Facts About Sea Turtles
- Sea turtles have existed for more than 100 million years, making them some of the most ancient creatures on Earth. They even survived the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
- Sea turtles are marine reptiles that need to breathe air to survive and are found in tropical and subtropical seas around the world.
- Sea turtles do not have teeth. Instead, they have a modified “beak” suited for their diet.
- There are seven different species of sea turtles that live in our oceans: hawksbill turtle, Kemp’s ridley turtle, leatherback turtle, loggerhead turtle, olive ridley turtle, flatback sea turtle, and the green turtle.
- The smallest species of sea turtle is the Kemp’s ridley, weighing 100 pounds or less, while the largest species of sea turtle is the leatherback, which weights up to 1,500 pounds.
- Each species has its own unique diet. The green sea turtle feeds on seagrasses, leatherbacks feed on jellyfish and other soft-bodied animals, and loggerheads feed on crabs, clams, and other heavy-shelled animals.
- Female sea turtles lay their eggs on land in sandy coastal areas, and most return to nest on the same beach on which they were born. Nesting times for sea turtles typically occur from April through October, with most females nesting at least twice within the mating season. Except for nesting activities on land, sea turtles spend their entire lives at sea.
- Within the past 100 years, the population of sea turtles has rapidly declined due to demand for sea turtle eggs, meat, skin, and shells. Today, green, leatherback, and hawksbill turtles are classified as endangered in the United States, while the loggerhead and olive ridley turtles are classified as threatened.
Why We Need to Protect Sea Turtles
- Role in the Ecosystem: Sea turtles are an essential link in the marine ecosystem, helping help to cycle nutrients within the ocean and on beaches when they nest and feed. Grazing on seagrass and foraging within coral reefs helps to increase the productivity and nutrient content of the grass. Sea turtles help to maintain healthy habitats for other vital species like lobster, shrimp, and tuna. Additionally, sea turtles that feed on jellyfish play a pivotal ecological role by controlling jellyfish populations.
- Ecosystem Services: Seagrass beds and coral reefs kept healthy by sea turtle activity act as nurseries for a variety of species like fish, shellfish, crustaceans, and other marine life that humans depend on for food.
- Economic Contributions: Sea turtles contribute to tourism in many tropical and subtropical areas. In 2009, is was estimated that 175,000 people took part in sea turtle tours in more than 40 countries. For one national park in Costa Rica, marine turtle tourism has brought in $6.7 million annually.
- Uniqueness: The journey that female sea turtles make to return to a beach to nest their eggs has fascinated scientists. In one study, researchers found that Loggerhead turtles would adjust their natal homing — the process of returning to the spot where they were hatched to lay their own eggs — based upon changes in Earth’s geomagnetic field.
Threats to Sea Turtles
- Bycatch: Every year, thousands of sea turtles are accidentally caught in nets and fishing lines, becoming fishing industry bycatch — an unintended catch of a non-target species. When trapped in these lines and nets, sea turtles are unable to reach the surface to breathe and subsequently drown.
- Habitat Loss: Ever-expanding coastal development and human traffic on beaches continually disrupts sea turtle nesting. Destruction of vital beaches that sea turtles use as nesting grounds causes a considerable threat to sea turtle populations.
- Plastic Pollution: Sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish or other food. Once ingested, the plastic can block their intestines and become life-threatening. Sea turtles also become entangled in plastic netting or other marine debris floating in the ocean, which can cause them to drown.
- Global Warming: The gender of sea turtles is determined by how hot or cold the surrounding environment is while they are in their eggs. Warmer temperatures result in more female hatchlings, while colder temperatures will produce more male hatchlings. As ocean temperatures increase and get warmer, there is concern that reproduction rates will go down with fewer males.
What You Can Do to Help Protect Sea Turtles
- Prevent water pollution: Take action and properly dispose waste and recyclables. Plastic debris in waters is a big problem for sea turtles—ingestion and entanglement are among the problems. Actions such as joining or organizing a beach or river cleanup, switching to reusable plastic bags, and reducing plastic consumption overall can help prevent and reduce the risk to fish and other marine life.
- Check out all of Earth Day Network’s resources to help Protect Our Species.
- Educate yourself on threats to ocean ecosystems with our Oceans Plastic Pollution Quiz.
- Help end plastic pollution by learning about the actions you can take and using our plastic pollution calculator.