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.

No Breathing Necessary

Take a deep breath in and hold it. Keep holding it. How long can you go without breathing?

Humans, and most other vertebrates, can survive only a few minutes without oxygen. Turtles need to breathe air just like us but, thanks to unique and remarkable physiology, they can hold their breath a really, really long time. It is this amazing adaptation that allowed freshwater turtles to spread into colder places where winter temperatures are regularly below freezing.

snapping turtle balanced on log above water basking

Image by simardfrancois from Pixabay

During the summer here in northeastern New York, turtles are likely to be spotted basking on logs or rocks under the hot sun. During the winter, they are never seen unless someone is lucky enough to spot the outline of a buried turtle through clear ice. Once the water cools in autumn, the turtles head to the bottom of lakes and ponds, dig down into the muddy bottom, and slow down.

Turtles do not hibernate. During hibernation a mammal curls up and sleeps to lower their metabolism a bit. Turtles remain conscious but depress their metabolism so much that their hearts beat only once in five minutes! Oxygen is used very slowly. As a result, turtles can, in fact, hold their breath for months, a really, really long time.

If a submerged turtle needs to breath before the ice above them melts, they employ another distinctive aspect of their physiology and absorb oxygen out of the water through their skin. The skin usually used is that of the cloaca, the opening at the rear of the turtle through which the turtle urinates, defecates, and lays eggs. Cloacal oxygen absorption has been given a fun name by turtle enthusiasts: butt breathing.

Turtles survive underwater during winters in cold climates by slowing their metabolism and, when needed, absorbing oxygen through their butts. No breathing is necessary, at least not for a long while.

Butt breathing is just one of the fascinating facts about turtle anatomy and physiology we share in our educational outreach programs.

Rescuing Anoles

We get a call or two every year about an anole found here in northeastern New York. Green anoles (Anolis carolinensis) are native to the Southeast and brown anoles (Anolis sagrei) are native to Cuba and the Bahamas, although they have invaded the same range as green anoles and are now widely found there. The same trait that brought brown anoles to the United States brings many into the cold north – they are notorious hitchhikers.

young brown anole sitting among vines

Our current rescue anole, Scatha, arrived in October 2021 as a young juvenile.

Anoles are small, fast, and live in plants, especially if those plants have bugs. Anoles eat small insects like flies, spiders, crickets, and moths, all found on plants. They often find their way into greenhouses where potted plants are grown for retail sales all over the country and end up being shipped out along with the plants. Even the littlest reptiles can survive some exposure to cold by going into a torpor state, and an anole might seem dead until they warm up and surprise an unsuspecting plant purchaser.

Being only five to seven inches long, tiny anoles are not suitable for handling, especially by children, but they are fairly easy to care for and can be a good introductory reptile pet. Anoles can thrive in a small glass tank with a good substrate and lots of plants to climb on, either live or artificial. The biggest challenge is maintaining a sufficient humidity level, which can be achieved with a spray bottle if used daily.

Our current anole rescue, Scatha, was a very young hatchling when she was found, so we suspect she may have journeyed north as an egg laid in potting soil. If you find an anole in the North Country, please do not release it outside, even in summer, as it will not survive long here. Contact us for rescue help, or for advice on setting up a good habitat for your new anole pet.

The Earliest Turtles

Thanks to good fossil records, we know that turtles are some of the oldest vertebrates on Earth. They made their appearance during the late Triassic period, about 250 million years ago. They are part of the reptile family that includes crocodilians (alligators and crocodiles), who are their closest relatives, the dinosaurs, who they lived alongside, and birds.

You read that correctly. Current studies show that genetically, birds are most closely related to crocodiles, turtles, and dinosaurs. But you have always suspected your Mr. Tweetie was hiding something, haven’t you?

fossil turtle skeleton head neck front of shell front legs

Image by Icewall42 from Pixabay

You might look at sea turtles and assume turtles have always been aquatic, but the earliest turtles lived on land. At first, they had expanded ribs, not the fully formed shell we associate with turtles today. The early turtles include:

  • Eunotosaurus africanus, 260 million years ago. Eunotosaurus looked like a modern-day lizard but had wide, flat ribs that rounded the torso into the shape of a turtle shell. Eunotosaurus fossils were found in southern Africa.
  • Pappochelys rosinae, 240 million years ago. Found in Germany, the fossils are like Eunotosaurus with wide, flat ribs.
  • Odontochelys semitestacea, 220 million years ago. Until Eunotosaurus and Pappochelys were discovered, Odontochelys, whose fossil was found in China, was thought to be the original turtle. While still lacking the carapace (upper shell), Odontochelys had a fully formed plastron (lower shell) and are believed to have spent at least part of the time in shallow water, the earliest evidence of turtles becoming aquatic.
  • Proganochelys quenstedti, 220 million years ago. Fossils indicate Proganochelys was the first “true turtle,” in that it had a fully formed carapace as well as a plastron. Proganochelys was believed to be only semi-aquatic and an herbivore, so more like a tortoise than today’s aquatic turtles. The shell of Proganochelys was about three feet long and it had a long tail, reminiscent of snapping turtles.
  • Meiolania, 20 million years ago. There are three distinct species in the genus Meiolania, and these are almost present-day tortoises, except for their horns and clubbed tails. They are the largest tortoises that have ever existed, with a carapace length over six feet. Most Meiolania fossils have been found in Australia and nearby South Pacific islands. Unfortunately, there is evidence Meiolania disappeared shortly after the arrival of humans, which may make them one of the first instances of human-caused extinction.
  • Stupendemys, 10 million years ago. Fossils found in South America tell us Stupendemys had a carapace exceeding six feet in length, and sometimes as long as ten feet, making it the largest freshwater turtle ever to have existed.
  • Hesperotestudo, 2 million years ago. Fossils of these giant tortoises are found mainly in North America and are like present-day gopher tortoises. Hesperotestudo existed alongside humans who hunted them for food, which most likely led to their extinction.

In the 250 million years that turtles have been on Earth, they have never been in as much danger of extinction as they are today. We hope that as you learn more about ancient turtles, you will also learn how to help turtles today.

Dancing Turtle’s education programs include fascinating facts about the earliest turtles to inspire conservation.

Wood Turtle in the Bus

Earlier this month we processed our first wood turtle intake of 2021. While not yet on the threatened species list, wood turtles are of special concern in New York due to their declining numbers.

wood turtle shown from front with head tucked in, eyes swollen, metal tape and white cream on shell

Wood turtles are semi-aquatic and live in streams in woodland areas. They are the only freshwater turtle native to the Adirondacks that can eat out of the water, and will forage for berries, mushrooms, slugs, and worms in the woods. Although the woods is their preferred habitat, wood turtles get their name from their rich brown carapace, which has rings that look like wood grain. Their necks and legs sport bright orange patches.

Our wood turtle patient survived getting hit by a car and, luckily, avoided a broken spine and a skull fracture. We suspected both during our intial examination, but x-rays at the vet showed that was not the case. Her carapace crack is stable and healing. We are also treating an eye infection that has so far kept her eyes swollen closed, but we are hopeful it will resolve with time.

The wood turtle will be wintering over with us, along with a number of painted turtles and snapping turtles. Our supply needs are double what they were last winter. You can help us give these turtles a safe place to heal with donations from our Amazon Wish List. Thank you!

Baby Turtle Time

We’ve been having hatch parties in our incubators!

snapping turtles hatching

Snapping turtles emerging from their eggs

During the month of August, almost 50 turtles hatched from eggs that had been incubated. Some of those eggs were recovered from nests in construction sites. The rest were laid by gravid turtles who came into our wildlife rehabilition center after being injured by cars. Those injured mother turtles were chemically induced to lay their eggs so they would no longer struggle to escape to finish their egg-laying mission and could relax and heal.

painted turtle hatchling held in hand

A newly hatched painted turtle

We successfully hatched one clutch of midland painted turtle eggs and five clutches of common snapping turtle eggs, with one late clutch still incubating. The earlier hatching snapping turtles will be released soon. The remainder of the hatchlings will spend the winter in our headstart program and will be released in the late spring. Those headstarted turtles will be bigger than their wild hatched counterparts, who often go directly into hibernation after they hatch, which will improve their chances of survival. All of our hatchlings are released near where the eggs or their mothers were found. We hope these small turtles will help those turtle populations to continue to thrive.

painted turtle hatchling in water under leaves

Our nursery tanks include lots of places for tiny hatchlings to hide

Each clutch of turtles requires a tank with a gravel substrate arranged to vary the water depth in different parts of the tank, as well as greenery to hide under and places to bask. Each tank is equipped with a gentle water filter, a heat lamp, and a UVB lamp. The hatchlings are fed a combination of live food such as small mealworms or earthworms, pieces of fish, and commercial turtle food designed for healthy growth. As they age, we may divide clutches into separate containers to reduce competition until we can transfer them into larger enclosures outside. After a few weeks in spring spent adjusting to sunlight and changing weather conditions, our hatchlings will be ready to take their place in the wild.

Check back for updates this winter to see how these babies are growing.

Neverending Turtle Season

midland painted turtle with supporting tape and cream on broken shell soaking in a tub of shallow water

The northeastern part of the United States has had cool, wet weather throughout the summer so far. Whether it is due to high water levels in the lakes and ponds or the low overnight temperatures, our local turtles are behaving differently post nesting season. An unusual number of turtles, particularly males, are venturing onto the roads. Unfortunately, many are getting hit by cars.

We are still receiving injured turtles for care. Some of their injuries are intensive, and even minor injuries might require overwintering because the latest safe release date is only six weeks away.

The large number of patients has challenged our wildlife rehabilitation service to expand quickly. We are meeting the challenge thanks to our supporters who have donated equipment and supplies from our Amazon wishlist. Thank you!

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.

Meet Grace, Rescue Turtle Ambassador

Grace arrived at Dancing Turtle Rescue just as the calendar was flipping to 2021 with Frankie, a yellow-bellied slider, and Leaf, an Asian leaf turtle. Grace is a Florida cooter, and all three turtles were being kept in crowded housing by caring folks who were unable to better provide for them. Many of our pet rescue turtles come with sad stories. Grace was one of those.

Grace and Frankie were sharing a small tank without much room to move, and Frankie became aggressive and bit Grace’s shell, which broke off the sections of shell above her back legs. When we took her in, that part of her shell was raw and bleeding.

rescue ambassador large cooter turtle sitting on pile of rocks back leg stretched out as if practicing yoga

Grace stretching into a yoga pose

We separated the turtles and placed Grace in a dry tub to keep the injured shell out of water while we treated it. Grace, we guess because of the trauma of being trapped with Frankie, panicked in the tub and struggled to escape. She only remained calm when she was on the floor, so we laid down a towel and clipped a heat lamp above it. Grace slept and basked on the towel, climbed into a low pan of water to eat and hydrate, and spent the rest of the day exploring our house. We often found her sharing a sunbeam with one of our cats, napping on the dog bed, or hiding under furniture.

When she isn’t caring for turtles, Debbie teaches yoga classes online. Her virtual studio is in the room where Grace’s towel and, later, her custom escapable tub are. While she sometimes joins Debbie on her mat, most often Grace is just off camera, “practicing” along with the class under her basking lamp.

Grace is very friendly and willing to have her shell and feet touched, which makes her an excellent ambassador for the rescue turtles. Her shell is healing but will probably never grow back completely, but we love her as she is. Grace will be staying with us.

We have many other turtles who are ready to be adopted. Please visit our rescue page and meet some.

The Turtle Bus Is Really a Bus

When Debbie told her husband about her desire to rehabilitate turtles, he looked around their already crowded house and asked, “Where are you going to put them?” It was a legitimate question, and one that Debbie had been asking herself. Then she looked out the window and remembered the bus.

teenager on a ladder applying caulk to an old school bus

Debbie’s teenaged son helped get the bus ready by sealing leaks.

Why was there a bus in her yard?

The bus was parked in Debbie’s side yard by her then just barely twenty-year-old daughter. She had purchased the stripped-out retired school bus and drove it 600 miles to home with the intention of creating a tiny home on wheels for herself. Life happened, and the bus stayed parked in the side yard with some of the wall framing complete and a pile of materials in the garage.

Since almost everything was on hand, and with their daughter’s permission, Debbie and her husband completed the interior walls, laid some sheet vinyl flooring, and ran a heavy-duty extension cord to power lights and heat. And so the turtle bus came to be.

man laying sheet vinyl flooring in an old school bus

The vinyl sheet flooring was installed on a dark, early spring night so it would be ready before the first squirrels arrived.

The first critters in the bus each year are orphaned squirrels who are released into the woods behind the house when they are old enough. Many stay nearby and make regular visits to the edge of the woods, which is now known affectionately as Squirrelandia. By late spring, though, the turtle bus is occupied almost exclusively by turtles.

Injured turtles need care.

Most of the turtles in our care have been hit by cars.  We also treat turtles who have been chewed on by dogs and some who have been hooked by or entangled in fishing gear. Once their broken shells are stabilized, they begin the process of healing. Some heal quickly and are able to be released back into their wild homes within weeks. For other turtles, healing is a long, slow process that may take a year or more. We provide care as long as it takes to give each turtle a chance to become healthy and whole again.

turtle rehabilitation clinic in an old school bus

As soon as the turtle bus was ready, it started to fill up. We have made improvements each year and now we can house up to 12 turtles.

Wildlife rehabilitators, no matter what species they specialize in, all have the same struggle – we have more love than money. While we are licensed and monitored by our state wildlife agencies, we get no funding, supplies, or equipment from them. We are all volunteers and most, like Dancing Turtle Rescue, are home based. We are blessed to be part of an organized local network, North Country Wild Care, which fundraises as a group to purchase and supply things like specialized formula for the many orphans our members raise, from squirrels to birds to opossums to deer, and provides veterinary support and medication for injured and ill animals, including our turtles.

Supplies and equipment are needed!

Turtles have specialized housing requirements. Once they enter long-term care, each needs a filter system to keep the water clean and moving, a platform to get out of the water and bask, a heat lamp to warm the basking spot, and a full spectrum UV light to replace the sunlight they are missing. These are essential for any turtle’s health, but especially for turtles who have lost blood, are fighting infection, and are trying to grow new tissue. Even with the most inexpensive options, each complete setup costs over $100. Afterwards, filter cartridges must be changed every other week, heat and UV bulbs burn out, and everyone needs to eat. And we go through first aid supplies very quickly during the critical first few weeks after a turtle is injured.

Please help us help the turtles.

Can you help us help the turtles? We have a wishlist on Amazon for Dancing Turtle Rescue for needed supplies, food, and equipment. You can purchase any item on the list, and have it sent to us as a gift. (You will get double karma points if you use Amazon Smile and select North Country Wild Care as the beneficiary.)

We have gotten this far only because of generous donations and we are immensely grateful for everyone who has helped. Thank you!