The first wood turtles I ever saw
Since as far back as I can remember, the sight of a group of
turtles basking on a log has made me pause to enjoy their
prehistoric appearance. Most summer days during my early childhood
were spent wading in neighborhood ponds to stalk painted turtles
and spotted turtles with a long-handled net, while avoiding the
larger snapping turtles that were lurking beneath the surface.
Stumbling upon an eastern box turtle or a musk turtle, something
that has happened far too infrequently, was often the natural
history highlight of my year.
This summer, I had what may be my best turtle day ever when I
stopped my car to help a turtle cross the road. It turned out to be
a rare wood turtle, the first I had ever seen, and an animal that
is unmistakable for its striking appearance.
Wood turtles (Glyptemys insculpta) are easy to identify among
other New England turtles because of the pyramid-like pattern of
ridges and grooves on each scute (the bony plates on their shells)
and the vibrant orange coloration on the sides of their necks and
legs. Their undersides - called plastrons - are yellowish in color
with several large brown or black patches. Adult wood turtles grow
to about nine inches long, a bit larger than our common painted
turtles. The one I saw appeared to be on the large end of the
Found throughout New England, their range extends east to Nova
Scotia, south to northern Virginia, and west to Minnesota. While
wood turtles seldom stray far from slow-moving streams with sandy
bottoms and heavily vegetated banks, those in the east are believed
to be more terrestrial than the more aquatic western populations.
My turtle was discovered adjacent to a wooded stream near a local
fishing hole, which looked to me to be ideal habitat.
Sexual maturity among wood turtles occurs between 10 and 14
years, and mating peaks in the spring and again in the fall.
Nesting typically occurs between May and July in areas of soft soil
free from flooding and devoid of large vegetation. Females may
build several false nests - occasionally even in an abandoned
muskrat burrow - before settling on one site and laying between
four and 12 eggs. When hatchlings emerge, they are just an
inch-and-a-half in length, but they grow rapidly during the first
years of their lives. Their expected lifespan in the wild is about
Wood turtles are most active early in the morning and in late
afternoon. They spend considerable time basking in the sun along
the edge of streams in the warmer months, but during cold
temperatures they are usually in the water. Through the winter,
they hibernate in the mud at the bottom of a stream, individually
or in groups, where they rarely move. They feed on berries,
beetles, millipedes, slugs, and a variety of insects, as well as
fungi, mosses, and carrion, and they occasionally fall prey to
raccoons, otters, foxes, and cats.
In Vermont and New Hampshire, wood turtles are protected, and it
is illegal to collect them. They are a protected species in most
other states in the Northeast as well. The species is in decline
throughout much of its range, largely due to development, clearing
of streamside vegetation, the black market pet trade, and
inadvertent collisions with cars and mowers. The latter reason is
why I made a point of assisting the wood turtle I encountered
across the road.
When I released the turtle, it chugged along through the nearby
vegetation and disappeared on its way toward a gurgling stream.
It's a site I know I'll be revisiting this fall to keep an eye out
for its offspring, and to remind myself of my best turtle day
Todd McLeish is an author and natural history writer. His most
recent book is entitled, Norwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting
World. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide
Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern
Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of
New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.