Aquatic Turtles: Types & Habitat

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson, we'll be learning about the underwater life of aquatic turtles. We'll learn what kind of habitats these creatures call home and different types that live around the world.

What Are Aquatic Turtles?

Take a minute to imagine the refrigerator in your house. Now picture how much force you need to pull it away from the wall. Although not impossible, this is a pretty hefty task, and to carry it down the stairs, you probably need more than one extra helper. Now, picture eight fridges stacked on top of each other. Although we usually think of turtles as a small pet, the weight of eight refrigerators is equal to the weight of a leatherback sea turtle, clocking in at up to 2,000 pounds!

Turtles range in all shapes and sizes, from the giant leatherback to the tiny musk turtle that only grows a few inches in length. Aquatic turtles can live in one of two habitats, freshwater or saltwater, and they also come up onto land periodically.


Freshwater habitats are lakes, streams, and ponds. The water has a low salt content and may be still or have swift currents. Saltwater includes any ocean habitat, as well as some marshes where the ocean meets the shore. Some of the largest turtles on Earth, like the leatherback turtle, live in saltwater environments. Today, we're going to look at examples of turtles in each habitat.


Giant South American River Turtle

Although not as large as a leatherback, the giant South American river turtle lives up to its name, with females weighing up to 200 pounds and measuring 30 inches across. (Female turtles are usually larger than males.) This turtle is highly aquatic, rarely leaving the Amazon River waterways, except for basking and laying eggs during breeding season. When they do leave the water, they can be found on the sandy banks of the Amazon River streams and lakes. However, they are vulnerable to poaching when they do reach the shore, and they are endangered.

The giant South American river turtle prefers calm waters, rather than rivers with swift currents. During the wet season, the forest floor floods and creates new habitats for the turtle. They may migrate from their typical streams and lakes to swamps, lagoons, and other parts of the flooded forest floor where food is abundant. Fallen fruits, leaves, seeds, as well as crustaceans and fish found in its river habitat, make up the turtle's diet.

Mary River Turtle

If you were asked to imagine someone with green hair, you might think of a young punk rocker. But rivers turtles can also pull off the green look quite well. The Mary River turtle is a small river turtle, growing up to about a foot in length, that commonly grows algae on its shell. On one occasion, a Mary River turtle was photographed sporting a green algae mohawk, and it became an internet hit!

Unlike seawater turtles, which tend to have a large range, the Mary River turtle only has one small habitat, the Mary River in Queensland, Australia. This tiny river is unfortunately located on private property and is not protected. As a result, habitat degradation is a serious concern for the Mary River turtle. Prior to this trouble, the Mary River turtle was devastatingly over-harvested to supply the pet trade with cute turtles. Young turtles were collected and sold as 'penny turtles' in pet shops.



Leatherback turtles are the largest turtles on Earth, a living relic of giant reptiles from prehistoric times. The genetic roots of the leatherback turtle can be traced back to over 100 million years ago. These giants weigh up to 2,000 pounds and can stretch over six feet long, the height of a grown man. Leatherbacks are unique in that their shells are flexible and rubbery, hence the name 'leatherback,' unlike other turtles that have hard, rigid shells. Not only are they the largest turtle but they also can dive the deepest, up to 4,200 feet, holding their breath for 85 minutes at a time.

A leatherback turtle in the sand
leatherback turtle

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