Everyone loves sea turtles. Unfortunately, not everyone knows what a sea turtle looks like.

That has become clear in Florida, where five sea turtle species co-exist with terrestrial gopher tortoises. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) received three reports in March of well-intentioned people releasing young gopher tortoises into the ocean, thinking they were sea turtles.

"Gopher tortoises cannot swim well and can easily drown," the FWC explains in a news release. "Because gopher tortoises often nest in dunes adjacent to sea turtle nesting beaches, correct identification of these terrestrial animals is important before deciding what action, if any, is necessary."

Sea turtles come onshore to nest, but otherwise spend their lives at sea. Hatchlings must quickly dash for the ocean, where they'll grow up eating jellyfish and algae before one day returning to nest on the same beach. Gopher tortoises, on the other hand, have little wherewithal in water. Equipped with strong digging forelimbs instead of flippers, they nest in burrows that vary from 3 to 52 feet long and 9 to 23 feet deep. Once hatched, they stay on land to eat grasses, palmetto berries and cactus pads.

Reports like this "are not entirely new," FWC spokesman Brandon Basino tells MNN, "but three in one month is a relatively high frequency." Despite some visual similarities between young sea turtles and gopher tortoises, the two are not very hard to tell apart. The latter do sometimes nest in dunes near the coast, though, and their proximity to the ocean is apparently the source of confusion. With sea-turtle nesting season coming up, Basino says it's especially important to be aware of the distinction.

In most cases, there's no need to intervene regardless of the species. It's best to let nature take its course when possible, but if you do encounter a turtle or tortoise in distress, Basino suggests calling local wildlife officials rather than taking matters into your own hands. The FWC has a 24-hour hotline, 888-404-FWCC, that can quickly connect curious beach-goers with knowledgeable biologists.

Just for clarity, though, the easiest way to distinguish sea turtles from gopher tortoises is to look at their front legs. "Gopher tortoises have toes, with claws on each toe. Sea turtles have flippers with only one or two claws present on each foreflipper," the FWC notes. "Proper identification can be achieved without handling the animals." Here are a few photos to illustrate the difference:

gopher tortoise hatchling

A juvenile gopher tortoise's claws are visible as it basks in the sun. (Photo: Renee Rau/FWC)

gopher tortoise hatchling

Another view of a young gopher tortoise, whose coloring is lighter than that of adults. (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

leatherback sea turtle hatchling

Flippers are an easy way to identify sea turtles, like this leatherback hatchling. (Photo: National Park Service)

green sea turtle hatchling

A green sea turtle hatchling clambers toward the ocean. (Photo: National Park Service)

All five of Florida's sea turtles are federally protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and the gopher tortoise is also protected under state law. Sea turtles face an array of threats, including water pollution, ocean plastic and hotel development along beaches where they nest. Gopher tortoises are threatened mainly by habitat loss and fragmentation, since they need large tracts of land undivided by roads, buildings, parking lots and other structures. Like sea turtles, they can take decades to reach sexual maturity and have a low reproductive rate, making it difficult for them to rebound.

The three recent mix-ups were reported directly to the FWC hotline by the would-be good Samaritans themselves. It's not clear what happened to two of the tortoise hatchlings, but at least one of them survived its brief ordeal in the surf. "I'm not sure how; perhaps it crawled out or the 'releaser' had second thoughts," Basino says. "But our biologist showed up and released it back into the dunes."

The FWC posted this photo of the tortoise on its Facebook page:

 

Last month, we received three known reports of well-intentioned, good Samaritans incorrectly releasing gopher tortoise...

Posted by FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute on Friday, April 3, 2015

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