In late spring, keep eyes open for turtles

  • Eastern painted turtles are the mostly likely type of turtle you’ll see in New Hampshire. Wikimedia Commons

For the Monitor
Published: 6/7/2019 1:24:11 PM

A sign of late spring and early summer is seeing turtles emerging from the water and perching on sunny rocks to warm themselves. Being reptiles, their body temperature varies with the temperature of their surroundings. Warm sun helps increases their metabolism. Sunbathing is about more than catching rays, it’s essential to their ability to function.

A turtle that you are likely to see soaking up the sun is the Eastern Painted Turtle. The species gets its name because of red and yellow stripes on its face. The carapace, or top shell, is smooth and black. The underneath shell, called the plastron, is a light yellowish color. Like all turtles throughout the world, the carapace is made of 13 scutes or plates on the outside and fused ribs and spine on the inside, so they can’t crawl out of their shell, it’s part of their body.

Painted turtles can grow to be about 10 inches long but are more typically 6 to 8 inches with the mature females being larger than the males. Other than size, you can also determine the sex by the shape of the plastron, the female’s is flat and the male’s is concave so he fits on her back during mating. The male also has long claws on his front feet which help him cling to the female when he mounts her. The male’s tail is thicker and longer than the female’s, which is short and stubby.

At this time of year, another sign of gender is location, as it is the female that is more likely to be on land. From May through early July, females may travel up to a half a mile from the water to find a suitable place to dig a nest and deposit five to 10 eggs. These eggs are oblong, about 1½ inches long by ¾-inch wide. The leathery shell is white or may have a yellow tint.

The eggs are incubated by the sun throughout the summer. The temperature of the nest influences the sex of the hatchlings. Females are formed if the temperature of the eggs is high but when the temperature is regularly below 81 degrees, males will develop. Because eggs at the bottom of the nest may be a different temperature than those at the top, a single nest can produce both male and female young. The young may emerge in mid-August to late September but some might overwinter in the nest and come out the following May.

Turtle nests are nearly impossible to see because the female covers them so it looks like she was never there. However, predators such as skunks, raccoons and foxes use their sense of smell to find them and frequently dig up and consume the eggs within 48 hours. It is estimated that from 50% to 90% of nests are destroyed this way.

Egg predation is only one of the challenges that turtles face. During their journey on land, the adults are also vulnerable to predators. Their webbed feet make them adept at swimming, but awkward out of the water. Because ideal nest characteristics include loose, sandy soil in a sunny spot, females often pick sites along roadsides, gravel banks, or other disturbed areas where human activity occurs. That’s why you often see turtles along the road or even crossing a street. Unfortunately, many of them are hit by cars and don’t survive these migrations.

When people see turtles along the road they often want to help and may be tempted to move the animal to a safer location. However, that is not really helpful. Turtles are quite territorial. If moved to a new area they will spend a great deal of time and energy trying to return to their home. If you do see a turtle in the middle of the road and it can be safely moved in the same direction that it was traveling, that can reduce the chance that it will be hit. The best way to help turtles is to be observant and slow down when driving to avoid a collision. With our caution and respect and a lot of luck, these creatures can live to be more than 30 years old and will have many more springs to bask in the sun.

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