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A Sportsmen’s Guide to Bay State Turtles

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Sportsmen spend a lot of time in the outdoors enjoying the simple pleasures offered by our woods and waters, and most have discovered that learning the identity of the various plants and animals we encounter while pursuing our activities adds a great deal to the quality of our experiences and the telling of our fishing and hunting stories. With this thought in mind, we decided it might be useful to offer this “field guide” that should allow anyone to learn and correctly identify our 10 species of native turtles, plus one established exotic.

Turtles are in trouble across the globe due to a host of reasons, many of which are related to loss of habitat; but a growing demand for turtle meat in certain Asian countries and an increasing market for exotic pets worldwide are also factors in the decline of some species. Here in the Commonwealth, where more than half of our turtles are now uncommon enough to have warranted protection under our state Endangered Species Act (MESA), the main threats our turtles face aside from habitat loss and fragmentation are road mortality (due to ever-increasing road and traffic density) and illegal, incidental collection as pets. Because most turtles have very low reproductive rates (due to high predation/mortality of eggs and young) and require years (typically a decade or more) to reach maturity and grow the armor to thwart most natural predators, any significant increase in the loss of adults (all of which have the potential to live for decades; some for half a century or more) has the potential to reduce populations to a point from which they cannot naturally recover.

The DFW is responsible for the conservation of all our native wildlife, and has long pioneered, conducted, and funded a host of research and restoration programs designed to conserve healthy populations of all our turtle species. The DFW protects all but three of our species from collection, yet recognizes that those three common species (snapping, painted, musk) remain abundant and therefore allows budding naturalists and aquarists to catch and keep up to two of each. If you choose to catch and keep one of these turtles, we recommend that you take only a hatchling or a young turtle under 3 inches long, and that you keep it for a year or less. Watch, study, and enjoy the turtle, making sure it has adequate space, light, shade, a basking site, recommended food, and clean water (turtle care information is available from many websites); then take it back and release it where you found it so it can rejoin and support its population.

The snapping turtle, perhaps our most abundant species due to its highly aquatic habits and high reproductive potential, is our largest turtle (the state and world record is 76.5 pounds) and the only one of our reptiles classified as a game species. But other turtles need our help. Because sportsmen spend so much time outdoors in the same habitats that turtles inhabit, it’s probably safe to say that we encounter turtles at much higher rates than the most people. As a result, sportsmen have been and remain one of our best sources of data on the location of rare turtle populations, and we encourage you to photograph and report any sightings of the MESA-listed species shown here. Meanwhile, anytime you can safely help a turtle crossing a road (by bringing it directly across in the direction it was heading and releasing it on site), be aware that such an action is probably one of the most altruistic and useful acts of conservation anyone can perform….

All species marked with an asterisk (*) are fully protected and cannot be held in possession without a permit.

All photos © Bill Byrne unless otherwise noted.

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Eastern Box Turtle*

(Terrapene carolina)

Helmet-like shell is 4.5 – 6.5 inches with variable black and yellow/orange pattern. Belly is hinged and turtle can close its shell tightly. Range nearly statewide, but population density is extremely low other than in certain scrub oak-pitch pine habitats.

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Snapping Turtle

(Chelydra serpentina)

Our largest turtle, 15 – 60 pounds, found statewide. Shell is 8 – 18 inches, deeply serrated at rear. Long neck and tail. Aggressive on land, but can be safely moved by grasping base of tail and sliding other hand under belly to support weight.

Photo © William Fournier

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Musk Turtle

(Sternotherus odoratus)

A small, locally common turtle with a domed, somewhat narrow shell, 3 – 5.5 inches, often covered with algae. Two yellow stripes, often faint, run from nose to neck. Highly aquatic, nocturnal, walks on bottom. Statewide in rivers, ponds and streams.

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Northern Red-bellied Cooter*

(Pseudemys rubriventris)

A large basking turtle with a dark shell, 10-12 inches. Belly is typically coral red; head, neck, and legs black and unmarked. A federally-listed and state-listed Endangered Species, it is found only in ponds and rivers in Plymouth County.

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Blanding’s Turtle*

(Emydoidea blandingii)

Big, helmet-like shell is 6.5 – 9 inches with yellow flecking overall; hinge on bottom. Distinctive yellow chin and throat; long neck. Lives in shallow wetlands, primarily in eastern Massachusetts. State-listed as a Threatened Species.

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Bog Turtle*

(Glyptemys muhlenbergii)

A small turtle with large orange or yellow patch on each side of head/neck. Shell is 3 – 4 inches, light or dark walnut in color. Found only in Berkshire County; lives in extremely shallow, flowing wetlands called fens. State-listed Endangered Species.

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Spotted Turtle*

(Clemmys guttata)

A locally common turtle, found statewide, with a dark shell typically patterned with a few to a hundred or more small, yellow spots. Skin also often spotted. Usually associated with shallow wetlands and vernal pools. Shell is 3.5 – 4.5 inches long.

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Red-eared Slider

(Trachemys scripta elegans)

A non-native “pet store” turtle with a distinctive red spot or slash behind eye. Shell is marked with irregular dark stripes and spots, 7 – 11 inches. May be found statewide due to illegally released specimens; please capture and turn over to any DFW District office. We do not want this non-native species to become established.

Photo © David Taylor

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Diamondback Terrapin*

(Malaclemys terrapin)

A coastal turtle with a light gray to almost black shell, 4 – 8.5 inches, often with concentric rings and “fingerprint” designs. Skin is gray with numerous black spots. This species lives in brackish water and saltmarshes in southeastern Massachusetts.

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Wood Turtle*

(Glyptemys insculpta)

Warm-brown shell, 5.5 – 8 inches, that resembles carved wood. Neck and front legs washed with orange. Belly yellow, with black blotches around margin. Statewide except southeastern area. Typically associated with shallow rivers and streams.

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Painted Turtle

(Chrysemys picta)

Very common “sun turtle” has a smooth shell, 4.5 – 7 inches, edged in red and black. Belly is yellow, and there is a yellow spot behind each eye. Neck has yellow and red stripes; front legs have red stripes. Statewide in most wetlands.

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