By Stacey Venzel
Turtles are almost always able to rotate from their backs to their stomachs, but in rare instances when they cannot, they can die from being stranded. In male-male competition, the turtle who doesn’t get flipped wins.
The shape of the shell plays a role in determining how easily a turtle can flip back over. With the help of a little wiggle waggle, turtles almost always get out of their predicament.
HOW THEY DO IT
When they are stuck on their backs, turtles flail around for a reason. Rocking their limbs and shell back and forth helps them to right themselves. Flatter turtles are less dome-shaped and so tipping over via the shell can be trickier; for this reason, they also use their long necks to wiggle about. More rounded box turtles will shift themselves onto their side, then use their legs and neck to flip onto their plastrons.
THE SEA TURTLE EXCEPTION
Aligning with the physics of aerodynamics, sea turtles have flatter shells to streamline swimming against strong ocean currents. Because of this, it is more difficult for them to flip over from their backs to their stomachs, especially as heavy adults. Hunters traditionally hauled sea turtles to shore by keeping them stranded on their backs in the hot sun on the boat deck.
Philip Ball, “How tortoises turn right-side up,” Nature, October 16, 2007,.
“Turtle Kraals Museum,” Key West Travel Guide,.