Program: Adaptation works for sea, land turtles

Alyssa Rodriguez discusses how Seamore, a loggerhead sea turtle at the Oklahoma Aquarium, has adapted to his environment.

Whether it's a giant sea turtle making his way through the ocean or a tiny box turtle crawling across your front yard, all these reptiles have several things in common.

They have adapted to the conditions in their environment, but they share several characteristics, said Alyssa Rodriguez, educational specialist at the Oklahoma Aquarium in Jenks. Rodriguez led the Turtle Time video, available this week through the Tahlequah Public Library on its Facebook page.

All turtles are reptiles. They have shells - with a spine along the bottom of the shell - and they lay eggs. All have scaly skin. All are cold-blooded animals, lacking the ability to regulate their temperatures.

They need to keep warm and cool through their environment. And all must breathe air at some point, even the ones that spend long periods under water.

Wearing a plush turtle headpiece, Rodriguez began her talk with Seamore, a large loggerhead sea turtle, peering over her shoulder from his giant tank.

"There are many different kinds of turtles, from Oklahoma to our oceans," she said. "Turtles can live in all kinds of different habitats -- deserts, river banks, ponds, lakes."

Being a male, Seamore will never lay eggs. But the females lay about 100 eggs at a time into their nests on the beach. The temperature of the eggs determines whether the turtles will be male or female when they hatch. The warmer eggs produce female turtles.

"Hot chicks and cool dudes," Rodriguez quipped.

Seamore can hold his breath for several hours at a time, but he isn't the only big turtle in the sea. Rodriguez showed a photo of a leatherback sea turtle, a behemoth which can grow to 7 feet long and weigh 1,000 pounds. It can hold its breath for seven or eight hours.

Some turtles go fishing with an unusual bait.

"Inside the mouth of the sea turtle is a little pink thing that looks like a worm," Rodriguez said. "When an unsuspecting fish swims close, even into the turtle's mouth, the turtle devours it."

Turtles also have the ability to grow quite old.

Rodriguez next singled out Grandpa, a 120-year-old alligator snapping turtle. These turtles live in rivers and lakes. They are omnivores and often wait for their prey to come to them.

People also see common snapping turtles, which have a smooth skin. The alligator snapper has spiny points on its shell.

Other varieties of turtle at the aquarium are red eared sliders, river cooters, and false map turtles.

Unlike the turtles seen previously, they are herbivores. Aquarium visitors get to feed them carrots. The spiny soft shell turtle stands out because of its long neck and pointy snout. It buries itself in the mud and has the capability of breathing under water. The long neck helps keep its head out of the mud.

Moving to the land, Rodriguez picked up Carl, an ornate box turtle. Box turtles are commonly seen in Oklahoma. She pointed out Carl's flat feet and long claws, which help him walk.

Contrary to the belief turtles are slow, "Carl can actually move pretty quickly on the land, especially if food is involved," she said.

Box turtles can pull their heads and legs inside their shells, clamping them shut like a box - hence their name.

Rodriguez closed the program by moving back to Seamore, discussing his species' challenges and the future of such animals. Seamore weighs 330 pounds and is 25 years old. He is expected to live much longer.

"Sea turtles' nesting is actually a very interesting behavior," Rodriguez said. "Sea turtles will only lay their eggs on the beach where they were born."The turtles may swim thousands of miles through the sea before returning to lay eggs 20 to 30 years after they first waddle into the ocean. But the beach may well have changed through that time. Manmade structures such as buildings, cabanas, or other construction may have altered it. Hurricanes and floods also can change the configuration of a beach.

"Sea turtles will not lay their eggs on the beach if they don't recognize it," Rodriguez said.

Instead, they will lay them in the water, where they will not hatch. This makes the big turtles an endangered species. They also are threatened by pollution.

Humans can do a lot to help preserve the turtles, she said. One of the most important is to use less plastic.

"They often mistake the plastics for food," she said, trying to swallow plastic that they think is a jellyfish. This can injure or kill the turtle.

Rodriguez urged people to cut down on the use of plastic by choosing reusable bags and water bottles, or using plastic more than once before it's discarded.

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