by Todd McLeishI’ve thought of myself as a turtle guy since as far back as I can remember. Most summer days during my early childhood were spent wading in neighborhood ponds to stalk painted turtles and spotted turtles with a long-handled net while avoiding the large snapping turtles that I knew were lurking beneath the surface. An especially good day was one when I stumbled upon an eastern box turtle or a musk turtle, something that has happened far too infrequently in the last 30 years.
Over the Independence Day weekend this year, though, I had the turtle day to surpass them all. Driving just two miles from my home in Burrillville, I stopped to help a turtle across the road, and it turned out to be a rare wood turtle. It was the first wood turtle I had ever seen, but I knew exactly what it was as I approached it because nothing else in Rhode Island looks quite like it.
Wood turtles (Glyptemys insculpta) have two characteristics that make them unmistakable in our region: a pyramid-like pattern of ridges and grooves on each scute and vibrant orange coloration on the sides of their neck and legs. Their plastron is yellowish in color with numerous large brown or black patches. Adult wood turtles are one of the larger turtles in the region, growing to about 9 inches long, a bit larger than eastern painted turtles, and the one I found appeared to be on the large end of the scale.
Distribution and habitat: Wood turtles are found throughout New England and their range extends northward to Nova Scotia, south to northern Virginia and west to Minnesota. While the turtles are always found close to slow-moving streams with sandy bottoms and heavily vegetated banks, those in the East are considerably more terrestrial than the more aquatic western populations, often roaming widely across the landscape. My turtle was found adjacent to a wooded stream which looked to me to be ideal habitat.
Ecology: Seldom are wood turtles found more than a few hundred yards from a stream, and their greatest activity takes place in early morning and late afternoon. They spend considerable time basking in the sun during the warmer months, but during cold temperatures they spend most of their time in the water. Throughout the winter, they hibernate by burying themselves in the mud at the bottom of a stream, individually or in groups, where they rarely move. Wood turtles feed on berries, beetles, millipedes, slugs and a variety of insects, as well as fungi, mosses and carrion, and they occasionally fall prey to raccoons, otters, foxes and cats.
Life cycle: Sexual maturity among wood turtles occurs between 10 and 14 years. Mating peaks in the spring and again in the fall, though they have been known to mate at all times of the year when they are active. Nesting typically occurs between May and July in areas of soft soil free from flooding and devoid of large vegetation. Females may build several false nests before settling on one site and laying between 4 and 12 eggs. When hatchlings emerge, they are just an inch-and-a-half in length, but they grow rapidly during the first years of their life. Their expected lifespan in the wild is about 40 years.
Conservation: In Rhode Island, wood turtles are a protected species, officially designated as a “species of concern” – they cannot be possessed without a permit. It is a species in decline throughout much of its range, largely due to habitat destruction, road traffic and collecting.