The Book of Turtles Excerpt

of time and turtles by sy montgomery

by Sy Montgomery, Matt Patterson (Illustrator)
HarperCollins (05/02/2023) 9780358458074

Read an Excerpt:

Sometime around 240 million years ago—about the time of the first dinosaurs, and 9 million years before the first crocodile—the shell invented the turtle.

A turtle’s shell is composed of 60 joined bones, including ribs and spinal column, all covered by keratin, the stuff of our fingernails.

The shell makes a turtle a turtle.

Like lizards, snakes, and crocodiles, turtles are reptiles. Reptiles all use the sun’s warmth to heat their bodies, sport scaly skin, and lay eggs on land. But only turtles have the wonderful shell.

The shell is one reason why turtles can live so long: protected by such effective armor, some species can live for two centuries. The shell permits a slow pace: no need to hurry when you’re safe.

The turtle shell began from the bottom up.

four eyed turtleThe turtle’s oldest known ancestor, a fossil reptile discovered in Germany in 2015, looked like a lizard with a hard belly shield, protecting it from predators swimming up from below. Scientists named the fossil Pappochelys—“Grandfather of Turtles.” To guard against predators coming from above, the top shell developed millions of years later. By 220 million years ago, turtles that look much like today’s flourished right alongside the dinosaurs.

The top of the shell is called the carapace. The bottom of the shell is called the plastron. The top and bottom are connected with bony parts called bridges. Some turtles can pull their heads, feet, and tails inside their shells to protect them. Some just tuck their necks to the side. A few have heads so big they can’t retract them into the shell at all.

Because it’s part of the turtle’s skeleton, a turtle can’t leave its shell—no more than you can walk off and leave your bones behind.

But there’s a lot more to love about turtles than their amazing shells. We love their slowness—a balm amid a world filled with human hurry. We love that turtles can live so long. One had a baby at age 140. Another died at age 288. He was alive when George Washington was born.

wood turtlesMore than 350 different kinds of turtles grace our planet. The turtles that lumber about on land on thick, column-like legs are called tortoises. Seven species of sea turtles spend almost all their lives swimming in the ocean. (The females return to land to lay eggs.) Turtles that live in brackish water, where a river meets the sea, are sometimes called terrapins. (The word was taken from the Algonquian language of the Native people of New England.) All of them are turtles.

Turtles come in startling colors. Some are red. Some are yellow. Some change color. The male northern river terrapin, native to Asia, changes the color of his head from olive brown to ebony, and his neck and forelegs to crimson, to attract a female. Even his irises change color, from black to yellow-white. In 2015, scientists discovered that the Hawaiian hawksbill turtle’s shell and body glow in the dark of night: red, green, and yellow. There are turtles with soft shells; turtles with googly eyes; turtles with necks longer than their bodies; and turtles with giant heads and grasping tails.

Because of the shell, everyone can recognize a turtle. But turtles surprise us….