Posted by: Memorizing Nature | June 20, 2010

If We Were Turtles

I really can’t accept the fact that we’re related to monkeys. When I encounter a turtle on my meanderings, I think about stuff like this. My conclusion – it would have been preferable for humans to have evolved from turtles. Primates are too distractible, and make funny faces, and often display bad judgment. Why did our ancestors with their big brains abandon the canopy? That move should have been questioned.

If only we were human turtles. True, like us, turtles are forced to lumber over the earth, but think of the advantages. We would be a more contemplative species. We could take a needed break every winter and hibernate. Our eyes would tell stories. We could smell under water through the barbells on our chin. Unfortunately, the skin on our cheeks would be a tad leathery, yet – and this is the main point – we would possess the most formidable backs.

"Turtles have survived so long – they were around before the snakes – because of this domed refuge." (Photo by E. Medline)

About a decade ago, I temporarily ruined my back after falling while rollerblading. (Truthfully, I performed the twist too enthusiastically at a wedding). Anyway, my back was so damaged I had to chair meetings lying down on the floor. I played tennis using a special dolly (kidding on the last point). Only when you mess up your back do you realize how important it is. How badly the entire structure is built, with complex joints that slowly edge out of place, causing pinching along with nausea.    

Here’s the alternative – a bunch of bones joined in a protective, geometric, elegantly designed carapace topped by scales. A hiding place, a hard canvas, a sunshade. A means to fend off predacious others. Heavy, maybe, but not a burden. It’s a ready home, and a lasting identity. Turtles have survived so long – they were around before the snakes – because of this domed refuge.     

It is said that the turtle’s shell contains nerve endings, and that turtles can feel when you grab them there. Which isn’t altogether surprising. The shell isn’t some piece of equipment they take on and off like a knapsack. It’s a part of their bodies, attached to their ribs. The shell is the turtle.  

The only major downside of being a human turtle would be laying and leaving those leathery eggs. I would be tempted to stick around for the critters, accompanying them to adulthood. (You know those documentaries where the baby turtles get picked off by birds before they can flap their way from their sand pit of birth to the free ocean? Why didn’t the camera person do something?) If I gave birth to turtle-like progeny, I would name one of them Mack, in honor of Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle. Mack is the guy who burped and brought down Yertle’s fascist regime.

So, unlike turtles, primates are silly creatures. A primate wrote what you just read, for example. A turtle’s musings would have presented themselves in a much more venerable manner.   



  1. I’m a huge turtle fan too. When I was a kid I rescued 3 babies from our pool. The mother lay the eggs much too close. I called them Milly, Willy and Tilly (original eh?) and loved them very much. Then one day we found out that they were big carriers of bacteria (salmonella to be specific) and my father threw them back in the river. I was so sad. The next day my mother bought me a turtle pin in honour of Tilly (my favourite)!

    • Your mother was wise to acknowledge your experience with a special pin.

  2. I enjoyed your blog! I did not know turtles had nerve endings in their shells. I’ve read Yertle the Turtle many times to my granddaughters. We liked Mack also!

    • Speaking of fiction, one of my favourite books is Island of the Blue Dolphins. I re-read it as an adult and loved it even more. Your granddaughters might enjoy it also, if they already haven’t discovered its gorgeous, understated prose.

  3. There. I learned something today. I did not know that the shell of the turtle was made up of vertebrae and ribs fused together. That being true, it would make sense that they have nerve endings in that shell.

    I love turtles, and have several of them living at The Havens. A couple of rather racy images here:

    I love them a little less when they feast on our strawberries, but instead of trying to get rid of them we made a strawberry bed they couldn’t get into and left the other one for their enjoyment.

    Would the turtles musings been more venerable or more impenetrable? More hidden? Certainly more deliberated upon. Whatever.

    • People really should take a look at your turtle photos. Wow.

      • They are pretty cool, aren’t they?

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