The Hard-To-Spot Turtles

The spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata) is a rare find in New York’s Adirondack region, so when we received one into our wildlife rehabilitation program in 2019, we were surprised. We went to work to save Spot, who luckily was not injured too badly by the car that hit her and was released in the late summer.

spotted turtle with taped injury

Our spotted turtle patient, Spot, healed from a vehicle strike and was released in 2019.

Spotted turtles are small freshwater turtles with yellow or cream spots on their black skin and shells. The pattern and number of spots change as these turtles age. Adult spotted turtles are 3.5 to 5.0 inches (9 to 12.7 cm) long.

Spotted turtles prefer small bodies or still water and live in marshy meadows, bogs, swamps, ponds, and even roadside ditches. Their coloring provides good camouflage in marsh vegetation. Unfortunately, these habitats have been disappearing and, as a result, spotted turtles are declining in numbers.

Spotted turtles are sensitive to pollution, toxicants, and poor water quality. Poaching for the pet trade is also responsible for significant loss of spotted turtles in the wild. Spotted turtles are considered a species of special concern in New York, and they have been protected in neighboring states Vermont and Massachusetts.

Small turtles that blend in are hard to spot on the road, putting spotted turtles at high risk for vehicle strikes during nesting season. Because turtles crossing roads are likely gravid female turtles in search of a nesting site and the reproductive rates of spotted turtles are low, deaths from vehicle strikes can be very detrimental for these at-risk turtle populations.

Find out more about spotted turtles and New York’s other turtle species in our Totally Turtles educational outreach program. If you are in northeastern New York and would like to bring a program to your school, library, club, or scout troop, please contact us.

Wonderful Wood Turtles

Wood turtles (Glyptemys insculpta) are a freshwater turtle species you might find in northeastern New York, but they have some unique characteristics. Wood turtles are found along the east coast of North America, from Nova Scotia in Canada to Virginia in the United States, and as far west as Minnesota, in and around flowing water in forests and woods.

wood turtle resting on top of a half log in a plastic tub

Our overwintering wood turtle patient likes to sun herself on top of her log hide for part of the day.

The wood turtle’s carapace, or upper shell, is rough with ridges in pyramid shapes. The ridges resemble tree rings, and the carapace is usually a dark mahogany color. The wood turtle’s neck and legs are splashed with orange, which creates a striking appearance.

Wood turtles are omnivorous and are the only freshwater turtle in the Adirondacks that can eat out of water. They eat beetles and other insects, slugs, and worms, and dine on some mushrooms, mosses, and grasses. They may also pick at carrion.

In New York, wood turtle numbers are declining, and they are considered a species of special concern. We do see some wood turtles in our wildlife rehabilitation program. We are currently overwintering a wood turtle who was hit by a car late last summer. We treated her for both a shell fracture and eye injuries. Because of they are more terrestrial and have different dietary requirements, we had to house the wood turtle differently than our fully aquatic patients.

We share information about wood turtles and the other turtles of northeastern New York in our educational outreach programs. We are looking for additional schools, libraries, clubs, and nature centers to host our programs. If you can recommend a place, please contact us.

Video: Dancing Turtle’s Vision

Please enjoy this short video which highlights the work that we do and why we do what we do for turtles.

Just a Bit Snappy

Our Dancing Turtle wildlife rehabilitators, Jen and Debbie, agree that snapping turtles are among our favorite patients. Although extra care must be taken to avoid their powerful jaws when treating them, snapping turtles tend to be friendly and relaxed while recovering. They seem to appreciate receiving care, even if they are just a bit snappy.

common snapping turtle in a stock tank under a light

This snapping turtle was injured by a car. While snappy during her initial treatment, she is relaxed and curious now.

The common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is native to New York. Snapping turtles are found from southern Ontario in Canada all the way to Florida and west to the Rocky Mountains. Snapping turtles live in rivers, lakes, marshes, shallow ponds, and streams. They may also live in brackish environments, where rivers and streams meet salt water.

Snapping turtles spend most of their time in the water and bask by floating on the surface with only their carapaces exposed. Here, in the northern part of their range, they may also bask on fallen logs, especially during the spring.

They are most active at dawn and dusk. While they are known for their snap, when snapping turtles are encountered in the water, they are docile and will most likely slip quietly away. Occasionally a snapping turtle will approach a human in the water out of curiosity, but rarely aggressively.

snapping turtle on edge of road

She put up a fight, but this snapping turtle was successfully helped across a busy road.

From late May until early July, female snapping turtles travel to find sandy soil in which to lay their eggs, often some distance from the water, which is when you are most likely to encounter one on land. Walking is awkward for these water dwellers, and they tend to react defensively when approached. Unfortunately, their travels often take them across roads where they may be hit by cars. The snapping turtle’s defensiveness makes it harder to help them cross or to aid them when injured, but it can be done.

In the summer of 2021 we had a record number of injured snapping turtle intakes. We are happy that we could care for so many, but we could not do it without compassionate people to bring them to us. We appreciate those who are willing to help injured snapping turtles and have included instructions for handling them on our injured turtle response page.

It’s All About the Shell

What makes a turtle a turtle? There are a few other things that differentiate turtles from their reptile relatives, but, really, it’s all about the shell.

A turtle’s shell is made up of expanded ribs that have fused together into bone plates. The ribs give the shell its shape and are fused into the bone of the carapace, or top shell. The carapace is a kind of bone called dermal bone because it is derived from the skin. It is not odd to have dermal bone; the human skull is also dermal bone. Turtles just have an exceptionally large amount of dermal bone. Bone mass makes up almost 40% of a turtle’s weight, compared to less than 15% for some crocodiles, a turtle’s closest cousins.

painted turtle in tub of water with strips of tape holding shell cracks togetherThe shell provides protection for the turtle’s heart, lungs, and other organs which is much better than that offered by your ribcage. By retracting their heads and limbs into their shells, turtles can protect those, too. The box turtle’s hinged plastron, or bottom shell, allows the shell to close completely.

The shell is not like a suit of armor over the turtle but, rather, a living part of the turtle. The turtle’s shell has nerves and blood vessels, and it grows and heals like any other broken bone. It can heal so well, in fact, that for many cracks we only need to realign the pieces and hold them in place until the turtle’s body takes care of the rest.

Unfortunately, there are instructions on the internet for repairing a turtle’s shell with glue or epoxy. Do not glue a turtle’s shell back together! If glue gets between the pieces of shell, they will not be able to heal back together. Without restored blood flow, some pieces of the shell may die. Please contact a veterinarian or wildlife rehabilitator if you find a turtle with a broken shell.

You can learn more about turtle shells and see the shells of our educational ambassadors up close in our educational outreach programs.

Snapping Turtle Summer

The wildlife rehabilitation arm of our organization has never been as busy as we are this summer, and we have never had as many snapping turtles as we have currently. Snapping turtles can, of course, be a bit more challenging to care for than other turtle species, but we love them.

a snapping turtle with first aid cream on its shell, head lifted looking at camera

Small snapping turtle George is one of this springs intakes with head trauma.

Snapping turtles have a bad reputation due to their orneriness when they are out of water, but most of the time you might swim right by one without ever knowing they were there. If you look, you might see one half buried in the mud at the bottom of a creek or floating in a lake catching some rays on a sunny day. They have excellent camouflage, though, so they are not so easily spotted.

Snapping turtles are like all freshwater turtles and lay their eggs on land. To do so, they frequently must cross roads and are often the victims of careless drivers. Because their anatomy is different than a “typical” turtle in that they are unable to tuck their heads into their shells, when a car approaches, they tend to snap at it. As a result, many snapping turtles that come into rehabilitation arrive with some type of head injury. We can medicate to reduce pain and inflammation but, like human concussions, head trauma heals slowly even when not complicated by superficial facial wounds.

Snapping turtles frequently require long-term care and always need significantly larger housing than their smaller cousins. We are grateful for the contributions of 100-gallon stock tanks we have received this year. We were able to help more snapping turtles because we had them.

Because the wounds have larger surface areas, we go through first aid supplies quickly. Our supporters have gifted many items off of our Amazon wishlist this year, which has been amazing. Thank you so much for your donations! They are getting us through this snapping turtle summer.