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.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.