More Than 60 Percent of Turtle Species Extinct or Threatened

A majority of turtles are threatened or extinct, according to a new report.

Researchers from the University of Georgia, The U.S. Geological Survey, the University of California, Davis, and the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute studied the collapse of the turtle populations and why they're disappearing. Published in the journal BioScience on Wednesday, the research showed that their situation is the result of multiple actions and could have ecological consequences.

"Our purpose is to inform the public of the many critical ecological roles turtles perform on a global scale and bring awareness to the plight of these emblematic animals whose ancestors walked with the dinosaurs," the study's senior author, Whit Gibbons, professor emeritus at the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory and Odum School of Ecology, said in a statement.

The are many causes of the decline of turtles, which have roamed the Earth for more than 200 million years, including the overexploitation of turtles for pets or food, habitat destruction and climate change. Climate change is a factor because, for many of the 356 turtle species, their sex is determined by the temperature in their environment.

"Turtles contribute to the health of many environments, including desert, wetland, freshwater and marine ecosystems, and declines may lead to negative effects on other species, including humans, that may not be immediately apparent," U.S. Geological Survey scientist and lead author of the study Jeffrey Lovich said in a statement.

Turtles are now the most threated group of animals on the planet—more so than mammals, birds, amphibians or fish—as 61 percent is either extinct or threatened. Turtles are important in ecological webs because they can be omnivores, herbivores, or carnivores. They range in what focusing on just a few animals or being generals by eating many different species. Because of these diverse habits, they heavily influence the structure of their habitat's communities.

Turtle and their eggs are also an important food source for many species. Additionally, they dispense the seeds of many plant species, and for some plants, might be the primary way their seeds get dispersed.

Gopher Tortoise
A gopher tortoise is pictured. Gopher tortoises dig large burrows for animals to live in. FLORIDA FISH AND WILDLIFE RESEARCH INSTITUTE/REUTERS

Some species also create habitats for other animals, like the Agassiz desert tortoise and the gopher tortoise, which dig large burrows for animals to live in. The mound of soil near the burrows provides a place for plants to grow as well.

"We must take the time to understand turtles, their natural history, and their importance to the environment, or risk losing them to a new reality where they don't exist," UC Davis scientist Mickey Agha said in a statement. "Referred to as a shifting baseline, people born into a world without large numbers of long-lived reptiles, such as turtles, may accept that as the new norm.