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Differences between sea turtles, freshwater turtles and tortoises.
by Qistina Samirah Mohd Saudi & Aida Salihah Binti Abu Bakar
Turtles species in Malaysia

"Turtles" is an "umbrella term" that includes sea turtles, freshwater turtles (also known as terrapins and softshell turtles) and terrestrial turtles (also known as tortoises). All turtles are reptiles, they are cold-blooded, and females produce eggs and have scales or scutes. They have no teeth but serrated jaws, they lay their eggs on land, whether at the beach or nesting bank, and they breathe using lungs.

Now we will take a look at the characteristics of each turtle.

Sea turtles are larger in size compared to terrapins and tortoises. Their feet look like flippers and they cannot retract their head and flippers into the shell. Besides, sea turtles are unable to lift their body for locomotion. Thus, they can only crawl on the beach. Of the seven species of sea turtles in the world, four species nest in Malaysia. They are Leatherback Turtle, Green Turtle, Hawksbill Turtle, and Olive Ridley Turtle. All of them are categorized as threatened in Malaysia. Sea turtles spend most of their lives in the ocean. A Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) lays an average of 160 eggs in each nest and the eggs take approximately 45 - 60 days to hatch.

Freshwater turtles are also known as terrapins. There are hard-shelled and softshell turtles. Freshwater turtles are typically found in rivers, ponds, and lakes. Fifteen species are native to Malaysia.

Unlike sea turtles, terrapins possess webbed feet and they can retract their head and feet into the shell. They are also able to lift their body and walk on nesting sandbanks. The majority of terrapins are herbivorous. The Southern River Terrapin (Batagur affinis), one of the most critically endangered species, lays an average of 25 eggs and a maximum of 43 eggs. Typically, the incubation period takes approximately 60 - 90 days.

Another group of freshwater turtles are known as softshell turtles. Softshell turtles have a protruded snout that enables them to hunt for fish. Compared to terrapins, softshell turtles are carnivorous and they feed on fish, insects, crabs, and worms.

Tortoises have stumpy and scaly legs. They are generally smaller than sea turtles and freshwater turtles. Their diet commonly consists of vegetables, fruits, and grasses, which make them herbivorous. Unlike sea turtles and freshwater turtles, tortoises live on land. In Malaysia, three species of tortoises can be found. One of them is the Asian Brown Tortoise (Manouria emys), which is an endangered species. This species lays an average of 42 eggs, and the incubation period ranges from 60 to 70 days.

However, it is important to note that most of the species in Malaysia have been assessed as threatened species by the IUCN Red List due to climate change, environmental pollution and illegal poaching and trafficking.

As a conclusion, understanding and predicting what will happen is the first step to save them in future such as increase public awareness and community participation in conservation of turtle through educational programs, plant vegetation along beaches to provide better nesting habitat, stop throwing rubbish or chemicals waste into the rivers and crack down on illegal poachers and their products by enforcing laws and agreements.

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