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The Remarkable Wood Turtle

By Tom Richardson; Photos by Kiley Briggs, The Orianne Society
Adult wood turtles bear colorful red-orange legs and necks. This one bears a tracking transmitter on its shell. Photo Kiley Briggs

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.

The beautiful scutes on a wood turtle's shell look as if they were carved from wood. Photo Kiley Briggs

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.)

Woods turtles are adept at hiding among leaves and brush. Photo Kiley Briggs

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.

Prime wood turtle nesting sites include exposed sand and gravel bars along a river or stream. Photo Kiley Briggs

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.

Wood turtles spend the winter underwater. Photo Kiley Briggs

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.

Many turtles are killed by vehicles while attempting to cross roads. Photo Great Northern Turtle documentary (available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUyshgmYafo.

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.

This adult wood turtle bears a shell damaged by a mower strike. Photo Megan Jolly

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.

A wood turtle hatchling scrambles for the safety of the woods after emerging from its streamside nest. Photo Kiley Briggs

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.

Wood turtles forage extensively on land and may travel more than 1000 feet from streams, but spend most of their time within 300 feet of rivers where they are likely to feed in farm fields. Field edges are particularly attractive habitat for wood turtles, and are where they are at the greatest risk of being crushed by heavy machinery.

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:

In CT: If you see a wood turtle, leave it in the wild, take a photograph, record the location where it was seen, and contact the Connecticut DEEP Wildlife Division at deep.wildlife@ct.gov or call 860-424-3011 to report your observation.