On the North Shore of Massachusetts, we have two turtles that can be found in almost any appropriate habitat: painted turtles and snapping turtles. Painted turtles have a smooth, dark carapace (top shell) and a bright orange plastron (bottom shell). They also have varying degrees of yellow, red, and orange striping on their legs, neck, and head. They are our most common “pond” turtle and can be found in streams, ponds, lakes, rivers, swamps, and bogs. At their largest, these reptiles measure about 9 inches across their carapace.
While painted turtles spend much of their time at or near the surface of the water (frequently basking on rocks and logs), snappers tend to spend most of their time underwater, only coming to the surface for a few quick breaths. However, during the late spring and early summer, snappers can be seen regularly on land. This is the time of year when females of both species leave their aquatic homes and head to the uplands searching for a patch of sandy soil in which to make their nest.
Once they safely reach their ideal nest site, these turtles will use their hind legs and claws to dig a shallow hole (a snapping turtle’s nest will be relatively large: 4-10 inches in diameter in my experience; a painted turtle’s nest is usually much smaller – more akin to the size of a chipmunk hole). Eggs are then deposited into the nest, covered, and abandoned. Frequently, predators (coyote, fox, raccoon, and skunk) discover the nest within 24 hours and eat them all. During this time of year, I've come across freshly excavated nests littered with what appear to be tough, leathery deflated ping-pong balls.
For those nests that remain intact, eggs will incubate for 3-4 months and then hatch. With snapping turtles, the temperature at which the egg incubates determines the sex of the turtle. If the eggs are incubated at cold (i.e. 60F) or hot (i.e. 80F) temperatures, they will be females. If they are incubated at “warm” temperatures, they will be male. Therefore the position of the egg within the nest plays a large role in sexing the young. Once hatched, the baby turtles (about the size of a fifty cent coin) will emerge and make their way towards water. If you come across these babies, they are absolutely adorable and safe to handle, but please do not carry them to water. It’s best to let them find their way home.
If you come across a turtle in the coming weeks, take a few minutes to follow it, observe it, and even pick it up. Painted turtles are relatively harmless; you can get a minor scratch from their claws or a nip if you dangle your finger in front of their mouth. Small snapping turtles (less than 4 inches) can also be safely handled provided you take similar precautions.
Enjoy the changing seasons and the coming summer!