers, a unique physical trait. It represents the entire family, Carettochelyidae (pignose turtles).

picture of a Vietnamese Leaf Turtle

Vietnamese Leaf Turtles (Geoemyda spengleri), an endangered species, inhabit the mountain areas bordering Vietnam and China.

Pet Turtles

Not too long ago, the idea of owning a pet turtle meant little more than going to a local store and purchasing a small Red-eared Slider, along with a small plastic container as its living space.

Those days ended in the 1970s when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prohibited the distribution and sale of baby turtles with shells four inches in length or less after a quarter million infants and small children were diagnosed with having turtle-associated salmonellosis.

Since that time, change has remained a constant in the pet turtle industry. For one, it is now a global industry, with collectors demanding many of the world's turtle species for private enjoyment. Coupled with the global turtle food industry, the global turtle pet industry has contributed to declines in world wide turtle populations.

Tips for being a responsible turtle owner starts with some turtle psychology. Generally speaking, turtles are loners that do not enjoy human company and do not enjoy being held. Beware of getting a pet turtle for a child if the child is looking for a playmate. Dogs would be a better choice.

Once the decision to raise turtles is made, the task turns to identifying the types of turtles best suited to the owners. As with other pets, turtles need a proper habitat and diet in order to thrive. In most cases, turtle hobbyists can easily meet these needs by caring for local species. Box turtle species, for example, are native to many areas in North America. Caring for them can be as easy as landscape renovation or building a state of the art backyard enclosure to suit their needs. Turtle habitat needs reflect their basic physiology. As with all reptiles, they are cold-blooded animals that bask in the sun as a way to regulate their body temperature. Whether placed in an indoor or outdoor enclosure, pet turtles need a place to bask as well as a place to hide and rest.

Turtle dietary habits range from species to species, with some being carnivores (meat eating only), and others being herbivores (plant eating only). Still other turtles are omnivores (they eat what's available in their environment).

Finally, responsible turtle owners need to be aware of local pet laws. State law varies with respect to which species of turtles are allowed to be sold or kept as pets.

© 2007-2016 Patricia A. Michaels