An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide – maryholland505@gmail.com

Reptiles

Snakes Basking & Brumating

Being ectothermic (unable to regulate their own body temperature) snakes cannot afford to spend the winter in a spot that freezes. After basking and feeding heavily in the late fall, they seek out sheltered caves, hollow logs, and burrows where they enter a state called brumation.  Brumation is to reptiles what hibernation is to mammals – an extreme slowing down of one’s metabolism.

While similar, these two states have their differences. Hibernating mammals slow their respiration down, but they still require a fair amount of oxygen present to survive.  Snakes can handle far lower oxygen demands and fluctuations than mammals.  Also, hibernating mammals sleep the entire time during their dormancy, whereas snakes have periods of activity during brumation.  If the weather is mild, they will take advantage of the opportunity to venture out and bask.  They also need to drink during this period in order to avoid dehydration. (Photo: DeKay’s Brownsnake (Storeria dekayi) basking)

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Snapping Turtle Eggs Hatching

Every fall, roughly three months after they’re laid, snapping turtle eggs hatch. Like many other turtle species, the hatchlings’ gender is determined by the temperature at which the eggs were incubated during the summer. Eggs at the top of the nest are often significantly warmer than those at the bottom, resulting in all females from the top eggs, and all males from the bottom eggs. In some locations, the hatchlings emerge from the nest in hours or days, and in others, primarily in locations warmer than northern New England, they remain in the nest through the winter.

When they emerge above ground, the hatchlings, without any adult guidance, make their way to the nearest body of water, which can be up to a quarter of a mile away, and once there, seek shallow water. Eggs and snapping turtle hatchlings are extremely vulnerable to predation. Predators include, among others, larger turtles, great blue herons, crows, raccoons, skunks, foxes, bullfrogs, water snakes, and large predatory fish, such as largemouth bass.  Older and larger snapping turtles have a much easier time fending for themselves. (Photo: newborn snapper)

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Eastern Garter Snakes Giving Birth

Seventy percent of the world’s snakes lay eggs and only about thirty percent give birth to live young.  Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) are among the latter, giving birth in August to between two and thirty-one offspring (averaging 23).  Carrying and incubating developing embryos within their body is more common for northern snakes and there is good reason for this.  Whereas eggs are subject to whatever temperature fluctuations occur where they were laid, a snake that carries her young to term within her is able to move to warm areas that are ideal incubation temperatures. This causes less stress for the developing embryos and also results in a greater number of viable young.

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Snapping Turtles’ Extensive Reach

When you see a Snapping Turtle on land, its head is often only a few inches out of its shell, but don’t be fooled!  The length of its neck can be up to two-thirds the length of its shell and if threatened it can quickly extend its neck all the way out. (Keeping yourself out of reach is wise.  However, come June, when female Snapping Turtles often are found crossing roads when they leave their ponds to lay eggs, rescuing them from oncoming cars usually calls for close proximity to them. To hold and transport them (to the side of the road they were headed), just grab the back end of the shell, where their head can’t quite reach your hands.)

Their long neck allows Snapping Turtles to capture prey such as fish, frogs and crayfish from a distance.  When in shallow water, they can lie on the muddy bottom of the pond with only their heads occasionally exposed in order to take an occasional breath.  If you look closely at a Snapping Turtle’s head (see photo), you will see that their nostrils are positioned on the very tip of their snout, effectively functioning as snorkels.

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Common Gartersnakes Mating

During these first days of April, Common Gartersnakes emerge from their hibernacula and often bask in the sun near the den where they spent the winter.  (At this time they are more approachable than later in the season, should you desire a close look at one.)  Males usually appear first; when the females appear, the males follow them in hot pursuit.

Common Gartersnakes are known for their impressive courtship ritual.  Prior to copulation, as many as a hundred males will often writhe around a single female, forming a mass which is referred to as a “mating ball.”  The male closest to the female rubs his chin on the head, back and sides of the female while aligning himself with her and eventually mating takes place.  When it does, the other males that were in the mating ball leave and seek out other females.  Female gartersnakes mate once; male may mate with several females.  (Photo by Sally Fellows)

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Snapping Turtles Laying Eggs – Sex Of Turtles Determined By Temperature

6-21-19 snapping turtle 1B0A1038It’s that time of year again, when female Snapping Turtles are leaving ponds, digging holes in sandy soil and depositing up to 80 eggs (20-30 is typical) before covering them up and returning to their ponds. While the sex of most snakes and lizards is determined by sex chromosomes at the time of fertilization, the sex of most turtles is determined by the environment after fertilization. In these reptiles, the temperature of the eggs during a certain period of development is the deciding factor in determining sex, and small changes in temperature can cause dramatic changes in the sex ratio.

Often, eggs incubated at low temperatures (72°F – 80°F) produce one sex, whereas eggs incubated at higher temperatures (86°F and above) produce the other. There is only a small range of temperatures that permits both males and females to hatch from the same brood of eggs. The eggs of the Snapping Turtle become female at either cool (72°F or lower) or hot (82°F or above) temperatures. Between these extremes, males predominate. (Developmental Biology by S. Gilbert)

If the cool temperatures we’ve experienced thus far this spring continue, there could be a lot of female Snapping Turtles climbing up out of the earth come September. (Thanks to Clyde Jenne and Jeffrey Hamelman for photo opportunity)

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Northern Water Snakes Courting & Mating

9-19-19 mating water snakes by Jeff Mazur IMG_9688 (002)Northern Water Snakes (Nerodia sipedon) are non-poisonous snakes which, as their name implies, tend to be found in the Northeast, in and around water. Females (bottom snake in photo) are heavier and longer than males (as long as five feet) and grow much faster. Since the end of May, Northern Water Snakes have been engaging in courtship rituals and mating. The male snake (top snake in photo) begins by crawling alongside a female while he rubs his body along hers. It is not unusual for more than one male to court her at the same time, with one eventually achieving copulation by twisting and coiling his tail around her body and tail as he attempts to get their cloacae aligned.

Northern Water Snakes are ovoviviparous – the female’s eggs incubate inside her body. The larger the female, the greater the number of live young she’s likely to produce in late August or September. Northern Water Snakes have between 12 and 60 young — judging from the size of the pictured female she’ll have a large litter. (Photo by Jeff Mazur)

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Painted Turtles Basking

5-1-19 painted turtle_U1A7417Water temperature of fifty-nine degrees Fahrenheit is the magic number for Painted Turtles in the fall. Below it, their metabolism slows to a near standstill – their heartbeat slows to only one beat every few minutes and they do not breathe through their lungs (if conditions allow, they may absorb oxygen dissolved in the water through specialized skin cells near the tail). Their body temperature averages 43°F. when hibernating in the mud at the bottom of ponds. Occasionally a Painted Turtle is seen swimming under the ice, but for the most part, hibernation rules from October to April in northern New England.

When the water reaches 59°F.- 64°F. in the spring, Painted Turtles become active again. In addition to foraging, they immediately start basking in the sun. Being cold-blooded, or ectothermic, they need this external source of heat to warm their body, but the UV light also regulates their metabolism and breeding as well as helps produce Vitamin D3, which is essential for the health of their bones as well as their internal organs.

Basking can also help relieve aquatic turtles of ectoparasites. Leeches are a blood-sucking ectoparasite that can cause anemia in reptiles. Drying out in the sun causes the leeches to shrivel up and die. Algae on basking aquatic turtles can also dry out and fall off, allowing the shells to retain their aerodynamic nature.

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Snapping Turtles Emerging From Hibernation

4-19-19 snapping turtle1 _U1A6737Congratulations to Elizabeth Hall, the first reader to correctly identify the trail blazer in the previous NC post!

As you can see from the dirt piled on this Snapping Turtle’s head, it has just emerged from hibernation. After extracting themselves from their muddy hibernacula, Snapping Turtles have two missions: to raise their body temperature and to secure food. According to Jim Andrews, Director of the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas (https://www.vtherpatlas.org/ ), the first movement of the year for these turtles is often to seek shallow water where they can bask in the sun and heat their internal organs. They also are on the move in order to get from their overwintering site (shallows of ponds, marshes, and lakeshores, in a spring or a stream) back to a feeding area. It won’t be long before they will be searching for mates.

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Common Gartersnakes Brumating

1-28-19 gartersnake img_4888Somewhere between two and four feet (depending on where you live in New England) beneath our feet there is a “frost line” below which the ground water in soil doesn’t freeze. Snakes, being reptiles, are ectotherms, and their bodies assume the temperature of the air around them. In order to avoid being frozen to death in the winter, they retreat below the frost line, where they enter a state called brumation – the cold-blooded term for a state of torpor and inactivity that is not true hibernation, but in which a dramatic slowing down of bodily functions occurs. Crevices in south-facing rocky ledges and abandoned woodchuck, fox and skunk dens (and human cellars) often serve as hibernacula, or winter shelters. Common Gartersnakes are known to gather in large numbers (one Canadian den served as a hibernaculum for 8,000 gartersnakes), in order to concentrate the small amount of heat their bodies produce in the winter.

As the air temperature lowers in the fall, a snake’s body temperature falls and its metabolism decreases dramatically. Gartersnakes actively prepare for this by not eating for several weeks prior to hibernating. This allows all of the food they previously consumed to be completely broken down and absorbed into their system. To enhance this process, gartersnakes bask in the sun both before and during their early days of sheltering in hibernacula, warming themselves so as to increase the rate of their metabolism just prior to hibernating.

Should a snake happen to eat a large grasshopper, earthworm or small frog just prior to entering brumation, the snake may become extremely lethargic due to the slowing down of its metabolism, and the contents of its stomach may not be digested as quickly. The longer it takes to process food in its stomach, the greater the chances that this dead material will start to decay, which could result in serious illness to the snake.

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Snapping Turtles Entering Hibernation

10-22-18 snapper IMG_5801Most Snapping Turtles have entered hibernation by late October. To hibernate, they burrow into the debris or mud bottom of ponds or lakes, settle beneath logs, or retreat into muskrat burrows or lodges.  Once a pond is frozen over, how do they breathe with ice preventing them from coming up for air?

Because turtles are ectotherms, or cold-blooded, their body temperature is the same as their surroundings.  The water at the bottom of a pond is usually only a few degrees above freezing.  Fortunately, a cold turtle in cold water/mud has a slow metabolism.  The colder it gets, the slower its metabolism, which means there is less and less of a demand for energy and oxygen as temperatures fall – but there is still some.

When hibernating, Snapping Turtles rely on stored energy.  They acquire oxygen from pond water moving across the surface of their body, which is highly vascularized.  Blood vessels are particularly concentrated near the turtle’s tail, allowing the Snapper to obtain the necessary amount of oxygen to stay alive without using its lungs.

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Young Milk Snakes Soon To Hibernate

10-17-18 milk snake young _U1A0781The eggs that Milk Snakes laid last June or July hatched recently and the six-inch young snakes as well as the adults that produced them will only be evident (and then, mostly at night) for the next few weeks.  Hibernation is around the corner, and these snakes often seek out the cellars of old houses with stone foundations in which to spend the winter.  Should you come upon a Milk Snake, please spare its life. They are not poisonous, and you couldn’t ask for a more efficient mouse catcher (Mice accounted for 74 percent of a study of Milk Snakes’ stomach contents.).

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Young Common Gartersnakes Appearing

8-3-18 garter snake 081Seventy percent of the world’s snakes lay eggs (oviparous). The rest give birth to live young (viviparous). Oviparous snakes tend to live in warmer climates, where the substrate they lay their eggs in is warm enough to incubate the eggs.  (Most egg-laying snakes deposit their eggs and then depart, relying on the substrate to incubate the eggs.)  Viviparous snakes tend to live in cooler regions, where the ground is too cold to provide incubation.

There is a distinction between egg-laying snakes.  The majority of snakes that lay eggs do so outside their body, in a protected area such as a rotting log.  These snakes are known as oviparous. There are also egg-laying snakes that retain their eggs inside their bodies until they’re ready to hatch. These snakes are called ovoviviparous. Ovoviviparous snakes, such as the Common Gartersnake, appear to give birth to live young, but they actually don’t. Unlike viviparous species, there is no placental connection, or transfer of fluids, between mothers and babies, because the developing young snakes feed on the substances contained in their individual eggs. The snakes emerge from the mother when they hatch from their eggs, giving them the appearance of “live” births. The gestation period for oviparous snakes is generally longer than those of ovoviviparous snakes and vary from a few weeks to a few months in length. (Photo: very young Common Gartersnake, Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis, consuming an earthworm)

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Painted Turtles Basking

4-27-18 painted turtle2 0U1A1070When a Painted Turtle crawls out of the roughly 39° F. degree mud at the bottom of a pond in early spring, it immediately heads to the nearest log or rock to bask and raise its body temperature. Turtles are ectothermic (cold-blooded) and must rely on external sources for the regulation of their body temperature. Thermoregulation is achieved both physically and behaviorally. A dark carapace (top shell) absorbs the sun’s heat, warming up the turtle’s internal temperature and the turtle regulates its temperature by shuffling in and out of the sun. It is imperative for the core body temperature of male Painted Turtles to reach 63° F., for only then can they start to produce sperm.

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When a Painted Turtle crawls out of the 39° F. degree mud at the bottom of a pond in early spring, it immediately heads to the nearest log or rock to bask and raise its body temperature. Turtles are ectothermic (cold-blooded) and must rely on external sources for the regulation of their body temperature. Thermoregulation is achieved both physically and behaviorally. Dark carapaces (top shell) absorb the sun’s heat, warming up the turtle’s internal temperature. The turtle regulates its temperature by shuffling in and out of the sun. It is imperative for the core body temperature of male Painted Turtles to reach 63° F., for only then can they start to produce sperm.

Painted Turtles Hatching

8-29-17 young painted turtle2 049A3648

Painted Turtle eggs hatch in late August or early September. The young turtles remain in their nest for varying amounts of time, often emerging soon after hatching but  frequently not until the following spring in the northern part of their range. Once hatched and out of the nest, they head to ponds and rivers. Because they’re so small (roughly the size of a quarter) they are vulnerable to a wide variety of predators, including frogs, snakes, birds and fish.

 

 


Snapping Turtle Nests Raided

7-3-17 raided snapper nest 001Female Snapping Turtles spend a lot of time and effort finding suitable sandy soil in which to dig their nest and lay their eggs. Some turtles have been found laying their eggs as far as a mile from the nearest water source. Once she has laid her eggs and covered them with soil, the female snapper returns to her pond, leaving her eggs to hatch on their own, and the hatchlings to fend for themselves.

It is estimated that as many as 80 to 90 percent of all turtle nests are destroyed by predators, weather conditions and accidental disturbances. Most of the damage is done by predators – skunks, raccoons, foxes, crows, among others. Most nests are discovered by smell, and most are raided at night. The fluid that coats the eggs, that is lost by the mother during egg laying or is lost through breaks in the eggs, produces a smell that is easily detected by predators. While a majority of nest raids happen within the first 48 hours of the eggs being laid, studies have shown that predation occurs over the entire incubation period (June – September). The pictured Snapping Turtle nest was dug up and the eggs consumed 10 days after they were laid.

If you are aware of a spot where a turtle dug a nest and laid eggs, you can try to protect the nest from predators by placing either a bottomless wire cage or an oven rack over the nest site, and putting a heavy rock on top. The tiny hatchlings will be able to escape through the openings but hopefully, if the rock is heavy enough, raccoons and skunks will become discouraged and give up trying to reach the nest.

The next Naturally Curious post will be on 7/5/17.

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Snapping Turtles Laying Eggs

6-19-17 snapping turtle laying eggs2 309In June,  mature female Snapping Turtles leave their ponds in search of a sandy spot in which to lay their eggs. (Capable of storing viable sperm for up to three years, female snappers do not necessarily mate every year prior to laying eggs.) Once this prehistoric-looking reptile locates a suitable location she slowly scoops one footful of earth at a time up and to the rear of her, alternating her left and right hind feet. If the soil is dry and tightly packed, she will urinate on it in order to facilitate digging.

Hole made, she proceeds to slowly lift her body and release ping pong ball-sized, -colored and -shaped eggs, usually one at a time, but occasionally two, into the hole beneath her. Down she comes for a minute or two of rest, and then up she rises again to release another egg. She does this anywhere from 20 to 40 times, a process that can take up to several hours, depending on the number of eggs she lays. Then her large, clawed hind feet slowly begin to scrape the two piles of soil she removed back into the hole, one foot at a time, until the eggs are covered, at which point she tamps the soil down with her plastron, or bottom shell. She then returns to the water, leaving the eggs and hatchlings to fend for themselves.

It is hard to accept that after all the effort that has been put into this act, studies have shown that 90 percent or more of turtle nests are raided by the likes of raccoons, skunks and crows. For those nests that are not discovered by predators, the sex of the turtle that emerges from each egg is determined by the temperature it attained during a specific part of its development. Eggs maintained during this period at 68°F produce only females; eggs maintained at 70-72°F produce both male and female turtles, and those incubated at 73-75°F produce only males. The eggs hatch in September, with many of the Snapping Turtles emerging then, but in the northern part of their range, young Snapping Turtles sometimes overwinter in their nest and emerge in the spring. (Thanks to Chiho Kaneko and Jeffrey Hamelman for photo op.)

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Painted Turtles Hatchlings Emerging From Nests In Northern New England

5-24-17 painted turtle 001

Adult Painted Turtles leave their ponds in May, June and July to find a sandy spot in which to dig a hole and deposit their half dozen or so eggs.  In most of their range, Painted Turtles hatch and emerge from their nest several months later, from August through early September. In the northern part of their range, however, the young turtles hatch in the fall but usually overwinter in their underground nest and emerge in the spring.

When turtles hatch, they use a modified scale called an egg-tooth, or carbuncle, located on the front of their upper jaw, to puncture their leathery egg shell.  (Although referred to as an egg-tooth, it is not a real tooth.) Typically the egg tooth disappears in a matter of days or weeks after hatching.  However, Painted Turtle hatchlings in northern New England retain their egg teeth through the winter, and emerge in the spring with it still intact, as this photograph demonstrates.  (Thanks to Nancy and Rob Foote for photo op.)

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Snapping Turtle Takes Advantage of Opportunity to Breathe Air

12-28-16-snapping-turtle-15622315_1172616449501958_3688331953512399657_nOpportunities to see turtles in winter are extremely limited, but a hole chopped in pond ice recently revealed a Snapping Turtle swimming in the water beneath the ice. According to Jim Andrews, Director of the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas(http://vtherpatlas.org/ ), most turtles don’t often burrow into the mud during winter. They need to take in dissolved oxygen from the water and there is not much available in the mud. Turtles take in oxygen through the linings of their mouths and sometimes thin-skinned, capillary-rich areas in their cloaca and armpits. Many turtles are just sitting on the bottom of ponds. They may use a rock, log, or maybe some leaves for a little protection from otters or other predators.

If the ice is clear, it is possible to see turtles swimming beneath it. Andrews suggests that the Snapping Turtle in the photograph is likely picking up an oxygen boost by using its lungs for a change. It may be four more months before it gets another breath of fresh air. (Thanks to Jim Andrews for post and Barb and Paul Kivlin of Shoreham, VT for photo.)

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Snapping Turtles & Duckweed

9-14-16-snapping-turtle-20160912_8749Duckweed (Wolfia sp.), a free-floating aquatic plant  that possesses flowers which are said to be the smallest flowers in the world, is coating our mystery creature. The presence of this plant can indicate that there are too many nutrients in the water, especially nitrate and phosphate.  On the plus side, Duckweed provides waterfowl, juvenile fish and other wildlife (including humans in Southeast Asia) with a protein-rich (40%) food.

Under this green coating is a Snapping Turtle, one of the largest freshwater turtles in North America. Most often encountered in June, when females leave their ponds to lay eggs, Snapping Turtles are infrequently observed at other times of the year. This is primarily due to their crepuscular and nocturnal habits as well as their tendency to spend a lot of time under water feeding on plants, insects, fish, frogs, small turtles, young waterfowl, and crayfish.

Found in most ponds, marshes, streams and rivers, Snapping Turtles are not aggressive towards humans. Their size is impressive (a full-grown Snapping Turtle’s top shell, or carapace, can measure up to 20 inches in length) but they shy away from human disturbance. Miniature versions with one-inch long carapaces can be seen this month as the young Snappers crawl up out of their subterranean nests after hatching from eggs laid in June and head for the nearest water.

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Red-eared Sliders

8-4-16   red-eared slider 265If you’re of a certain age, you may remember having a small pet turtle (complete with a plastic container and palm tree) when you were young.  Those turtles were Red-eared Sliders, and so many of them were released or escaped into the wild that they are now considered an invasive species and many countries ban their importation.  Even though it is illegal for hatchlings with a top shell length of less than 4 inches (they can reach 16 inches) to be sold for anything other than educational purposes, many pet stores in the U.S. still sell them.  Wild populations can be found in most of the New England states, though they are very localized in some.

Red-eared Sliders are named for the red ear stripe on both sides of their head, and the fact that when basking they typically slide into the water at the slightest hint of danger.  They are semi-aquatic and strong swimmers; when not basking, they can usually be found in the water.   Like many other species of turtles, the sex of Red-eared Sliders is determined by the incubation temperature during critical phases of the embryos’ development. Males are produced when the incubation temperature is between 72° and 81°F. and females develop at warmer temperatures. (Thanks to Sadie Brown for photo op.)

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Northern Watersnakes Mating

5-26-16  mating water snakes by Sue Elliott DSCN7482Active both day and night, Northern Watersnakes can be found basking near or swimming in ponds, rivers, lakes and marshes in the Northeast.  Late May through June is the peak of their mating season, when they engage in courtship rituals prior to mating.  Initially the male approaches a female side by side and rubs his body against hers, sometimes simultaneously using his chin to rub her head, neck or body.  When they are ready to mate, the male coils his tail around the female’s body and tail in an attempt to align his cloaca (single opening for digestive, reproductive, and urinary tracts) with hers.  Once that is accomplished he inserts one of his two hemipenes (penises) and releases sperm.  Four to six months later she gives birth to between 12 and 60 live snakes, each of which measures between six and twelve inches.  (Thanks and credit go to Sue Wetmore for this remarkable photograph.)

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Snapping Turtles Mating

jim bloc-snappers mating ct156p-snapping-turtles

Although Snapping Turtles may mate any time between April and November, much breeding activity takes place during April and May. Snapping Turtle mating appears fairly aggressive, with the male chasing the female, grasping the posterior end of her carapace and then mounting her.  He holds on to the edges of her shell with all four legs, often biting her head and neck while he inseminates her.

The female Snapping Turtle can keep sperm viable in her body for several  months (and perhaps years).  Thus, there can be multiple paternity in egg clutches and it may even be  possible that a female’s eggs are fertilized in years when she does not mate.  (Thanks to Jim Block for photo.  To see a photo series of Snapping Turtles mating (and many other very fine nature photographs), go to http://www.jimblockphoto.com/2010/04/snapping-turtles/)

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Painted Turtles Basking

3-23-16 painted turtles 033Being an aquatic species, most painted turtles hibernate in the mud at the bottom of ponds. They dig down as far as ten feet where they spend the winter hovering around 43°.  In the spring, when the temperature of the water approaches 60°, painted turtles begin actively foraging, but the first priority upon awakening is to warm up their bodies.  Turtles are ectothermic, or cold-blooded, thus the temperature of their bodies is determined by the  environment that surrounds them.  To be active, painted turtles must maintain an internal temperature of 63°- 73°.  They reach and maintain this temperature by basking in the sun, particularly in the cold, first weeks of spring.  Once warmed up, the turtles will forage, and when they begin to cool off, basking resumes.

Competition for basking sites such as floating logs and rocks can be fierce.  It is not unusual to see many painted turtles lined up on a floating log, or turtles piled one upon the other on a rock in an effort to maximize the effect of the sun’s rays.  The heat they’re obtaining increases their metabolism, aids in digestion and allows males to start producing sperm.  The sun also strengthens their shells and reduces the amount of algae on them, thereby reducing the chances of bacterial or fungal infection.

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