Since as far back as I can remember, the sight of a group of turtles basking on a log has made me pause to enjoy their prehistoric appearance. Most summer days during my early childhood were spent wading in neighborhood ponds to stalk painted turtles and spotted turtles with a long-handled net, while avoiding the larger snapping turtles that were lurking beneath the surface. Stumbling upon an eastern box turtle or a musk turtle, something that has happened far too infrequently, was often the natural history highlight of my year.
This summer, I had what may be my best turtle day ever when I stopped my car to help a turtle cross the road. It turned out to be a rare wood turtle, the first I had ever seen, and an animal that is unmistakable for its striking appearance.
Wood turtles (Glyptemys insculpta) are easy to identify among other Northeast turtles because of the pyramid-like pattern of ridges and grooves on each scute (the bony plates on their shells) and the vibrant orange coloration on the sides of their necks and legs. Their undersides – called plastrons – are yellowish in color with several large brown or black patches. Adult wood turtles grow to about nine inches long, a bit larger than our common painted turtles. The one I saw appeared to be on the large end of the scale.
Found throughout the Northeast, their range extends east to Nova Scotia, south to northern Virginia, and west to Minnesota. While wood turtles seldom stray far from slow-moving streams with sandy bottoms and heavily vegetated banks, those in the east are believed to be more terrestrial than the more aquatic western populations. My turtle was discovered adjacent to a wooded stream near a local fishing hole, which looked to me to be ideal habitat.
Sexual maturity among wood turtles occurs between 10 and 14 years, and mating peaks in the spring and again in the fall. Nesting typically occurs between May and July in areas of soft soil free from flooding and devoid of large vegetation. Females may build several false nests – occasionally even in an abandoned muskrat burrow – before settling on one site and laying between four and 12 eggs. When hatchlings emerge, they are just an inch-and-a-half in length, but they grow rapidly during the first years of their lives. Their expected lifespan in the wild is about 50 years.
Wood turtles are most active early in the morning and in late afternoon. They spend considerable time basking in the sun along the edge of streams in the warmer months, but during cold temperatures they are usually in the water. Through the winter, they hibernate in the mud at the bottom of a stream, individually or in groups, where they rarely move. They feed on berries, beetles, millipedes, slugs, and a variety of insects, as well as fungi, mosses, and carrion, and they occasionally fall prey to raccoons, otters, foxes, and cats.
Wood turtles are a species of special concern in new York State and are in decline throughout much of its range, largely due to development, clearing of streamside vegetation, the black market pet trade, and inadvertent collisions with cars and mowers. The latter reason is why I made a point of assisting the wood turtle I encountered across the road.
When I released the turtle, it chugged along through the nearby vegetation and disappeared on its way toward a gurgling stream. It’s a site I know I’ll be revisiting this fall to keep an eye out for its offspring, and to remind myself of my best turtle day ever.
Todd McLeish is an author and natural history writer. His most recent book is entitled, Norwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation: firstname.lastname@example.org.