Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Short Primer On Adirondack Turtles

On the surface, we all know that turtles are animals with shells. They plod along on land, or swim gracefully in the water. Some live in the oceans, some in the deserts – what wonderful extremes they have come to inhabit. They have been around for over 200 million years – since the late Triassic. Some species can live well over a hundred years. If we dig deeper though, they are even more fascinating.

Four species of turtles live within the Blue Line of the Adirondack Park: snapping turtles, wood turtles, painted turtles (eastern and midland species), and Blanding’s turtles. Let me share with you a little bit about each of these species before detouring into some generalized nifty turtle traits.

Snapping turtles, those truly dinosaurish turtles, are probably the turtle we see most often. Every spring the females leave their watery homes in search of the perfect sandy spot in which to dig holes and lay eggs. Most of these eggs will be eaten by predators, but the survivors hatch by late summer. Sometimes the newly hatched turtles leave the nest immediately, while others opt to remain in the relative safety of the nest over winter, which explains why baby snappers are found on the move in both the spring and the fall. When they aren’t out searching for nest sites, these turtles are most often lying low in the muddy substrate of shallow, slow-moving waters, which is why their shells are “mossy” – these turtles are not baskers. Despite the apparent commonness of the species, recent population studies show that snapping turtles are in decline across New York State, mostly a result of fatal encounters with motorized vehicles.

Wood TurtleWood turtles are close to my heart. Every spring they too search for perfect nest sites along the sandy shoulders of our roads. Their populations are considered sporadic, possibly because they are terrestrial and often on the move. One of our larger turtles, the wood turtle stands out among its brethren on two accounts: it has brilliant orange markings along its neck, forelegs and tail, and it is considered to be quite intelligent. Sadly, these turtles are frequently exploited in the pet trade, which compounds their losses to fast-moving traffic.

There are also painted turtles in the Adirondack Park. Common and widespread, the painted turtle is the one we all know by sight: dark with red and yellow lines “painted’ along its neck, legs, tail and shell.

Our fourth turtle is the Blanding’s. In New York it is a threatened species and so not frequently seen. Blanding’s turtles are on the largish end of the land turtle scale, smaller than the snappers, but comparable to wood turtles. What stands out is their highly domed shells and their yellow chins. If necessary, the Blanding’s turtle (named for William Blanding, a physician and naturalist from Massachusetts who collected the original specimen in 1830) can close the front end of its shell, like a box turtle, for protection. (Box turtles can actually close both the front and back ends of their shells.)

Blanding's turtleAnd now, some of the fascinating things we should all know about turtles.

First, it takes an awfully long time for a turtle to become reproductive (ten or more years). It is currently believed that this is because after birth young turtles put most of their energy into developing their shells. The turtle’s shell is its means of protection, and until the advent of the motorized vehicle, it served the animals well. Once completely developed, the turtle’s shell is a formidable defense. There aren’t too many natural predators that can kill a turtle. A good shell, therefore, is imperative to survival; offspring can come later.

Next, there’s the method by which a turtle breathes. Like reproduction, a turtle’s breathing is tied to its shell. Anyone who has seen a turtle shell sans turtle has noted that the animal’s ribs are fused to the inner carapace (the carapace is the upper portion of the shell; the plastron covers the belly). You and I manage breathing because our rib cages can expand with our lungs. Not so the turtles.

Instead, they have a special musculature that, as so eloquently put in The Reptiles and Amphibians of New York State, “sloshes the internal organs back and forth to draw air in and out of the lungs.” One set of respiratory muscles pulls all the internal organs outwards towards the edges of the shell. This allows the lungs, which are located near the top of the shell, to fill with air. The second set of muscles pushes everything back inwards, pressing against the lungs to expel the air. How wonderfully adaptive!

Temperature affects sex. That is, temperature determines the sex of a turtle. When I first learned this, I thought it was just amazing. It seems that the warmer eggs develop into females, while the cooler eggs, which tend to be toward the bottom of the nest, develop into males. Depending on climate, in some years nests can produce mostly female turtles, while other years the balance tips in favor of males. Will climate change affect this? If most nests yield females, how will our turtles find enough males to reproduce? It’s an interesting question.

It breaks my heart that so many species of turtles are in decline. We (as a species) eat them, capture them for the pet trade, toss them aside as by-kill in the fishing industry, and run them over with our cars. Their homes are lost to development and pollution. I sometimes wonder if this ancient line of animals, who have survived so much, will survive humans.

Wild turtles shouldn’t be pets, and pet turtles, which may not be native species, should not be released into the wild when their novelty wears off. If you see a turtle trying to cross the road, slow down – and give it a chance to make the journey.

Photos, from above: Turtles basking at North Pond, Town of Hague (photo by John Warren); a snapping turtle laying eggs in the road sand on the edge of a road in Northern Warren County (John Warren); a wood turtle (photo by Wikipedia user Ltshears); eastern painted turtle (Michael Tuma photo); and a Blanding’s turtle in John Edwards Holbrook’s North American Herpetology (1841).

A version of this story was first published in 2010.

Related Stories

Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.

10 Responses

  1. Charles herr says:

    Is it possible to include photos of the other turtle types mentioned in the article? Thanks.

  2. Jim S. says:

    I’ll never forget the first time I saw a turtle in the wild, we were sitting by a creek and a rock stood up and walked right tortoise.

    • John Warren says:

      You sir, are one of our most outstanding commenters.

      • Jim S. says:

        The wonderful natural science articles on the Almanack inspire me. They help to pull me out of my shell.

  3. Paul says:

    The south river road near St. Regis Falls is a great place to go and (from a distance) check out nesting snapping turtles. Look for the orange pylons put out to remind cars not to crush the eggs. I have seen some huge snapping turtles there in the river.

    I just coaxed a snapping turtle off a highway here in the finger lakes area a week ago.

    That one was about 16 inches long. Ellen can you judge the age of a snapping turtle by it size?

    • Jesse B says:

      Unfortunately, there is no surefire way to estimate a turtles age by it’s size. Depending on the conditions, year, food availability, temperature, etc., turtles grow at different rates. For example, a snapping turtle in the Adirondacks will likely be far smaller than a similar aged snapping turtle living in Georgia.

      It is also unreliable to count their scute (shell scales) rings, as these a more representative of abundant periods of growth rather than years. As an interesting example, you can actually track the periodic emergence of cicadas in turtle shells as the sudden abundance of protein rich food causes a burst of shell growth each 13 or 17 years, when turtles get a rare summer long insect feast.

      • Paul says:

        Thanks. So some of these large snappers I see in the Adirondacks could be pretty old animals. That was my guess.

  4. Charlie S says:

    Turtles! Yesterday morning I found a painted turtle on the west end of Rt 28 in Indian Lake just away from the flow of traffic. A car had run over its tail end on one side of its shell,guts were oozing and it was still alive. It must have been there for a number of hours ….and nobody stopped. I turned around because the nature is in me to do so. It didn’t look too good for this turtle but I tried…initially. I detoured into North Creek to possibly get info on the nearest rehabilitator and the proprietor at Izzys told me of a farmer near Bakers Mills who rehabilitates injured animals. I was enroute to the Albany VA with my dad so I was pressed for time but I was determined to seek help for this turtle.

    The turtle was near death I surmised as it’s movements were weak at best,it’s eyes shut. Turtles take a long time to die! Even when half their guts are hanging out they can live for many hours. I have heard of some miraculous things done for bad-off turtles and so thought that maybe this turtle could have a chance.Had I found it maybe two hours earlier it may have had a chance…maybe. I stopped at the old church (now an outdoor store) on Rt 28 where it intersects with Rt 8 at Wevertown and placed it in tall grass in the shade near this structure. It was near death at this point I left it there to die.

    I cannot save the world but I’ll put effort into doing what I can do to save animals run over by cars. Been doing it for years. It tears at my heart to see all of the dead and impaired animals on the roads but I keep on keeping on. I have not become hardened as much as I refuse to let these things get to me… so that my sanity may stay intact. It saddens me thinking about all of the animals I have found on roadsides still alive,left there to perish…not one person stopping to see what they can do. Are we that callous? That cold-natured? Apparently so! What has sunk us to so low a level? And how do you hit a turtle? It’s not like they just jump out in the road. A degree of mindlessness is how. Geez!

    Also saw two dead hawks off to the sides of roads these past few days,some minor birds,a handful of woodchucks (immature and adult),a fox,chipmunks,at least one other turtle,and other miscellany animals. There’s no hope for the animals on this planet unless we change our psyche soon.

    • Paul says:

      This is a problem. Like the road I described above this man made structure is great for turtle nesting since they need clean sand to lay eggs but a dangerous place for the animals. Turtles also seem to like to get out of the water and warm themselves on these paved roads creating another disaster waiting to happen. There is a section along route three near the Adirondack park boundary where turtles love to do this. I have stopped there many times over the years to move turtles off the road (seems like mostly painted turtles in that spot).

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox