Turtles not only survived the great extinction that ended the reign of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, but they also withstood the ice ages that ended just a few thousand years ago. However, life is tough for the turtles of today, which inspired the new MSU Museum exhibit, "Turtles in Trouble," opening March 29.
“Turtles are in serious trouble," said MSU Museum naturalist Jim Harding, who also teaches in the Department of Zoology. "At least two-thirds of turtle species worldwide are declining and threatened with extinction, and several species have become extinct in the wild over just the last few years."
The vast majority of turtles and tortoises bury their eggs and then leave them to their fate, as baby turtles are good at taking care of themselves. However, most turtle eggs (and many of the baby turtles that do hatch) are eaten by predators. Fortunately for the turtles that survive, they are very long-lived compared to most other animals. For example, Michigan's little Eastern Box Turtle can live over a century, and most other species can live nearly as long. So, if a turtle is lucky enough to reach maturity, it may be able to breed for many decades.
Anything that causes the older turtles to disappear faster than they can be replaced will quickly lead to declining turtle numbers, which could eventually cause total extinction, Harding explains.
"While natural disasters can certainly harm turtles, it has been human activities over the last few decades that have severely damaged turtle and tortoise populations," he said. "People cut forests, plow up grasslands, and drain or pollute wetlands, lakes and rivers. But perhaps even worse is the smashing of thousands of turtles on roads and the mass-collection of millions of turtles and their eggs for human food, folk medicines and pets in many parts of the world.”
"Turtles in Trouble" features turtles commonly seen in Michigan - Snapping, Softshell, Box, Wood, Painted, Slider and others. Also shown are examples from Asia, and the "turtle trade," where turtle species went from "common" to "endangered," or even "extinct in the wild," within a very few years.
In addition to select MSU Museum collections, the exhibit includes life-like turtle sculptures created by artist and environmental columnist Mark Muhich. An opening reception is set for 3-5 p.m. March 29 and programs are planned in coordination with MSU's Science Festival, April 1-6.
The exhibit runs through Sept. 21 in the MSU Museum's Art-Science-Creativity Gallery. Learn more here.