By Stacey Venzel
When it comes to the fight or flight response for predator avoidance, the slow-moving turtle would rather flee than battle its enemy. But slow and steady will not win the race against a large and hungry, toothy, clawed attacker, so turtles have developed other means of protecting themselves.
Turtle predators range from wild to domestic animals, furry to feathered, shelled, creepy, crawly and scaled. Turtles have numerous defense tactics that include physical and behavioral adaptations, such as swimming away, using their shell and scales as armor, hiding in their surroundings, or, as a last ditch effort, fighting back.
TYPES OF PREDATORS
A turtle’s size and habitat largely defines its types of predators. A freshwater turtle is not going to have to worry about sharks like a sea turtle does, but it does have to be wary of alligators. Golden eagles in parts of Asia are known to pick up tortoises and crack their shells by dropping them onto rocks from high in the sky. Raccoons, otters, snakes, dogs, crabs, wading birds, large fish and even fire ants prey on eggs and hatchlings. Large turtles, such as the adult snapping turtle, have also been seen munching on smaller species like tiny musk turtles.
Invasive species, most often in the form of unwanted released pets, can thrive in areas where they have no natural predators, posing a problem for turtles. Ex-pet populations predominant in Florida, the Argentine tegu, Nile monitor and iguanas, have been added to the list of turtle egg eaters. Though snakes have been known to predate turtles, they also feed on other turtle hunters. The invasion of the Burmese python in the Florida Everglades could actually increase turtle populations if the snake continues to prefer mammalian meals, like raccoons, instead of turtles.
HUMANS AS PREDATORS
Humans are the biggest predatory threat to large adult turtles both for commercial and cultural reasons. One of the most notable predations on turtles for industrial purposes is the use of the tortoise shell pattern from a harvested hawksbill sea turtle carapace for making jewelry, sunglasses, dishes and other everyday products. Along with adults, even turtle eggs are at risk to human predators where the residents of some countries, especially ones in Asia, Latin America, and island cultures, find species nourishing for the body and spirit, including sea turtle eggs and the meat of the Sulawesi forest turtle.
HIDING AND FLEEING
The first mode of defense with a turtle is to avoid any interaction with a predator. Aquatic turtles can outswim some predators or at least avoid land hunters by diving off logs into the water. Hiding can be done by camouflaging with the creek bottom silt similar to the spiny softshell turtle or by fitting into underwater rock crevices like the flattened musk turtle.
SELF-DEFENSE FROM CONSUMPTION
Some turtles, like the common musk turtle, emit a nasty odor that wards off predators interested in a tasty meal. Eating some species of turtles can even be poisonous, as was the case with a handful of common box turtles whose diet tolerated toxic mushrooms but caused food poisoning in humans.
If attacked, turtles such as the Mexican giant musk turtle can bite and claw. Except for sea turtles, retracting into the shell is a safe method of defense for turtles that cannot fight back, especially for species with plastron hinges that completely close themselves up, like the Indochinese box turtle.
Michael Casey, “Burmese pythons are taking over the Everglades,” CBS News, March 19, 2015, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/burmese-pythons-are-taking-over-the-everglades/.
Stephen Divers, Doug Mader, Current Therapy in Reptile Medicine & Surgery, (St. Louis, Elsevier Saunders, 2014), 298, 304-306.
Darryl Fears, “Big but nearly invisible in the wild, officials give up on evicting pythons from Everglades,” The Washington Post, March 16, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/big-but-nearly-invisible-in-the-wild-officials-give-up-on-evicting-pythons-from-everglades/2014/03/16/58cab268-aa37-11e3-8599-ce7295b6851c_story.html.
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