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Definition: turtle 2 from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1612) : any of an order (Testudines syn. Chelonia) of terrestrial, freshwater, and marine reptiles that have a toothless horny beak and a shell of bony dermal plates usu. covered with horny shields enclosing the trunk and into which the head, limbs, and tail usu. may be withdrawn

Summary Article: turtle
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

a reptile of the order Chelonia, with strong, beaked, toothless jaws and, usually, an armorlike shell. The shell normally consists of bony plates overlaid with horny shields. The upper portion, or carapace, covers the turtle's back and sides, and the lower portion, or plastron, covers the belly; the two parts are joined at the sides. Exceptions are the rare plateless turtles of New Guinea and the marine leatherback turtle, which is encased in a thick, ossified skin resembling a carapace. When startled, most turtles withdraw their heads straight back into their shells, the neck folding into an S-shaped curve. However, in the side-necked turtles of the Southern Hemisphere, the head moves sideways and tucks next to the shoulder.

Types of Turtles

Turtles are classified in 12 families. The Northern Hemisphere's largest family is that of common freshwater turtles (Emydidae), which includes about a third of all turtle species and is abundant in S and E Asia, E North America, and Central America. Members of this group have webbed feet; many spend most of the time in freshwater ponds or marshes; some live in brackish estuaries. They include such well-known North American turtles as the pond turtles (including the spotted, wood, and Muhlenberg's turtles), the painted turtle, the sliders, the diamondback terrapin, and the Blanding's turtle. The box turtle, which is primarily terrestrial, belongs to this family. Land tortoises (Testudinidae) form the second largest family. Tortoises have high-domed shells, move on club-shaped feet, are vegetarian, and live in warm regions throughout the world. The musk turtles and mud turtles (family Kinosternidae) are common small turtles of the E United States, and are found only in the Americas. The soft-shelled turtles (family Trionychidae) are flat-bodied, carnivorous freshwater turtles of the Northern Hemisphere, with a leathery covering instead of horny shields on their shells. The snapping turtle family (Chelydridae) is a North American group that includes the common snapper and the alligator snapper.

Marine turtles are classified in two families. The family Chelonidae includes five sea turtle species of tropical and subtropical distribution: the green turtle, the loggerhead, the hawksbill (or tortoiseshell turtle), the Kemp's ridley, and the olive ridley. The family Dermochelidae includes only one species, the leatherback, or leatherneck, largest and heaviest of all turtles, weighing as much as 1100 lbs (500 kg). Marine turtles lack toes, and their legs are oarlike, allowing speeds of nearly 20 mph (32 kph) in the water. With the exception of the loggerhead, all are endangered, either by pollution with plastic debris, which some turtles eat by mistake, or by commercial fishing, especially shrimp trawling. Commercial trade in all endangered sea turtles is banned; however, many wild turtles are skinned for leather and tortoiseshell ornaments, or taken for food.


Turtles are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Reptilia, order Chelonia.

  • See Ernst, C. H.;Lovich, J. E., Turtles of the United States and Canada (2d ed., 2009).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

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