It's not hard to love turtles and tortoises. They're often cute in their own weird, sometimes freaky way and always fascinating. But despite how much we think we know about these reptiles, many species can take us by surprise with particularly strange adaptations and remarkable abilities. Here, we celebrate many species of strange and adorable turtles and tortoises.
1. African helmeted turtle (Pelomedusa subrufa)
It's hard not to smile back at this grinning guy. But don't let that goofy smile fool you. This species is omnivorous and will eat just about anything it can get its jaws on, including carrion. People have even watched groups of these turtles snag and drown doves and other relatively large prey, dragging them to the depths of the pond to dine. They look cute, but they're stone cold killers.
2. Mata mata turtle (Chelus fimbriatus)
Photo: J. Patrick Fischer [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikipedia
Nope, that's not a collection of rocks and rotting leaves at the bottom of the pond — that's a mata mata turtle. This South American species is perfectly camouflaged for its preferred habitat of slow-moving streams, stagnate pools and marshes. With a carapace that looks like bark and a head and neck that look like fallen leaves, the fish that swim close enough to be sucked up for lunch never have a chance to see what's coming. The species has a particularly long snout that it uses like a snorkel, sticking it just out of the water to breathe.
Photo: Stan Shebs [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikipedia
3. Red-bellied short-necked turtle (Emydura subglobosa)
This adorable turtle species is popular in the pet trade. It features a bright red belly when it is young, which fades to orange or yellow as it ages. Native to tropical Australia and New Guinea, it grows to about 10 inches long and can make for a hardy pet with the right care.
4. Spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera)
Photo: USFWSNortheast [public domain]/Flickr
This is one of the largest freshwater turtles found in North America, and females can grow a carapace of up to about 18 inches long. Found from Canada to Mexico, these turtles are long-lived. They don't reach sexual maturity until 8-10 years of age, and can live to be more than 50 years old. The species gets its name from the small spines that project from the upper front portion of its carapace, making it look even more like its long-lost dinosaur relatives!
5. Roti Island snake-necked turtle (Chelodina mccordi)
Talk about strange-looking! This is one of several species of turtles with particularly long necks. The Roti Island snake-necked turtle's carapace can reach between 7-9 inches long, and its neck can be equally as long. But this species is critically endangered — it's one of the most sought-after turtles in the pet trade, which has led to serious declines of wild populations. The two or three populations left are in a tiny area of Rote Island, and they are still often illegally captured for trade. Thus, collection by humans is tipping this species toward extinction.
6. Radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata)
Native to Madagascar, this beautiful tortoise species is critically endangered due to habitat loss, poaching and collection for the pet trade. The species grows to a length of about 16 inches, and they can weigh about 35 pounds. Like many tortoise species, the radiated tortoise can enjoy a long life. In fact, the oldest radiated tortoise on record was Tu'i Malila, who died at an estimated 188 years of age!
7. Leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)
The leatherback is the rock star of the sea turtles. This species is the largest of them all, dives the deepest, and travels the farthest. They're also real tough guys, actually fighting back and chasing away predators like sharks. They may have a face only a mother could love, but in terms of sheer amazingness, this species has it in spades. Unlike other sea turtles, it doesn't have a shell; instead its back is covered with skin and oily flesh. And yet, like most sea turtle species, the leatherback is endangered and still declining. From being caught on fishing lines by commercial fisheries to ingesting plastic mistaken for jellyfish, humans are having a troubling effect on this ancient turtle species.
8. Cantor's giant softshell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii)
Photo: Dementia [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons
There's a reason this species has "giant" in its name. It can grow up to 6 feet long! The strange-looking turtle has a very broad head, with eyes placed close to its snout. It spends about 95% of its life buried in the sand or mud at the bottom of freshwater rivers and streams, lying motionless in wait for prey that it ambushes. It surfaces only twice a day to take a breath. Otherwise, it simply stays put, waiting for a careless crustacean or fish to swim by and become lunch. Like so many species, the Cantor's giant softshell turtle is listed as endangered.
9. African spurred tortoise (Geochelone sulcata)
As if straight out of a comic book or a dinosaur cartoon, this species of tortoise rocks some impressive "spurs" along its forelegs. Found along the southern edge of the Sahara desert, it is the third-largest tortoise species in the world, and the largest mainland tortoise (both the larger Galapagos tortoise and Aldabra giant tortoise are island-dwellers). They can grow to 2-3 feet long over their 50- to 150-year lifespan. Because they're popular in the pet trade, they are often removed from the wild and are listed as a species vulnerable to extinction.
10. Indian flapshell turtle (Lissemys punctata)
Photo: L. Shyamal [CC BY-SA 2.5]/Wikimedia Commons
The species name says it all. The Indian flapshell is known for its many folds of skin that cover its limbs when it retreats into its shell. Whether or not this helps protect it from predators is unknown, but it sure does make it look a little bit like it has a couple snails tucked up into its shell. As an omnivore, this turtle dines on anything from frogs and fish to flowers and fruit. And while it prefers living in streams and ponds, it can tolerate a certain level of drought by burrowing and traveling to other water holes. Those flaps of skin also help it survive through dry weather.
11. Alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)
Photo: Norbert Nagel [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons
The largest freshwater turtle in the world based on weight — they can weigh well over 150 pounds — the alligator snapping turtle is found in the southeastern United States. It gets its name both through its primitive, 'gator-like looks as well as through its ambush-style hunting technique. It's mouth is camouflaged and has a worm-like appendage on the tip of its tongue to lure in prey, which can be anything from fish to snakes to water birds to other turtles. Lying completely motionless with its mouth wide open, it literally just waits for an animal to get close to its mouth, which it then snaps shut with incredible speed.
12. Big-headed turtle (Platysternum megacephalum)
Named for rather obvious reasons, the big-headed turtle's head is so large, it can't retract it into its shell for protection. But it makes up for this failing by readily protecting itself with its powerful jaws (so, don't try to poke it). It also uses those strong jaws as well as its rather long tail to climb trees and bushes. It has no problem navigating the obstacles it comes across in rivers and streams. Unfortunately, humans view this turtle as a tasty meal. Between being caught for food markets as well as for the pet trade, the species is now listed as endangered and is disappearing from the wild.
13. Yellow blotched map turtle (Graptemys flavimaculata)
This colorful species is one of several species of map turtle, called so because of the map-like markings on their carapace. Map turtles also all have in common the noticeable ridge running along the back of the shell, which is how they get their other common name of saw-backed turtles. This species has a very small range — it is only located in the Pascagoula River of Mississippi and most of its tributaries. A combination of its small range, as well as a low reproduction success rate due to human disturbance and crow predation, has led to this species being listed as vulnerable to extinction. Unfortunately, several species of map turtle are also listed as threatened or endangered including the newly discovered Pearl River map turtle.
14. Galapagos giant tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra)
The giant Galapagos tortoise is perhaps one of the most famous terrapins in the world. It is the world's largest living species of tortoise, and lives for more than 100 years in the wild. In fact, one captive Galapagos tortoise lives to be 170 years old! The biggest Galapagos tortoises on record reached 880 pounds and over 6 feet long. The species is native to the Galapagos islands, and subspecies are found on seven of the islands in the archipelago. Humans caused species numbers to dive, due to hunting, habitat loss and introduction of non-native species. But recovery programs have helped to bring numbers back. Even so, the species is still listed as vulnerable to extinction. And in case you were wondering whether a giant reptile could be cute — why yes, yes they can:
15. Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)
Hello, hawksbills! These sea turtles are found in coastal waters in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. They get their name from the sharp point at the end of their upper jaw, resembling a raptor's bill. This helps them get food from the crevices of coral reefs. They also have a unique feature apart from other sea turtles — a claw on each of the front flippers. Despite their critically endangered status, their eggs are still collected for food, and they are still caught for meat and for their beautifully colored shells which are made into jewelry and trinkets. There are only around 20,000 nesting females left — and hawksbills don't reach maturity until about 30 years of age and only nest every two to four years. Their slow reproduction rate means that juveniles and adults need far more protection from humans to avoid extinction.
16. Malayan softshell turtle (Dogania subplana)
Photo: Wibowo Djatmiko [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons
Here is another turtle species with a face you won't forget. Found in fresh, fast-running water, the Malayan softshell turtle loves to dine on snails and other small mollusks. Like many softshell turtle species, it has a snout that can be stuck up above the water like a snorkel while it stays submerged and somewhat hidden. But overall, its profile looks almost more like a fish than a turtle.
17. Ploughshare tortoise (Astrochelys yniphora)
This species, also known as the angonoka tortoise, is native to Madagascar and is also critically endangered. With fewer than 600 left in the wild and still declining, it is considered the rarest tortoise in the world. It is thought it could become extinct in the wild within two decades. The fact that they may disappear entirely in a matter of years is not a deterrent to determined poachers — in March of 2013, smugglers were caught in an airport, carrying a single bag containing 54 ploughshare tortoises and 21 radiated tortoises — possibly as much as one-tenth of the entire population of this species.
18. Pig-nosed turtle (Carettochelys insculpta)
We'll give you one guess as to how this turtle got its name. It's not just the nose that makes this turtle species unique. It is also the only freshwater turtle with flippers like sea turtles. It is found in freshwater streams, lagoons and rivers in the Northern Territory of Australia and also on New Guinea. Sadly, the species has experienced a population decline of about 50% in the last two decades, due mainly to the exotic pet trade. The species is known for its territorial behavior and thus high levels of aggression when in captivity, so captive breeding isn't necessarily an option for most owners. Mostly just leaving them alone in the wild is what's needed to protect them from further decline.
19. Leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis)
This gorgeous tortoise is known for its amazing markings on its carapace. The distinct markings are most defined when young, and fade as the individual ages. Found in the savannas of eastern and southern Africa, it spends its days grazing on grasses and succulents. It may look like it is carrying quite a burden with that large shell on its back but it actually is quite nimble. Leopard tortoises are speedy, and can even climb. Their toenails provide them with a solid grip on pourous surfaces like wood and rough stone. They can also go underwater for up to 10 minutes. Never underestimate the abilities of a tortoise!