Why are Turtles Slow?

mrschili asks:

I want to know why turtles are so slow, and whether or not that has anything to do with their longevity, please…..

Well, turtles are slow because they don’t have to be fast. They’re herbivores, so they don’t have to chase their food. They have nice, thick shells, which means that most predators simply don’t bother with them. So, they don’t have to chase food, and they don’t have to run away from predators, so there isn’t any reason for them to be anything except slow. They are very well adapted to their ecological niche. Speeding around can lead to Bad Things – like falls, broken bones (or shells), sprains, bruises and otherwise unpleasant things. Unless there is a reason for speed, it is usually selected against (that whole Darwin thing, y’know?).

Turtles have a fairly low metabolism, and are among the longest lived vertebrates (other reptiles like crocodiles, and some fish can live a long time too). Is their slow metabolism linked to long life? We don’t really know. In order to answer that, we’d have to know what causes aging, and we haven’t figured that out yet. There are some indications that certain metabolic processes have byproducts that may play a role in aging. If that is true, then a slow metabolism would slow down the production of those by products, and could lead to longer life spans. As a general rule, slower metabolism does correlate with longer life (and vice-versa). Of course, size also correlates with life span… In biology there are a lot of correlations that may or not mean anything. Until there is a solid well-thought out, tested, and supported theory, all we can do is guess.

–Dr. Science

6 Responses to “Why are Turtles Slow?”

  1. mrschili Says:

    I heard an NPR piece the other day about a bowhead whale that biologists think was anywhere between 115 gto 130 years old (it had an artifact imbedded in it that was manufactured in the late 1800′s). If you want to make a correlation between size and longevity, I would imagine that’d be a place to start…

    I keep coming up with a FANTASTIC question to ask you, then I forget it again. I’ll write it down the next time it comes to me….

  2. wade Says:

    Thanks that really helped

  3. wade Says:

    :)

  4. Ashley Says:

    they are not slow and some turtles are herbivores and some are omnivores some can eat fish turtles.Terrapins are the ones that are herbivores.And in my point of view some turtles run fast

    • sphyrnatude Says:

      Ashley, compared to other tetrapods, they do move fairly slowly. You are right that they have any different diets, but the majority of them are herbivorous. Even the ones that are not herbivorous tend to move slower than same-sized tetrapods with similar diets.
      This points out one of the problems with using ‘english’ instead of ‘science speak’ – a lot of words are vague and subjective (meaning that individuals points of view can change what the word means (fast to me may be slow to you). When using general language (I try to do this to keep posts understandable to the general public) words like ‘fast’ or ‘slow’ need to be taken in context. When I say that something is fast, I mean that it is fast compared to similar things. A really slow car will be much faster than the fasted snail in the world.
      ‘Turtle’ is also a general word. ‘Turtles’ are either Chelonii or Testudines (depending on what systematic model you like). ‘Terrapin’ is also a non-scientific word, and does not define a specific group of turtles (the general definition of a ‘turtle’ is any animal with a shell and a vertebral backbone). A good example of the problems with common names (or groups) instead of scientific names is the dogfish shark. On the east coast of the USA, a dogfish is Squalus acanthius – a small shark that is common in many of the waters there. In other parts of the world a dogfish is Ginglymostoma cirratum – a shark that can reach more than 2 meters in length. Common names (meaning non-scientific names) are useful for general discussion, but can confuse detailed or scientific discussions. ‘Turtle’ or ‘terrapin’ are common names, and can not be used to define a specific group of animals.

  5. Nicole Says:

    You are very cool. I like you a lot. My name is Nicole mongero. Thanks for telling me about turtles!

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