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Timely Turtle Teaching

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Originally appears in the Winter 2018 issue.

People are fascinated with freshwater turtles; they are such unusual creatures with their hard shells made up of ribs and vertebrae and they have such curious behaviors. These mostly benign animals (Snapping turtles can certainly seem threatening and they ferociously defend themselves if cornered or captured.) live mostly in the water, yet they must surface to breathe. How long can they rest? How long can they hibernate? What happens to turtles that live in really cold climates? (Some turtles freeze, but don’t die.) Freshwater aquatic turtles have been ubiquitous in wetland habitats all over the world, yet today they face many threats. In fact, they are the most threatened vertebrate in the world.

Turtles in many countries face the following problems: 1) harvest for the pet, medicine and food trades (Turtles are exported to mostly Asian countries, especially China.); 2) habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation (from deforestation, conversion to intensive agriculture, residential and commercial development, transmigration areas, and logging); 3) water pollution (siltation and pollutants from sewage, fertilizers, agriculture, and manufacturing); 4) competition from invasive turtle species (including releases from the pet trade); 5) road mortality; 6) disease; 7) drought; and 8) predators. In this paper, we focus specifically on turtle harvest and turtles as invasive species. The purpose of this article is to share our science/education work on turtles in the United States (North Carolina) and in Indonesia (Bengkulu, Sumatra), and to encourage others to teach about the plight that freshwater turtles face.

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Catherine E. Matthews ( is a Professor Emerita in Science/Environmental Education at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. She was the Principal Investigator on The HERP Project (Herpetology Education in Rural Places and Spaces), a National Science Foundation-funded informal science education program. Aceng Ruyani ( is the Associate Professor in Developmental Biology and Conservation Education at the Graduate School of Science Education, Bengkulu University, Indonesia. Matthews and Ruyani have worked together on herpetology education projects since 2012. They received funding to support the research project which supports the spirit of the “UNIB Campus: A Safe Home for Turtles” program, which is a novelty for Indonesia. For more details, visit:

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