Monday, June 14, 2021

Turtles: Mountain Reptiles on the Move

turtle crossing It’s Turtle Time and these shelled reptiles are making a public appearance here in the mountains. There are 356 species of turtle in the World with only four of them calling the Adirondack Park home; the snapping turtle, the painted turtle, the spotted turtle, and the wood turtle.

snapping turtle

Snapping Turtle

Snapping Turtle

The Snapping Turtle, which is New York State’s official state reptile, is the largest species of aquatic turtle in the northeastern U.S. that lives in marshes, shallow ponds, streams, and other freshwater habitats.

They have a shell length of 8-20 inches in length and weighing between 8-35 pounds with males being larger than females. This turtle has a short, pointed snout, powerful jaws and a long, warty neck. Its carapace (upper shell) is tan or olive to black and is often covered in algae. The back edge of the upper shell is serrated. Its plastron (bottom shell) is cross-shaped, yellow to tan, void of pattern. The Snapping Turtle’s tail is thick and quite long, usually as long as the upper shell. The tail has a series of triangular spikes along the top, which develop with age. Their legs are large and powerful with webbed feet that are equipped with thick, strong claws.

Snapping Turtles are notorious for their ornery behavior out of water. When in the water, they tend to be shy and retiring submerging if they sense danger. When encountered on land, they become very aggressive and will lunge forward and strike at an intruder inflicting painful injuries with their powerful jaws. This aggressive behavior is not only found in adults but has been observed even in small hatchlings.

Snapping Turtles spend most of their daylight hours in shallow water, buried in mud or hidden under logs. They tend to bask less than other turtles, but can occasionally be seen on sunny days on logs or banks, or perched atop rocks that provide easy access back into the water. Basking is probably more common in areas like the Adirondacks with cooler water temperatures. Snapping Turtles usually move about by creeping slowly over the water’s bottom. Female Snapping Turtles are often encountered on land during the month of June, here in the mountains in search of a nesting location sparsely vegetated with sandy or loamy soils. The nest site is usually located near water, but some individual Snapping Turtles may travel half a mile or more to find a suitable site, in some cases starting and abandoning several holes before completing a nest.The turtle constructs her nest by digging with her hind feet. The nest consists of a single bowl-shaped cavity, four to nine inches deep.

The female then deposits a clutch of 25 to 50 eggs in the newly-dug nest. The eggs, which are laid at intervals of one to three minutes, are white and spherical, about 1 to 1.4 inches in diameter, with a tough, leathery shell. After completing the clutch, the female refills the cavity and lumbers back to the water, leaving the eggs to incubate from the natural heat of the environment

Incubation takes three or four months, depending on the weather and climate, with longer incubation periods in more northerly areas. Incubation temperatures influences the sex of the hatchlings, with higher nest temperatures producing predominately females and lower nest temperatures producing predominantly males. Snapping Turtle hatchlings generally emerge from the nest from mid-August to early November. The hatchlings leave the nest ten to fifteen days after hatching and head for the nearest body of water. In northern regions, hatchlings may overwinter in the nest, emerging the following spring.

Snapping turtles are currently not listed as endangered, but the snapper population in the Adirondacks does have its threats. Since females don’t stay with the eggs, many hatchlings are targeted by scavengers, such as raccoons, skunks, snakes, and large birds. Adult snappers are at risk of being hit by a vehicle, particularly females that nest by a road. The loss of a pregnant female results in less turtles born, so conservation efforts have centered on building ideal habitats for turtles away from busy highways.

Fun Facts
  • Snapping turtles are the only turtle species in the Adirondacks that can be hunted
  • A snapper lives between 30-40 years on average
  • A snapping turtle can’t fully retract into its shell, so it will react aggressively to a threat
  • Snappers are mostly nocturnal
Painted turtle

Painted Turtle

Painted Turtle

The painted turtle is regarded as one of the most common species of turtle found in the Adirondack Park.

A lot of the time, painted turtles bask on rocks, logs, or stumps near or in lakes, ponds, and marshes because they prefer aquatic habitats. It’s not uncommon to see painted turtles grouped together in a sunny location, or to see them on top of one another.

The painted turtle is small, generally between 5-7 inches long with an average weight of .5-1.0 pounds. Female painted turtles are slightly heavier and larger than males in shell size. However, male painted turtles have long, front claws and a bigger tail than females. The painted turtle has olive green or black skin, and the smooth, upper shell is usually dark in color. Unlike the snapping turtle, the painted turtle has brighter colors as well. There are red and yellow stripes on its head, neck, and limbs, and sometimes red markings along the outer part of the upper shell.

Painted turtles can be cute looking but they are not friendly.  If they are approached or scared by a human they will bite as any turtle will.  If you attempt to pick them up and do so from any direction, if your lucky they will hiss to give you a warning they are not happy with what you are doing but may be scared enough to bite without warning.  A turtle bite is very painful and interaction with them should be solely observational and not hands on, unless it is an emergency.

Painted turtles begin their breeding period between March and mid-June, and many females lay their eggs between May and June. Females dig a small nest up to a half-mile away from water in sand or soft land. An average of 5-6 eggs are laid, and the hatchlings are born in about 10 weeks. Warmer nests result in more females.

While painted turtles aren’t threatened by any major predators, they do face similar threats as other turtles. While crossing a road, painted turtles are at risk of being hit by a vehicle, but it’s easier to help guide them along than it is to help a snapper. Furthermore, painted turtle nests are at risk of scavengers, such as raccoons.

Fun Facts
  • Painted turtles live between 20-40 years
  • Males wave their long claws at females as a mating ritual
  • A painted turtle can tuck itself into its shell
  • They are considered diurnal
spotted turtleSpotted Turtle

The spotted turtle is another easily recognizable turtle in the Adirondacks and New York State, but it is also a species of special concern due to loss of habitat and pollution.

The population of spotted turtles is smaller in the Adirondacks than in western or southeastern New York, but they are present in the western region of the Adirondack Park. Spotted turtles are semi-aquatic, and they prefer shallow wetlands, small moving streams, and muddy bottoms. Similar to the painted turtle, the spotted turtle basks in the sun and is active during the day. The spotted turtle is an omnivore, and its food sources include insects, algae, aquatic and terrestrial plants, and small fish.

The length of a spotted turtle ranges between 3.5-5 inches, and the turtle weighs between .5-.75 pounds on average. The spotted turtle is sprinkled with yellow polka dots on its shell, neck, head, and limbs.  The spots on spotted turtles vary greatly throughout their range. They can have up to a hundred spots, while some have no spots at all. Spotted turtles shed their scutes in small pieces occasionally resulting in completely smooth shelled specimens.  Underneath, a spotted turtle is yellow with black splotches on the plates. Everywhere else, the spotted turtle is mainly black or dark brown. While the female spotted turtle has a yellowish coloration on its jaws, the male has a much darker coloration.  Spotted turtles are known to be very intelligent and able to navigate a maze very effectively.

Like most turtles, these turtles do not like to bothered by humans and may hiss and bite if handling is attempted.

The breeding season for spotted turtles is from March to May. In late May, females find a suitable location for a nest, such as a field, meadow, or any other soft, open area, and lay their eggs there. In the nest, a female spotted turtle usually lays 3-4 eggs, and then she smooths dirt over the top by dragging her body over it. It takes about 11 weeks for the babies to hatch, and then they travel to a wetland habitat. A cooler nest results in mostly males, and in warmer nests, mostly females.

Spotted turtles are in decline, and their status as a species of special concern means they aren’t endangered or majorly threatened, but evidence points to the fact that conservation efforts should be a priority. Indeed, local populations of the spotted turtle have been lowered because of pet collecting and pollution. Spotted turtles are particularly sensitive to pollutants in the water, which harms the turtle and its habitat. Similar to other turtles, scavengers and vehicles are also a constant danger.

Fun Facts
  • Spotted turtles live for at least 25 years, but they can reach 50 years of age
  • A male chases after a female during mating season
  • Young spotted turtles usually have one spot on each plate, older turtles can have over 100 dots
  • The spots imitate brightly colored plants and give the turtle camouflage
wood turtleWood Turtle

Along with the spotted turtle, the wood turtle is an uncommon turtle in the Adirondacks, but it is still considered native to the region.

The wood turtle is also semi-aquatic and prefers fast moving water, such as rivers and streams. However, on land, the wood turtle forages in wooded or bushy areas. They roam between their aquatic and terrestrial habitats from late spring to early fall. Wood turtles are omnivores, and they will eat berries, mushrooms, small fish, worms, tadpoles, and algae.

A wood turtle reaches 5-9 inches in length, and adults generally weigh between 1.5-2.5 pounds. The wood turtle gets its name from the color and shape of its upper shell. The shell is brown and gray, and there are ring patterns on it that are similar in appearance to tree rings. The upper shell also has a sculpted appearance because each plate is slightly raised, which gives the wood turtle a bumpier shell overall. The wood turtle’s lower shell is yellow with black markings on each plate. While the head is usually black, the other parts of a wood turtle can take on a yellow or orange hue.

The mating season for wood turtles is from spring to early summer. Female wood turtles seek out soft soil and lay 4-12 eggs in a nest. Hatchlings are typically born in late summer or fall. The gender of baby wood turtles is not dependent on the temperature, instead genetics is the main factor.

The wood turtle is another turtle species that is listed under special concern. Aside from the common causes of turtle population loss, including nest scavengers and vehicles, habitat fragmentation is a major conservation concern for the species. Since they prefer a wooded habitat, deforestation and urbanization both damage the areas where they live. Habitat loss forces wood turtles to travel and face greater risks around roads.

Fun Facts
  • The wood turtle lives up to 40-60 years
  • They stomp their feet or shell on the ground to make worms surface
  • The wood turtle is very intelligent
  • They like to bask in muddy spots by the water

This is the time of year that turtles really need our help. They are laying eggs, and often on the move seeking the proper habitat. Female turtles don’t lay until they are 10, and only lay one small clutch a year.

We plead with drivers to do their best to avoid turtles where practical. Yes, Turtles can be stubborn and refuse to be prompted along by retreating into their shells. They appear to appreciate the warm pavement as a resting place. If you truly love turtles like we do, stop your car, get out, and move it to the other side of the road. Maybe you will look weird jumping out to save a reptile in the road but as far as we’re concerned, our hearts don’t really care what others think about our love for these creatures.

Turtles should never be held by the tail, which causes them serious injury.  Squeezing a turtle’s shell too hard can also cause pain and harm as they absolutely do have feeling in their shells. Turtles should be lifted from the back with your fingers on the top and belly of the turtle. Snapping turtles should never be handled but rather be prompted from the road with a large, long object such as tree limb or anything sturdy with length.

Should you take the time to help one of these shelled creatures, know you helped preserve a bit of our Adirondack nature.

Photo at top: Kevin Woodcock helps a turtle cross the road. All photos by Jackie Woodcock

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Jackie Woodcock was born and lives in the Adirondack Mountains. She is an apiarist, lepidopterist, conservationist, teacher, writer, artist, and a co-owner of SkyLyfeADK. You can find her SkyLyfeADK on Instagram and Facebook.


10 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    Great article Jackie! I helped a Wood Turtle cross the road about a week ago. I don”t see those very often.

    I would add, however, that when you help a turtle cross the road, that you move her to the side of the road where she was heading. Otherwise, they usually just turn around and head back out on the road after you leave. I also usually stick around long enough to make sure they don’t just turn around.

    With snappers, if there are no handy sticks nearby – and if I am wearing heavier shoes – I will often just PUSH (not kick!) her carefully across the road with my foot. Still have all of my toes, but I wouldn’t do it with sandals!

    • Dean Bianco says:

      You’re a great person, Boreas. Nature needs more folks like you!

      • Boreas says:

        Reptiles/amphibians suffer a host of human and natural mortality. The loss of any breeder is significant in a world of rapidly declining diversity. We all should try to do what we can.

  2. Richard Monroe says:

    I brake for Yertles!

  3. M Alba says:

    I was able to share this information with our local garden club and added a link to the 315 Garden Addicts Facebook page. Thank you for all of this great environmental information.

  4. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “The loss of any breeder is significant in a world of rapidly declining diversity. We all should try to do what we can.”

    A lot of us do Boreas….just not enough of us though! A few years back I was driving home on a hot summer day when I saw what I believe to be a painted turtle on 787 in Cohoes. It was off to the side of the inside, northbound lane. I pulled over, picked it up and placed it in my vehicle. It was in sad shape and I surmised that it had been in the road for days, the hot summer sun beating down on it while hurry-up Joe and Mary raced by. We should treat all species as if they were children! As I was driving off with this turtle on my passenger floorboard I observed as its head hung out of its shell, it was exhausted and distraught I could tell. Within five minutes of me retrieving that turtle it died in my vehicle. That was the only relief I got out of that experience…. that it didn’t die on that hot pavement with all of those mindless drivers racing by.

    • Boreas says:


      That’s a sad tale. Wildlife has no instinctive wiring to negotiate the human world. By the time they do, we will have changed it again.

  5. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Turtles take a very long time to die Boreas, even when they are in the most horrid states of disfigurement. I’ve got lots more good turtle stories to tell, even better than the one above, but I’ll spare everybody………..for now.

  6. Very intersting. I was walking in Long Lake on the strip of land (spillway) between Pine Island and the old Sagamore Hotel and saw many female snapping turtles laying their eggs and many indentations in the dirt where they had dug in to lay eggs. Thank you for the article. I enjoyed it.

  7. Janice Reynen says:

    Are the Common Map Turtles widespread in the Adirondack Park? I have seen them on the shoreline at Sabbath Day Point on Lake George.

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