The technique of counting growth rings to estimate age of turtles is widespread in the scientific literature. Review articles to date have provided primarily lists of authors who have found the technique useful or not, but these reviews have failed to evaluate properly how well the technique actually works. In an attempt to examine how well the published literature supports a biologically meaningful relationship between age and number of growth rings, we surveyed 145 scientific papers that have used counts of rings on scutes to estimate age of individual turtles.
Of the 145 papers surveyed, the authors of 44 papers, which comprised 49 case studies, presented data testing the use of growth ring counts for a population of turtles. Of these 49 case studies, 6 reported that the use of the technique was reliable for aging their turtle species past sexual maturity, 15 reported its use to be reliable for aging turtles to young adult (i.e., sexual maturity), 8 reported its use to be reliable for aging juvenile turtles, 2 found it to be reliable with no age limit given, and 8 reported its use unreliable as a method for aging their turtles. The remainder of the case studies presented data that were difficult for us to interpret as reliable or unreliable. Although 22 papers addressed the pattern of growth ring deposition, only four case studies had sufficient data to indicate that a consistent number of rings was added each year. In this paper, we illustrate how the widespread use of this technique ultimately has led to its acceptance without the rigor of tests of its validity or accuracy. We conclude that (a) studies attempting to calibrate the relationship between growth rings and age are few, (b) a majority of the papers that we surveyed referenced other papers that did not themselves include a test justifying growth ring counts as an estimate of turtle age, (c) aging turtles from counts of growth rings might be feasible in some types of studies, for some species at some locations, but only after calibrating the relationship between ring counts and age for each circumstance, and (d) there is currently no justification for generalizing the use of growth rings to estimate turtle age for many species.