NATURE NOTES – Number 27 August 28, 2021
While they may not be the most exciting animal we will encounter in nature, they may be among the oldest – both as a species and as an individual. As a group, the order Testudines have been around for about 220 million years, and individuals of some species may live for as much as 100 years. So let’s explore…
Our Current topic: Turtles of Virginia
While there are some 300 species worldwide, Virginia is limited to about 24 species, of which many are brackish-water or marine turtles that don’t inhabit our part of the state. The ones we might find include these:
The most common is the Woodland Box Turtle (length 6”). This is a true “Terrestrial turtle” or tortoise, meaning it lives on land and explains why they do not have webbed feet as other turtles do. Somewhat variable in color, they will always exhibit yellow or orange on a blackish-brown background on the Carapace (the upper shell). Males, usually brighter than females, often have a red eye. You can find these turtles in a variety of habitat. Remind scouts about relocating these reptiles or taking them home. While not endangered, the state claims they have “a need for conservation” due to three things: Loss of habitat due to urbanization; road kills; and removal from the wild for pets (a form of poaching). A new law that recently went in to effect makes it illegal to keep box turtles as a pet. There are other state regulations about keeping turtles for pets. The bottom line is DON’T TAKE THEM HOME! Also, don’t relocate them from the area you found them. If they are trying to cross the road, it’s ok to help them get out of danger but don’t take them down the road to release them. They seem to have a very strong imprint in their navigational system about “home”, and moving them will disturb this system and can lead to total disorientation and the inability to survive in a new place.
The smaller Southeastern Mud turtle (length 3-5”) is normally found east of the Blue Ridge in shallow, slow moving water with muddy bottoms. This species has a black Carapace and a reddish Plastron (the under shell) with a few white lines on the heads. Their primary threats are loss of wetlands and the crossing of highways.
The web-footed Easter River Cooter (length 5-16”) gets its name from an African word "kuta” meaning turtle. Found in larger, clear flowing rivers of the Piedmont and mountain areas, it has a flatter shell with a greenish-brown Carapace and a yellow-reddish Plastron. A Y-shaped yellow mark extends down the neck. Also called Sliders, they have a habit of quickly dropping into the water if caught basking on a log or rock.
A widespread species (except in far SW Virginia) is the Eastern Painted Turtle (length 7”) with bright red edges on the Carapace, a yellow Plastron, red stripes on the legs and neck and 2 yellow spots behind the eye. This species commonly basks in the sun along ponds, slow rivers and ditches.
The huge Snapping Turtle (length 20”) can weigh 50 pounds. A good field mark is its long tail with a saw-toothed ridge on top. It occurs through the state in a wide variety of fresh and brackish waters. A more secretive turtle, it seldom basks in the sun but floats on the surface of the water. There is an issue with these animals being hunted for commercial shipment overseas. Some stories of snappers biting broom sticks in half, etc. may be exaggeration, but they do have a very severe bite and need to be avoided.
The small Eastern Musk Turtle, or “Stinkpot” (length 4-5”) is found statewide in a wide range of streams, ponds and ditches. It has a dark brown to black Carapace and irregular streaks and spots. As a bottom-feeder it often has green algae growing on its shell. It has a habit of basking on higher logs or limbs than other turtles. It releases a musky odor when handled, hence its nick name. Use caution on this guy, as it can be aggressive. And it bites.
A non-native turtle you might find is the Red-eared Slider (length 5-11”). This is a Mississippi River species widely sold as pets that have been released in Virginia waterways and become established. There may be other species that have been introduced as well.
Most turtles are omnivores, meaning they eat both plant and animals, but some shift more to plant diets as they mature. Hibernation sites vary. Some prefer backwater channels with muddy bottoms, while other species will dig in deep beneath a heavy layer of leaves and ground cover. The snapper does not totally hibernate and can be seen underwater in the winter. Reproduction is by eggs – often a small number and not on a regular seasonal basis.
Turtles are rather common around many ponds or rivers in our area and give a lot of nature exposure to scouts on a routine outing. Since “turtle watching” might be a little challenging due to distances, camouflage and shade, use binoculars to get a better look. Just make sure the scouts respect their habitant and don’t try and take them home.
Most of the information for this NOTE was from Special Publication #4 called “A Guide to the Turtles of Virginia” published by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (now the Department of Wildlife resources). This is an excellent source for more info on local turtles. Field guides such as Peterson’s”Reptiles and Amphibians” will also give more information and descriptions of our local turtles.
Thanks for reading NATURE NOTES!