How Can We Avoid A Turtle Disaster?

Sea Turtle

My apologies for the dreadful pun! My blog this week is about an impending natural disaster. Friday May 23rd is World Turtle Day. This event has been sponsored yearly since 2000 to bring attention to, and increase knowledge of and respect for, turtles and tortoises, and encourage human action to help them survive and thrive. Today, many people will dress up as turtles or spend the day on busy roads helping turtles to cross. The simplest way is to wear a World Turtle Day badge or dress in green.

Turtles are reptiles, characterised by a special bony or cartilaginous shell developed from their ribs that acts as a shield. These gentle animals have been around for about 200 million years, yet they are rapidly disappearing as a result of the exotic food industry, habitat destruction and the cruel pet trade. Turtles have been around for more than 200 million years – these ancient creatures evolved before mammals, birds, snakes, or lizards! Biologists believe that turtles have managed to outlive many other species due to the unique protection provided by their shells but these give them no protection from humans or human activity.

In a world full of problems and full of species, why should we worry about turtles? It’s a question worth asking. Are there good reasons to go to the trouble of saving endangered turtles? Turtles demonstrate the ultimate lesson of ecology – that everything is connected. Sea turtles, for example, are part of two vital ecosystems, beaches and marine systems. They are a keystone species – their grazing encourages the growth of seagrass and they eat the sponges that would otherwise threaten the survival of slower growing corals. We know that their presence reduces jellyfish as this is their staple food. Their unhatched eggs give nutrients to sand dunes and their hatchlings provide food for all manner of creatures.

If sea turtles become extinct, both the marine and beach ecosystems will weaken. And since humans use the ocean as an important source for food and use beaches for many kinds of activities, weakness in these ecosystems would have harmful effects on humans.

These are some of the roles that we know turtles play in the essential health of ecosystems. Who knows what other roles we will discover as science reveals more about turtles? While humans have the ability to tinker with the "clockwork" of life, we don’t have the ability to know when it’s okay to lose a few of the working parts. Turtles have been living and thriving in the world’s oceans for millions of years but they are now in danger of extinction largely because of changes brought about by humans. If we alter the oceans and beaches enough to wipe out turtles, will those changes make it difficult for us to survive? And if we choose to do what’s necessary to save turtles, might we save our own future?

Ray Henshaw