Natural Area Preservation

Turtles

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Painted Turtle, by Lynda Ludy

Background

Turtles are reptiles, belonging to the same class as lizards, snakes, and crocodiles. They are lung-breathing, vertebrate animals with dry scales on their skin, claws on their feet, and shells covering most of their body. Turtles live in wetlands, lakes, forests, and even retention ponds, but can travel great distances, often over roads and through neighborhoods, to find mating and nesting sites. Michigan’s ten turtle species lay their eggs on land in covered holes dug by the female, then leave them to hatch on their own.

Turtles are an important midlevel part of the food web, meaning they hunt and are hunted. Their eggs are often a source of food for raccoons and other wildlife. Because of this predation, most urban turtle populations have few juveniles. However, once they are mature, turtles are some of the longest-lived animals. Most Michigan turtles can live for several decades, while some—like the Blanding’s turtle—can live to be 70 years old!

How Can They Be Identified?

When you see a turtle in the wild, several characteristics can help you identify it. These characteristics include the shape of the carapace (the top of the shell), the shape of the turtle’s mouth, and most importantly, the pattern of colors on the turtle’s face, neck, feet, and tail.

A quick identification guide:

  • Blanding's:  Smooth, black, domed carapace, often with yellow spots.  Throat and neck bright yellow. A species of Special Concern in Michigan.
  • Common Map: Olive carapace looks like the contour lines on a topographic map; narrow yellow stripes on head and legs; yellow spot behind the eyes.
  • Common Musk:  The same shape as a potato and usually covered in algae.  Pointy snout, two yellow stripes on its head.
  • Eastern Box:  Domed carapace with yellow and brown markings.  Shell can close completely; male usually has red eyes.  A species of Special Concern in Michigan.
  • Painted:  Smooth, olive-green carapace with red patterns along the edge.  Head and legs have red and yellow stripes.  Michigan’s state reptile!
  • Red-eared:  Greenish-brown carapace with yellow markings.  Head is green with many yellow stripes and one red stripe behind the eye.
  • Spiny Softshell: Looks like a gray, rubbery pancake with black spots.  Nose shaped like a pig’s.
  • Spotted:  Smooth, black carapace with yellow spots.  Black head with yellow and orange spots. Protected by Michigan law as a Threatened Species.
  • Snapping:  Broad, gray carapace and long tail covered with a row of triangular scales
  • Wood:  Ornate carapace looks like it has been carved from wood.  Yellow neck and legs.  A species of Special Concern in Michigan.
  • The following websites may be helpful for additional information about turtle identification, events, and links to other resources:

    Why Are Turtles Important?

    Turtles, along with other reptiles and amphibians, act as environmental indicators. Their presence and abundance, or their absence, can tell us about habitat quality.  Turtle populations face serious problems as a result of habitat loss due to development, collection, habitat fragmentation, road collisions, poor water quality, and increased predation by raccoons, opossums, and other urban animals.  It is important that we preserve these unique animals, both for our enjoyment and for the role they play in our environment. 

     

    What Can We Do to Protect Turtles?

    • Be alert for turtles crossing the road. If it is safe to do so, stop and help the turtle cross the road in the direction that it was heading. If you must handle it, do so with clean hands to protect the turtle, and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards to protect yourself from salmonellosis.
    • Discourage raccoon and opossum over-population by keeping your garbage and compost covered. This will help control the number of turtle predators, which can devastate local turtle populations.
    • If your property has lakes or wetlands, leave undeveloped corridors and buffers around them for the turtles to move and lay their eggs safely.
    • Never buy a wild caught turtle for a pet, trap a wild turtle, or release a pet turtle into the wild.
    • Protect turtle nests from predators. Call NAP for information about how.
    • Avoid mowing fields that support turtle nesting from mid-May through late June.
    • Support efforts to protect wetlands and other turtle habitat.
    • Learn more about Michigan’s native turtles, and take the opportunity to volunteer for Natural Area Preservation’s herpetological surveys!

    You can download a printable version of this information here (pdf).

    ​​Natural Area Preservation
    Office:
    3875 E. Huron River Dr.
    Ann Arbor, MI 48104
    734.794.6627

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    Dave Borneman
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    Becky Gajewski
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    Michael Hahn
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