turtle, 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.

Turtles are found throughout most of the temperate and tropical world and in the open ocean; of the 270 known species, 42% are rare or threatened with extinction. Many turtles and their eggs are valued as food. Edible species include several marine turtles, the green turtle (traditional ingredient of turtle soup), the diamondback terrapin, and the soft-shelled turtles. Catching females when they lay eggs on land has contributed to a serious decline in many species, since it can take 10 to 30 years for some turtles to reach sexual maturity.

Different types of turtle are variously adapted to living on land, in freshwater, or in the ocean, but all turtles breathe by means of lungs (though some freshwater turtles also can absorb oxygen from the water through their skin or other means), and all lay eggs on land. The land-living species, especially those of the family Testudinidae, are commonly called tortoises. The name terrapin is generally applied to large freshwater or brackish water species, especially those used for food. Turtle species are either herbivorous or carnivorous but rarely both. They range in length from a few inches to over 6 ft (2 m), most being between 5 in. and 15 in. (13–38 cm) long. Many specimens have survived more than 50 years in captivity; one giant tortoise is known to have lived for 176 years, and another is believed to have lived about 250 years. Even larger giant turtles, some 8 ft (2.5 m) in length, lived c.3,000 years ago in the Pacific on Efate island, Vanuatu, dying out after the arrival of humans there. The largest known fossil turtle, Archelon ischyros, a sea turtle that lived during the late Cretaceous, was 15 ft (4.5 m) long.

Turtles existed 200 million years ago, at the time of the earliest dinosaurs; these early land-dwelling turtles could not retract their necks. By 120 million years ago some turtles had adapted to an aquatic life, although a 220-million-year-old ancestor of turtles that had only a bony breastplate may have been aquatic. Many of the living families of turtles existed in the Cretaceous period and have undergone very little change since then. On the basis of morphological (body structure) evidence, turtles were thought to be the oldest surviving group of reptiles. However, molecular studies comparing genes in different reptile groups indicate that turtles, along with crocodiles, are the most modern of reptiles.

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

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