Print Logo

What is the Fastest Turtle?

Share
Created: 6/21/2017      Updated: 6/21/2017

Subscribe to the Nature Museum blog and never miss a post! 

In this series, we'll be addressing some common questions from visitors and readers. Do you have a science question that has you stumped? Ask our museum scientists via our form here and we'll answer it on our blog!

Today's Question:

What is the fastest turtle?

Turtles: they're not renowned for their speed. Sure, the turtle** wins in The Tortoise and the Hare, but just to serve as a humiliating example of arrogance. No one celebrates for the tortoise in that story, you know? It's ok, though. Turtles don't mind! There's no need to be fast when you carry your own armor for defense and your food is stationary.

But surely there is at least one turtle that's massively mobile. A turtle with wheels. A turbo turtle. Which turtle is it? Can any turtle outrun a human? What is the fastest a turtle can go?

We begin with the official recordkeepers. The Guinness Book of World Records maintains the record for fastest tortoise: the tortoise ran at an average speed of 0.63 miles per hour.[1] Tortoises are notoriously slow, however, even for turtles. We can do better.

Some turtles can "sprint" much faster than any tortoise. Compare the Guinness World Record tortoise video[2] against any number of Youtube "fastest turtle" videos to see soft-shelled turtles rushing to safety (gee, what incentive would a soft-shelled turtle have to be able to move quickly?). From one of these "fastest turtle" videos, I estimated the speed of a sprinting turtle based on the distance it ran (about 15 feet), divided by the time it took to move that distance (about 3 seconds). From that quick calculation, soft-shelled turtles can move at a speed of 3 miles per hour. For comparison, that's a comfortable walking pace for an adult human.

That's not the fastest turtle, though: turtles swim much faster than they can walk, and the blog post's question didn't specify how the fastest turtle was getting around. The leatherback sea turtle is reported as being able to swim up to 22 miles per hour, though I could not find an original source for that claim.[3]

We're not done yet: turtles have moved at least 1,000 times faster than even the fastest sea turtle.

Animals have been launched into space many times to test the effects of space on living things.[4] Turtles have had their share of space flights: turtles have been sent into low-earth orbit by Soviet (Soyuz 20) and Iranian (Kavoshgar-3) space missions. All turtles survived both missions. To maintain low-earth orbit, the turtles traveled at 17,000 miles per hour.[5] 

But the fastest turtles ever, and the ones who have been farthest from earth, are two Russian tortoises that were launched aboard the Zond 5 spacecraft in 1968. This spacecraft traveled to the moon (it didn't land, of course: humans are the only animal that has stepped onto the moon) and returned safely to earth. Details about the speed of this flight are difficult to find.

Proton-K rocket

This Proton-K rocket launched the Zond spacecraft. Not pictured: two intrepid tortoises.[6]

However, NASA used a similar flight plan during the Apollo missions, and those flights reached speeds of 23,000 miles per hour.[7] It is fair to conclude that the Zond 5 spacecraft and those two Russian tortoises reached a similar speed! Leatherback turtles travel over 10,000 miles during their migrations.[8] If a leatherback turtle could swim its maximum speed without stopping, it would complete that trip in 19 days. A rocket-propelled turtle covers that distance in 25 minutes.

And that, without a doubt, is the fastest a turtle has ever traveled.

The complete turtle velocity leaderboard:

Rank

Turtle (method of locomotion)

Maximum Speed (mph)

5

Bernie, The fastest tortoise according to Guinness World Records (ambling)

0.63

4

Soft-shelled turtle (moving/walking quickly)

3

3

Leatherback turtle (swimming)

22

2

Turtle (spacecraft in low earth orbit)

17,000

1

Russian Tortoise (spacecraft in circumlunar orbit)

23,000

 

**Remember: all tortoises are turtles. Not all turtles are tortoises. 

Kyle Schiber
Nature Museum Volunteer

[1] Swatman, Rachel. “Record Holder Profile Video: Bertie the fastest tortoise”. (2015, September 9). Retrieved June 8, 2017, from http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2015/9/record-holder-profile-video-bertie-the-fastest-tortoise-395633

[2] Fastest Tortoise – Guinness World Records. Video published by Guinness World Records. (2015, September 9). Retrieved June 8, 2017, from https://youtu.be/i6nYWsXnl6M

[3] Shweky, Rachel. “Speed of a Turtle or Tortoise”. (1999). Retrieved June 9, 2017, from http://hypertextbook.com/facts/1999/RachelShweky.shtml

[4] Animals in space. (2017, May 26). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved June 11, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Animals_in_space&oldid=782401061

[5] Orbital speed. (2017, June 9). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved June 11, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Orbital_speed&oldid=784641407

[6] Space Launch Report: Proton Data Sheet. (2017). Retrieved June 10, 2017 from http://www.spacelaunchreport.com/proton.html

[7] Translunar Injection. NASA, archived by web.archive.org. (2016, December 4). Retrieved June 9, 2017 from  https://web.archive.org/web/20041118103812/http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4029/Apollo_18-24_Translunar_Injection.htm

[8] Sea Turtle Migration.  http://www.seeturtles.org/sea-turtle-migration/

Do you have a science question that has you stumped? Ask our museum scientists via our form here and we'll answer it on our blog!

Subscribe to the Nature Museum blog and never miss a post! 

No Comments

  • Add a Comment

* indicates required field

Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum respects your privacy. We don’t rent or sell your personal information to anyone.

 
Close
Mobile navigation