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What strategies do turtles use to find food?

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A giant softshell turtle catches a meal. This turtle will bury itself in sand with only its eyes, nose and mouth exposed, scanning the immediate area for potential prey. When a fish or other prey come into the area, the turtle quickly extends his head from the sand and feeds.
A giant softshell turtle catches a meal. This turtle will bury itself in sand with only its eyes, nose and mouth exposed, scanning the immediate area for potential prey. When a fish or other prey come into the area, the turtle quickly extends his head from the sand and feeds.

By Stacey Venzel

There are no turtle grocery stores to make food shopping easy; instead, a turtle has to work for its tasty treat. As hunters and gatherers, methods of finding food differ among species.

Not only do they rely on sight and smell to find food, but turtles also have developed unique strategies for obtaining meals. They can remember good feeding grounds as well as trick prey or sit and wait for food.

SIGHT AND SMELL PLUS MEMORY
Visual and odor stimuli, in addition to memory, are beneficial in a turtle’s search for food. Vegetarian turtles like river cooters and tortoises follow their eyes to lush regions of plants, berries and algae. In the water and on land, carnivores are often led by their noses to dead and living organisms. When a turtle finds a particularly productive feeding zone, it utilizes these cues to remember the spot for later, explaining why green sea turtles are often found in the same sea grass bed.

Wood-turtle-13557
Wood turtle eating earthworm.

TRICKERY
We know turtles are smart when it comes to solving puzzles, but they are also clever schemers. The wood turtle mimics rainwater, stomping and throwing its plastron on the ground to trick earthworms into rising up for an easy meal.

SIT AND WAIT
Lazy hunters sit and wait, letting food come to them. Cantor’s giant softshell turtles bury themselves in sand with only their eyes uncovered, watching and waiting to attack prey. Some turtles act like fishermen, patiently luring food. The prime example is the alligator snapping turtle, another trickster, who sits open-mouthed, dangling its thin, pink tongue to attract fish who mistake it for an earthworm.

Alligator snapping turtle attacking, eating a porcupine.  

Sources:
Karen Eckert, David Gulko, Sea Turtles: An Ecological Guide (Honolulu, Mutual Publishing, 2004), 42.

Carl J Franklin, Turtles: An Extraordinary Natural History 245 Million Years in the Making (St. Paul, Voyageur Press, 2007), 29-30.

Whit Gibbons, Judy Greene, Turtle: The Animal Answer Guide (Baltimore, The John Hopkins University Press, 2009), 77-79.

 
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