In Indian mythology, the survival of the sea turtle ensures the survival of the world. The myth says that the earth rests on the back of three elephants that, in turn, stand on the shell of a giant sea turtle swimming in an infinite sea. It is believed that if the sea turtle disappears, the world will end.

The seven existing species of sea turtles are: green, loggerhead, Kemp's ridley, olive ridley, hawksbill, flatback, and leatherback. Sea turtles demonstrate the ultimate ecology lesson: everything is connected. Of the seven sea turtle species in the world, six nest in the United States, and all are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. They're being harmed by pollution, marine debris, boat strikes, and many other conditions.

A group of sea turtles is called a bale or flotilla. Though sea turtles have been living and thriving in the world’s oceans for millions of years, they're currently in danger of extinction mainly because of changes brought about by humans. If the oceans and beaches become altered enough to cause extinction of sea turtles, it will become difficult for humans to survive.

Because sand does not hold nutrients well, little vegetation grows on dunes and no vegetation grows on beaches. Sea turtles use beaches and lower dunes to nest and lay their eggs (around 100 eggs in 3-7 nests during the summer nesting season). Not every egg will hatch, and not all hatchlings survive. Unhatched eggs and dead hatchlings become good sources of nutrients for dune vegetation which is able to grow and strengthen because of the leftover shells.

When dune plants use the nutrients to grow and become stronger and healthier, the health of the entire ecosystem improves. Healthy vegetation and strong root systems hold sand in place and prevent erosion. As the number of turtles declines, fewer eggs are laid, resulting in fewer nutrients. If sea turtles become extinct, dune vegetation would not be healthy enough to maintain the dunes. This would allow entire beaches to wash away. In addition, turtles eat jellyfish and help prevent their large “blooms” which are increasingly threatening fisheries, recreation, and other maritime activities.

Research has shown that turtles are a keystone species. Sea grass beds grazed by green sea turtles are more productive than those that aren’t. Hawksbill turtles eat sponges and prevent them from out-competing slower-growing corals. Both of these grazing activities maintain species diversity and the natural balance of fragile marine ecosystems. If sea turtles go extinct, it will cause declines in all the species whose survival depends on healthy seagrass beds and coral reefs. Many marine species humans harvest would be lost entirely.

Sea turtles, as well as the many species that are affected by their presence or absence, are an important attraction for marine tourism that's a major source of income for many countries. These are a few of the roles we know sea turtles play in the necessary health of ecosystems. There may be many others. While humans have the ability to alter life, we don’t have the ability to know when the absence of a few of the working parts is acceptable. If you're doubtful, take apart a clock and throw away just one of the smallest pieces. When you reassemble the clock, it no longer works.

Green Endangered Endangered: populations in Florida and Pacific coast of Mexico

Threatened: all other populations

Loggerhead Vulnerable Endangered: NE Atlantic, Mediterranean, N Indian, N Pacific, S Pacific populations

Threatened: NW Atlantic, S Atlantic, SE Indo-Pacific, SW Indian populations

Kemp's ridley Critically Endangered Endangered: all populations
Olive ridley Vulnerable Endangered: Pacific Coast of Mexico population

Threatened: all other populations

Hawksbill Critically Endangered Endangered: all populations
Flatback Data Deficient N/A
Leatherback Vulnerable Endangered: all populations

All seven sea turtle species are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a global agreement between the United States and more than 170 other nations that are working together to prevent unsustainable trade of animals and plants.

What can be done to save sea turtles?

Minimize beach lighting. The moon’s natural lighting guides sea turtle hatchlings and nesting females. Walking on the beach at night with flashlights or leaving house lights on can disorient turtles. Turn off exterior lighting, close blinds, and place red cellophane on flashlights when walking on the beach at night.

Avoid beach fires during the nesting season. The light and heat from the fire can disorient sea turtles causing them to crawl toward it. Also remove recreational equipment from the beach at night to prevent entanglement.

Keep beaches and waterways free of trash. Plastic bags are a particular threat because sea turtles can mistake them for jellyfish, a main prey source, resulting in starvation and death. Additionally, turtles can choke or become entangled in fishing nets and hooks.

Don’t disturb nesting females. Sea turtles can be frightened easily when they’re starting the nesting process. That sometimes causes them to “false crawl” and return to sea without nesting.

Stay alert when boating. Strikes can seriously injure or kill sea turtles. Slow down when you spot a turtle, stay in channels, and avoid boating over their habitats such as sea grass beds.