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turtles

Painted Turtles Laying Eggs

Painted Turtles have been engaging in intricate, underwater courtship (consisting of mutual stroking) and mating since March or April. Females can store sperm for several months, enabling them to delay egg-laying, as well as to lay several clutches of eggs.  Nesting activity peaks in June and early July, when females leave their ponds to dig holes in sandy soil and gravel (lower left photo) in which they deposit 3 – 15 oval, white eggs.  Note in the lower right photo, taken after the turtle had departed, that the turtle buries her eggs and tamps down the earth so effectively it’s hard to detect that the ground has been disturbed.

In August or September Painted Turtle eggs hatch and most of the young turtles head to nearby ponds. Occasionally, in northern New England, the young overwinter in the nest and emerge the following spring. (Photos by Jody Crosby)

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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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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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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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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 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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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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Snapping Turtles Laying Eggs

6-8-15  snapping turtle 257Every June female Snapping Turtles leave their ponds to bury their eggs in sandy soil where the eggs will incubate for the next three months without any parental care or supervision. These eggs, as well as those of many other reptiles, experience temperature-dependent sex determination. The temperature of an individual incubating egg during the middle one-third of embryonic development determines whether the developing turtle will be a male or female. Males are generally produced at lower incubation temperatures than females. At temperatures ranging between 72°F. and 80°F., males usually develop, whereas warmer temperatures around 86°F. produce female turtles.

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Wood Turtles Becoming Active & Mating

5-7-15 wood turtle  088After spending the winter hibernating in small streams and rivers, Wood Turtles awaken, become more active, mate (usually in shallow water), and eventually leave the water to begin foraging for food. Summer is spent mostly on land, traveling along streams — rarely do Wood Turtles stray farther than 1,000 feet from the water. In a few weeks, females will deposit between four and twelve eggs in a nest they dig in sandy soil.

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Aquatic Frogs Hibernating in Ponds

1-9-15  green frog IMG_0181Most aquatic frogs such as this Green Frog have been deep in hibernation for several months. A common misconception is that frogs spend the winter the way aquatic turtles do, dug into the mud at the bottom of a pond or stream. In fact, hibernating frogs would suffocate if they dug into the mud for an extended period of time. A hibernating turtle’s metabolism slows down so drastically that it can get by on the mud’s meager oxygen supply. Hibernating aquatic frogs, however, must be near oxygen-rich water and spend a good portion of the winter just lying on top of the mud or only partially buried. They may even slowly swim around from time to time.

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Snapping Turtle Eggs Hatching

9-19-14  snapping turtle hatching IMG_8091Every fall, roughly 3 months after they’re laid, snapping turtle eggs hatch. The hatchlings’ gender is determined by the temperature at which they 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 male 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.

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Sexing a Painted Turtle

painted turtle 035If you see a Painted Turtle on land at this time of year, chances are great that it’s a female on her way to or from laying her eggs. But how do you know the sex of a Painted Turtle at any other time of year? It helps to have both sexes in front of you, as it’s all relative, but in general, males have much longer nails on their front feet than females (good for gripping females during mating). Males also have longer and thicker tails. The cloaca (passageway into which the intestinal, urinary, and genital tracts open) of a male Painted Turtle is close to the tip of the tail, whereas the female’s cloaca is near the base of the tail. A super large Painted Turtle (8”-10”) is more likely to be a female, as their shells can grow to a larger dimension than those of males. (photo: female Painted Turtle)

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Painted Turtle Nest Predation

5-21-14 painted turtle nest 016Painted Turtles mate in March or April, soon after emerging from hibernation, and females leave their ponds in search of a sandy spot in which to lay their eggs between May and July, usually in the late afternoon. Often they dig several 4-inch deep holes, choosing one in which to lay their 2 – 20 leathery eggs. Many turtles dig numerous “false” nests, in what is thought to be an attempt to mislead predators. If so, this tactic doesn’t appear to work very well, as skunks, foxes and raccoons have little difficulty locating Painted Turtle (or any other species of turtle) eggs, as seen in this photograph. Even though the nest is covered with soil and is well camouflaged by human standards, predation of turtle nests is very high and usually occurs within twenty-four hours of nest construction. (Thanks to Jeannie Killam and Joan Hadden for photo op.)

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Wood Turtles — Aquatic & Terrestrial, Depending on the Season

8-6-13 wood turtle2 046The Wood Turtle’s (Glyptemys insculpta) common name comes from the resemblance of each segment of its top shell, or carapace, to the cross-section of a tree complete with radiating growth rings. Unlike other turtles that favor either land or water, wood turtles reside in both aquatic and terrestrial habitats. They require streams and rivers for spring mating, feeding and winter hibernation, but also require terrestrial habitats for summer egg-laying and foraging. In slow moving streams and rivers (see photo insert) they feed on fish and insects. On land, usually within 300 yards of a stream, they forage for snails, slugs, berries and mushrooms. Wood Turtles are known for stomping their feet on the ground in order to presumably mimic the vibrations of rain. Earthworms then come to the surface, and the turtle snaps them up.

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Turtle Eyes

6-16-13 painted turtle eye line 226When a turtle moves its head, its eye moves to compensate, so that its eye remains in the same position – parallel to the horizon or pond surface — no matter what position the turtle’s head is in. This type of eye stabilization is called vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR). Humans have a very similar reflex, but it’s easier to detect on a Painted Turtle (pictured) because of its dark eye line. A turtle’s eye structure is stabilized to the horizon, which makes sense, as turtles spend their life close to the ground and/or the pond surface, and this reflex enables it to align its vision horizontally in order to find food, a mate and predators.


Snapping Turtles Laying Eggs

6-11-13 snapping turtle eggs IMG_8932It’s that time of year again, when female aquatic turtles, including Snapping Turtles, are leaving their ponds to lay eggs. You are looking between the front and hind legs of a Snapping Turtle in this picture. The 30 to 40 eggs she’ll probably lay look like ping pong balls, only slightly smaller. As each egg is laid, she moves her front foot back to meet the egg, in what looks like an effort to ease it gently down into the pile of eggs below. When finished, she will bury the eggs and return to her pond. In three or four months, the eggs will hatch, and usually the young turtles emerge and head for the nearest pond (sometimes they overwinter underground). The sex of the turtle that hatches from each egg is determined by the temperature the egg was while it was incubating underground.


Baby Painted Turtles Migrating to Ponds

5-20-13 baby painted turtlesIn May, at the very same time that adult painted turtles are laying their eggs, some of last year’s young turtles are migrating from their nest site to ponds or rivers. Painted turtle eggs actually hatch in late summer, with the young turtles remaining inside the nest cavity for varying amounts of time. Here in New England, in the northern part of their range, they often overwinter in their nest and emerge the following spring.


Wood Turtles Laying Eggs

5-10-13 wood turtle burying eggs IMG_3717Congratulations on correctly identifying the trails as being made by turtles! Even though you did not have the benefit of knowing their width, many of you took a stab at the naming the species of turtle that made them. Hats off to Jason, who correctly identified them as wood turtle trails, especially as it is relatively early in the season for them to be laying eggs.

Two female wood turtles (so-called because of the resemblance of their top shell, or carapace, to wood), were on their way out of a shallow wetland to dig into soft sand about 6” deep and lay their (4 – 18, usually 8 or 9) eggs. The size of the footprints, tail drag and 7-inch flattened shell path help to identify these trails as those of wood turtles. Although you can follow the tracks and see exactly where the trails end, it would be hard to detect that excavation and egg-laying has taken place at these sites, as the holes have been filled in and smoothed over with the turtles’ bottom shells, or plastrons. Predators with a good sense of smell, such as foxes, raccoons and skunks, however, have very little trouble locating turtle nests. Research shows that 85% of wood turtle eggs and hatchlings are lost to predation. The wood turtle population is in decline in the northeast in part due to human development which not only decreases wood turtle habitat and increases the number of people collecting these turtles, but also increases the number of predators. (The wood turtle in the photograph has just laid her eggs and smoothed over the nest site in front of her head by walking backwards over it while pressing her plastron to the ground.)


Painted Turtles Basking

3-27-13 painted turtle IMG_7777Hibernation has come to an end for painted turtles in central Vermont, or at least for the early risers. Painted turtles actually became active a while ago, beneath the ice before ponds were completely thawed. Once some of the ice melts, they are quick to climb up and bask in the sun on any available floating log or rock, or even on the melting edge of the ice. Having spent the winter in the mud at the bottom of the pond at the rather brisk temperature of 39 degrees F. (at 39 degrees F. water achieves its greatest density and sinks to the bottom of ponds, which is where the turtles are), painted turtles are more than ready to get warm. Like black bears, painted turtles find March and April the most challenging months of the year. More of them die now than at any other time, due primarily to a shortage of food.