Turtles are the reptile everybody loves. At the very least appreciated for their hard-shell adaptation, the way they quietly survive in ponds, rivers, oceans, islands, forests, even, for a few species, deserts, and, if you are of a certain age, their cultural depiction as ninja warriors. Birders are always happy to see a turtle or tortoise, and there are times of the year when my social media feeds are sprinkled with photos of turtles beings removed from roads or crawling to land to lay eggs. I happen to be particularly fond of turtles because my family has taken care of a small box turtle for 30 years (beware–turtles are extremely low-maintenance pets but will outlast your child’s youth and probably your life). I’ve happily photographed turtles and tortoises on my travels, from softshell turtles laying in the mud in Florida to giant tortoises basking in the sun in the Galapagos.

Still, I had no idea that there are more than 350 species of turtles, tortoises, and terrapins currently existing around the world, or that there is a record of extinction of over 700 species. Or that tortoises and terrapins are considered part of the turtle family. Or that a turtle’s sex is determined by the temperature of the egg during incubation (except for softshells and a few other species whose sex is determined by good old chromosomes). Or that creatures whose physical appearance is defined and limited by a hard, bony shell could present such a dizzying diversity of shapes and patterns–domed or flat or crazily ridged carapaces (the upper part of the shell) decorated with spots or complex patterning or simply a smooth monotonic shiny brown, short or long necks that may retract vertically or sideways, soft bodies sporting intricate markings, faces that look inquisitive, mean, or like a piece of wood (take a look at the Matamata of northern South America). This I all learned by reading and browsing through Turtles of the World: A Guide To Every Family, by Jeffrey E. Lovich and Whit Gibbons.

Turtles of the World is a heavily illustrated introduction to turtle/tortoise/terrapin life around the world, organized taxonomically and flavored with expertise, wonder, and concern. The introductory sections nicely summarize turtle evolution, systematics, and taxonomy; anatomy and physiology; global and regional distribution; behavior, including feeding and reproduction; growth and longevity (this is an order with famous large and long-living members); ecological and cultural importance; and conservation. Though this is a book written for non-scientists, some of this material may initially intimidate readers. The chapters on evolution and anatomy are particularly heavy in the use of scientific names and terms and require careful reading. It’s useful to remember the names of the two suborders of Testudines (the reptile order that includes all turtles): Cryptodira (turtles that retract their heads vertically and sea turtles–most of the turtles in the world) and Pleurodirans (turtles that retract their heads sideways). Thankfully, there is a refreshing lack of concern for the taxonomic controversies that are apparently as rife in the turtle world as they are in the bird world. I particularly liked the authors’ comment, “We will leave for academic consideration the issue of how to shift public perception regarding the esoteric conundrum that birds should be incorporated into the Reptilia as ‘modern dinosaurs'” (p. 13). I don’t know if I agree with the authors’ disdain, but I sympathize with their desire for simplicity.

Later introductory chapters are easier reading and educational, especially if you know little about turtles. Turtles play significant ecological roles in their habitats: seed dispersal and germination of plant species, burrowing that results in mixing of soil layers and use of burrows by other species, energy transfer of minerals and nutrients from water to land.  This culture chapter is necessarily brief but did make me wish for a reptile equivalent of Birds and People, where I could read more about turtle imagery in religion and literature. It was fun to see both Yertle the Turtle and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cited as examples of cultural imagery.

©2021 text by Jeffrey E. Lovich & Whit Gibbons, ©2021 Quarto Publishing plc, p. 84 © Getty Images/Resschke, p. 85T © Ardea/Danita Delamont/David Northcott, p. 85b Alamay Images/Juniors Bildarchiv GmbH

The bulk of the book covers the ecology, behavior, and distribution of the 14 families of living turtles. There are 95 genera and roughly 350 species of turtles, tortoises, and terrapins, and it’s important to note that this book focuses on families and to some extent genera. The accounts are organized by the two suborders and then by family. Introductory pages for each group summarize the subgroups (suborder pages summarize the families, family pages summarize the genera), describing where these particular turtles are most likely to be found and their shared anatomical features and behavioral characteristics. Family introductory pages list the facts: distribution by continent, names of genera, habitats, size ranges, typical activities, clutch size, reproductive timing and egg description, and diet–herbivorous, carnivorous, omnivorous, and typical food items. All family accounts are two pages in length, one page of text and one full page displaying a beautiful photographic close-up of a typical family member.

Genera accounts–descriptions of each genus–are similar in style to the family descriptions. One or two pages present both summary facts and interesting details about selected species, handsome illustrations, and a box of facts on distribution, names of species, habitats, size range, life span, activity (diurnal, nocturnal, or crepuscular; hibernation; aquatic), reproduction, diet. The fact box also includes a small distribution map showing where the species in the group are found, highlighted in red. Although some species are illustrated and described, this book does not apply a close species lens, its purpose is to introduce readers to worldwide diversity, not identification. I was hoping that there would at least be a species list in the Appendix, but no, seekers of this taxonomic information must resort to other sources.

The photographs are eye-catching and one of the best parts of the book. Large, sharp, brightly printed, they show turtles in close-up, and in habitat. There are more close-up than habitat photos, which is understandable since many turtles tend to get lost in longer and even medium shots and the close-ups show off their unique beauty. The photos were gathered from a long list of professional photographers and photographic agencies, listed in the back. I do have one quibble: a disconnect between the names used in the text and the captions. The text mostly uses scientific names for species, sometimes giving both common and scientific names but mostly scientific names. The captions use common names. So, you’re not always sure if the text is referring to the turtle in the image.

Organizationally, this book is less of a guide and more of a browse, and it’s puzzling because I don’t think it would have cost the authors or book packagers a lot of time and real estate (i.e., pages) to improve its usability. Though it is marketed as a “Guide to Every Family” there is no table of contents to the families, just listings of the introductory pages for each suborder. The back-of-the-book material gets more detailed treatment in the table of contents than the core of the book! The genera accounts and family description pages are notated at the top and bottom of the page with suborder names (bottom of the page) and family and genus names (top of the page), but this is of limited help to the novice naturalist, for whom the book is intended. For example, the pages pictured above of “Map and Sawback Turtles” (pp. 84-85) tell you at the bottom of the page that these turtles are in the “Cryptodira–Hidden-neck turtles” suborder and at the top of the page that they are in the Emydidae family and Graptemys genus. While that may be helpful to readers trying to place the turtles within the whole of the world of turtles and tortoises, it is of little help to someone opening up the book and searching for Map Turtles. Fortunately, the index does contain an entry for “map turtles,” though it doesn’t differentiate between pages where the species is talked about in the Introduction and its genus account, nor is there a cross-reference to the scientific genus name.

Turtles of the World: A Guide to Every Family was conceived and produced by The Quarto Group, a book packaging company headquartered in London. It’s part of a series published by Princeton University Press that includes Spiders of the World: A Natural History and Lizards of the World: A Guide to Every Family, each volume written by experts and all sharing a highly illustrative, visually professional design format. I mention this because I would like to see more attention paid to the usability aspect of books like this, written to impart authoritative, scientific information to lay people. It seems to me that there is more attention paid to illustration and design, making things pretty and marketable, than to ways people may actually use the books.

On the positive side, authors Jeffrey E. Lovich and Whit Gibbons bring decades of research and experience to this book. Dr. Lovich is a government scientist, Research Ecologist and Co-Deputy Chief, Terrestrial Ecosystems Drylands Branch, Southwest Biological Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey. He has studied the ecology of turtles, amongst other ecological subjects, for over 30 years and has discovered and named four turtle species. He has written several books, including Turtles of the United States and Canada, 2nd ed., (with Carl H. Ernst, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2009). Dr. Whit Gibbons is a well-known herpetologist, Professor Emeritus of Ecology, University of Georgia, and former Head of the Environmental Outreach and Education program at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL). He’s written and edited over 25 books and numerous scientific papers on frogs, snakes, salamanders, general ecology, and, yes, turtles, and has even had a turtle named after him.

The authors’ goal in writing this book is made clear in the opening pages, they want to “increase appreciation for these successful creatures, largely unchanged since the mists of time, and expand awareness of their plight in the modern world” (p. 7). Conservation is a major thread that runs throughout the book. Although the plight of Galapagos Tortoises and sea turtle species have been well publicized, most of us probably assume that most turtle species are not in trouble. They just look so content and stable! This of course is not true. A recent article by a large group of scientists, including the authors, states that “more than half of the 360 living species and 482 total taxa (species and subspecies combined) are threatened with extinction. This places chelonians among the groups with the highest extinction risk of any sizeable vertebrate group.” * The introductory section on conservation in Turtles of the World cites the reasons: the usual habitat loss due to development and pollution, exploitation by the international pet trade, and also, perhaps unique to turtles and tortoises, use by some populations for traditional medicines and food. The text points out genera and species that are endangered from some or all of these problems and it is a constant wake-up call. I just wish we had that table of species in the Appendix, where we could find the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) rating. For now, you can check the IUCN website under the taxonomic name Testudines

Turtles of the World: A Guide to Every Family is a fun, informative, highly readable introduction to the biodiversity of turtles around the world.  There is a lot of information here, and it’s a pleasure to look at and read, but it’s difficult to find specific turtle genera or species because it lacks a complete table of contents. The index is helpful, but would have worked better with cross-references, bolding of genera account sections, and more complete indexing of common and scientific names. The book would also have benefitted from additional material on species. Naturalists interested in learning about turtles may also want to consider the older Turtles of the World by Franck Bonin, Bernard Devaux, Alain Dupré , translated from the French by Peter C.H. Pritchard (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2006) or Ernst and Lovich’s text on turtles of North America, cited above. (These are included in a short list of books and articles in the book’s appendix.) Both these titles, however, are very expensive. Turtles of the World: A Guide to Every Family is a reasonably priced book with the advantage of crisp, clean design and beautifully produced photographs, making it a book for families as well as a guide to families. As a turtle lover and owner, it gave me more appreciation for the importance of these creatures in so many ecological systems, for their unique beauty, their survival adaptations, and an interest in contributing to their continued existence.

* “Turtles and tortoises are in trouble,”CB Stanford, et al. Current Biology 30 (12), R721-R735, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982220306369.

Turtles of the World: A Guide to Every Family
by Jeffrey E. Lovich & Whit Gibbons
Princeton University Press, Dec. 2021
Hardcover, 240 pp.; 6.75 x 9.38 in.
ISBN-10 069122322X; ISBN-13 978-0691223223
$29.95 (discount from the usual sources)

Written by Donna
Having been attached to books all her life, Donna Lynn Schulman is thrilled to be engaged in a passion that requires fealty to an information artifact called a “field guide.” A former labor educator and labor relations library director at two large universities, Donna also reviewed books for Library Journal for 15 years (totaling over 100 titles), and has contributed articles on to academic journals and monographs. She wrote her first birding book review for the Queens County Bird Club’s News & Notes, which she formerly edited, and also reviews books for Birding magazine. Donna discusses birding books with Nate Swick and other members of the Birding Book Club on the American Birding Association Podcast several times a year, including the popular Best Birding Books of The Year. When she is not birding in Queens or working on her nature photography, Donna travels to Los Angeles, where she attempts to turn her granddaughter into a birder.