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Fast turtles

Fast turtles

Turtles aren’t known for their speed. Rather, these gentle creatures are well-known for being slow.

While it’s true that turtles are slow-moving creatures, this is usually on land. In water, aquatic turtles are much faster and agile. While not as quick as orcas, sea turtles can hold their own.

In fact, leatherback sea turtles have been reported to reach speeds of 35 kilometers per hour (22 miles per hour). Similarly, even turtles commonly kept as pets are quite swift when in water as they are strong swimmers.

What about out of water? Well, softshell turtles have been seen moving at speeds of about 3 miles per hour on land. 

What are turtle speeds in water?

Turtles are from the order Chelonia and as such are commonly referred to as chelonians. The term turtles refer to aquatic turtles, semi-aquatic turtles, and tortoises.

Turtles are well-protected thanks to their armored shell. This shell protects them from all manner of predators. It is no wonder that they are the most ancient of extant reptiles, dating as far back as the earliest dinosaurs.

Having a strong shell isn’t enough, turtles have to be able to move quickly if they are to escape inevitable danger. They may not look it but many turtles are relatively quick especially in an aquatic environment.

Hawksbill Sea Turtle Swimming
Hawksbill Sea Turtle Swimming

According to National Geographic Magazine (Vol. 195, No. 3), the average sea turtle speed is 10 to 12 miles per hour. Of course, they cannot maintain this speed over longer distances such as 300 miles as they have to take breaks.

However, green sea turtles are known to be capable of covering 300 miles (480 km) in just 10 days. Similarly, newly hatched turtles can swim an average of 25 miles in just the first 30 hours of hatching. Turtles are born ready to survive as such even hatchlings are excellent swimmers.

When frightened turtles can move much more quickly. In fact, the fastest speed ever recorded was that of a frightened leatherback sea turtle who was moving at a speed of 10 meters per second (the quickest turtle speed in mph is 22 miles per hour). 

Alabama red-bellied cooter (Pseudemys ouachitensis)
Alabama red-bellied cooter (Pseudemys ouachitensis)

Cooters are also extremely fast for freshwater turtles, when on land, cooters can actually move at a speed of 0.47 meters per second. This comes down to 1 mile per hour.

While there aren’t any official records, softshell turtles are very quick even on land. How fast can a turtle run? Well, when running to safety, softshell turtles can move at speeds of up to 3 miles per hour on land.

Softshell turtles are much faster in an aquatic environment. Softshells are of the taxonomic family Trionychidae.  Examples of softshell turtles include the Florida softshell turtle, the smooth softshell turtle, and the spiny softshell turtle.

There are many videos of them on youtube moving really quickly.

Among tortoises, gopher tortoises are among the fastest recorded, tortoises of the genus Gopherus (these include Gopher tortoisedesert tortoise, texas tortoise, and others) have been recorded moving at speeds of 0.13 – 0.30 miles (0.21 – 0.48)  per hour.

This comes down to 0.058 – 0.133 m/s. Similarly,  Seychelles giant tortoise has been recorded moving at a speed of 0.23 miles per hour.

The fastest tortoise speed recorded is actually that of the leopard tortoise, Bertie, who was recorded moving at a speed of 0.28 meters per second (0.63 miles per hour). Bertie holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest tortoise.

Why do turtles move faster in water than on land?

Alligator Snapping Turtle Swimming
Alligator Snapping Turtle Swimming

Aquatic turtles are known for being adept swimmers. While on land, most aquatic turtles look clumsy and slow, but once in an aquatic environment all this changes.

These creatures swim elegantly. It’s clear to see that turtles are strong swimmers and are faster in an aquatic environment. But why is that?

What makes turtles fast swimmers?

While the average turtle walks at a slow pace (even the fastest turtle on land – the softshell turtle – can only run at speeds of about 3 to 4 miles an hour), the average turtle is capable of reaching swimming speeds of 10 to 12 miles per hour.

As you can see, turtles swim about 3 to 4 times faster than they move on land. Turtles either have webbed feet or flippers as well as a streamlined body which allows them to zip through water effortlessly.

Since aquatic turtles are aquatic they spend most of their time in an aquatic environment. Swimming is a daily activity so it’s no surprise that they swim quickly.

Sea turtles, also known as marine turtles, are better swimmers than freshwater turtles are. This is because of their more streamlined shape, large size (which includes large limbs), and flippers.

They may look helpless on land, but these turtles are fast migrators and can reach speeds of 10 knots. These sea turtles use their front flippers to generate thrust through an up & down motion, while the back flippers act as rudders for steering.

There are seven marine turtle species and all of them have flippers. These species are flatback sea turtle, green sea turtle, hawksbill sea turtle, Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, leatherback sea turtle, loggerhead sea turtle, and olive ridley sea turtle.

Freshwater turtles on the other hand use all their four feet for swimming. The webbed nature of their feet allows them to paddle very effectively. Freshwater turtles such as cooters and red-eared sliders are very comfortable in an aquatic environment. 

Large freshwater turtles such as common snapping turtles and alligator turtles prefer to walk along the bottom of the water bodies they inhabit. Compared to smaller freshwater turtles, large freshwater turtles swim less and are slower.

While most freshwater turtles have webbed turtles, the pig-nosed turtle(Carettochelys insculpta), also commonly called  Fly River turtle and the pitted-shelled turtle is the only freshwater turtle with turtle flippers.

Conclusion

Turtles aren’t quick, but they aren’t as slow as you may think. In an aquatic environment, aquatic turtles (including freshwater turtles, terrapins, and marine turtles) are quick agile.

Equipped with flippers or webbed toes, these clumsy creatures that are slow on land become quick in an aquatic environment reaching speeds of 10 knots, which is about 12 miles per hour.

Some turtles such as a leatherback turtle at the San Diego Zoo reached speeds of 35 kilometers per hour or 22 miles per hour when scared. Green sea turtles have been known to swim 300 miles in 10 days when migrating.

If you have any additional information to add or any questions, kindly leave a comment.

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