Why Are Turtles Slow? (Factors Affecting Turtle Speed)

Image of a turtle moving slowly

When you think of a slow animal, the chances are that turtles will pop into your mind. It is not surprising as all of us are familiar with the tale of the tortoise and the hare, where the slow tortoise emerges as the winner in a race against the quick hare. Well, tortoises are technically turtles. So, this story just validates the fact that turtles are indeed very slow. But why are turtles slow?

Turtles are slow because of their biological makeup and natural adaptations. Turtles have a low metabolic rate and hence cannot move fast. Their slow gait is also a natural adaptation to avoid injuries to their shell and bones. Since turtles don’t chase food or run from enemies, they can be slow.

Let’s take a deeper look at the slowness of turtles now.

Factors That Affect The Speed And Movement Of Turtles

Turtles, with their slow gait and interesting form, are one of nature’s most fascinating creatures.

In the animal world, speed is an important factor as it improves an animal’s chances of survival. The faster an animal, the easier it is to catch prey or avoid becoming prey.

However, turtles are an exception as they manage to survive despite their slowness. There are various factors responsible for this, which include both ecological adaptations and biological factors. Let us take a closer look at them.

How Do Food Habits Affect A Turtle’s Movement?

Turtles are mostly herbivores or omnivores. It means that plants form an important part of their nutritional requirements.

The diet of a turtle will depend on the environment that it belongs to. Nonetheless, turtles typically feed on aquatic plants. They also eat insect larvae, tiny worms, and crustaceans.

Now, you may already know that herbivores do not have to chase and attack prey. They are opportunistic feeders. They prefer food that is abundantly available in their surroundings. Hence, the turtles don’t need to be fast.

Equally relevant is the fact that turtles are higher up in the food chain. Although there are animals that attack and kill turtles, they are very few.

Predators find it difficult to kill and consume the meat of turtles because they retract into their hard shells at the first sign of danger. Since these shells are inedible, they are not very appealing to bigger animals. So, the turtles escape despite being very slow as their shell protects them from animals.

Are Turtles Slow Because Of Their Shell?

The shell of a turtle is like heavy armor that protects it from the dangers around it. It is made of bones and carries a part of the turtle’s spine.

Turtle shells have two parts — the upper carapace and a plastron at the bottom. These two sections are fused. On top of the carapace is an outer layer made of keratin called scoots. All these different elements make it a hard and strong living bone.

While the turtle’s shell is its greatest defense, this organ also slows down the animal. Tugging along this heavy shell on the back makes the turtle quite slow.

Now, did you know that the shell is not impervious to attack? Although it is hard and tough, a turtle’s shell is still a living body part. It is sensitive to pain. If a turtle suffers a fall and the shell cracks, it can kill the turtle. It is another reason why turtles move slowly.

They walk on the tip of their toes and balance their shell on their backs. If they move too fast, turtles may fall and injure or bruise their shells.

Related Further Reading:

Does Turtles’ Slow Metabolism Affect Their Speed?

You may know that turtles are cold-blooded animals. Hence, they do not need to produce heat to keep their bodies warm. They depend on the temperature of the surroundings to regulate their body temperature.

Now, did you know that this also means that turtles use the energy from their food very slowly? When an animal has a slow rate of metabolism, the body delivers energy at a very slow pace. This means that it will also move very slowly.

On the bright side, their slow metabolism also leads to a long lifespan. The body is slower at producing physiological products that are responsible for aging. Hence, turtles enjoy a very long lifespan. It is why turtles may even outlive their owners.

Why Are Turtles Slow On Land And Fast In Water?

Turtles are not the fastest swimmers in the animal kingdom. Nevertheless, they can swim faster than they can walk. Most turtles swim at speeds of 1 to 5 miles/hour. When threatened, turtles can swim at even higher speeds.

Various factors help them swim fast. Freshwater turtles have webbed feet that enhance their ability to swim. Sea turtles can swim even faster than freshwater turtles. It is because these animals have flippers instead of feet. These structures are specially adapted for swimming.

Flippers act like paddles. They are a bony structure with bones, cartilage, joints, and tendons. The digits are fused throughout the flippers. So, they appear as a single unit with a wing-like shape. Flippers will also have claws that allow the turtle to handle prey. Turtles usually use their front flippers to handle their food.

Sea turtles beat their front flippers to move in the direction they choose. Meanwhile, the hind flippers serve as rudders. They help the turtle to change direction and stabilize the movement of the turtle.

A stark difference between freshwater turtles and sea turtles is that the sea turtles cannot completely retract into their shells. Their head and flippers will not fit inside the shell. Hence, these animals are vulnerable to being caught.

Another factor that allows turtles to move faster in water is the shape of their bodies. These animals have streamlined bodies that can cut through the water with speed. The body structure also improves their speed and allows them to swim fast. Many varieties of turtles are known to enjoy diving and swimming due to their natural adaptations.

Interesting Further Reading:

When Do Turtles Stop Moving?

Turtles are cold-blooded animals. They usually slow down and exhibit reduced activity levels when the surrounding temperature is low.

Wild turtles hibernate in winter. They stop moving and go into a deep sleep until the weather improves and they can find food again. Aquatic turtles can hibernate underwater. They will usually bury themselves in the substrate of ponds and other waterbodies before ice covers the water surface. They will stay there till the weather becomes warm again.

However, pet turtles will not usually hibernate. Since they live in controlled environments, there is no need to hibernate even in cold weather. Easy access to food also helps to avoid this condition.

A hibernating turtle will be still. Turtles can also become lethargic and sloppy when the temperature falls. However, it is unusual for a non-hibernating turtle to stop moving suddenly. Healthy turtles will respond to stimuli and food.

If there is no change in the surrounding temperature, it is weird for a turtle to stop moving. It could signify a critical condition. The turtle may be dying or dead already. Since infections can quickly escalate in turtles, it is wise to check your turtle if it is slower than usual. It may help you rescue the turtle before the conditional aggravates, and it succumbs to it.