While we must stay put this season to help protect ourselves and those we love, other creatures here in New York are making their seasonal spring migrations.
Among those are spotted turtles. These small, attractive retiles can be found throughout much of New York in the Hudson Valley, on Long Island, and in the plains of western and central New York. They generally emerge from their winter hideaways in March or early April (Gibbs et al. 2007).
Spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata) are more tolerant of cold water and are one of the first aquatic turtles to become active; you might see them basking throughout winter depending on temperatures. Early spring is the best time of the year to spot these turtles. There is ample food with salamanders and frogs laying their eggs in vernal pools (Beaudry et al. 2009). They will also eat aquatic insects and other invertebrates such as slugs, worms, and snails (Gibbs et al. 2007). When looking for turtles, keep an eye out for them basking in small pools, marshes, and other wetlands on rocks, logs, and along the shoreline.
The reason these turtles are called spotted turtles is obvious when you see one – the black carapace (upper shell) and skin are covered in small, round yellow dots. This color pattern could reduce the turtle’s likelihood of capture since it resembles the floating duckweed present in many frequently used habitats. This camouflaging pattern makes it difficult to find spotted turtles when they are in the water.
Spotted turtles are thought to be declining throughout their range, and there are several threats that may be contributing to the decline. These turtles can experience high mortality from crossing roads as they move between wetlands during the spring and in search of nesting and upland summer locations. (Beaudry et al. 2009, Ernst and Lovich 2009).
Nesting female mortality is especially bad for spotted turtle populations, since it can take 10-15 years before a female is old enough to reproduce.
Spotted turtles can live over 40 years, so once a female reaches reproductive age it has many years of egg laying ahead. Turtle eggs and juveniles have a high mortality rate, so it is important to keep these older females around to keep producing eggs, only a small fraction of which will reach adulthood.
One important habitat requirement of spotted turtles is relatively shallow, clear, and clean water with a soft, muddy bottom (Gibbs et al. 2007, Ernst and Lovich 2009). They will spend most of the spring within these wetland habitats, until females travel to find a nesting site in early June.
Spotted turtles will practice estivation, a period of dormancy during high temperatures, by retreating into the muck at the bottom of wetlands, into muskrat burrows, or under vegetation in the surrounding uplands during the warm summer months when many wetlands are drying up (Gibbs et al. 2007, Ernst and Lovich 2009, Joyal et al. 2001, Milam and Melvin 2001).
Other threats spotted turtles face are collection for the pet trade, habitat loss and fragmentation, invasive plants, and predators (Ernst and Lovich 2009, NYSDEC 2020). Spotted turtles are a target for the commercial pet trade (CITES 2013) due to their small size and attractive coloring.
Habitat loss and invasive plants encroaching on wetland habitats can reduce the amount of suitable habitat these turtles have available to use throughout the year. They need upland buffers around wetland habitats for nesting, movement between wetlands, and summer estivation (Milam and Melvin 2001), and these habitats are frequently fragmented by development and roads.
What can you do to help protect these cryptic little turtles? If you are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a spotted turtle in the wild, admire it from afar and leave it undisturbed. All native species of turtles in New York are protected and cannot be collected without a permit.
If you happen to see one crossing the road, pull over in a safe place and help it along. Make sure to move the turtle to the side of the road that it was facing, otherwise it will just turn around and cross the road again!
Cover Photo- Wikipedia Commons
Post by Ashley Ballou, Zoologist, NY Natural Heritage Program
Ernst. C. H., and J. E. Lovich. 2009. Turtles of the United States and Canada. Second edition, revised and updated. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland. xii + 827 pp.
Beaudry, Frederic, Phillip G. deMaynadier, and Malcolm L. Hunter Jr. 2009. Seasonally dynamic habitat use by spotted (Clemmys guttata) and Blanding’s turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) in Maine. Journal of Herpetology 43:636-645.
Gibbs, J.P., A.R. Breisch, P.K. Ducey, G. Johnson, J.L. Behler, and R.C. Bothner. 2007. The amphibians and reptiles of New York State. Oxford University Press, NY.
Joyal, Lisa A., Mark McCollough, and Malcolm L. Hunter Jr. 2001. Landscape ecology approaches to wetlands species conservation: A case study of two turtle species in souther Maine. Conservation Biology. 15(6): 1755-1762.
Milam, J. C., and S. M. Melvin. 2001. Density, habitat use, movements, and conservation of spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata) in Massachusetts. Journal of Herpetology 35:418-427.
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. 2020. Spotted turtle fact sheet. Available https://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/7150.html. (Data accessed March 2020).