The other day I sat in on an interesting webinar held by Kiley Briggs, Director of Conservation for the Orianne Society, a non-profit group devoted to the conservation of endangered reptiles and amphibians. The subject of Briggs’ presentation was the wood turtle—an elusive creature that lives throughout the Northeast, as far north as Nova Scotia, and as far west as the Great Lakes.
Like most turtles, wood turtles can live for a long time (up to 80 years), but do not reach sexual maturity until they are between 14 and 20 years of age. Further, the survival rate among young turtles is very low. All of this makes wood turtles (and other turtle species) extremely vulnerable, as it only takes the removal of a few individuals to extirpate a population. (Briggs explained that the loss of just one or two turtles per year from an area can cause a 50% reduction in the local population within 75 years.)
Wood turtles are named for their shells, which feature large scutes that look as if carved from wood. They can reach nine inches in length, and often bear striking orange or red legs and necks. You’d think that such a large and colorful turtle would be easy to spot, but many people who live or work in wood turtle habitat spend their whole lives without encountering one.
That’s largely because wood turtles spend much of the year hidden among dense grass, weeds, leaf litter, and brush, where they forage on snails, worms, and other invertebrates, as well as a variety of plants. They over-winter in shallow streams and rivers, tucked next to sunken logs, rocks, undercut banks, and debris. The turtles emerge in late spring to mate, with the females depositing their eggs in shallow nests dug into sand or gravel from late-May to mid-July. The nests, which can contain up to a dozen eggs, are often predated by skunks, raccoons, opossum, foxes, birds, and dogs, all of which also prey on the baby turtles that manage to hatch.
The good news is that those turtles that manage to survive their first few seasons face few predators (although many suffer missing legs from animal attacks). The main cause of death among adult turtles is being run over during road crossings or crushed by farming and logging equipment. The latter is common in areas where farms abut riparian habitat. Wood turtles can roam up to 1,000 feet from their home rivers and streams, and they often hide among the tall grass and muddy furrows of fallow fields. During his presentation, Briggs showed photos of several adult turtles with damaged shells that had survived mower strikes.
Another threat to adult wood turtles is illegal collection. Poachers can make a lot of money selling wood turtles to exotic pet collectors and Asian food markets. Briggs said that a collector who learns of an area where wood turtles are found can capture up to 20 turtles a day, which can destroy a population overnight. He also cautioned his audience not to publicize turtle sightings, especially on social media, which is how many collectors learn of new hunting grounds.
Loss of habitat, whether caused by development or encroachment of invasive species, also threatens wood turtles. Japanese knotweed is particularly damaging, as it spreads rapidly along sandy stream banks, choking out available nesting sites. Construction sites can not only destroy turtle habitat by eating up the available land, the heavy equipment can also kill the turtles outright.
So, what can be done to protect these special reptiles that few people have even heard of? Briggs outlined several options. One is education and outreach to property owners. Once people learn that their land is home to wood turtles, he said, most want to protect them. Landowners can help by removing invasive species, creating nesting sites (a pile of sand dumped near a riverbank may eventually be discovered by turtles), and leaving brushy areas and stumps where turtles can hide. Landowners can also limit the use of recreational vehicles (ATVs, dirt bikes) in riparian areas, but the best way to reduce turtle mortality on working lands (such as hayfields) is by creating or expanding buffer strips between farm fields and rivers, and planting those strips with trees and shrubs. And if fields are being mowed just to keep the land open, waiting until mid-October, when all the turtles are back in their streams, is very helpful. In some cases, landowners may even qualify for financial incentives through farm bill conservation programs to conserve wood turtle habitat. Timber-harvesting with heavy machinery should be also be done in late fall or winter, when the turtles are safely brumating in rivers and streams. Speaking of water, protecting and enhancing waterways also helps the turtles, as they need clean water and the type of habitat it creates.
After learning more about wood turtles, I wanted to see one in the wild. And perhaps I’ll get my chance this year, as Explore New England plans to contact wildlife officials to see about filming some turtles in their natural habitat. Of course, we’ll need to be careful about revealing our exact location, but that’s easily managed through the magic of editing. Stay tuned!
Note: if you wish to report a wood turtle sighting, you can do so via the following sites: