Animal Information

Why Are Turtles And Tortoises Important?

Species have been going extinct for millions of years. it is a natural part of the evolutionary process.

Worldwide there are 356 turtle species on all continents except for Antarctica.

The United States has more species than any other country with about 62 currently recognized.

Mexico is in second place with 49 species, making North America a global hotspot for turtle biodiversity, especially in the southeastern United States.

Tortoises are bioengineers, keeping the landscape healthy and varied by dispersing seeds.

Turtles are great scavengers because they eat dead fish from lakes and rivers. They do no harm and they do a lot of good. Even when they are eating native water plants.

Between 2004 and 2014, desert tortoise populations in California, Nevada, and southern Utah declined 37 percent.

Unfortunately, these reptiles are now the most imperiled major group of vertebrates (animals with backbones) with about 60% of the 356 turtles species of modern turtles already extinct or threatened. 

These animals are wild caught for meat and the pet trade in huge numbers. Add climate change and habitat destruction and it makes you wonder about their tenure on the Earth.

A plant or animal becomes extinct when the last living individual of its species dies, causing it to vanish from the earth forever.

Gopher Tortoises 

Gopher tortoises are protected by federal law under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)

Habitat destruction is a significant threat to gopher tortoises.

Threats to the gopher tortoise also include habitat fragmentation and degradation, predation, lack of regulatory mechanisms, and incompatible use of herbicides in forest management and some silvicultural activities.

Gopher tortoises need large parcels of undeveloped land not fragmented by roads, buildings, parking lots, and other structures. Such barriers in natural habitat limit food availability and burrow space for tortoises plus expose them to closer contact with humans and their vehicles.

Their burrows also provide refuge for about 360 other species throughout its range.

Some of those species include  black pine snakes, gopher frogs, Florida mice, foxes, skunks, opossums, rabbits, quail, armadillos, burrowing owls, snakes, lizards, frogs, toads, and many invertebrates.

Gopher tortoises spread seeds of many plants in their droppings, filling another important role in the ecosystem. 

Sea Turtles

Travel throughout the world’s oceans

Sea Turtles have existed for over 100 million years. Suddenly, however, they are struggling to survive.

Sea turtles, especially green sea turtles, are one of the very few animals to eat sea grass.

Like normal lawn grass, sea grass needs to be constantly cut short to be healthy and help it grow across the sea floor rather than just getting longer grass blades.

Over the past decades, there has been a decline in seagrass beds. This decline may be linked to the lower numbers of sea turtles.

Seagrass beds are important because they provide breeding and developmental grounds for many species of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans. Without seagrass beds, many marine species humans harvest would be lost, as would the lower levels of the food chain. 

Beaches and dune systems do not get very many nutrients during the year, so very little vegetation grows on the dunes and no vegetation grows on the beach itself.

This is because sand does not hold nutrients very well. Sea turtles use beaches, and the lower dunes to nest and lay their eggs. Sea turtles lay around 100 eggs in a nest and lay between 3 and 7 nests during the summer nesting season.

Sea turtles lay over 150,000 lbs of eggs in the sand along a 20 mile stretch of beach on the east coast of Florida s. Not every nest will hatch, not every egg in a nest will hatch, and not all of the hatchlings in a nest will make it out of the nest.

Sea turtles and manatees act as grazing animals that cut the grass short and help maintain the health of the seagrass beds. 

All the unhatched nests, eggs, and trapped hatchlings are very good sources of nutrients for the dune vegetation, even the left over egg shells from hatched eggs provide some nutrients.

Dune vegetation is able to grow and become stronger with the presence of nutrients from turtle eggs. As the dune vegetation grows stronger and healthier, the health of the entire beach/dune ecosystem becomes better. Stronger vegetation and root systems help to hold the sand in the dunes and helps protect the beach from erosion.

Galapagos Tortoise

In recent field research, Dr. Cynthia Froyd of Swansea University took samples of soils throughout the Galapagos. Dr. Froyd then tested them for the types of environments for the flora, fauna, and animal species that are present.

They found that prior to 500 years ago “dung-affiliated” fungi, suggesting a large, plant-eating organism dominated the area. Since there aren’t other options for living in the Galapagos wetlands, the only option was the tortoises.

Prior to the arrival of man, tortoises roamed freely across the islands but starting in the 16th century, their numbers declined from 250,000 to 14,000 by 1970, and 5 of the original 14 subspecies have gone extinct.

Wetlands began drying up, a change recorded by the soil samples.

About 500 years ago, the tortoise feces vanish, and at the same time, the plants change.

The freshwater wetlands that once populated large areas of the Galapagos dried and the plants supported by those wetlands began dying, disappearing, and even going extinct.

The plants which supported those wetlands relied on the tortoises in several ways, including fertilization and churning up the ground as they walked through. The tortoises were a keystone species; once they began dying, the entire ecosystem surrounding them died with them.

What is Extinction?

The state or process of a species, family, or larger group being or becoming extinct.

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