My first love in the world of herps was with turtles. Though I work more closely with amphibians now, these guys still fascinate me. So, I’ve made an unprofessional, but hopefully useful guide to the turtle species of New England. A native New England-er myself, these are the species I am most familiar with. Included are some of what I consider to be the most important tid-bits about each of them.
Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta):
Also referred to as the “sun turtle” (because they are often seen basking), this is the most common and widespread turtle in New England (and the whole US!). Their name comes from their colorful red outer ring of their shell, their bright yellow plastron (bottom of
shell), and the red streaks on their skin. These turtles are omnivores, eating mostly insects, crayfish, and submerged and emergent plants. In New England, they are one of the first turtles to come out and start nesting in late May.
Fun fact: Some painted turtle hatchlings emerge in late summer upon hatching, but some hatchlings will overwinter in their nest cavities and emerge the following spring.
Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina):
Another common species, these are the largest turtles found in New England, weighing
in at up to 40 pounds. When approached on land, snapping turtles can make a frightening hissing/biting display, but can actually be handled very safely. When I encounter one on the road, I usually tap it lightly on the back until it moves off the road in the direction it was heading. If that doesn’t work, it is safe to grab them on the sides of their shell towards their rear legs. Their necks can’t reach around as far as you think they can!
Fun fact: Common snapping turtles have the largest clutch size of all New England turtles, laying up to 100 eggs a nest (usually between 30-70)!
Common Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus):
Affectionately referred to as “stinkpots”, musk turtles are in the running for New England’s stinkiest reptile. Musking is a defense method used by lots of reptiles, aiming to deter a predator’s appetite with a nasty stench. Musk turtles prefer shallow and thickly vegetated wetlands for their habitat.
Fun fact: Musk turtles are a fast-maturing turtle species, reaching sexual maturity at 3 years for males and 4-7 for females. Most other New England turtles take a decade or more to begin breeding.
Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta):
Wood turtles have gotten a lot of attention surrounding their conservation in recent years. They prefer river habitat with riparian forest on the edges, and those lan
dscapes have been on the decline for quite some time. Still, they can be found in every New England state. In my experience, the best way to find one is to quietly (they can be skittish!) look for one basking in the habitat described above, or to go to sandy areas near those habitats during May and June and hope to catch a nesting female!
Fun Fact: Wood turtles get their name from their shell, which resembles wood in color and in pattern, but their skin is an orange color that is especially bright in adult males.
Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina):
Ok, so this is more of a terrestrial turtle than a freshwater turtle, but it’s my favorite so I had to include it. Box turtles have hinged shells that they can close to retreat from
predators, hence the “box” in their name. Southern New England (MA, CT, RI) is pretty much the northern extent of this turtle’s range, but it can supposedly be found in the most southern parts of the northern states (VT, NH, ME). This is the only turtle in New England that is primarily terrestrial. Because of their good looks and easy maintenance, these guys are often illegally collected to be kept as pets which contributes to their population declines.
Fun Fact: These turtles can be quite efficient diggers. They hibernate several inches under the ground and cover themselves back up. I don’t know how they do it, but it’s nearly impossible to know they’re there without a transmitter! They can also climb fences pretty well. So, that’s cool.
Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii):
Another turtle of conservation concern, they Blanding’s turtles can likely only be found in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. These charismatic turtles can be identified by their especially dome-y shell and bright yellow throat. Blanding’s are very long-lived and it is not uncommon for them to live into their 70’s. However, they are not sexually mature until
about 18 years old, making it difficult to evaluate conservation success without a lot of time.
Fun Fact: Blanding’s turtles have a tendency to nest in residential areas. It’s not unusual to find one nesting in your garden if a wetland with Blanding’s turtles is nearby!
Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata):
Spotted turtles are one of the smaller turtles found in New England, and are named for the bright yellow spots on their carapace (top of shell). Just like snowflakes, every turtle’s spots are different! However, this is not a reliable way to identify individuals because the number and placement of spots may change over time.
Fun Fact: Spotted turtles have very small clutch sizes of about 3-4 eggs. This makes nest success very important for their conservation!
Northern Map Turtle (Graptemys geographica):
Within New England, the northern map turtle’s range is restricted to the northern Champlain Valley of Vermont. They are named for the beautiful patterns on their carapace which resemble topography on a map. Female turtles are larger then males in most species, but this is especially true for the northern map turtle. Males weigh between 150-400 grams, which is tiny compared to the 670-2,500 gram females.
Fun Fact: Unlike other local turtles, northern map turtle females typically lay 2 or more clutches a year!
Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapn):
New Englanders can find these particularly beautiful (in my opinion) turtles in the coastal marshes of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts- and this is the extreme northern end of their range. Because of their habitat (brackish water), diamondback terrapins are much more salt tolerant than their more inland counterparts. They have white skin with black spots, and some say their scutes resemble diamonds in shape.
Fun Fact: To get freshwater, diamondback terrapins have adapted to drink the freshwater surface that occurs over the saltwater, and can be found with their mouths open facing the sky in the rain.
Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera):
Our only softshell turtle, these guys are rather unusual-looking with their leathery shells and long noses. Like the northern map turtle, spiny softshell turtles are believed to only be native to the Champlain Valley of Vermont. However, they have established invasive populations in sections of the Connecticut River in Massachusetts.
Fun Fact: Another sexually dimorphic species, the females can weigh up to 25 pounds!
Northern Red-bellied Cooter (Pseudemys rubriventris):
Northern red-bellied cooters in New England are only found in the
Plymouth County of Massachusetts. They are large bodied turtles with red markings on their shell. Though they are a federally listed endangered species in New England, they are more common in areas south of New England. The Massachusetts populations is considered distinct because the next closest population is more than 250 miles south in New Jersey.
Fun Fact: Because it is so isolated, the Massachusetts population was once thought to be a different species and was called the “Plymouth red-bellied turtle” until genetics revealed they were actually northern red-bellied cooters.
Bog Turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii):
The bog turtle is likely the most endangered turtle in New England, and exists only in extreme western parts of Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut. They can be identified by the yellow patches on the sides of their heads. Bog turtles are the smallest turtle in New England (and all of North America!). It is believed that their critically endangered status is a result of habitat loss caused by development and invasive plant species.
Not So Fun Fact: The illegal pet trade is a significant threat to the wild bog turtle populations through poaching of adults and eggs.