Baby turtles are fascinating animals. From the minute they are born their mission is to get into the water. They pick up all the skills they need to survive on their own. They are an ancient animal that look like they have no business being on land, yet this is where they start out their lives and where they leave their offspring.
There is still much we don’t know about the early years of these amazing animals, but some of what we do know is nothing short of remarkable. Here are some amazing baby turtle facts as well as some answers to a few of the most frequently asked questions.
8 Amazing Baby Turtle Facts
Baby Turtles Are Called Hatchlings
Baby turtles start out their lives in eggs, where they will incubate for between 45-90 days on average, depending on the species. Once the eggs are ready, baby turtles will emerge, and these baby turtles are called ‘hatchlings‘. Mothers don’t incubate their eggs, but rather they dig out a ‘nest‘ in warm sand and burry their ‘clutch‘ of eggs there. The warm sand incubates the eggs.
As they mature, adult turtles are just known as male or female, there is no other specific term used to distinguish between the sexes. Collective nouns used to describe baby turtles include a ‘flotilla‘ of baby turtles and a ‘bale‘ of baby turtles, though the latter can also be used to describe a group of turtles of any age.
Baby Turtles Sex Is Influenced By Temperature During Incubation
As with some other reptiles that start their life in eggs, such as baby crocodiles or baby alligators, the sex that a turtle will have at birth is influenced by temperature during the incubation period. This is known as temperature-dependent sex determination, or TSD. Some other fish and lizards are also effected this way.
If turtle eggs are incubated below 81.9° F (27.7° C), the embryo develops normally as a male; temperatures above 88.8° F (31° C) normally result in female embryos. Between these temperatures, both sexes are produced.
The temperature of the sand in which the eggs are deposited can greatly effect the incubation temperature of the eggs. With warmer sand usually resulting in more female hatchlings. This is something that may cause problems for turtle species as our climate changes. As global warming takes hold
According to the National Ocean Service, climate change might be challenging in the future, for all animals – particularly reptiles that are effected by TSD. With warmer temperatures this has the potential to reduce the balance between male and female births. With turtles, there is the potential for males to become very scarce. That would add more pressure to the survival of turtles.
Baby Turtles Are Abandoned, Buried In Their Nest
Turtles are not paternal whatsoever. Once a mother has buried her eggs in a nest in the sand, she returns to the water never to see her offspring again, unless by chance later in life. They have no instincts to protect, teach or nurse their young.
From the minute they are born, it is up to the baby turtles to make it out of their nest and find the water. They hatch from their egg with the help of an ‘egg tooth’ which many hatchlings have, including baby platypus and baby turkeys for example. This is the only tooth a baby turtle will ever have. Once out of the egg, they then have to dig themselves out of the sand and race for the safety of the water.
Most Baby Turtles Don’t Make It To The Sea
Baby turtles have many hurdles to overcome before they even make it to the water. For a start, they have to dig themselves out of their deep nest. Something that they would not be able to do on their own. From the minute they hatch, they stimulate other eggs in their clutch to encourage their siblings to hatch too. It is only with teamwork that they are able to dig their way out.
They will emerge from the nest usually in large groups. It takes a team effort to get out and it is exhausting work for baby turtles. But that is only their first challenge. They next need to make it to the water, avoiding any potential predators, and there are many that like the taste of baby turtle.
This is another reason that emerging from the nest together is critical. Without the protection of a parent, it is up to siblings to look after each other. Many turtles together makes it a much harder job for a predator to get a meal. Individually they are a much easier target.
Baby turtles usually race for the ocean at night, because they are ‘phototactic‘. This means they are attracted to light, and at night the brightest light is usually moonlight reflecting off the water.
Many don’t make it to the water, falling foul to a predator or failing to make it out of the nest or even the egg. Once they do reach the water, they have a whole new set of predators happy to take advantage of their small size and vulnerability too.
It is estimated that on average, as few as 1 in 1000 will make it to adulthood, and that number jumps to 1 in 10,000 for some unfortunate species.
Baby Turtles Talk To Each Other From Inside Their Eggs
Before they even hatch, baby turtles are getting used to the sound of each others voices, perhaps even plotting their escape. It is thought that they start to make noise to encourage and stimulate activity in other eggs, identifying and making sure that as a group, many will ‘wake’ and hatch around the same time. These instincts are incredible and give them the greatest chance of survival.
Baby Turtles Know How To Swim From Birth
Some of the instincts that baby turtles have from birth are nothing short of remarkable. With no parent to show them the ropes, it is critical that they are born with the instinct to form groups, to collaborate and work together. It is also critical though, that they know how to find the water and to swim. They are naturals, and from the minute they hit the water they know what to do.
Turtles Return To The Same Beach They Were Born On To Lay Their Own Clutch
Quite remarkably, baby turtles will often return after many years out in open sea, to mate and lay their own eggs on the same beach that they themselves were born. When you consider that it can take up to 20 years for a sea turtle to reach sexual maturity, that is astonishing.
It is thought that they do this by recognising patterns in the Earth’s magnetic field. The coastline’s magnetic signature is unique to each location, providing turtles with a ‘mental map’ to remember and follow as an internal compass.
The First Few Years Of A Turtle’s Life Are Called The Lost Years
The period following the new-born stage of a marine turtle’s life, once they have made it to the water, is referred to as the ‘lost years’. This term got its name because it’s very hard to study these animals during this time.
After they hatch and leave shallow coastal waters, they spend most of their time in open ocean. Some believe they spend their time riding on ocean waves and looking for food among the floating seaweed. However, in truth we still know relatively little about this period of their lives until they reach sexual maturity and return to shallower waters, then the shore to reproduce.
The age that they reach sexual maturity can vary widely depending on the species. In some cases it can be as few as 7 years, in others as long as 40 – that’s a lot of ‘lost years’!
Baby Turtle FAQs
How Many Types Of Baby Turtle Are There?
There are 356 types of turtles either alive today or recently extinct, split between two different orders – Pleurodira and Cryptodira. This includes tortoises, terrapins and sea turtles. There are 7 extant species of sea turtle today, which are:
- Green Turtle
- Loggerhead Turtle
- Kemp’s Ridley Turtle
- Olive Ridley Turtle
- Hawksbill Turtle
- Flatback Turtle
- Leatherback Turtle
What Is The Lifecycle Of A Baby Turtle?
Turtles will lay their clutch of eggs around 3 to 6 weeks on average after mating. The eggs will then incubate, by themselves, buried in sand for between 45-90 days.
Once hatched, turtles will emerge together from their nest and make their way to the sea. They will spend their juvenile years making their way out into the deep oceans, often undertaking huge migrations.
Depending on the species they will not reach sexual maturity until several years later. The largest sea turtles – leatherbacks – are also the first to reach sexual maturity, between 7-13 years. Green turtles on the other hand can take between 25-40 years to reach sexual maturity and most others taking between 15-25 years on average.
In many cases, sea turtles only average around 10 -12 good breeding years once they reach maturity.
Some studies suggest that many sea turtles have a similar lifespan to humans, records indicate many living between 50-100 years. It is believed that some however, can live in advance of 150 years, but records this long will obviously take time to collect and validate.
How Many baby Turtle Eggs Are In A Clutch?
The average clutch size for sea turtles, is around 110 eggs. However, it does differ across the species. They can have between 2 to 8 nests in a single season but again this depends on the species.
Flatback turtles have the smallest clutches, averaging 50 eggs, while hawksbills have the largest clutches and may lay over 200 eggs in a single nest.
How Big Do Baby Turtles Grow?
The smallest species of turtle alive today is the Chersobius signatus of South Africa. These turtles measure no more than 10 cm in length and weigh just 172 grams.
The smallest sea turtle however, is the Kemps Ridley, which measures around 70 cm long and can weigh up to 40kg.
The Leatherback turtle is the largest living species of turtle and can reach a length of over 2.7 meters and a weight over 500 kg. At birth however, leatherback babies are only around 2-3 inches in length!
What Do Baby Turtles Eat?
The diet of baby turtles changes depending on the species, their location and the availability of food. Babies need protein to keep growing, so many species will mostly eat meat. They like to eat small insects, snails, worms and fish. When they get bigger, they can start eating more plant-like substances.
The loggerhead turtle for example, mainly feeds on hard-shelled organisms such as lobsters, crustaceans and fish. Leatherbacks primarily feed on jellyfish, whereas green turtles prefer sea grasses and seaweed. Hawksbill turtles love to eat sponges.
Interestingly, it is believed that diet is a major factor in why green turtles take so long to reach sexual maturity.
Where Do Baby Turtles Live?
Baby turtles, and in this case sea turtles, can be found around the world, in every ocean, except the cold polar regions. Some species can be found only in specific regions while others have a global distribution.
For example, flatback sea turtles can only be found off the northern coast of Australia, whereas the hawksbill turtle – although endangered – can be found in tropical and subtropical waters around the world.
They will often venture on extensive migrations during their adolescent years, out in deep waters, before returning to shallower waters in maturity.
What Are The Natural Predators Of Baby Turtles?
There are many dangers that turtle hatchlings face, both on land and in water. On the beach, they must run the gauntlet to escape predators like birds, crabs, raccoons, and foxes. Some of these will even feast on turtle eggs if they happen across a nest. Once they make it into the ocean, they have predators waiting for them there too, such as seabirds and fish.
Some turtles will employ strategies to try and confuse predators. The green sea turtle for example, has also been known to play dead when it’s scared by a predator.
Where Does The Name Turtle Come From?
The word turtle is derived from the French ‘tortue‘ or ‘tortre‘, which translates to ‘turtle‘ or ‘tortoise‘. Even though there are taxonomic distinctions between different types of turtles, the name is used in some regions such as the USA indiscriminately. In other regions like the UK however, turtle is used only to describe ‘sea turtles‘, whereas freshwater species are known as ‘terrapins‘ and terrestrial species are known as ‘tortoises‘.