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Order Description


Order Description

Turtles have been in existence for over 200 million years. The characteristic shell or carapace evolved from the fusion of vertebrae and ribs with dermal bones. The shell is covered with scutes (keratinous plates) that cover the bony shell.

Turtles are found on all continents except Antarctica. They inhabit deserts, tropical rainforests, grasslands, mountains, rivers, lakes, and oceans. Georgia is home to seven families, 19 genera, and 27 species of turtles. North America's smallest and largest turtles are found in Georgia. The Bog Turtle only grows to 11.4 cm (4.5 in) in length, while the Leatherback Sea Turtle reaches 189 cm (74.4 in) and weighs 916 kg (2019 lbs, or slightly over 1 ton).

Turtles are long-lived animals. Some live from 20 to over 100 years, depending on species. Some species only eat animal matter while others eat both plants and animals. Turtles do not have teeth. Instead they have a sharp-edged keratinous beak, called a tomia, that is used to bite off chunks of food.

Family Cheloniidae

This family of hard-shelled sea turtles is represented by four genera and four species. All members of this family are listed as Endangered and are protected from exploitation. They are considered to be near-shore species in tropical and sub-tropical waters. All range along the Georgia coast, but only the Loggerhead commonly nests on Georgia beaches.
Species in this family:
    Atlantic Ridley Sea Turtle (Lepidochelys kempii)
    Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas)
    Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)
    Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta)

Family Chelydridae

This family has two representatives in Georgia. One of these is the common Snapping Turtle. The other is the Alligator Snapping Turtle, which is listed as Threatened in Georgia and several other states. The Alligator Snapping Turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in North America and one of the largest in the world, weighing up to 143 kg (315.3 lbs). Snapping Turtles are large-headed, large-bodied carnivorous turtles with long tails. The carapace is flattened and roughly rectangular in shape.
Species in this family:
    Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macroclemys temminckii)
    Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

Family Dermochelyidae

This family is monotypic, which means it has only one genus and species in it. The enormous Leatherback, the largest living turtle, lives in the open oceans. It does not have a hard shell like sea turtles in the Family Cheloniidae. Instead, it has a sheet of articulating osteoderms (bones embedded in the skin) covered by a thick leathery skin. This species is listed as Endangered.
Species in this family:
    Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)

Family Emydidae

This diverse family contains the Pond, Basking and Box Turtles. With 8 genera and 13 species, this is the largest turtle family in Georgia. Turtles in this family are terrestrial, semi-aquatic, and aquatic. They inhabit lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, open forests, bogs, swamps, and marshes. All of the turtles in this family have 12 scutes along the margin of the carapace and 6 pairs of scutes on the plastron. The carapace is somewhat flattened in most species, but Box Turtles have a domed shell. Most of these turtles spend the vast majority of their time in or near water. Even the terrestrial box turtles prefer to remain near bodies of water.
Species in this family:
    Alabama Map Turtle (Graptemys pulchra)
    Barbour's Map Turtle (Graptemys barbouri )
    Bog Turtle (Clemmys muhlenbergii)
    Chicken Turtle (Deirochelys reticularia)
    Common Map Turtle (Graptemys geographica)
    Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin)
    Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina)
    Florida Cooter (Pseudemys floridana)
    Florida Red-bellied Turtle (Pseudemys nelsoni)
    Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)
    Pond Slider (Trachemys scripta)
    River Cooter (Pseudemys concinna)
    Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata)

Family Kinosternidae

This family includes the Mud and Musk Turtles. This family is found only in the Americas. Two genera and four species are found in Georgia. These are small aquatic turtles with oval-shaped, high-domed carapaces. All kinosternids are carnivorous and have musk glands that emit a foul smelling odor when they are disturbed.
Species in this family:
    Common Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus)
    Eastern Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum)
    Loggerhead Musk Turtle (Sternotherus minor)
    Striped Mud Turtle (Kinosternon baurii)

Family Testudinidae

This family contains members of the subfamily Testudininae, which are the true tortoises. This is the subfamily of the giant Galapagos Tortoises. This subfamily is represented in the United States by one genus with three species. The high domed shell and stout, elephantine legs are characteristic of this group. The Gopher Tortoise is listed as an Endangered species in Georgia and other states.
Species in this family:
    Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)

Family Trionychidae

This family is limited to Softshell Turtles. These turtles have very flattened, leathery shells that are almost circular in shape. The bones in the shell are greatly reduced and stippled. Softshell Turtles are totally aquatic, with paddle-like feet and a long tubular nose that is used like a snorkel to reach the water's surface to breathe. There is one genus with three species in North America. Two species live in Georgia.
Species in this family:
    Florida Softshell (Apalone ferox)
    Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera)