Adaptations are inherited traits that increase an organism’s chance of survival and reproduction in a certain environment. Sea turtles have several adaptations to help them live in the ocean and nest on land. To celebrate these beautiful creatures, let’s get to know the specific traits that help sea turtles thrive! 


Despite spending much of their lives at sea, sea turtles are reptiles and breathe air, which means they cannot breathe underwater. Sea turtles must hold their breath for extended periods while swimming, feeding, and even sleeping below the waves! They have the remarkable ability to slow their heart rate and conserve oxygen, which allows them to stay underwater longer and dive deeper to find food.  

Saltwater Regulation 

Have you ever seen a picture of a sea turtle that looks like it’s shedding tears? Those are not tears! Rather, they are salt secretions from specialized glands near their eyes. Like humans, sea turtles need hydration to survive, but the salt concentration of seawater would be lethal to turtles without this adaptation. Sea turtles obtain water from their food and use their specialized glands to concentrate and excrete excess salt from their bodies.  


All sea turtles lack teeth and have evolved different eating mechanisms depending on their diet. For instance, leatherback sea turtles use spines in their mouth and throat called papillae to help them catch and swallow jellyfish. Green sea turtles have evolved serrated jaws to help them eat their preferred food, marine plants. And loggerheads have large, powerful jaw muscles to help them crunch down on tasty crabs and whelks.  


Sea turtles have several body parts, like their shells and flippers, that make them strong swimmers. Their flattened and streamlined shells decrease drag in the water column, making them hydrodynamically efficient. Unlike their terrestrial counterparts, sea turtles have long flippers instead of webbed feet. Their front flippers act like paddles to propel them through the water, while their smaller back flippers help them steer.  

Temperature Regulation 

Sea turtles are reptiles, which means they are ectothermic (sometimes called cold-blooded) and rely on the environment to regulate their body temperature. Being cold-blooded allows them to lower their metabolism and stay underwater longer because they require less oxygen. This also puts them at a disadvantage if exposed to colder waters, as they can become weak and inactive from the cold and may even become stranded and die.  

However, one sea turtle species, the leatherback, has evolved another way to regulate their body temperature through counter-current heat exchange. In this process, warm blood from their inner body core is moved out to their extremities next to the cold blood returning inwards. While they are side by side, the two blood temperatures exchange heat, and the cold blood is warmed before re-entering the inner body core. Counter-current heat exchange allows them to regulate their body temperature independently of their environment, making leatherbacks warm-blooded rather than cold-blooded.  

Why it matters 

Sea turtles are fascinating creatures with unique adaptations that help them survive in the tough ocean environment, but these adaptations are no match for some of their most pressing threats like coastal development and marine debris.  

This World Sea Turtle Month, learn more about sea turtles, threats they face, and what you can do to help by visiting our World Sea Turtle Month campaign.  

Information from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, North Carolina Aquarium, and the Olive Ridley Project.