The Turtle: A Journey Through Time

The Land Before Time

Turtles may not seem as tough and resilient as their fellow prehistoric animals the dinosaurs, but they are the ones who evolved and survived through the changes of time and evolution. Turtles have existed in forms that we would not recognize, and they have led to the turtle breeds that are now nurtured by loyal pet owners like the ones who patron Allan’s Pet Center.

Turtles survived the ravages of time to meet the human race, and they’ve grown in popularity as pets in recent years, certainly one of the most popular reptiles to have in a human home. Here’s a walk through their journey as one of Earth’s longest-lasting animals.

Patient Zero

The first known ancestor of the turtle was the Eunotosaurus, and it lived about 260 million years ago, before dinosaurs took their first steps on Earth. The Eunotosaurus lived primarily in watery, muddy areas, and lacked the distinguishing characteristic of its modern turtle breed descendants: a shell.

Scientists spent many years debating over how turtles developed their upper and lower shells. There was not a fossilized sample of any animal that could prove when and how the turtle developed the shell, and after the Eunotosaurus was discovered in 1892, the mystery lingered for some time.

Armored Up

In 2008, a team of Chinese paleontologists identified the Odontochelys. This prehistoric turtle breed lived about 220 million years ago, after the Eunotosaurus, and it was a fully marine turtle. It still lacked a shell on its upper body but had developed a shell on its lower body, in the belly area, and a set of teeth.

This crucial discovery was a step in tracking the turtle’s evolution from before the dinosaurs to its current form. The Odontochelys also indicated that the turtle had evolved into a shelled reptile over time, whether for protection or digging purposes, a point that scientists are still debating.

About ten million years later, the Proganochelys was another form of turtle that had developed an upper body shell and fewer teeth than its predecessor, the Odontochelys. The species had evolved in that ten million-year period to a very similar shape that turtles have now. This was at a time when famous dinosaurs like the Brontosaurus and the Triceratops were alive, during what is known as the early Jurassic Period of the Mesozoic Era.

Turtle vs. Tortoise

Tortoises are part of the turtle species, so they share the same prehistoric ancestors. They evolved into a distinctive type, but there are a few features that set tortoises apart from normal turtle breeds.

Firstly, those shells! Tortoises have a more dome-style shell, shaped similarly to a bowl or a bell, than their turtle brothers and sisters who still have a shell shaped like a shield. This is mostly so that turtles can swim more easily, with a thin, water-accommodating shell to protect them.

The other major difference is their habitat. While turtles mostly dwell in areas with a lot of water, tortoises primarily live their lives on land. Hence, the domed shells that don’t lend themselves to much swimming. 

Preserving the Species

Turtle meat used to be a massively popular food for Americans. It could be used in fancy soups for high-end restaurants, and it was also used as a survival meat for impoverished coastal Southerners during the Great Depression. One breed of turtle was even nicknamed “Hoover chicken” in dubious honor of President Herbert Hoover.

It got too popular to realistically sustain, however, because it contributed to a decrease in population for several turtle species. Some of that decrease was also caused by too much development over their natural habitat. Eventually, the US federal government decided to step in.

All sea turtles were soon protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. After that, the killing of any sea turtle for food was considered a felony, and turtles lost their place on the American dinner table, likely for good and for the best.

Ready For Their Close-Up

One pop culture phenomenon that made turtles a beloved animal for a new generation was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a cartoon, toy line, comic book and movie franchise that followed the adventures of four brothers (Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael). The brothers were human-sized turtles who fought crime, craved pizza and captured the hearts of a generation of kids.

It also increased the demand for pet turtles amongst a younger crowd. The red-eared slider was a turtle breed that fulfilled many children’s turtle pet dreams, and the 

Now They’re Cute

Turtles eventually evolved into a friendly and personable role for the modern era: pet to the human species. Turtles have become a hot commodity among exotic pet owners, and thankfully they’re cute and friendly enough to be safe for any age group.

Generally, the red-eared slider is the most popular turtle breed to have as a pet. They are very active and easy to maintain, plus they’re not afraid of humans or their fellow turtles, so it’s easy to set up a little turtle habitat with a few of them living in peace together.

They also don’t have the fearsome reputation of some other reptiles, so they’ve pretty easily slid into their role as a sweet, fun, companionable pet for animal lovers today. They rank right behind snakes, geckos, chameleons and red-bearded dragons as the most popular reptiles to keep as pets.

Slow and Steady

Turtles are sturdy, sweet companions as pets, and they have a long history as one of the oldest species to survive the ravages of time. They have also been granted new respect as an endangered species, and the protection they receive from the US federal government will likely help them survive even longer. Their pop cultural representation has been consistently positive, and they are appreciated by the general population as a vital part of the wildlife of many regions on Earth. Turtles look set to remain a part of nature for many ages to come, and their endurance and beauty are an admirable part of the natural world.

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