They’ve been on the Earth for more than 200 million years, but these days, turtles are in trouble.

“Simply put, turtles are declining in numbers,” says Jeff Lovich, an NAU researcher, biology lecturer and author of a new book, Turtles of the United States and Canada, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Written with fellow turtle expert Carl Ernst, the book includes 5,200 citations on North American turtles, summarizes information for 58 turtle species and reports on extinction causes and conservation efforts for 14 species protected under the Endangered Species Act.

“Turtles play important roles in ecosystems. Some occupy a keystone role in their environment and most benefit their surroundings in some fashion,” Lovich says. “But turtles are being threatened by pollution, development, the pet trade and by overexploitation for food — especially in Asia. Many freshwater turtles in Asia have been overharvested to the point of near or actual extinction.”

Turtles make good pets

Lovich says with proper care, turtles make good pets. He tells people to make sure not to buy turtles from a pet shop unless it is known they are bred in captivity. Taking turtles from the wild only compounds their plight.

“If you want a pet turtle,” says Lovich, whose current pet turtle, Lucky, is an African leopard tortoise, “find a reputable breeder or pet shop that sells captive-bred animals.” “Better yet, contact the Phoenix Herpetological Society about how to adopt an unwanted turtle.”

Turtles also help scientists determine if an ecosystem is becoming contaminated. Because some species can live to be over a hundred years old, they accumulate high levels of toxic pollutants such as mercury, which can help indicate if an ecosystem is becoming poisonous.

Some turtles dig deep burrows for shelter that in turn provide living spaces for other species. Also, plant-eating turtles are important agents for spreading and enhancing the germination of seeds.

“Over half of the species worldwide are threatened with extinction unless the loss of their habitats and over-exploitation is halted,” reports Lovich, who also works with the Colorado Plateau Research Station for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Sea turtles are threatened worldwide, especially the leatherback sea turtle — the largest living reptile that can grow to more than 2,000 pounds and up to 8 feet long.

“Due to hunting for meat, some turtle species are down to the last few individuals. Lonesome George is the last known living survivor of his species of Galapagos tortoises,” Lovich reports. “The survival of the Yangtze soft-shell turtle is dependent on one male and one female at two zoos in China. Two years ago, they brought them together to mate to save the species. The female laid eggs but they did not develop. This year the same thing happened but we have our fingers crossed that next year will be successful.”

Lovich is currently “infatuated” with helping to find ways to protect a species of aquatic turtle with rare blue eyes that lives in the Draâ River in the Sahara Desert of Morocco. He started a study on them last year while teaching graduate-level ecology on a Fulbright Scholarship at Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakesh. “I hope to get funding from National Geographic to go back next spring to study their reproductive ecology,” says Lovich.

Lovich’s fascination with turtles began with his first pet turtle when he was 6 years old. He’s been researching them for 30 years and has discovered and named more than 1 percent of the world’s turtles.