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.

Adirondack Wetlands

In an earlier post you learned about what wetlands are and why they are important. The Adirondack Park has marshes, peatlands, and swamps you can explore.


This marsh, which surrounds a pond, was the release site for a turtle hit by a car nearby.

Marshes are the deepest – up to six feet – and are the most biodiverse of the Adirondack wetlands. Marshes are found around ponds and lakes and along the slow-moving backwaters of rivers. Plants such as grasses, reeds, rushes, water lilies, and loosestrifes grow well in the nutrient-rich soil. Deer may be spotted along the edges of marshes and otters may be seen playing in the water, but there is an abundance of other life too. Turtles and frogs inhabit marshes. Many kinds of are found in marshes, too, including red-winged blackbirds and herons.

In peatlands, conditions are too cold and wet for plants to decompose; instead, they accumulate as peat soil. There are two types of peatlands in the Adirondacks: bogs and fens. Bogs are isolated from other water sources and are, therefore, dependent on rain. The peat in bogs tends to be acidic and nutrient poor. There are some plants that are happy in bogs, though, such as Tamaracks, Black Spruce, and Bog Laurel. Some orchids thrive there, as do pitcher plants and sundews, who have evolved to eat insects. And there are plenty of insects in bogs which bring in the birds, such as warblers and cedar waxwings, especially when they are feeding young. Some Adirondack bogs are over one thousand acres in size.

The other peatland you might find in the Adirondacks is a fen. Fens also have peat soil but get water from the surrounding watershed and are less acidic. Fens host a greater variety of plants than bogs. Wood frogs are often seen in and around fens.

The final Adirondack wetland is the swamp. Swamps are dominated by conifers and shrubs and are seldom more than a few inches deep. Because they are shady, plants like ferns and mosses are happy, as well as some shade-hardy wildflowers.

Interested in learning more about our Adirondack wetlands? Check out our Wild Wetlands educational outreach program. We would love to bring Wild Wetlands or one of our other programs to your school, library, or club. Contact us to find out how.

Food for Aquatic Turtles

Red eared sliders and other aquatic species of turtles are easy to feed thanks to a variety of commercial pelleted turtle foods that are widely available. We get different brands donated to the rescue and do not recommend one over another. Whichever type you chose for your turtle, however, make sure it is age and size appropriate, as a turtle’s nutrition needs change over time.

  • Hatchling food is intended for baby turtles from the time they hatch until they are six to eight months old. Hatchling food is high in protein, fat, and calcium and is intended to support rapid growth. Hatchling food is very small and is sometimes called baby turtle food.
  • Juvenile food is for turtles up to four inches long and probably says “growth” somewhere on the label. Juvenile food is larger than the tiny hatchling pellets but is not too big for young turtles to swallow. The growth formulas are still high in protein, fat, and calcium, although not as high as the hatchling formula.
  • Adult, or maintenance, food, is appropriate for turtles over four inches long and can be used throughout a turtle’s adult life. The amount of protein and fat is reduced because the turtle’s growth rate is much slower as they age. Good adult turtle food should be fortified with calcium and other vitamins and minerals, especially if your turtle lives indoors.
  • Large or jumbo adult food is intended for older female turtles or large aquatic species who prefer a larger pellet size.
handful of chopped greens and grated carrot for turtles

Dandelion greens, swiss chard, and shredded carrots is one of our rescue turtles’ favorite veggie combos.

As they age, your turtle will be healthiest when provided fresh greens and vegetables in addition to pellets. Safe and healthy greens that our turtles enjoy include:

  • Green leaf lettuce
  • Red leaf lettuce
  • Swiss chard
  • Collard greens
  • Dandelion greens
  • Kale
  • Arugula
  • Bok choy
  • Romaine (the least desirable but most readily available)

Other vegetables you can offer occasionally are:

  • Grated carrots
  • Grated squash
  • Sliced sweet potato
  • Green beans

If you are interested in keeping a turtle pet, please visit our adoption page for a care sheet, which includes all the housing and food basics, and to meet our adoptable red eared sliders.

Red Eared Invaders

Don’t get us wrong, we love red eared sliders. These friendly southeastern U.S. natives make wonderful pets. But red eared sliders are also one of the most invasive species on Earth, and people are at fault.

Because they are hardy and easy to breed, red eared sliders are the most popular turtle in the pet trade. They can be found everywhere from pet stores to flea markets. Sliders are often sold as quarter-sized babies in tiny plastic tanks. The problem is they don’t stay small.

large female red eared slider turtle sitting on basking dock

Big Mama came from the wild in 2019 after being hit by a car. Her shell is 11.5 inches long. She lives in a 150 gallon tank.

Male red eared sliders can reach six inches in shell length. The recommended minimum aquarium size for turtles is ten gallons per one inch of shell, so an adult male slider should have a 60-gallon aquarium. While the little plastic tank was doable, many people lack funds, space, or sufficient interest to properly house a turtle.

And that is just the males. What happens if that baby turtle turns out to be a female, who might grow to resemble half a basketball?

What happens, all too often, is people decide their growing pet turtles should be “free,” and release them into ponds and rivers. There, the sliders who survive (and many do – remember we said they were hardy turtles) take over. All it takes is one male in the mix, as a male may mate with many females, and suddenly there are hundreds of baby sliders. Red eared sliders are aggressive and can outcompete native turtles, like our painted turtles, for food and territory. Sliders also introduce disease into the native turtle populations. Outside of their native range, sliders are known to contribute to the decline of local species.

Thanks to the pet trade, red eared sliders have invaded almost every U.S. state and parts of Canada. They are also exported and are now found in ponds in Europe, Africa, and Asia. And everywhere sliders go, other turtles are in danger.

Keeping red eared sliders out of our native turtle habitats is part of Dancing Turtle’s mission. We take in sliders, recovered from the wild or surrendered, to rehome them or, in the case of the big females, to provide a safe place for them to live out their lives. A long-term goal is a pond enclosed by a fence just for our female sliders.

If you are interested in keeping a turtle pet, please visit our adoption page for a care sheet and to meet our adoptable red eared sliders.

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.

What is a Wetland?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies wetlands as areas where water either covers the soil or is present at or near the surface of the soil for at least part of the year. The water is often groundwater from an aquifer or spring. A wetland may also be filled by water from a nearby river or lake or, in coastal areas, by the ocean tides. Basically, wetlands are wet places.

painted turrle among plants in water

This painted turtle was rehabbed and released to her wetland habitat in 2021.

While some wetlands are permanently under water, others may flood seasonally. The depth and duration of this seasonal flooding varies. What is important is that, in each wetland, the presence of water determines the biological, physical, and chemical characteristics of the land and creates a distinct ecosystem.

Plants that live in wetlands are uniquely adapted to watery soil and vary from mosses and grasses to trees. A wide variety of animal species live in wetlands, too. Birds that frequent wetlands for protection and food include ducks, geese, kingfishers, and sandpipers. Mammals like otters and beavers rely on wetlands for food and shelter. Wetlands are home to many types of fish and – our favorites – reptiles and amphibians such as frogs, salamanders, snakes, and turtles.

Wetlands exist in many climates and are found on every continent except Antarctica, both along coasts and inland. The largest wetlands in the world include the Amazon River Basin in South America and the Hudson Bay Lowland in Canada. The world’s largest protected wetland, Llanos de Moxos in Bolivia, is more than 17 million acres, about equal in size to North Dakota.

Wetlands take many forms including rivers, marshes, bogs, mangroves, mudflats, ponds, swamps, billabongs, peatlands, sloughs, muskegs, fens, lagoons, potholes, mires, and floodplains. Most large wetland areas include a combination of different forms. Swamps, marshes, and bogs are the three major kinds of wetlands.

Wetlands are essential ecosystems. In addition to providing homes for many plant and animal species, they are giant sponges that limit the effects of flooding from heavy rain. Coastal wetlands absorb storm surges to protect fragile beaches and shore communities. As storms worsen due to climate change, wetlands may save us all.

Interested in learning more about wetlands? Check out our Wild Wetlands educational outreach program. We would love to bring Wild Wetlands or one of our other programs to your school, library, or club. Contact us to find out how.

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.

Sink or Swim

If you have been lucky enough to watch a turtle in a glass aquarium, you saw that turtles are strong swimmers, but sometimes they just hang out on the bottom. For you to do that, at the bottom of a pool, for instance, you would need two things: a way to breathe and something heavy to keep you down there. How does a turtle stay under, perhaps even napping?

painted turtle in aquarium floating just below the surface

Educational ambassador Diane demonstrates how turtles can float just below the surface.

In our last post about turtle physiology, we noted that, because of the shell, turtles have significantly more bone mass than other animals. That heavy bone sinks like a rock. But turtles can also float, so something must be making them buoyant.

We have seen turtles described as little submarines. That is a pretty accurate comparison. Turtles sink or swim like submarines dive or surface except, instead of ballast tanks, a turtle has a bladder.

To counteract the weight of their shells and float, turtles pump air into their large lungs. To submerge, they draw water into the urinary bladder through the cloaca. How deep a turtle stays depends on the ratio of air in the lungs to water in the bladder. There are variations in this depending on the species of turtle, but that is the general idea.

Having all that air in their lungs, plus slow metabolism, means a turtle can hold their breath a long time. Under normal summer conditions, it might be an hour before a turtle comes up for air. Napping, the turtle might stay even longer. And if the oxygen in the lungs gets used up before the turtle surfaces, they will switch to anaerobic metabolism and not need any oxygen at all. But that is a story for another time.

You can learn more about how turtles sink or swim in our educational outreach programs. We are always looking for new program hosts. Please contact us to bring a program to your school, library, or club meeting.

Save the Snakes

Snakes get a bad rap. Just the way snakes move freaks some folks out, not to mention the venom. When you get to know a bit more about them, though, you might understand why we think snakes are worth saving.

According to the CDC, between 7,000 and 8,000 humans are bit by venomous snakes in the United States each year, and around five of those will die. For perspective, though, 49 people die, on average, from lightning strikes. Unlike lightning, which does not care, snakes would rather not bite you, because that rarely ends well for the snake. Instead, snakes will go out of their way to get out of your way and go about the business of catching prey, which is what that venom is really for.

snake skeleton

Image by Denis Doukhan from Pixabay

The name “snake” comes from an Old English word, “snaca,” which means “to crawl or to creep.” They do not actually creep, though. Snakes slither, which is the serpentine motion you often see. They also “walk” on their belly scales to move slowly straight ahead, or bunch up then stretch forward like an accordion. While they have no actual legs, their ancestors did. Many snakes still have what remains of the pelvic and leg bones in there.

Going legless could not have been a bad idea, since some lizards decided to do it, too. Wait! Isn’t a legless lizard just another snake? Nope, and if you are not sure, have a staring contest. If they blink, they are a lizard. Snakes have no eyelids. Instead, their eyes are covered with a transparent scale for protection. The scale will shed along with the rest of the snake’s skin.

While shedding is common in the reptile world, the way snakes slide out of their skins and leave them behind in one piece is unique. The process is so mysterious and wonderful that humans have symbolically associated it with growth and transformation. The poor snakes must go around being spiritually significant, as if being nature’s rodent control service was not burden enough.

Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

Rats, mice, and other small mammals make up a good portion of a snake’s diet. In keeping the rodent population controlled, snakes also reduce the number of ticks which carry Lyme and other diseases. Whenever we get a call about a snake hanging around where they are not wanted, the first thing we ask is, “What is the snake eating?” Chances are good there is something there attracting mice. The snake is doing pest management for you and will not even send you a bill.

While we specialize in turtles, our door is open to any injured reptiles in need of care. We think snakes are fascinating and recognize how important they are to the ecosystems they occupy. We will keep learning and working hard to save the snakes.