The Sweet Shell of Success

By Matt Seek | April 1, 2013
From Xplor: April/May 2013

Earth’s first turtle poked its head from its shell when dinosaurs still thundered throughout the land. Dinosaurs have since disappeared, but turtles have remained remarkably unchanged, thanks to one turtle-riffic adaptation: their shells. As a baby turtle grows inside an egg, the tiny turtle’s ribs and other bones fuse to form a shell. Although this built-in armor in-shell-lates the turtle’s squishy body from sharp jaws and claws, the shell comes with a price. To illustrate, lie flat on your tummy, stretch your arms straight out, and spread your legs as wide as you can. Now try to crawl. This is the way turtles must move because their shells force their legs to stick out at crazy angles, and it explains why turtles move so s-l-o-w-l-y. But speed isn’t everything. Through the ages, turtles have survived the crash of meteorites, the drift of continents, the birth of islands, the rise of mountains, and the comings and goings of ice ages. They’ve outlasted countless creatures, large and small, and taken hard times slowly in stride. So the next time you see a turtle, take a big whiff. What’s that odor? It’s the sweet shell of success.

Common snapping turtle

  • Common snapping turtles have a bite nine times stronger than a human’s bite and almost twice as strong as a great white shark’s. Contrary to popular belief, snapping turtles can’t bite a broomstick in half.

ouachita map turtle

  • Some turtles, such as this Ouachita map turtle, can sleep underwater during winter by absorbing oxygen through a part of their bodies scientists call the cloaca (cloe-ay-kuh). Most people have another name for this body part: rear end.

alligator snapping turtle

  • Alligator snapping turtles are the world’s largest freshwater turtles. The largest snapper on record weighed 316 pounds.
  • When an alligator snapping turtle gets hungry, it simply opens its mouth and wiggles its pink, worm-shaped tongue. Hungry fish are lured in for an easy meal and learn too late where the name “snapper” comes from.

All turtles lay eggs. In some species, temperature determines whether baby turtles will hatch as boys or girls. Snapping turtle eggs kept at 75 degrees hatch as mostly males. Eggs kept below 70 or above 80 hatch as mostly females.

Three-Toed Box Turtle

  • You can typically tell whether a box turtle is a boy or a girl by the color of its eyes. Boys generally have reddish eyes; girls typically have brownish-yellow eyes.
  • Turtles are the only toothless reptiles. Instead of chompers, turtles have a sharp beak. Their lower jaw fits tightly inside their upper jaw, allowing turtles to use their beaks like

Red-Eared Sliders

  • When basking, as these red-eared sliders are doing, many turtles stretch out their legs and toes to absorb as much sunshine as possible. This raises the turtle’s body temperature and helps the turtle produce vitamin D.
  • Unlike humans, with many kinds of turtles, it’s the boys who let their fingernails grow long. When they’re trying to charm a mate, males swim in front of females and wave their long claws in the females’ faces.

Softshell Turtle

  • Softshell tur tles don’t have a hard shell like other Missouri turtles. Their shells feel like wet leather. But don’t try to feel one for yourself. Softshells have cranky attitudes, long necks, and sharp beaks — and they aren’t afraid to bite.
  • Softshell turtles bury themselves in sand and leave just their snorkel-like snout sticking out. When a fish swims by . . . Chomp!

common musk turtle

  • Missouri’s smallest turtle is also its stinkiest. Common musk turtles — also called stinkpots — rarely grow larger than your palm and release a funky-smelling fluid when bothered.
  • They only grow to be 4 inches long.

Some people think softshell and common snapping turtles are tasty. But not all turtles are OK to eat. There are laws against harming alligator snapping turtles, and you should never eat box turtles. Box turtles sometimes eat poisonous mushrooms, and the toxins can linger in the turtle’s flesh.

These fun facts barely scratch the shell. For more on Missouri’s turtles, crawl over to mdc. mo.go v/n od e/7005.

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This Issue's Staff

David Besenger
Les Fortenberry
Karen Hudson
Regina Knauer
Noppadol Paothong
Marci Porter
Mark Raithel
Laura Scheuler
Matt Seek
Tim Smith
David Stonner
Nichole LeClair Terrill
Stephanie Thurber
Cliff White