What happens to the environment if turtles became extinct?

Written by Lim Puay Aun

P.A. Lim is a long-time supporter of our turtle conservation initiatives. He is currently serving TCS as its Assistant Secretary.

26 Oct 2009

All living creatures have a role to play in the environment. Turtles are no different and among the roles they play are as follows:

Turtles are important as scavengers, herbivores, carnivores and often contribute significant biomass to the ecosystems. They break down the energy of plant materials and convert them into protein.

Green turtles feed on seagrasses and seaweeds that grow on the ocean floor. These seagrasses are home to other marine life such as seahorses and also serve as breeding ground for fishes. However, they must be kept short to remain healthy and this is where the turtles come in. If turtles were to ever go extinct, seagrasses would eventually die off and this would in turn affect the marine life and eventually human life as well.

Beaches have a very fragile ecosystem in that they don’t get many sources of nutrients hence there is very little vegetation. Sea turtles help support this ecosystem when they nest. Reason being, of the tens of thousands of eggs that are deposited by the turtles, not all will hatch. Those that do not hatch will decay and nourish the beaches. With declining turtle population, fewer eggs are deposited and this would result in lesser vegetation and this would cause beach erosion.

Eggs and hatchlings are by far the most predator-vulnerable life history stages. Eggs are often eaten by semi-aquatic and terrestrial dwellers. Hatchlings fall prey to fishes, lizards, snakes, crocodilians and birds. As the population decreases there will be impact on the marine life that feed on it and in the long term result in less diversity in the marine life.

Turtles have a certain religious significance to Chinese Buddhists and according to popular belief, a person finding a turtle and delivering it to a temple has saved a life and he will be rewarded with good fortune and longevity. In addition, the Chinese Buddhists also believe in the practice of releasing animals into the river, also called “fangsheng,” or “release of life,” which dates back to the 6th century. Setting turtles or other animals free increases a Buddhist’s merit, which is believed to translate into a better rebirth.

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