This box turtle isn't afraid to cross a lawn in Orleans. Staff photo by Rich Eldred
By Rich Eldred
It’s time for a new press agent.
Lets face it. Our terrestrial based Testudines, that’s the order of shelled reptiles in zoological speak, or turtles for the layman, dominate Cape Cod from tip to tip. Yet it’s the saltwater variety that get all the press. And why? Because the wash up on our shores in a state of cold-stunned disbelief. Even the diamondback terrapin, which spends the winter safely hibernating in the mud of Wellfleet Bay, has books, such as Barbara Brennessel’s "Diamonds in the Marsh," penned about it.
But turtles of the freshwater persuasion get little respect.
Box turtles are no longer as common as they once were throughout southern New England, they don’t get along well with roads or manicured backyards. But southeastern Massachusetts is a population center and the numbers on parts of Cape Cod, such as the Orleans/Chatham area, are quite high.
Box turtles are the most terrestrial of all our turtles, they don’t even breed in the water. They’ll mate in the spring, when they meet beneath the powerlines, and sometimes in the summer, but the eggs must be laid in late spring, for it takes close to 90 days for them to hatch. Box turtles can actually lay eggs up to four years after mating.
They’ll dig a false nest or two before creating a real one. Nest predators plague all turtles; everything from raccoons and skunks to ants and plant roots.
Unlike other turtles the box turtle's lower carapace is hinged and it can shut its shell tight. So once a turtle reaches sufficient size it is pretty immune from predators and they are famously long-lived. Turtles 80 years of age have been documented and younger turtles, up to about age 15, can be aged by looking at the concentric growth rings on the scales of the lower shell, the plastron.
Roads are the greatest peril to the box turtle. Fortunately, most of their walking around is done just after dawn and in the summer heat they retreat to little coves or self-made shelters under blueberry bushes and leaves. They are more active during rainy weather but tend to have very limited home ranges, sometimes less than a football field in size.
Spotted turtles, with bright yellow spots on each scale of the shell, are not nearly as common as they once were on Cape Cod. They are highly aquatic and prefer swampy acidic cranberry bogs, small streams and weedy ponds to open lakes. The decline in wild cranberry bogs has probably pushed their numbers down to the point they’re now considered rare. They’re easiest to find in the spring when they’re looking for a mate, the dark waters are clear and the spots shine like beacons. Look for them in the ditches or canals of cranberry bogs, or in the flooded wild bogs in the dunes.
Spotted turtles don’t lay a lot of eggs, just three or four, and the use of pesticides in cranberry bogs, and their favored diet of insects, also limits their population.
Snapping turtles are the largest and fiercest freshwater turtles, the record is an 80-pounder and they can reportedly snap a broom handle with one bite. But if you aren’t a duck or a fish you aren’t in much danger if you see one in the water. They’re much more snappy when caught out of the water – note that their shells leave much of their body exposed compared to the box turtle. To compensate for relatively meager shells, the snapping turtle has a long neck that can reach back to its heels.
They are the only edible freshwater turtles, and at one time people would keep one in a barrel out back, fattening it with food scraps in preparation for turtle soup. They’ll range far from water to lay up to 80 eggs in a nest, and those nest are frequently dug out soon after. Never-the-less females after return year after year to the same nesting site.
Similar to snapping turtles but much smaller is the stinkpot or musk turtle. These are probably the least observed turtles on Cape Cod, but they aren’t uncommon. Unlike painted turtles they rarely bask, and seldom wander far from water. The 4-to 6-inch turtles look like oversized olive pits, their shells covered with algae, as the prowl the sandy bottom of large open ponds. They’re active at dusk and active at dawn.
They get their unflattering common name because they exude a stinky, foul-smelling musk when handled. Their shells are also relatively small, so they possess long necks, sharp jaws and a feisty disposition. You can expect them in almost any pond of size but they do like some vegetative cover.
Painted turtles, with their black carapaces and bright yellow plastrons are our most common and visible turtles. There are hundreds in Spring Brook at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and they love to bask on low hanging branches, rocks and on the knotty roots of wetland shrubs, plopping into the water when visitors walk by. They’ll even bask stacked up like boxes, you wonder how the lower turtle gets any sun. They need ultra-violet light to metabolize calcium to build their shells.
They’re struck with wanderlust and unfortunately are frequently run over by cars as they stroll from pond to pond. While other turtles hibernate the winter away, some painted turtles swim beneath the ice. They’ll begin basking as early as a warm march afternoon.
Their diet is split between plants and small fish, frogs etc.
The closely related Plymouth redbelly turtle is endangered in the state (just 300 left) and while it may have once occurred on Cape Cod is now restricted to large ponds in Plymouth County on the other side of the canal. Look for it in the Miles Standish State Forest in Plymouth. The turtle was once considered a separate species but is now considered a disjunct population of the red-bellied cooter, which ranges from New Jersey to Carolina.