I'm Marty Stouffer. Turtles have plodded around on land and glided through the rivers and oceans of the world for more years than any other vertebrates.

Their simple, functional design has remained basically unchanged for over 200 million years.

It stands to reason, then, that we should know more about turtles than almost any other animal. But do we?

Misconception and old wives' tales surround these unusual holdovers from an age which precedes the dinosaur. Join me and we'll find out "The Truth About Turtles".

How many of us grew up believing turtles could slip out of their shells? But, a turtle can no more shed its bony fortress than we can strip ourselves of our skeleton. How about the common belief that once on its back, a turtle cannot right itself? For the most part, they can.


Everybody knows turtles are homely right? Well, anyone who's seen a Cagle's Map Turtle, or a Spotted Turtle would surely disagree. Another colorful example, the Painted Turtle.


As for all turtles being slow, consider this spiny soft shell Turtle. It can swim faster than most fish. And Sea Turtles glide effortlessly through the oceans of the world, forever shattering our illusions that all turtles are clumsy.


The Loggerhead Sea Turtle, like all turtles, is descended from giants that roamed the deep primordial seas millions of years ago. The largest, Archelon, was 12 feet long.

Although modern Sea Turtles are smaller, their structure has remained basically unchanged. Their flipper-like limbs remind me of wings...a turtle as big as a bathtub that can fly through the water at up to 25 miles an hour.


Turtles eat an almost limitless variety of plants and animals. This 4 inch long Loggerhead Musk Turtle is stalking live prey on the bottom of a slow moving creek in South Georgia.


The crayfish will grow another claw to replace the one taken by the Musk Turtle. The Stinkpot Musk Turtle, named for the smelly odor it emits under stress, sometimes feeds on pond snails. Even a small frog, like this spring peeper, can become a meal for a Turtle.


The moist forests of the east provide ideal habitat for the Eastern Box Turtle. On a cool summer day after a rainstorm, the red eyed male begins to forage, checking out likely places to find food within his home range of only a few hundred yards. As a young Turtle, he was probably more carnivorous. As an adult, his tastes expanded to include leafy plants, flowers, fungi and fruit.

With color vision similar to ours, he can see if fruits, like these wild strawberries, are ripe. Experts believe that Turtles can see colors in the red range particularly well.

Typically, Box Turtles watch the movements of their animal prey, then move within grabbing distance. Most turtles are opportunistic, taking advantage of food as it becomes available, even feeding on fungi poisonous to humans.

The Amanita Muscaria, is poisonous to humans. But, it apparently has no ill effects on the long-lived Turtle species. In fact, reaching the century mark is not unheard of and at least one Box Turtle is reported to have lived 138 years!


While Box Turtles are reputed to be passive in nature, this three-toed Box Turtle is cause for alarm. The Eastern male, though smaller, attempts to drive the Three-toed male away.

In the end, the smaller Turtle retreats inside his nearly impregnable armor.


In the sandy soil of South Central Florida, a tunnel 35 feet long leads to the burrow of a Gopher Tortoise. Unknowingly, its excavation skills provide havens for other animals like the endangered Florida Mouse.

The Gopher Tortoise is itself endangered. Its dwindling numbers concern scientists who see it a "Keystone" species. One upon which other animals depend.


Another severely endangered reptile that clings to existence in the deep south is the Alligator Snapping Turtle. It has the grisly reputation of severing human digits with one powerful snap of its raptor-like beak and razor sharp jaws. Harvested to the brink of extinction by turtle trappers like Al Redmond, these giants were canned by the soup companies, and sold to supermarkets and restaurants in the United States and Europe.

Al Redmond has stopped killing snappers and committed himself to their survival. Still, his Turtle trapper tales are compelling.

Al Redmond:

As we was butchering these larger turtles that come off the Flint River, we noticed cracked shells, indentations in the shells, and as we was slaughtering these turtles, we started finding Indian artifacts--arrowheads, spear-points, where they had been shot and imbedded. Usually in the tenderloin in the back would be a large growth. Sometimes you could see part of the point sticking out, sometimes it was totally covered up. And something else, too. We was finding musket balls. this right here, and also the 50 caliber sharps bullet was used during the Civil War which was in the early 1860's, are found several of these where they had shot these larger turtles. We knew these turtles was old, but we didn't know they was that old.

Marty narration:

Now Al traps adults like this large male for breeding purposes only. Each year he releases thousands of baby snappers back into their former range.

Al Redmond:

This turtle we caught in a trap right here. You're looking at that turtle right there. I haven't weighed him, I'm guessing 145-150 pounds. So you're talking about a 200 year old animal. These turtles do not average a pound a year in the wild. There's no way. So, if you look back at the big one we caught, you know, a 316 pound turtle, you could very easily be talking about a turtle 500 years of age. And I seriously believe that. Oh, it's gonna take a lot of work to save these turtles. You know, this is one of the largest fresh water turtles in the world, so he's worth saving.

Eastern Pennsylvania is Amish country fertile, rolling hills where farming is carried on away from the roar of the industrialized world.

In spring, the surrounding woods are full of flowers and small, clear streams.


A female Wood Turtle takes to the water and heads downstream. Nicknamed "sculptured" Turtle for the texture of its rough top shell and also nicknamed "red legs" for the burnt orange color of its skin, the rare Wood Turtle leads a solitary life except in the spring mating season. A large male waits in the still water near an old beaver dam.

Wood Turtles live primarily on land but normally breed in the water. The male's plastron or lower shell is concave. and fits over the female's domed top shell or carapace. He grabs her with his long, strong claws and wraps his tail under the rim of the carapace. Sometimes the male becomes so focused on his courtship ritual he forgets to let the female come up for air!

Less than a month later, the female has selected and excavated her nest site a sunny spot on a sand bar near the curve of a stream. Over the course of several hours, she lays 10 eggs and covers them with a layer of sand. Sixty days later, the nest site is intact, unmolested by predators. Some experts believe that a majority of turtle nests are destroyed before hatching. But, this one has remained safely hidden.


Underground, the hatchlings are struggling to break out of their leathery enclosures. Using a sharp egg tooth on the tip of their beak they slice a hole in the shell and begin to struggle free. At first, yolk sacs on their soft plastrons provide nourishment for the youngsters. Here we see a day by day time lapse. After four days the sac is absorbed until it disappears altogether.

Perhaps one in every 100 Wood Turtle hatchlings will survive the 15 years it takes to reach adulthood. Their numbers have decreased dramatically for the all too familiar reasons habitat fragmentation and destruction and automobile traffic.

But the most serious threat to Wood Turtle survival as a species comes from the harvesting of animals for the pet trade.

For now, these tiny reptiles rush to cover in hopes of enjoying a long life of freedom in the Pennsylvania countryside.

Natural predators, like raccoons, also threaten Turtle survival, digging up Turtle nests and eating the eggs. They even prey on adult Turtles if the opportunity arises.


Late in the afternoon, the raccoon begins to forage for crustaceans in shallow, muddy water, a favorite habitat of the small, Eastern Mud Turtle.

As children, my brothers and I found Turtles in the woods around our home with chewed up shells and missing toes and feet.

Luckily for the Mud Turtle, it can close up as tightly as a Box Turtle. The raccoon is dextrous and persistent, but recognizes the futility of breaking into the Mud Turtle's shell.

The semi-aquatic mud turtle does a disappearing act. Many fresh water turtles can stay submerged or buried in the mud for weeks at a time during winter.

Long after dark the Turtle stayed safely hidden under the mud of the Alabama swamp.

To the northeast, in South Carolina, lies a nuclear facility containing aquatic habitats, a few of which are contaminated by waste disposal. In this immense natural laboratory, research scientists, like Whit Gibbons, are studying the effects of radioactive contamination on wildlife.

Whit Gibbons:

Turtles live in these aquatic habitats, just like they live everywhere around this region. And many of them, when they leave the site, or when we capture them, are radioactive. We can check this one to see if it is a radioactive turtle. And sure enough, it is radioactive. As you can see, there's nothing unusual about the appearance of this turtle. It isn't a radioactive ninja mutant turtle or anything like that. There may be some genetic effects and we have studies in progress at this time to examine for genetic effects as a result of low level radiation or chemical contamination of various sorts.


Whit and his colleagues have devised ways to study Turtles without hurting them; like photocopying the plastrons of these Yellow Bellied Pond Sliders, it's the equivalent of fingerprinting a human. Later, if the same slider is recaptured, photocopy records will reveal its identity and data can be improved about growth rates, life spans, and turtle movements from one habitat to another.

A similar non-destructive technique is the X-raying of females to see how many eggs they lay.

For the most part, Turtles have not been treated kindly by people. Perhaps the ultimate in exploitation occurred in the Chesapeake Bay area and centered around the Diamond Back Terrapin.


Terrapins are Turtles of brackish and salt-water marshes of our east and gulf coasts. Once, the Diamond Backs were a staple food source for Native Americans.

Slaves on southern plantations sometimes refused to work, complaining that a steady diet of Terrapin was unbearable. Still, the Terrapin appeared to flourish.

Then, in the late 1800's, gourmets decided that Terrapin was the ultimate dining delicacy. These bottom feeders were easy to catch. They were successfully promoted as more profitable to raise than chickens.

In 1891 alone, nearly 90,000 pounds of Terrapin meat sold in Maryland fish markets at 25 cents a pound. In fancy restaurants here and abroad, no champagne dinner was complete without the delicate, dainty taste of Terrapin.

But, by the 1920's, hunters found less than a thousand pounds of terrapin to harvest. The price ballooned to over $1.20 per pound. In the 1930's the species appeared to have been eaten to extinction.

Today, the Terrapin is trying to make a comeback. However, diminished habitat and other human threats persist. They die needlessly each year in unattended, private crab pots. Once trapped, they can survive about 5 hours before they drown.

Thousands of Terrapins could be saved if individual crabbers would check their pots every few hours, pull their traps out at night, or leave an air space in shallow water. Some simple steps to conserve what may be the most celebrated Turtle in America.

The Terrapin is the mascot of the University of Maryland. Just rubbing the nose of "Testudo" is supposed to bring good luck. Of course I don't believe in superstition, but, just in case.

This monarch of Turtledom regularly struts his stuff at U. of M. athletic events.


The Diamond Back Terrapin, celebrated as it is, is something of an enigma to scientists. On Kiawah Island, South Carolina, "Earthwatch" volunteers are braving mosquitos, mud, and high humidity to track down Diamond Backs.

Terrapins are relatively small turtles. Although females may reach nine inches, males are only half as large. They regularly capture mollusks and crustaceans, like these abundant fiddler crabs.

Diamond Backs were named for the bold, patchwork quilt pattern on their shells. Under the supervision of Whit Gibbons, the "Earthwatch" team determines the sex of each captured terrapin, measures the length of the carapace, records the location netted, and then marks the shell so that it can be identified if recaptured.

So far, the group has captured and recaptured hundreds of individuals. Their data will help in the development of a wild Terrapin management program. Once this resilient little reptile was relentlessly hunted for its meat. Only now is it being appreciated as a wild creature worthy of our protection and respect.


These long-lived creatures have survived ice ages, predators and all manner of natural disasters. But they're now threatened world-wide.

Exploding human populations damage critical turtle habitat. Pollution threatens their rivers, and vehicles regularly mow them down as they try to move to more suitable surroundings.

Our education holds the key to their preservation. If we so choose, we still have time to learn "The Truth About Turtles."

I'm Marty Stouffer. Until next time, enjoy our WILD AMERICA.