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February 2020
World Turtle Day

Happy World Turtle Day!

Celebrate World Turtle Day by learning more about extinct, endangered and living turtles and the work the Smithsonian is doing to study and conserve them.

Hector Guzman

Leatherback Turtles, Jaguars and Manatees

Hector Guzmán's work on corals at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute led to the establishment of Panama’s Coiba National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Pacific. Now he has turned his attention to three charismatic endangered species in Western Panama’s San San Pond Sak wetland: the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle, the jaguar and the West Indian manatee. By monitoring the movements of these animals, Guzman and colleagues will reveal how all three species use this rich ecosystem. Research-based tourism projects contribute to local government’s efforts to protect wildlife. Scientific data will also improve co-management strategies for the protected area.

Learn More about Hector's Work

Spider Tortoise

CRITIcally Endangered Spider Tortoise Hatches

The National Zoo is celebrating a conservation milestone; for the first time, a rare spider tortoise has hatched in the Reptile Discovery Center. Animal care staff are closely monitoring the hatchling, which emerged May 10. Staff have not yet verified the two-week-old tortoise’s sex—when tortoises are young they don't exhibit sexual dimorphism. Keepers report that the tortoise appears to be thriving and are encouraged by its growth. If the tortoise continues to progress, it will be on exhibit this summer.

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Sea Turtle

Sea Turtle Hitchhikers

“It is strange to think of a sea turtle as an ecosystem,” says Amanda Feuerstein, program coordinator and research assistant at the National Museum of Natural History, “but they are…they have all of these other animals living on their skin and shells.” Feuerstein co-authored a survey documenting the crustaceans, mollusks, algae and other marine organisms that make a home on the bodies of olive ridley and green sea turtles living in the Pacific. “For years we considered epibionts as harmless hitchhikers on the turtles, but that opinion is starting to change," says Eric Lazo-Wasme of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, lead author of the study.

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Smart Car Sized Turtle Illustration

Turtles the Size of Smart Cars

Picture a turtle the size of a Smart car, with a shell large enough to double as a kiddie pool. Paleontologists from North Carolina State University, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Florida Museum of Natural History have described such a specimen from the fossilized remains of this 60-million-year-old South American giant that lived in what is now Colombia.

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Turtle - photo by Daniel Field

Turtle FAmily Tree

Turtles long have been the subject of one the most contentious questions in evolutionary biology: Where do they fit among vertebrates in the evolutionary tree of life? Last year, scientists from Dartmouth, Yale, the Smithsonian and other institutions determined that turtles are more closely related to birds and crocodilians than to lizards and snakes.

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Turtle Shell Fossil

The Origin of the Turtle Shell

Unique among Earth’s creatures, turtles are the only animals to form a shell on the outside of their bodies through a fusion of modified ribs, vertebrae and shoulder girdle bones. The turtle shell is a unique modification, and how and when it originated has fascinated and confounded biologists for more than two centuries. A Smithsonian scientist and colleagues discovered that the turtle shell appeared 40 million years earlier than previously thought.

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River Turtle

isolation is misleading

A genetic study focusing on the Central American river turtle turned up surprising results for a team of Smithsonian scientists involved in the conservation of this critically endangered species. Small tissue samples collected from 238 wild turtles at 15 different locations in Southern Mexico, Belize and Guatemala revealed a “surprising lack” of genetic structure. “We were expecting to find a different genetic lineage in each drainage basin,” explains the paper’s main author Gracia González-Porter of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “Instead, we found the mixing of lineages. It was all over the place.” Despite appearing isolated, the genetic data showed the different turtle populations had been in close contact for years. “But how?” the researchers wondered.

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