When was the last time you saw a turtle? Where was it and what was it doing?
Perhaps it was swimming in a local pond or perched on a muddy bank ready to slip into the water in response to a perceived threat.
Painted Turtle, June 27, 2021, Halifax
The inland turtles of Massachusetts have been active since early spring. Some emerged from their torpor back in March; indeed, people sometimes observe turtles swimming below pond ice. All the same, I will always associate our local turtles with the month of June.
This is partly because I spend more time outdoors when the days are longer. On June 21, the summer solstice, there are 15+ hours of daylight to enjoy. That’s enough light to see the scenery during my commute and to visit a conservation property before the gates close. Turtle behavior explains the rest. Female turtles seek out nesting sites in late spring and early summer. That’s when we and the turtles cross paths.
On the afternoon of June 17, the Ames Free Library’s Director, Ian Dunbar, informed me of a turtle on the property. It was a painted turtle, our most common species, though the markings on her carapace were much subdued by a coating of brown mud. The animal’s small size and the yellow markings behind its eyes are typical of this species.
Ames Free Library, June 17, 2022
Given that we noticed her behavior in progress, I am unable to tell whether she was digging or filling a hole. In fact, this “nest” might even be empty. In A Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles, herpetologist Tom Tyning notes that “The female digs the nest with her hind feet and rarely, if ever, looks around at what she is doing. Often she will dig several “false” nests before depositing her eggs in one.” Nearby, there are several shallow scrapes that might be turtle related.
Turtles choose sunny, well drained locations for their nests. Sunlight is necessary to incubate the eggs, and I suspect that it is easier for the mother and the hatchlings to dig through loose soil with sparse vegetation. The bare hill pictured below is a place where I found many turtle eggshells in November, 2020.
The empty shells are less brittle than those of birds’ eggs. Some species, like the painted turtle, lay oval eggs; those of the snapping turtle are round.
Turtle Eggshell, Halifax, 2020
I look for these eggshells whenever I am near both water and loose, sandy soil. . . and often I find them. Most turtle eggs are quickly found and consumed by hungry animals such as skunks and raccoons. This pattern has existed for eons, but the level of predation may be heavier now that some of these egg lovers thrive in suburbia. Predators, disease, and unfavorable weather ensure that few turtle offspring reach adulthood.
To survive such heavy losses, turtles developed a strategy that has worked for over 200 million years: “to lay eggs every year and to live a long time” (A Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Massachusetts, Peter Mirick et al). You may have heard about long-lived tortoises such as Jonathan, a 190 year old giant from the Seychelles, but even our local box turtle can surpass 100 years. Painted turtles, like the one at the library, can live 20 - 30 years. Unfortunately, the turtles’ tried-and-true reproductive strategy has met a new, and unanticipated, threat: automobiles. Mirick asserts that roads are “the chief threat to the continued survival of adult turtles.”
Turtles may not protect or raise their offspring, but they show great determination in reaching appropriate nesting terrain. Some, like snapping turtles, nest in the same area year after year despite the risks and obstacles in reaching those sites. It is already difficult for a slow-moving, aquatic animal to make an overland expedition; it’s perilous to do so when roads separate their home from their nesting sites. To be frank, I associate turtles with the month of June because that is when I fear for their lives.
If you wish to support turtles in Massachusetts, it is important to protect the wetlands on which most species depend. It is also necessary to recognize the outsized impact that roadkill plays. Few turtles survive to sexual maturity. Older individuals must be able to nest repeatedly to have any chance of reproductive success, which is why the loss of adult females can jeopardize entire populations. We can advocate for turtle crossing signs and migration culverts. More importantly, we can drive differently – mindfully – aware of other species. From mid spring to early summer, be alert when driving near wetlands or in areas where you have previously seen turtles. Be ready for the possibility that a turtle might be crossing the road. Slow down, especially if you cannot identify that object up ahead. After all, the turtle cannot run faster.
If you discover a turtle crossing a road and it is safe to assist its crossing, move the animal in the direction it was headed. Don’t be tempted to relocate the turtle to a new home or to keep it as a pet: it will not thrive despite your good intentions. Most species may be grasped by the sides of their shells. Extra care must be taken with snapping turtles who can kick with their claws and bite by stretching their long necks. It is safer to usher a snapper into a box, then carry the container across the road.
Painted Turtle on the Move, June 13, 2021 on Conservation Land Near Route 27
The painted turtle’s nesting season will soon end, but we can enjoy turtle observation throughout the summer. This species utilizes a wide range of wetlands, though it has a preference for habitats with muddy bottoms, abundant aquatic vegetation, and multiple basking sites. Bring a pair of binoculars to your local pond, sit still, and you may see a group of sunning turtles.
October 14, 2020, Hanson
Like all reptiles, painted turtles are ectothermic animals (“cold blooded”) who depend on external heat sources to regulate their body temperature. Sunning on a partially submerged rock or log enables the turtle to achieve the optimal temperature for movement, digestion, and other activities. According to Tyning, basking might also reduce parasites and disease and facilitate the absorption of vitamin D. You are more likely to see turtles bask in the morning rather than in the heat of the day.
With a little practice, you will also be able to spot turtle heads as the animals rise to the water’s surface. Just keep in mind that they notice you!
June 23, 2021, Halifax
If our turtle did lay eggs and those eggs survive, we could have hatchlings on the library’s property by Labor Day. Definitely, something to look forward to.
Young Painted Turtle, September 6, 2021, Pembroke
For a concise overview of local species:
MassAudubon: “Turtle Species in Massachusetts”
For natural history, conservation, and species accounts:
A Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Massachusetts, Peter Mirick et al.
For detailed descriptions of behavior:
A Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles, Thomas Tyning
Linking Landscapes –a volunteer-based monitoring program aimed at reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions and improving wildlife habitat
In the AFL Reflecting Pool, October 14, 2021
Courtesy: Brian Woodward