Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Nature Guide: Turtles

If you walk along the canal on warm, sunny summer days, you may come upon turtles basking in the sun. You can see them perched singly and in groups along the banks or on logs or rocks. Walk softly and be quiet though. If turtles sense you coming, all you may hear is their splash as they retreat into the water. Our Nature Guide Jon Latimer often gets a good look. He reports on three kinds of turtles that can be seen in our area.

"The turtle seen basking most often is the Eastern Painted Turtle. They live in marshes, lakes, ponds and slow-moving streams or rivers, especially ones with lots of plants, logs and rocks that they can climb out on. Painted turtles often bask in large groups but quickly dive into the water when they sense danger. Their olive-to-black carapace (a turtle's top shell) is smooth, oval and flat. It has yellow or red markings along its edge, which look like paint and gives these turtles their name. The plastron (the bottom shell) is yellow or cream color and usually has no pattern. The head and neck are dark green marked with wavy yellow or red lines or spots. Their legs and tail have red and yellow stripes. Males grow to a length of about 6 inches; females can reach 8 to 10 inches.

"The much larger Common Snapping Turtle lives in swampy areas or shallow ponds. Their carapace can be more than 18 inches long and can be black, brown, tan or olive. Even though its shell is large, a snapping turtle cannot completely withdraw its head, legs or tail into it. Instead they rely on their strong jaws for defense. Common snappers are known for their nasty dispositions and tend to live alone. They can be aggressive when defending themselves but prefer to swim away when they are approached too closely. They can sometimes be seen floating on the surface with only their carapace exposed or lying on a muddy bottom with only their head above water.

"You will find the Eastern Box Turtle on land. They spend their lives within an area less than 750 feet in diameter, usually in moist forest like the woods around Princeton Landing. Box turtles grow to a length of about 8 inches. Although their carapace can vary in pattern and coloration, its high domed shape is easy to recognize. Their plastron is hinged and can be closed almost completely. When frightened, they retract their head, tail and legs into their shell and clamp it shut. They wait in this position until the threat is gone."

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