The roads in Sea Isle City, NJ, can reach peak capacity during the summer months, but it’s not just because of vehicular traffic. Each year beginning around late May, dozens of female diamondback terrapins—medium-sized turtles with a distinct diamond-shaped pattern on their shell—begin their annual migration from the coastal marshes where they reside, across the barrier island to the beaches and sand dunes where they can give birth safely. For approximately two months, they battle the roadways, slowly walking back and forth from one side to the other while trying to survive the many cars, vans and trucks that pass their way.

Diamondback terrapins are just one turtle type in a vast world of turtle species. From the giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands to the green sea turtles that nest in Costa Rica’s Tortuguero National Park, the amount of turtle diversity on the planet is outstanding. However, while turtles have roamed the Earth for more than 200 million years and have outlived dinosaurs, today, they’re some of the most threatened wildlife on the planet. That’s why World Turtle Day and its mission of turtle conservation is so important.

Beginning in 2000, World Turtle Day (May 23) highlights the importance of protecting both turtles and their habitat around the globe. It’s also the perfect opportunity to learn about turtle diversity and ways of helping these highly endangered vertebrae.

Kemp's ridley sea turtle on the sand beach of Mexico (Chiapas)

Kemp’s ridley sea turtle

Why are Turtles and Turtle Conservation Important?

From their dietary habits to the dispersing of seeds, turtles are essential to maintaining biodiversity, and their disappearance would have an astounding effect on how ecosystems function. Turtles help maintain coral reefs by eating organisms like sponges that compete for space. They dig burrows that other mammals can utilize and are prey that other wildlife depend on.

Nat Hab recently paired up with the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), an action-oriented non-profit that supports and manages recovery programs for endangered turtles and tortoises worldwide, as part of a recent Daily Dose of Nature, our weekly webinar series. The topic: Turtle diversity in the U.S. and TSA’s goal of zero turtle extinctions.

Here are a few main takeaways from the episode:

What’s the Difference Between a Turtle and a Tortoise?

Sea turtles, tortoises and terrapins all fall under the “turtle umbrella,” which describes a reptile with a bony shell on its back. There are 476 living species and subspecies of turtle and tortoise inhabiting Earth today, represented by 352 distinct species. Surprisingly, only seven of these are marine, meaning the bulk of the world’s turtles actually live on land. These are the ones you might see meandering along the side of a street, sitting atop a log sunning itself in your local park and even wandering across your own backyard. “When it comes to turtle conservation,” says Jordan Gray, TSA’s communications and outreach coordinator, “there’s a whole other world of turtles out there [in addition to sea turtles] for us to focus on.”

The painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) is the most widespread native turtle of North America

Painted turtle

Born in the USA

It turns out that the U.S. actually has “far and away,” says Gray, the greatest turtle diversity on the planet. There are 88 species and subspecies of turtles throughout the country (the next country even close to the U.S. when it comes to turtle diversity is Mexico, which has 65 species and subspecies). Turtles are seemingly everywhere—in the lower 48 alone, you’ll find species like the western painted turtles of the Pacific Northwest; desert tortoises residing throughout the sandy flats and rocky foothills of the Southwest; leatherback sea turtles nesting along North Carolina’s barrier islands, and yellow mud turtles dwelling in the oxbow lakes and flooded fields of central states like Missouri and Kansas.

But while turtles exist from coast-to-coast, it’s the eastern U.S.—and even more specifically the Southeast—that’s considered a true biodiversity hotspot. In fact, the area around Mobile, Alabama, has one of the highest concentrations of turtle diversity on the planet, with at least 18 distinct species living among the region’s slow-moving waters, such as muddy rivers and soft-bottom salt marshes and swamps. These include black-knobbed sawback, Alabama red-bellied, and Gulf Coast spiny softshell turtles.

The Many Risks Facing Turtles

Despite larger, more visible wildlife, such as Arctic polar bears and Africa’s black rhinos, getting the bulk of media attention, turtles actually have a higher risk of extinction than these megafaunas. More than half of the world’s turtle and tortoise species are listed as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable. One such species is the critically endangered Madagascar big-headed turtle, which is heavily poached for use as food and as part of the illegal pet trade. But while poaching is a big issue when it comes to turtle risks, it’s by no means the only one.

Bog turtle in the U.S.

Bog turtle

Habitat Destruction and Fragmentation

Human activities such as constructing housing, establishing agricultural lands and logging, as well as natural events like earthquakes and floods, can break up local ecosystems and have devastating effects on turtle habitat and turtles in general. The critically endangered bog turtle is one turtle species that’s particularly affected by this type of habitat fragmentation. North America’s smallest turtle, bog turtles rely on fens—peaty wetlands that require a steady source of groundwater—to survive. When their habitat is drained, divided and converted into everything from farmlands to grazing areas for livestock, bog turtles are left isolated. They’re now residing in pocket wetlands, where chances of their survival become slim.

Plastics and other Ocean Debris

Ocean debris, including plastics, is a huge threat to marine life. Sea turtles can get caught in the refuse and even feed on it, which can then block their intestines so that they can’t digest food. The toxins in certain plastics can lead to infertility in male turtles. Depending on the sharpness of an object, it can also rupture an organ.

Sea turtle diggin in the sand to put her eggs on August 2010, in Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica

Climate Change

While climate change is affecting all of us, one turtle species that it’s having an especially significant effect on is the wood turtle, endemic to North America’s northeastern territory. While wood turtles spend warmer months feeding on berries and earthworms in open fields, wet meadows and forests, they overwinter in the local waters, hibernating amid fast-flowing rivers and streams. However, warmer winters are leading to increased flooding, which quite often beaches wood turtles on land while they’re still in a semi-dormant state. If they don’t make it back to the water before temperatures once again drop, they can freeze to death.

Crab Traps and Fishing Gear

Turtles are sometimes attracted to the bait used in blue crab traps. They push their way into the traps to feed and often drown once inside. Turtles can get entangled in fishing lines or die from swallowing hooks. The alligator snapping turtle, a larger creature with a big head and a ridged shell that resembles the skin of an alligator and resides in cypress swamps and bayou across the southeastern U.S., including Houston waters, is particularly susceptible to recreational and commercial fishing.

Ways to Help Protect Turtles

Here’s the good news about turtles: they’re resilient creatures. All we have to do is give them a helping hand.

Thankfully, you don’t have to be a specialist or have a scientific degree to assist with turtle conservation. In fact, “citizen science” and a passion for saving wildlife play a huge part in their overall care. There are various programs in the U.S. where you can act as a citizen scientist for an hour, day or week. It may be participating in a coastal cleanup or joining your town’s community board in an effort to protect local wetlands. If you see a diamondback turtle crossing the street in oncoming traffic, you can move it to the side of the road in the direction that it was already going (remember, however, to never handle turtles unnecessarily). Or, if a female diamond has been killed on the way to lay her eggs, call a local wildlife center and let them know. They can then rescue the eggs, hatch them and release the babies back into the wild when ready.

TSA offers volunteer opportunities that anyone can join, including snorkeling waters like Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs and Comal Springs, in New Braunfels, Texas, to help hand-capture turtles, measure and mark them. “The work can be rigorous,” says Gray, “but fun.” Nat Hab also has several expeditions that spotlight turtles, including its Galapagos adventures and Natural Jewels of Costa Rica.

Another great option toward “zero turtle extinction” is a TSA annual membership ($50/regular membership, $25/seniors). In addition to discounts on TSA merchandise and events, 100 percent of each membership cost goes toward conservation action. What a way to celebrate World Turtle Day!