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….