Turtle Power

5 minutes

World Turtle Day was May 23. It might be surprising that there’s an entire day dedicated to these slow-moving reptiles, but turtles are a fascinating collective of creatures that are more important to the world than many people realize.

I'm kind of a big deal.

I'm kind of a big deal.

Testudines—the collective name for shelled reptiles, which includes turtles, terrapins, and tortoises—have been around for more than 200 million years. They range in size from a few inches, like the speckled cape tortoise, up to 1,500 pounds, or the high end of the leatherback sea turtle range. Even more impressive than their size is how turtles help shape the world. In the ocean, sea turtles help maintain healthy coral reefs and seagrass beds—both important ecosystems for many species—keep marine food webs balanced, and transport vital nutrients to and from beaches and water. On land, turtles are responsible for seed propagation, they keep areas clean by eating fish and other detritus near lakes and river, and the burrows they dig provide homes for owls, rabbits, and even bobcats.

Hatchlings are adorable, but don't take home wild turtles.

Hatchlings are adorable, but don't take home wild turtles.

But there’s one fact about turtles that’s as terrible as it is surprising: Due to habitat destruction, poaching, and climate change, more than half of the 300 species of testudines currently are threatened with extinction. Of course, if there’s a problem, there’s most likely an Oklahoman trying to help fix it. Josh Lucas, lead keeper of herpetology at the Oklahoma City Zoo, is doing something to help at least one turtle species survive.

In April 2018, nearly 11,000 radiated tortoises were found in a house in Madagascar. In February 2019, Lucas traveled to Madagascar as manager of the Turtle Survival Alliance Radiated Tortoise Reintroduction Program. For fifty days, he camped in the spiny forest to be close to the tortoises’ habitat. During that time, Lucas worked to engage the local community, assess the suitability of certain potential habitats, and study existing populations in order to help get the captured tortoises back to the wild. He also catalogued 802 tortoises, inspired fear in some locals, and met plenty of lemurs, but you can read more about that in the *Oklahoma Today *September/October 2019 Animal Issue.

The radiated tortoise gets its name from its unique shell pattern.

The radiated tortoise gets its name from its unique shell pattern.

Just because you can’t go to Madagascar, or because you’re not a herpetologist, or because you aren’t sure if a radiated tortoise is called that because it’s been exposed to radiation (it’s not), doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference in a turtle’s life. Even going to the Oklahoma City Zoo helps fund research and conservation efforts, like Lucas’. If you missed World Turtle Day, they have even more upcoming reasons to visit and learn about ways you can help animals like the radiated tortoise. Each day’s festivities are free with zoo admission.

  • Saturday, June 8: World Oceans Day
  • Friday, June 21: World Giraffe Day
  • Sunday, July 14: World Chimp Day
  • Thursday, August 8: International Cat Day
  • Monday, August 12: World Elephant Day
  • Saturday, September 14: OKC Zoo Monarch Madness 5K/Fun Run and Monarch Festival
  • Saturday, September 21: World Cassowary and Red Panda Day
  • Friday, October 18: World Okapi Day
  • Saturday, November 2: World Bison Day

For more information on the OKC Zoo’s conservation efforts and events, go to okczoo.org or follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Get There:
Oklahoma City Zoo & Botanical Garden 2000 Remington Place Oklahoma City, OK 73111 or TravelOK.com
Written By
Karlie Ybarra

Managing editor Karlie Ybarra loves to explore her home state—and meet many of its animal citizens—any chance she gets.

Karlie Ybarra
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