Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Turtles on the Move

Roads are deadly for turtles. A few days ago we were traveling on a busy road and saw a painted turtle crossing the road. By the time we turned around and went back to help the turtle safely across it had been run over. The turtle was crushed and so were we.

This is the time of year to be aware of these fantastic creatures crossing roads, to drive slowly, and to help them across when you can. Female turtles are on the move in late May and June and sometimes into July. They leave wetlands and ponds and wander into the surrounding uplands in search of a good nest site -- gravel roadside, compost or sawdust pile, garden, field or pasture, or other site with loose soil. Once she finds a suitable site, she digs a hole with her hind feet, lays the eggs, covers the nest, then heads back to the wetland from which she came.

 A painted turtle returns to a wetland after laying eggs
New Hampshire has seven native turtle species: Blanding’s, box, musk, painted, snapping, spotted, and wood. Four of the seven (Blandings, spotted, wood, and box) are of conservation concern because of low or declining populations. The Blanding’s and spotted turtles occur in southeast New Hampshire and are uncommon enough to be on the State’s threatened and endangered species list. The spotted turtle is rather small, only 3-5 inches, and is noted for the yellow spots on its head and legs and dotting its smooth, black shell. The Blanding’s turtle is bigger and is best identified by its yellow chin and throat, along with its smooth, helmet-shaped carapace (top shell). Spotted turtles are secretive and harder to observe than some of the other turtles. Blanding’s turtles are also shy but will bask on logs with painted turtles, although they slip into the water much sooner than the painted. So, to see a Blanding’s turtle you must sneak up on a wetland quietly and scan the logs with binoculars.

A Blanding's turtle with its yellow chin and throat eyes me through the cattails
A spotted turtle glistens after crawling out of a wetland
The wood turtle has a highly sculpted brown shell and orange neck and front legs. It is found along slow-moving streams and rivers. The wood turtle is widespread in New Hampshire but declining due to a host of reasons: loss of habitat, road mortality, collecting, changes to stream channels, and predation by skunks, raccoons, opossums, foxes, and coyotes. I think it is one of our most beautiful turtles, which is perhaps why it is illegally collected for the pet trade.

A wood turtle showcasing its beautifully sculpted shell
The two turtle species most commonly seen in wetlands throughout New Hampshire are painted and snapping turtles. Despite their abundance, I always enjoy seeing painted turtles basking on sun-draped logs, sometimes ten or more to a log, and occasionally several piled on top of each other. As its name suggests, the painted turtle is a beautiful reptile. The head and neck have streaks of red and yellow, two yellow spots are located behind each eye, and the margins of the carapace have reddish markings.

A painted turtle lays her eggs in our vegetable garden;
a quarter-sized painted turtle hatchling crawls across our driveway in spring
The snapping turtle, or “snapper,” is wrongly maligned for aggressive behavior and for eating ducklings. Unlike our other native turtles, the snapping turtle has a small bottom shell (the plastron) so that it cannot pull itself completely inside its shell for protection. Instead, it relies on a powerful, hooked upper jaw and its formidable stature for defense. The snapper is most comfortable in the water and will slip quietly away if disturbed. On land it shows more aggressive behavior when disturbed, which is when people often encounter one crossing the road. Picking up a snapper by its tail can damage its backbone and anyway it is best to avoid its sharp jaw. The preferred option is to carefully nudge a snapping turtle in the right direction and eventually it will move. I find that most drivers are fond of turtles and will wait for the crossing to be completed. Snapping turtles eat a variety of foods, such as fish, snails, frogs, birds, mammals, plants, and they sometimes scavenge and on occasion will catch a duckling.
A snapper lays her eggs in gravelly soil
I am not as familiar with the musk and box turtles. The musk turtle, or “stinkpot,” rarely emerges from water so it is difficult to observe. Box turtles are rare in New Hampshire; those that are here may have been released as pets. A non-native pet turtle should never be released into the wild as it may carry diseases harmful to our native turtles. In New Hampshire and some other states, it is illegal to collect, possess, sell, import, or harm Blanding’s, spotted, wood, and box turtles. Wild turtles should not be collected or moved, but helping them across a road is okay and a welcome assist.

To further aid in conserving our native turtles you can report sightings to the Reptile and Amphibian Reporting Program at RAARP@wildlife.nh.gov (other states likely have similar programs) and support the permanent conservation of large landscapes with a mix of wetlands and uplands – places without roads so that turtles can safely travel from pond to nest or foraging sites and back again.


  1. An enjoyable and educational read Ellen. I'm afraid I'm a bit of an ignoramus about turtles even though I have a poster from PA showing the native ones hanging in my art studio.

    Coincidentally we ran into two beautiful Box Turtles while doing a bird census in Philadelphia last Saturday. And of course I had to be reminded of what they were!

  2. Hi Ken,

    Thanks for the note. I have never seen a box turtle in the wild - they look beautiful in pictures and when I've seen them at nature centers. So nice to hear that you saw them in Philly in the wild.