Eastern Painted Turtle

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While visiting the East Coast, I had my first-ever encounter with this turtle in the wild. Walking along a quiet waterway in Virginia revealed a few examples of this reptile catching the sun’s early rays.

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The first one that I came across was sharing a log with a tiny Coastal Plain Cooter. While they occur in in ponds, lakes, ditches, swamps, rivers, creeks and marshes, this turtle’s preferred habitat has a combination of aquatic vegetation, soft substrate and basking sites.

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The Eastern Painted Turtle, along with its relatives the Western Painted Turtle, the Midland Painted Turtle and Southern Painted Turtle, is the most widespread species of turtle in North America.

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Like their painted relatives, Easterns eat aquatic vegetation, algae and small water creatures including insects, tadpoles, mollusks, crustaceans and fish.

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Although they superficially look similar to the Midland Painted Turtle in my home state of Ohio, Eastern Painted Turtles are the only turtles in the United States with their scutes (large scales on the shell) arranged straight rows across their backs, rather than alternating.

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Northern Diamondback Terrapin

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While visiting Maryland this Summer, I came across a reptile that I haven’t seen in quite some time. Its common name refers to the diamond pattern on top of its shell, though its overall pattern and coloration can vary greatly.

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Females tend to be larger than males and have a shell length of 6 to 9 inches, while males are typically 4 to 5-1/2 inches. Their beak is typically light in color and is often white.

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The Diamondback Terrapin is the only turtle that inhabits coastal marshes with brackish water (a mix of salt and fresh water) for its entire life.

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This reptile mainly eats mollusks and crustaceans, including snails, fiddler crabs and mussels. They are usually most active during high tide, when the marshes they inhabit are often flooded.

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Diamondback Terrapins were once used as a main food source, first by Native Americans and then by European settlers. From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s they were hunted so extensively that they almost faced extinction.

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During the early 1930s, when terrapin numbers decreased, the popularity of this turtle as a food item faded. Its populations have since rebounded due to the lack of harvesting pressure. The Northern Diamondback Terrapin is Maryland’s State Reptile.

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Eastern River Cooter

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Walking along the Cache River in southern Illinois, I spotted this “lifer” reptile basking on a log. It was a lucky find, as it is endangered in Illinois. This one was a male, as evidenced by its long claws on its front feet. The Eastern River Cooter resides in sloughs and rivers, especially where aquatic plants are abundant. Though aquatic, like other water turtles, it will leave the water to bask on logs.

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They can grow to a shell length of around 12 inches. As part of their mating ritual, the male uses his long claws to flutter at the face of the much larger female. Like many other basking turtle species, they are very wary and quickly slide off their basking spot and into the water if approached. The term “cooter” may have come from the African word “kuta,” which means turtle.

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Not long afterwards, while visiting Virginia, I saw this young example of an Eastern River Cooter. Aquatic plants seem to make up almost 95% of their diets. Like many other freshwater turtles, they have a sleek but protective shell. This allows them to withdraw when threatened, but still efficiently reduce water drag while swimming. It was neat to see this creature for the first time in the wild, both as an adult and a juvenile.

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Desert Tortoise

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While visiting the Mojave Desert last month, I saw this ancient creature lumbering across the arid landscape.

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The Desert Tortoise has a lifespan of 80 to 100 years and grows slowly. It is not a fan of the desert heat and most of its life is spent underground in a burrow. The Desert Tortoise’s burrow creates a subterranean environment that also can serve as a shelter for other desert inhabitants like snakes, lizards, mammals and invertebrates.

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Its shell length is about a foot long. This reptile’s legs are elephantine (or “columnar”), to support its relatively heavy body. The front legs are protected by a covering of thick scales and equipped with claws to dig burrows.

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The Desert Tortoise’s diet is made up of a variety of vegetation, including grasses, wildflowers and cacti. They often emerge from their burrows to drink from pools of water after rainstorms. Adults can survive a year or more without access to water.

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The Mojave Desert population of this species is listed as “Federally Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Livestock grazing, urban development and off-road vehicles (as well as highways) degrade the tortoise’s quickly disappearing habitat.

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I’ve only seen a few of these reptiles during my many trips to Nevada, so it was nice to come across this one. The Desert Tortoise is the state reptile of Nevada and California.

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Northern Map Turtle

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Walking along the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath this Summer I encountered a turtle that I had never seen in the wild before. Its Latin species name is geographica and both this and its common name “map turtle,” refer to the markings on the skin and shell.

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Part of the difficulty in finding this turtle is that it prefers to live in large rivers and is very wary, diving into the water at the slightest disturbance. It prefers large bodies of water and areas with fallen trees and other debris for basking. These turtles are more often found in rivers than in lakes or ponds.

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Northern Map Turtles are more carnivorous than most other water turtles. Adult females have wide heads and broad, flat crushing surfaces in their mouths which they use to feed on molluscs, their primary prey, as well as insects and crayfish.

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It is not unusual to see these turtles walking around under the ice, for they are among the very last turtles to go into hibernation – if they go at all – and among the earliest to reappear in spring.

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The female of this species attains a shell length of about 10 inches, while the male’s seldom exceeds five inches. These reptiles are found throughout the eastern half of the USA and northward into southern Canada. In addition to being called Map Turtles, they are also known as Sawback Turtles. Whatever you call it, it was awesome to see this reptile in the wild!

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Spiny Softshell

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This is an odd turtle, not only does it have a relatively soft shell, it also looks like a pancake and has a snorkel-like nose. I have occasionally seen them basking on the banks of the Cuyahoga River as well as some other rivers.

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These reptiles have leathery shells and lack the bony plates that other hard-shelled turtles have. Spiny Softshells are essentially river turtles that prefer relatively shallow water with a sand or soft mud bottom.

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They are very wary and will often dive into the water at the slightest hint of danger. Another common habit they have is to settle on the bottom of a riverbed and flip sand and mud up onto its back, completely burying itself. Usually it lies just deep enough for its long, pointed snout to reach the surface for air.

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They have a mostly carnivorous diet consisting of frogs, tadpoles, fish, worms, aquatic insects, mollusks and their favorite food – crayfish. Though they prefer animal foods, spiny softshells have also been known to eat plants.

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Along the front of the upper shell of some softshells are spines (or more often, bumps). This rough texture is what distinguishes the “spiny” species from the similar Smooth Softshell Turtle.

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Females of this species can get up around 18 inches in shell length, while males are about half that size. The flattened shell allows this turtle to be able to speed through the water faster than most aquatic species. Although I don’t come across them very often, I always enjoy encountering these reptile oddities in the field.

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Yellowbelly Slider

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This species is one of the most conspicuous basking turtles throughout its range. They are wary when basking and slide into the water whenever disturbed – hence, the name “slider.”

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This is a large freshwater turtle reaching a shell length of 12 inches. It is native to the southeastern United States, though I’ve seen at least two (the turtles in this post) in Ohio this year. The yellow blotch behind the eye is the most conspicuous marking and is most prominent in juveniles and females.

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As you might  expect, their bottom part of the shell, called a plastron, is creamy lemon yellow in color, and they use its smooth surface to help them slide from riverbank to water at the first sign of perceived danger.

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Adults also prefer a high-protein diet when it is available. But slider turtles can subsist on a vegetative diet, although their growth rates may be significantly lower than that of turtles whose diet is mostly meat.

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The Yellowbelly Slider is a habitat generalist, living in slow-moving rivers, floodplain swamps, marshes and permanent ponds.

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Sliders, as well as other species of turtles, can live for more than half a century. The distribution of Yellowbelly Sliders is actually much wider than it was historically and includes places as distant as Europe, Africa and Asia.

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That’s because millions of baby sliders were raised and sold in pet shops here and abroad as “dime store turtles.” Of the relatively small percentage that survived during captivity, many were dumped into local waterways when the owners tired of caring for them.

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Red-eared Slider

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As its common name implies, the Red-eared Slider’s most distinguishing characteristic is the bright, red-orange patch behind each eye. The “slider” part of their name comes from their ability to slide off rocks and logs and into the water quickly.

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In central Ohio, it is thought that we have a population separate from its typical native North American range in the Mississippi River system, but now, you can see them in many lakes and rivers across the state.

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This turtle lives in ponds, lakes, marshes, and in slow-moving rivers that have soft, muddy bottoms. Older makes sometimes lose most of their color and turn almost completely black. Here are a few I saw while visiting southern Illinois.

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Red-eared Sliders are common in the pet trade and now live all around the globe. They are now considered among the word’s 100 most invasive species because as pets they are a lot of work to maintain, so owners release them into the wild.

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Like many other aquatic turtles, the Red-eared Slider starts out life largely carnivorous, feeding on insects, tadpoles and other aquatic creatures. As it matures, it becomes largely herbivorous, feeding primarily on aquatic plants.

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Red-eared Sliders can reach lengths of up to 12 inches, although 7 to 9 inches is more common; the females are typically a bit larger than the males. Males, kike this one, use their long fore-claws to tickle female’s head during courtship.

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These reptiles may produce 3 to 4 clutches of eggs in a single year. Females will dig a nest three to ten inches wide and about four inches deep. The eggs are deposited in the excavation and carefully covered with soil.

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The young turtles hatch 60 to 75 days later. As is the case with many other turtles, the hatchlings’ gender depends on the temperature within the nest; if the temperature in the nest is relatively warm, mostly males will be hatched; if it is relatively cool, mostly females will hatch.

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Western Pond Turtle

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I haven’t had an “up close and personal” encounter with a Western Pond Turtle in 10 years, so it was pretty exciting to come across this one this week.

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This is the only freshwater turtle native to California. Their preferred habitat consists of calm waters, such as streams or pools, with vegetated banks and basking sites, which are usually rocks or logs.

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These turtles are wary and secretive. When disturbed, they seek cover in water, diving beneath the surface and hiding in submerged vegetation. Their brown color makes them difficult to see at the bottom of a pond or stream.

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Habitat loss and fragmentation are threats to Western Pond Turtles. Development of housing, roads and eliminating waterways has taken a toll on this species. It has been further challenged by non-native predators and crowding by non-native turtle species.

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The Western Pond Turtle is a “species of special concern,” according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and are declining rapidly throughout the west. It was one of the many highlights of my trip to the Golden State to spend some time observing this reptile in the wild.

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Common Musk Turtle

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The Common Musk Turtle is a small (usually about 4 inches), tough turtle. It is Ohio’s smallest species and one of the world’s smallest turtles.

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I’ve had the good fortune of coming across two of them so far this year. These reptiles have an oval, high-domed shell and a large head that usually has two yellowish stripes on each side.

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This species is a weak swimmer that is often seen crawling on mud in quiet, shallow water; it is easy to mistake them for stones. There are barbels on both the chin and throat. Perhaps these assist the turtle as it probes the bottom of a stream or pond for food.

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It eats a variety of food items, including seed pods, seeds, beetles, moths, dragonflies, crayfish, freshwater snails and other mollusks. It also eats algae, leeches, tadpoles, and fish.

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Despite their size and being undeniably cute in appearance, Common Musk Turtles have cantankerous dispositions. They get their name from their ability to relase a bad smell if harassed. This “extra protection” is probably compensates for the reptiles’ small plastron (lower shell) which is reduced in size compared to most turtles and does not offer the armor of its relatives.

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They occur throughout the eastern United States in a variety of aquatic habitats. There are regional names given to this creature such as Stinking Jim, Skillpot and Stinkpot. No matter what you call them, I always enjoy encountering these tough little turtles in the wild.

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