What If There Were No More Turtles?

A new study looks at the decline of a longevity icon.


There are only four Yangtze giant softshell turtles left in the world. This male was photographed at the Suzhou Zoo.


One lovely thing about turtles is that they never look busy. They calmly browse the forest or sun themselves on a log, appearing to live a life of leisure.

Behind their chill demeanor, however, turtles are ecological movers and shakers, thanks to their digging, moving a lot farther than you’d think they do and moving between ecosystems, like the ocean and the beach.

They’re also widely beloved, the kind of animal you rarely hear of people having a problem with or fear of. They’re central to many mythologies and, as a first pet for many kids, they’re a gentle bridge between home and the wild.

They’re also a bit of a bridge between land and water, depending on the species.

“All animals with a backbone and a shell are turtles,” says Jeffrey Lovich, Research Ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, so it’s an umbrella term used for turtles, tortoises, and terrapins. “It’s the only animal that’s ever lived that has its hips and shoulder blades inside its rib cage.”

The distinction:Tortoises are land-only animals and do not swim. Turtles can...

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