I must have been about 8 years old when, as I was pedaling my bike down the road near my grandmother's house in a small seaside town just south of Boston, I ran over a small turtle. I stopped, pulled my bike to a neat turn, and went back to see what I had hit. The turtle, a young snapper, was about 5 inches from head to toe, and uncrushed by his brush with a bike. And now, he was my new pet!
I did not realize at first that it was a snapping turtle, but I thought it was the ugliest turtle I had ever seen. My grandmother, a wonderful woman who had raised my father and his 7 siblings, knew at a glance what it was, and found a wash basin in which to keep the turtle. She chuckled, set the basin down, and watched the turtle, telling me the story of the snapper my father brought home, and kept, until it was so big she had to sweep it out of the way with a broom if she wanted to walk through the kitchen. When it snapped at the broomstick handle, and snapped it in two, it was time for my father to return his pet to the wild. With great ceremony, he and his brothers took the turtle to a bridge, and dumped it into the Neponset River (note the link to the new Pope John Paul II Park along the river!).
My turtle did not remain with us long enough to grow to any great proportions. I managed to feed it well, mostly on small bits of ground beef. Unfortunately, I also enjoyed handling it, and discovered the a snapper can flip its head backwards, over the back of its shell, and bite the hand that holds it. I still have the scar; I'll show it to you if we ever meet. Ouch. But my pet turtle was not exactly domestic...and it escaped in the night (the basin was left outside) never to be seen again (by me).
That did not end my interest in turtles, however. At summer camp, a bit farther south, the lake was home to many turtles. The camp happily provided campers with nets and stale bread. Did you know that turtles eat stale bread? Well, they do, and in vast quantities, all summer long. To catch the turtles was a simple matter. We would dip the long nets into the water, hiding them below the surface, while sprinkling the water above with our bread. Soon, turtles would swim over and we would raise our nets with the unsuspecting turtles inside. After watching them for a bit (carefully, though these were not snappers) we would release the little fellows back into the pond. The same process, by the way, did not work for frogs.
Turtles (and tortoises) are unique creatures. Their shells are neat extensions of their backbones. Think about this. Imagine that, instead of being safely inside your skin, your back bone stuck out and spread out along your entire back, meeting another shell on the front. Imagine that you could, if you needed to, draw your arms, legs, head, and, if you had one, your tail, into the shell. If you were lucky enough to be a box turtle, you could then close the shell, and hide from predators. If predators should happen to get past the armor, you still have claws with which to scratch, and a beak with which to bite. If you are unfortunate enough to be a sea turtle, especially a baby sea turtle, you might be out of luck, as predators are fast, and your shell is soft. But for most turtles, the shell is a great defense. The top shell is called the carapace, and the bottom shell is called the plastron. If the plastron is curved inward, the turtle is most likely to be male; the plastron of the female is flat. See a turtle skeleton here.
Turtles and tortoises are often kept as pets. A friend of mine has a tortoise he found as a child. The tortoise is at least 40 years old. Every winter, he hibernates in a closet. He emerges in the spring, and eats large quantities of lettuce. Other turtles are kept in aquariums, or in decorative ponds, though a snapping turtle is likely to redecorate your pond for you. As with many fresh water animals, salmonella (a nasty bacteria that causes food poisoning) may be found on turtles. Always wash your hands after handling turtles, whether they are wild or captive.
Perhaps the most famous literary member of the turtle family is the tortoise in The Tortoise and the Hare. We all know the story, based on the slow pace of these land-living reptiles. Minn of the Missippi, by Holling C. Holling (what can one say about a man with the same first and last name?) would have to be a close second. 50 years after its first printing, Minn is a classic. Doing double duty as a science and geography adventure, this book follows Minn, a small snapper, from her hatch point in the north all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Holling's drawings are among the best in children's literature, and he was awarded the Newbery Honor for literature as well. But in children's literature, turtles abound. Sometimes, humans are cartoons in turtle skins, like Franklin. Fans of "Nate the Great" will enjoy the more turtle-ish turtle in Nate the Great and the Tardy Tortoise. Other more turtle-like turtles are featured in some myths, as we see in Turtle's Race with Beaver, a Seneca tale about a turtle who has his pond changed by a beaver dam. Even more true-to-life is the Turtle in the Sea. Similar "real" stories about sea turtles abound. For young readers, the best of the lot is Into the Sea, with a hatchling to laying circular story, and Life Cycle of the Sea Turtle, which is beautifully illustrated with bordered photographs.
Older children might enjoy a little light, fun reading. Edward Eager's Magic By the Lake features a wish-granting turtle who takes the characters on adventures. This may be the only book with a wish granting turtle, but there are other spectacular turtles, including the turtle of Hindu mythology, holding four elephants which in turn support the universe, on its back. In fact, nearly every traditional folk culture includes turtle tales in their mythology. And beyond the myths, turtle parts are used for food, clothing, and decorative or ceremonial items worldwide. As if to make fun of this ubiquity, Lewis Carroll has Alice in Wonderland stumble upon the Mock Turtle, named for a soup that imitates that made from true turtles (see recipes).
There are nearly 300 species worldwide, occupying sea and land, but some are endangered, making turtle products illegal in many countries. For us in North America, most small turtles are abundant. Look carefully next time you are near a pond. You'll probably see turtles sunning themselves on a log!
Web info on turtles and tortoises (as with all internet links, please monitor your child's activity):
Nature on PBS
Turtles on Kidsconnect
Sea Turtles at Sea World
Visit a turtle farm
Turtle recipes (Buy turtle meat):
Mock turtle soup
Chocolate turtle pie
Return to Wild Monthly