Alabama has more species of freshwater turtle than any other state in the U.S. We have five map turtles, five softshells, three musk turtles, two mud turtles, two cooters, one slider, one terrapin, and two snapping turtles. And that’s not all of them. Alabama supports many turtle species because of its numerous large watersheds (thanks to the basins created by the Southern Appalachian Mountains) and its abundant rainfall (thanks to the influence of the Gulf of Mexico on our climate). While it is a global hotspot for turtle biodiversity, many of the state’s species are in decline due to habitat destruction and hunting.
You can find a few of our turtles in the streams and ponds of the Birmingham metropolitan area, but many more are native to the rivers of the Coastal Plain, which makes up the southern half of the state. At the McWane Science Center, you’ll see a few native turtles – including a slider and a softshell – on display in the River Journey exhibit on the Lower Level.
You can also see marine turtles from Alabama’s ancient past dramatically displayed on Level 2. Today, four species of sea turtle inhabit Alabama’s estuaries and oceanic waters. But during the Late Cretaceous period (146–65.5 million years ago) when dinosaurs roamed the mountains and valleys of Birmingham, many more marine turtle species lived in the state.
The Center houses over 600 turtle specimens from this time period, and several are on display. The most impressive is Prostega, an enormous sea turtle that ranks as the second largest turtle species ever discovered. At 15.5 feet across and 13 feet long, the specimen looms dramatically above the heads of visitors. Also on display is a Prionochelys mutatina, a sea turtle with bony spikes across its shell for protection. This specimen is one of the most complete skeletons of this species ever discovered.
Many of the sea turtles recovered in Alabama’s Cretaceous rocks were juveniles, suggesting to paleontologists that Alabama provided nesting beaches for many of these species, just as it does for several sea turtle species today. If you like turtles, be sure to make a trip to the McWane Science Center to get up close and personal with some of Alabama’s finest.-R. Scot Duncan