How Big Do Turtles Get?

As far as pets go, turtles might never achieve the popularity of cats and dogs, but the little reptiles still have a lot of fans: In the United States alone, approximately 2 million turtles are kept as companions. They are quiet, easy to care for, inexpensive, and can live for several decades if given proper care.

Stupendemys geographicus, a prehistoric ancestor of today's turtles, had the largest known shell, measuring 8 ft (2.4 m) long and weighing 2,500 lbs (1,145 kg).
Stupendemys geographicus, a prehistoric ancestor of today's turtles, had the largest known shell, measuring 8 ft (2.4 m) long and weighing 2,500 lbs (1,145 kg).

But like many other creatures, turtles have shrunk over time, and those that lived millions of years ago might have been better as protectors than pets. The most eye-opening example of just how big those prehistoric reptiles got comes from a turtle shell discovered in Venezuela in early 2020.

The 8-million-year-old shell, considered the largest intact shell ever discovered, measures 8 feet (2.4 m) long. Scientists estimate that it belonged to a turtle weighing approximately 2,500 lbs (1,145 kg). The fossil comes from a turtle known as Stupendemys geographicus, which existed in South America during the Miocene epoch. For comparison, the largest turtle in existence today, the marine leatherback, is roughly half the size of its ancient ancestor.

Besides the shell, researchers found evidence that the males of the species probably had horn-like growths on their shells that they probably used to fight other males. Perhaps even more terrifying was the discovery of a caiman's tooth in the turtle's shell, suggesting that its size and horns weren't enough to scare away predators.

Coming out of their shells:

  • Turtles have existed on Earth for more than 200 million years -- longer than snakes, crocodiles, alligators and most other reptiles.

  • A turtle's shell is created from more than 50 bones and includes its spine and rib cage.

  • The oldest turtle on record was 188 years old; it was named Tu"i Malila and lived in Tonga in the South Pacific.

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