Skip to Content



basking turtle Turtles survived the great extinction that ended the reign of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and they withstood the ice ages that ended just a few thousand years ago. Today though, life is tough for turtles, and that is the subject of a new MSU Museum exhibit, "Turtles in Trouble," opening March 29. 
"Now turtles are in serious trouble," observes MSU Museum naturalist Jim Harding, who also teaches in the Department of Zoology. "At least two-thirds of turtle species worldwide are declining and threatened with extinction, and several species have become extinct in the wild over just the last few years."
Turtles are long-lived
The vast majority of turtles and tortoises bury their eggs and then leave them to their fate. That's OK because baby turtles are good at taking care of themselves. Unfortunately, though, most turtle eggs (and many of the baby turtles that do hatch) are eaten by predators. Fortunately for those turtles that do survive, they are very long-lived compared to most other animals. For example, Michigan's little Eastern Box Turtle can live over a century, and most other species can live nearly as long. So, if a turtle is lucky enough to reach maturity, it may be able to breed for many decades. 
Here comes trouble
Anything that causes the older turtles to disappear faster than they can be replaced will quickly lead to declining turtle numbers-and perhaps to local or (eventually) even total extinction, Harding explains.
"While natural disasters can certainly harm turtles, it has been human activities over the last few decades that have severely damaged turtle and tortoise populations," he notes, "People cut forests, plow up grasslands, and drain or pollute wetlands, lakes, and rivers. 
"But perhaps even worse is the smashing of thousands of turtles on roads and the mass-collection of millions of turtles (and their eggs) for human food, folk medicines, and pets in many parts of the world," adds Harding.
As Harding tells his herpetology students- the most important thing to remember about turtles is not that they CAN live long lives -- it's that they MUST live long lives!
"Turtles in Trouble" features turtles commonly seen in Michigan - Snapping, Softshell, Box, Wood, Painted, Slider and others. Also shown are examples from Asia and the "turtle trade," where turtle species went from "common" to "endangered" or even "extinct in the wild" (bred only in captivity) within a very few years: Yellow-headed Box, South Asian Box, Indochinese Box, Keeled Box and more.

In addition to select MSU Museum collections, life-like ceramic turtle sculptures were created by artist and environmental columnist Mark Muhich, of Jackson, Mich. (MSU 1972). Artists have created turtle images since Paleolithic times and this exhibit shares another artistic homage to turtles. 

An opening reception is set for Saturday, March 29, 3-5 p.m., and programs are planned in coordination with MSU's Science Festival April 1-6. The exhibit runs through Sept. 21 in the MSU Museum's Art-Science-Creativity Gallery.


Jim HardingJim Harding is a long-time Department of Zoology academic specialist and instructor and MSU Museum naturalist and educator. His research interests are in the long-term study on the conservation biology of the Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) in northern Michigan; conservation biology of the Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene c. carolina) in southwestern Michigan; and the biology and demographics of a suburban population of the Blanding's Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) in southern Michigan. Harding wrote Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region (1997), as well as co-authoring a number of publications with (the late) J. Alan Holman, Michigan Snakes (2006), Michigan Frogs, Toads and Salamanders (1992), and Michigan Turtles and Lizards (revised 2014).  Harding also helped edit and update the manuscript for The Amphibians and Reptiles of Michigan (2012) following Holman's passing. Listen to an interview with Jim Harding on WKAR
Mark Muhich
Artist Mark Muhich was born San Francisco and graduated from Michigan State University in 1972, with a B.A.  in English Literature. His artistic career started while living in New York City 1973-1981, where he met many painters and poets. He then went on to found a sculpture studio in Galveston, Texas, 1981-2008, where be began creating many large abstract metal sculptures. Muhich received “Best New Sculpture Award” Houston Magazine in 1987. Meanwhile, he also worked as a news reporter for the Galveston Daily News and Houston Chronicle. Since 2008, Muhich has resided in Jackson, Mich. He is a long-time Sierra Club member and environmental columnist for the Jackson Citizen Patriot and Mlive news organization. His careful study of the natural world and his artistic practice combine for the highly detailed and compelling sculptures featured here. 
Art-Science-Creativity at the MSU Museum: “Turtles in Trouble” blends natural science and art to tell the story of turtles in Michigan and beyond, and extends the exploration into worldwide issues that have caused several species to become endangered or worse.