By: Kelsey Feighner

As we slowly (very slowly!) inch our way towards spring, the wildlife around us will start becoming more active as they take advantage of the better weather to start about the business of finding mates and having babies. Once spring finally arrives and the ice is gone from lakes, ponds, and rivers, Michigan’s many turtle species will emerge from their burrows at the bottom of the bodies of water to join the spring madness.

After their courtship and mating, males and females go their separate ways. Females will lay their eggs between late May and early June in moist sand in a sunny spot. Female turtles lay their eggs in small cavities dug into the sand, then bury and leave them on their own. Many eggs become food for other species, but some survive to hatch into baby turtles a couple of months later. The eggs hatch into males or females depending on the temperature of the eggs. Warmer eggs hatch into females, while cooler eggs hatch into males. The newly hatched babies are on their own, to quickly get into water and start to learn how to survive in the tough outdoors. They’ll learn to eat foods like insects, tadpoles, vegetation, shellfish, and occasionally other small animals and carrion. If they survive, they will take numerous years (varies by species) to reach sexual maturity and start laying eggs of their own. This late sexual maturity is due to the long lifespan of most turtles, but can mean big trouble with the dangers that face turtles these days.

Dangers to Turtles

Some of the biggest dangers facing turtles include the draining of wetlands, contaminated runoff into watersheds, predators, pet trade, and vehicles. Since most turtles in Michigan are aquatic (only one, the box turtle, is terrestrial), they are highly dependent and sensitive to changes in the water. They can easily be affected by toxins coming from agricultural runoff or from land development. Their long lifespan only contributes to this by giving the toxins more time to build up in the turtle’s system. Like many species, turtles are highly dependent on wetlands for a home, and wetlands are one of the most endangered ecosystems today. Even if areas of wetlands are left near developed areas, this only opens turtles up to another serious danger – vehicles. Turtles are well-known for being slow-moving animals and the wide stretch of a road takes quite a long time for them to get across. Often they don’t make it. While they do have their infamous shell for protection, it can’t always protect them from the weight and force of a car. Even if the turtle isn’t outright killed by being run over, the shell can still be damaged or cracked, which can open the turtle to infection or make it more easily attacked by predators.

What kind of turtle did I find?

Have you found a turtle in your backyard? Or maybe you stopped to help one safely cross a road, or saw one hanging out on a sunny log in the river. Michigan has nine native species of turtle, but most of them are quite easy to tell apart. The markings on the shell and head, as well as the shape of the shell and mouth are all great ways to identify a turtle. The top of the shell is called the carapace. The scales covering the shell are called scutes. The caparace might be high and dome-shaped on some turtles, like the eastern box turtle or the Blanding’s turtle.

 

Eastern Box Turtle

(photos by Jim Harding)

Blandings Turtle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other turtles, like the painted turtle, have a flatter carapace.

 

 

Painted turtle 1

 

 

(from http://herpsofmichigan.webs.com/turtles)

 

 

 

 

Michigan also has the spiny soft-shell turtle, which is the only Michigan turtle to have a soft carapace that lacks scutes and is rubbery and skin-covered.

 

soft shelled turtle

(photo by Jim Harding)

 

You can also look at the colors or pattern of the carapace to give clues to what species of turtle you’re looking at. This is the best way to identify the rare spotted turtle, well named for the yellow spots on its carapace.

 

spotted turtle

(photo by Jim Harding)

 

Turtles can also be identified with the help of the plastron, which is the bottom of the shell. The plastron on many of the Michigan turtle species is yellow or orange, but some may have other markings on it. The wood turtle has black blotches on the outer edges of the plastron.

 

wood turtle

(from http://herpsofmichigan.webs.com/turtles)

 

The only terrestrial turtle species in Michigan, the Eastern Box Turtle, has a flexible hinge on its plastron that allows it to completely close itself in its shell for protection. It’s the only turtle that can completely close itself off like this.

painted turtle

 

(photo by Jim Harding)

 

You can also use the markings on the head and neck or the shape of the mouth to help identify a turtle you’ve found. The map turtle has narrow yellow stripes on the head and neck, along with a yellow spot behind the eye.

 

map turtle

(photo by Jim Harding)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The musk turtle has two light yellow stripes on the side of the head, along with a pointed snout.

 

musk turtle

 

 

 

 

(photo by Jim Harding)

 

 

Turtles eat a variety of food items, including tadpoles, snails, other mollusks, crayfish, insects, and plants. The shape of their mouth can give you a hint as to what they eat. The map turtle above eats mostly mollusks and uses their strong jaws to crush the shells. The snapping turtle has a hooked beak like a hawk, and will eat just about any small animal it can catch in addition to plants and carrion.

 

snapping turtle

 

 

 

(photo by Jim Harding)

 

 

 

How common are these turtles?

The painted turtle is probably Michigan’s most common turtle, found throughout the state. The Musk Turtle and Snapping Turtle are likewise found throughout the state, though the musk turtle is generally harder to see due to its secretive habits. The Spiny Soft-shell and Map Turtles are commonly found in the Lower Peninsula only, mostly in the southern & central counties.

Unfortunately, due to the many dangers listed above that face turtles, half of Michigan’s turtles are either listed as a Species of Special Concern or Threatened. The Wood Turtle, Eastern Box Turtle, and Blanding’s Turtle are all listed as being of special concern in the state. The biggest threat facing all of these turtles is nest predation, particularly by raccoons. Raccoons are currently overpopulated in the state and they have learned how to easily track down turtle nests and often eat all of the eggs. This means very few juvenile turtles join the population. While these turtles might seem common right now, most of the individuals seen are older, and once they begin to disappear, the population of these species will fall even more. Being hit by vehicles on the road is another major threat facing these turtles, especially the box turtle.

Michigan has one threatened turtle species, the Spotted Turtle. This species has fallen prey to all of the threats listed above, particularly wetland draining and pet trade or private collection. They are completely protected by Michigan law, but only time will tell if this will help this rare species of turtle.

 

What can I do for turtles?

1) Help protect wetlands! Wetlands are one of the most threatened habitats in Michigan and in the country. They’re often drained to be turned into agriculture fields or developed for houses or other buildings. Though many of the large wetlands in Michigan are now protected under law, many smaller ones are still threatened with development. You can help by writing to your lawmakers to tell them how important wetlands are and why we need to protect them. You can also check for small areas of wetlands on your own land and how to protect them from pollution or destruction. Vist http://www.michigan.gov/deq/0,1607,7-135-3313_3687—,00.html and https://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10370_22664-61132–,00.html for more information about wetlands.

2) Leave turtles in the wild! Many people find a baby turtle and decide it’s a good idea to keep it for a pet. This is a major issue for some of our native turtle species. You are NOT helping that turtle or the species as a whole by taking it from the wild! Turtles are wildlife and need to stay in their natural habitat in order to learn how to survive themselves and eventually contribute to sustaining the population by breeding. Even keeping the turtle for a little while can cause issues if the turtle is fed incorrectly or if it no longer knows how to find its own food once released. It’s best to enjoy turtles by viewing them in the wild. You can do this by visiting the Tollgate Wetlands in Lansing, or the Maple River State Game Area, located just northeast of St. John’s. There’s more information about wetland locations in Michigan here – https://www.michigan.gov/documents/wetland_table_57288_7.pdf

3) Don’t release your pet turtle into the wild! The DNR site lists ten species of turtles in Michigan rather than just the nine I mentioned – the tenth species is the Red-eared Slider. This species of turtle is NOT native to Michigan, and is an invasive species introduced through the pet trade. Red eared sliders are native to the southern US and northern Mexico. In Michigan, they can be found in the Muskegon and Lansing areas, as well as Oakland county. Nonnative species can turn into major problems by competing with native species for resources and habitat. If you no longer wish to keep your pet turtle, it’s best to find a new home for it rather than simply releasing it outdoors.

4) Drive carefully and help turtles cross the road! Watch carefully when you’re driving.   , When turtles are moving about to find habitat, mates, and nesting sites, particularly in the spring and early summer, to avoid hitting turtles.  Be just as careful on back country roads as larger highways – Blanding’s Turtles are known for nesting on the sides of dirt roads and can often by hit while doing so. If you see a turtle in the road or by the edge, please stop if it’s safe to do so; and move the turtle to safety. Make sure you move the turtle in the same direction as it’s moving to avoid it going right back into the road. If the turtle looks like it’s already been hit by a car and has a crack in its shell, you can call WILDSIDE at 517-663-6153 for more information on where to take the turtle for help.

For moving most turtles, the turtle will like pull its head back into its shell for protection when you approach. You can carefully pick the turtle up by the sides of the shell and move it to a safe location. If you discover the turtle you want to help is a snapping turtle, a little more caution is warranted! Snapping turtles are very defensive on land and will snap at anything that approaches them. Their bite is very strong and can be quite dangerous. However, you can still help snappers if you’re careful! If you have leather gloves handy, it’s not a bad idea to put those on. NEVER pick a snapping turtle (or any other turtle, or animal) up by the tail. You can seriously injure the animal by doing so. The safest way to move a snapping turtle to avoid injury for either party is to pick it up by the back of the shell, near the tail. Hold the turtle away from your body; they have a very long neck. Make sure you remember to wash your hands before eating or touching your mouth since turtles are known for carrying salmonella.

 

For more information about individual turtle species and where you can find them, visit

https://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-153-10370_12145_12201-60650–,00.html

http://herpsofmichigan.webs.com/turtles

 

For more information on threats to turtles & other reptiles/amphibians in Michigan, and how to help, visit

http://www.herprman.com/amphibian-reptile-management-practices-michigan

 

Other sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red-eared_slider

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