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April 08, 2005

Reptiles of Iraq: The Caspian Turtle

Identifying the turtles of Iraq turns out to be absurdly easy, once one manages to locate a reference for them. If you're in Iraq and you're looking at a turtle found in a pond, river, swamp or moat, then what lies before you is the Caspian Turtle, Iraq's only terrapin, identified most readily by it's finely striped neck.

At least, it's the only one in the book, Reptiles of Iraq, With Notes On The Amphibians, by Asst Professor Kamel T. Khalaf, first published in 1959 by Ar-Rabitta press and never since. As far as I can tell, it's the only guide to the cold-blooded species of Iraq, unless there's a Who's Who in The Ba'athist Party out there somewhere.

Once I knew there actually was a guide to the Iraqi reptiles, I despaired of ever laying hands on one, but amazingly, UNC had a copy. It was in storage, having never been checked out during its time on the shelves.

Shocking, I know. Why there's been no interest in the various reptiles of Iraq before now is a mystery only matched by the mystery of why I think there might be interest in them now.

My blog, my interests. Odds are I'll become even more idiosyncratic as I grow older, until days at a time are sent exploring the wonderful world of fish parasites.

Aside: You know, it's really too bad I couldn't find a picture of Olencira praegustator. They're really cool-looking.

I put in a request for Khalaf's tome. A week or so later it was located and checked out to me. A minute or so later I'd id'd the turtle in the LTC Bob-snapped picture above. Easy-peasy, because again, it was the only terrapin in the book. Should one encounter a Iraqi tortoise, identification will be similarly easy, as there's only one of those, as well.

No, they're not the same thing. Terrapins and tortoises are different creatures entirely, and sea and soft-shell turtles are separate from both, despite our best efforts to mash them all into one big lump.

Now, "turtle" has some connection with turtledove...Mourning Dove to most folks, that little bird of the pigeon family that coos mournfully from the trees. How the two got linked together is somewhat of a mystery.

"Turtledove" apparently is from the sound that they make. [Naming something after the sound that they make is called echoic naming.] In the Old English the doves were called "turtle" from the Latin name for them = turtur. Now, the French word (are you following this?) for turtles is tortue. Sounds a lot like turtur. If you are sloppy with your pronunciation, as many English are, you get "turtle" and, oh well, the English miss-named a lot of things (buffalo, robin, etc.,). If you add an "s" on the end, the way the English make plurals, you get "tortoise" and there you have it.

The Old Latin name for turtles, or rather tortoises, was Testudo, hence the Family name for tortoises, Testudinidae, and the genus name for some of the giant tortoises, Testudo. The Middle Latin name (from the Greek) for turtles was tortuca which very easily goes to tortuga, the Italian or Spanish name for them. Terrapin is strictly American, American Indian that is, and Algonquin to be precise. "Terrapin" refers to any fresh or brackish-water turtles that are edible. Brackish refers to tide waters, estuaries, the mixing of the river fresh water with the ocean salt water to form a mix of various concentrations of salt. In the Algonquin language the reference was specifically to the Diamondback Terrapin. Now the use is to all brackish water or swamp-water turtles and even includes the box turtle in some areas. In fact, the genus name of these dry-land turtles is Terrapene.

Speaking of genus names, here is one more word, Chelone. Chelonia is the taxonomic Order Name for all turtles and Chelonia mydas is the genus-species name for the Green Sea Turtle. In the Greek, chelone refers to "tortoise shell," as in jewelry. Tortoise shell comes from the great sea turtles.
So, what is the difference between a turtle, a tortoise and a terrapin? A tortoise is a turtle, but not all turtles are tortoises, at least in current usage. Tortoises are generally turtles with high domed shells and elephantine legs. Totally terrestrial, they do not swim well and are likely to drown in deep water. Water turtles are turtles with generally flattened, generally circular shells and webbed, flipper-feet for swimming. Some water turtles never leave that element. Terrapins are generally water turtles that frequent swampy areas and estuaries.

All clear now? Good.

So, one terrapin, one tortoise, two sea turtles and one soft-shelled turtle. On the other hand, there are a number--I believe the scientific term is "crapload"--of lizards in Iraq, and quite a few snakes, the most famous of which, Tropidonotus husseini, travels at night from one hole in the ground to another, wherein which it cowers for most of the daylight hours, forgetting to groom itself and living entirely off a diet of canned beans.

No, not really. Anyway, back to turtles. Below lies Professor Khalaf's description of The family, genus, and species to which Iraq's only terrapin belongs, put out on the Net for the general benefit of humanity. Regular readers of Hraka will find it engaging for its use of the term "anal shield," which they can giggle over incessantly, then accuse each other of needing.

I like to think there's a little something for everyone here.

Next: Unidentified Gecko Emergency

See Also: Birds of Iraq, Insects of Iraq, Fishes of Iraq

Reptiles of Iraq, With Notes On The Amphibians, by Asst. Professor Kamel T. Khalaf

Order Testudinata (turtles)

Family Emydidae (fresh-water and marsh turtles)

The shell is covered with horny plates. The plastron is not small, covering the soft underparts, with 12 laminae, and pectorals in contact with the marginals. The head may be drawn into the shell. The limbs not modified to form paddles. The middle digit usually has three phalanges. The toes are webbed, at least to some extent.

Genus Clemmys (terrapines)

Medium size species with shell relatively low. Plastron without transverse hinge. It is strongly connected by bone to the carapace, and for this reason the shell is strong and immovable. No longitudinal ridge on the fore part of the palate. Aperture of the inner nostrils in the skull situated between the eyes.

Hexagonal neural (or vertebral) plates (Fig. 38). Upper part of head covered with a continuous smooth skin. Digits fully webbed.

Species Clemmys caspica caspica (Caspian Terrapin)

Median union of the anal shields shorter than that of the femorals (Fig. 39). Gutting edges of upper jaw finely denticulated.

Pretty coloration. Each shield ornamented with yellowish streaks which form a kind of ∞ on the costals and a ring on the marginals (Fig. 38). Plastron, black in the young, with yellow and black patches in the adult. Head and sides of the neck striped with yellow lines narrowly edged with black, and the rest of the soft parts is marbled dark olive and yellow. Reaching a length of five inches.


I've no idea of the copyright issues involved--certainly there's not a copyright notice in the book, nor do I know whether Prof. Khalaf is still around or not, but there are at least some out there who'd like to gain access to the contents of his guide. I'm tempted to just scan them all onto the web.

Posted by Bigwig at April 8, 2005 10:08 AM | TrackBack
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Hi Bigwig:

Here you go
Getting the picture out of the PDF is left as an exercise for the reader

Posted by: KevinM at April 8, 2005 06:51 PM

Nothin' like Iraqi cooter.

Posted by: Big dumb cousin at April 8, 2005 11:26 PM
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