Freshwater Turtles of New England

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

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The first painted turtles I saw basking last spring

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

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Why’d the turtle cross the road? 

 

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):

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Stinky hands.

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!

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Female wood turtle

 

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

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My favorite turtle species!

 

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

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Yup, definitely a Blanding’s!

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):

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“Spotted” in a vernal pool!

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):

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Photo by Cris Hagen

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):

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Photo: maryland.gov

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):

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Photo by Scott Gillingwater

 

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

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Photo: Bill Byrne

 

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.

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Photo: USFWS

March Comes in Like and Lion and Out Like a… Bear?

A month ago, I introduced myself as an excited herper awaiting the impending spring that I swore would be coming in mere days! As a life-long New England-er and experienced field technician, I should have known better. I regret to say that despite what the calendar says, spring is not upon us in Massachusetts.

Sitting in the four walls of my cubicle, shivering and salamander-less, I can’t help but reflect on memories of last year’s field season.  I spent last spring/summer driving around the Northeast US collecting amphibian swab samples for disease monitoring. In the process, I made some lasting memories and added a bunch of “lifers” to the list (herp species I saw for the first time ever, for you layfolk…)!

So, if you will excuse my nostalgia, I’d like to tell you about some of my favorite experiences from field season 2016 (including a story about a bear, hence the title).

Episode 1: The Faceless Toad

On one of our first out-of-state adventures in search of amphibians, the two other techs and I ventured out to southern Connecticut to check out some wetlands. It was still early in the season, but after some searching we were successful in finding animals. We were sitting on a downed tree processing our amphibs when the leaves at our feet began to rustle. The source of the rustling turned out to be an American toad (Bufo americanus)

Upon further inspection we saw that the toad was having difficulty moving around, and seemed to have little awareness of us even being there. We picked the toad up and the reason behind its disorientation became abundantly clear. I shit you not, this toad had no face.

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THE Faceless Toad

There were no abrasions or wounds that would explain its faceless-ness as a potential result of predation. It was just an otherwise healthy, fully grown toad with no face.

I wish I could say we were able to document some rare face-eating disease affecting anurans emerging from their hibernaculum, but to my knowledge, there is nothing of that kind. And so, how the faceless toad became faceless remains a mystery.

Episode 2: Blue-Spotted Salamander

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Finally!

I have always wanted to see a blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale). I wish I had a better reason behind my years of longing to find one other than the following reasons, but I don’t:

  1. I like blue
  2. I like salamanders

Regardless of my reasons, I finally saw my first blue spotted salamanders in the flesh last May. For anyone reading this who is not a herper, adding a species to your list is like waking up to a bike on Christmas morning when you were 7. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll show off pictures of some of the lifers that I got last summer. Please excuse the iPhone quality, I was reluctant to bring my camera in the field with me (something I plan to change in 2017!).

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Look at that derpy face!

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They are much more iridescent in person

Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipie
ns
):

After hearing these for years (and seeing dead
ones), I finally encountered a live northern leopard frog! This site was
full of them.

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ID tip: Shenandoah stripes are thinner than the red-backed

 

 

 

Shenandoah Salamander (Plethodon shenendoah):

This plethodon is endemic to a few mountaintops in Shenandoah National Park. Usually red-striped like its more common relative Plethodon cinereus, this was a silver-ish phase ‘mander.

 

Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos):

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Both hognoses

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Here, you can see the distinctive hognose!

I have to give all the credit to some fellow herpers who were nice enough to call me when they found these guys. A rare find in Massachusetts, two black eastern hognose snakes.

Episode 3: My Mother, the Field Assistant 

*Disclaimer: This section has little to no biological content, it’s just a story that I like to tell.

By this time, my two comrades in technician-ry had moved on to their real life positions, and I was headed to New York for a two-day sampling stint when my mother decided she wanted to come with me and “see what I do”. This was a pretty transparent front for her discomfort with me camping alone in an unfamiliar state, but I was happy to oblige.

So my very suburban mother, complete with her white jeans and small terrier, hit the woods with me to endure two days of long 90 degree hikes in the great state of New York. She rallied through some intense mosquito spells, and carried her share of field equipment (pictured below). But, on our last stretch of hiking back to the car before heading home, something finally broke what had been her cool, calm, and collected demeanor.

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That’s a good mom!

We were crossing a power-line when I heard a chaotic rustling in the nearby raspberry bushes. My dog, a lab named Marley, took off after the noise, and as she entered the brush I saw a small black bear (Ursus americanus) (likely a yearling) emerge from the other side and bolt towards the woods. Marley continued to chase and the bear bounded up a pine tree at an impressive rate. My mother, being several dozen yards behind me, failed to catch onto anything that was happening, and as she approached she asked where Marley went.

Knowing she had probably never seen a bear in her life and that this was likely to freak her out, I began to tell her very calmly that there was nothing to be concerned about, but there was a small bear in a tree about 15 yards away, and that we might want to carry her smaller dog of about 12 pounds, Cloe, for a little while until we were sure mama bear was not around. I normally wouldn’t have said anything so as not to freak her out, but Cloe has no idea that she’s a small dog, and I could definitely see her trying to approach a 250 pound bear.

Unfortunately, my hopes and dreams of exiting this situation smoothly were quickly crushed, because as soon as I said the word “bear”, my mom screamed, picked up her little dog, and ran faster than I had ever seen her run in my 24 years of life. It was a hilarious image that I will never forget. I spent the 5 hour drive home listening to her lecture me on her googled knowledge of bear safety. It was as if we had come face to face with a grizzly.

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Me looking for amphibs, and Marley practicing extreme self-control by not jumping in the water and ruining my chances.

 

Hi, I’m Jill.

Another grad student with a blog, cue the eye-rolls!12933120_10205892250645557_2017372802433414604_n

But for real, thanks for stopping by my page and reading my very first blog post! I’m hoping this will be a combination of an online field journal and an outlet for semi-thought-out musings on science and ecology. BUTTT, I wanted to take this first post to simply introduce myself. So, I am a MS student in the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts, and I am working on a project evaluating methods of monitoring terrestrial salamanders.

 
I found my way here through a curiosity about nature, a fascination with all things herpetology, and a little bit of luck. If you’re an ecologist like myself, I’m sure my story isn’t far off from yours.

I grew up in southeastern Massachusetts in a coastal town called Marshfield, where nature consists mostly of small wooded patches and protected wetlands. As a kid though, these areas felt as “wild” to me as anything. Growing up in the suburbs meant that every interaction with nature was captivating and special.

After working fo13987515_10206663454285166_4778291753860627196_or the local wildlife rehabilitation hospital through high school, I went on to pursue a BS in Wildlife and Conservation Biology at the University of New Hampshire. This is where I learned what it meant to be a scientist. That ecology, however mysterious and mind-blowing, was a real and quantifiable science.  I graduated and spent a couple of years working different field jobs in the northeast, and even a short stint in Alabama. Eventually, I felt ready to go back to school, the perfect opportunity arose, and here I am (this is what I meant by luck!).

So, anyways! What I hope people can look to find on here is some cool herp pictures, my experiences from the field, and maybe an occasional opinion here and there. Temps are warming in Massachusetts and wood frogs will be calling in no time- so stay tuned!