Eastern Musk Turtle

Sternotherus odoratus

Article and photos by Linda Hagan, Maryland Master Naturalist Intern

The next turtle ambassador at Fountain Rock is “Axe” the Eastern Musk Turtle who was donated to the park in 2009 and has grown quite a lot since that time although he still appears small.  Axe goes on field trips with Nature in Classroom to visit a local elementary school each year.  Because he is small he is easy for presenters to handle and show the different carapaces (top shell) between other turtles such as, Toby the Box Turtle and Franklin the Wood Turtle. Each turtle has its own beauty, character, shell shape and patterns.  What child doesn’t love looking at turtles? 

The Eastern Musk Turtle also known as “Stinkpot” because of the pungent, unpleasant odor it can release as a form of protection from predators.  This odor also plays a role in courtship so they can identify possible mates.  The fluid, or secretions are yellowish in color and are emitted from four glands along the edges of its shell.  The carapace (top shell) is a arched dome which is elongated and smooth.  It is often found with algae growing on the carapace which makes it hard to see the irregular pattern of black streaks or spots.  It varies in color from gray brown to black.  The Eastern Musk Turtle has a much smaller plastron (bottom shell) than the Eastern Mud Turtle who is similar in appearance and shape.  Until you compare the two it can be hard to tell them apart.  The plastron also has a nonfunctional hinge and brown to yellowish scutes (the individual scales).

This turtle is small in size with its carapace measuring only 2”-4 1/2” in size. The males are slightly larger than the females with a longer and thicker tail with a nail on the tip of it.  The Musk Turtle has a long neck so if handling you should hold it to the rear of the carapace. The head has two yellow to white stripes on each side of its head which start at the snout and extend to the back.  One stripe is above and the other stripe is below its eyes.  The head also has  paired barbels (a fleshy filament) growing on its chin and throat. 

Although the Eastern Musk Turtle prefers aquatic habitats with slow moving water with soft bottoms, they are poor swimmers.  They spend much of their time walking along the bottom in search of food.  They are however good climbers and can be found on occasions basking on logs, but for the most part they remain on the bottom of their freshwater homes of ponds, lakes and wetlands.  They are more active at night during the warm months of the year. 

These turtles will hibernate underwater or near the water for the winter months. They will come out from hibernation by April and will mate during the active period which last until November.  Males are thought to become sexually mature at about 4 yrs of age, but the females can take up to 10 yrs to mature. When ready to lay her eggs the female will  make a shallow nest under rotting vegetation or fallen logs and nest closely to other turtles.  She will lay 2-4 eggs.  The hatchlings are our smallest North American turtles being about the size of a penny.

The Eastern Musk Turtle eats a variety of foods which include:  small snails, clams, aquatic insects like the nymphs of dragonflies and damselflies and terrestrial insects that fall in the water, worms, crayfish and small tadpoles, aquatic vegetation and carrion. 

Habitat destruction and pollution are the major threats to the Eastern Musk Turtles as it is with all turtles. 

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Eastern Box Turtle

Terrapins carolina

Article and photos by Linda Hagan, Maryland Master Naturalist Intern

I think just about every one of us has come across a Eastern Box Turtle at some point in our lives.  Maybe as a child your mom, dad, or grandparents introduced you to your first turtle out in the wild, and more than likely it was our Eastern Box Turtle.  And what vegetable gardener has not waited in great anticipation for that first ripe, juicy tomato of the season only to go into the garden and find a big bite out of it.  You look down under the tomato plant and find a box turtle with bits of your tomato hanging out of its mouth and juice dripping down it’s neck. How many good samaritans have stopped their cars when they see a box turtle crossing a road and help it get to the other side safely. 

Yes our Eastern Box Turtle is pretty recognizable.  We know the pretty brown to black carapace (top shell) with the yellow and orange, irregular blotched pattern.  It makes a  great camouflage in the forest litter because it mimics dappled sunlight.   According to researchers mature turtles can be identified by the pattern of their shells. We go to pick it up and the turtle pulls its head, legs and tail inside the hinged plastron (bottom shell) and closes it shut tight as a box.  This and the domed shape of the carapace is a perfect defense against predators.

 I for many years kept finding the same box turtle around my property, but the only reason I knew it was the same turtle was because at some point in its life someone had carved their initials into its shell. That is not a good thing to do as it can harm or damage the turtles shell, but turtles with initials and dates have turned up that show the turtle to be more than a century old. Although that type of record may be hard to prove, there is good evidence to show box turtles can live to be 80 years old in captivity.  In the wild however that is shortened to 30-40 years.  Still pretty good for a wild creature. 

The Eastern Box Turtle is a small turtle averaging 4 1/2” to 6” in length, but have been found as large as 8”.  They live in mixed or deciduous forests, farm fields, our backyards and meadows.  They prefer thick vegetation and areas with fallen and rotted trees where they can find shade to keep cool.  Although box turtles cannot swim, they will seek a stream, puddle or under a rotted log where they can sit and cool off when it becomes too hot. Overheating can kill a turtle and interfere with body functions such as a “righting reflex” that allows them to right themselves if they have for some reason been turned on their backs.

Eastern Box Turtles are hibernating by November and may return to the same hibernating spot year after year.   As soon as they emerge from hibernating in April they will eat and start searching for a mate.  Mating can take place anytime when they are active into the fall and nesting occurs usually in June.  The clutch size on average is five eggs.  Box turtles do not reach sexual maturity until 8-10 years of age.  Female turtles do not have to mate every year and can actually store sperm up to 4 years.   When the female turtle is ready to lay her eggs she may travel from a few feet to more than a mile in her home range.  The box turtle has a limited home range.  They spend their whole lives in an area from .05 to 10 acres, but usually less than 2 acres.  This is the reason if you find a box turtle crossing a road you should NEVER take it to a different area.  Simply pick the turtle up and take it in the direction it was going and release it.  Also many turtles found crossing roads in June or July are often pregnant females looking for a nesting site.  Many a well meaning human, including myself have thought they were doing the right thing by taking the turtle to what we thought was a safer area.  This is indeed detrimental to the turtle. It knows its’ home range and needs to remain there. 

There are two ways to determine whether the Eastern Box Turtle is a male or female which is easy and fun to teach children.  When I helped at “Nature in the Classroom” in a local elementary school in Frederick, I got the biggest kick out of children’s reaction when we told them to check the eyes. If the eyes are red it’s usually a male, and the plastron is concave.  Females have brown eyes and a flat plastron. 

Eastern Box Turtles are omnivorous and eat many different foods such as: earthworms, slugs, snails, insects, frogs, toads, small snakes, grass, fruits and berries, fungi, carrion and yes a few of our garden tomatoes.  But remember all those slugs and snails are munching on your flowers and vegetables too, so loosing a few tomatoes is well worth the price to pay these mild mannered turtles for getting rid of those garden pests.  Turtle eggs in turn become food for other animals.  Skunks, foxes, raccoons, snakes and crows eat the eggs, and the hatchlings become prey as well. It is all part of nature keeping its ecosystem in balance. 

Although once quite common the Eastern Box Turtle is on the decline in many states due to the loss of habitat.  The best way to protect these turtles is preserving their habitat, never disturbing their nest, and never removing them from the wild.  Remember if you see them crossing a road the best thing to do is help them cross, but do not remove them from their home range unless there is construction going on that threatens to destroy their home. At that time you should call someone from DNR and seek their advice. 

If you find a injured turtle call a wildlife expert or someone from DNR and let them know where the turtle is so they can access the injuries and they will take it to a veterinarian if needed.  If it is determined it can no longer survive in the wild because of its injuries it may go to live in a place such as a nature center where it will live out its life and become a animal ambassador to educate the public.  We have a Eastern Box Turtle named Toby as well as other turtles and animals at Fountain Rock Park. Toby came to live at Fountain Rock over 20 years ago when his injuries made it difficult for him to survive any longer in the wild.  Toby has become one of our most loved ambassadors teaching children and adults a like, at the center and in the classrooms he is taken to.  The more we learn and share with each other about the creatures we share our planet with, the more we want to protect and conserve them.

There are many do’s and don’ts involving nature we as humans have to learn. The more informed we become, the more we share that information with others, the better chance the creatures around us have of being here for future generations.  What a sad world it would be without the wonderful diversity of life. 

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Eastern Snapping Turtle

Chelydra serpentina

Article and photos by Linda Hagan, Maryland Master Naturalist Intern

When asked if I would like to write articles for the Fountain Rock blog post, I first thought about all the cute and cuddly creatures I could write about. After giving it some thought I decided everyone loves cute and cuddly; maybe I should start writing about the NOT so cuddly creatures in our environment. Many of those reside at Fountain Rock Park and Nature Center. My first blog post was about the Eastern Rat snake since they will be emerging from their hibernation dens in a few weeks. Many people find snakes, especially large snakes like the Eastern Rat snake, anything but cuddly. Today I want to talk about the Eastern Snapping Turtle. Certainly not cuddly, some might say just plain ugly, bad-tempered, can take a man’s finger off with one snap of its jaws. Well yes, but let’s inform ourselves a little bit more before we decide we don’t want them in our human “narrow vision” of what the natural world should have living in it.

There are only two living members of genera, our Eastern Snapping Turtle and the Alligator Snapping Turtle not found in Maryland. So you might say we are privileged to have one of the only two of this family living in our state. The Eastern Snapping Turtle is Maryland’s largest freshwater turtle. It has a large head where it’s eyes set high on top for peering out from the the mud, vegetation and water to look for prey. They can stretch their heads in any direction and with powerful jaws that can snap shut very quickly. It has a long, thick tail almost as long as it’s carapace with a row of enlarged scales. They have heavy claws on their limbs. You might say they have a very prehistoric look to them. Our own living dinosaur.

The carapace (top shell) can be black, tan, gray or brown and can grow up to 20” in length. Younger adults will have a ridge on top of the carapace and in older adults it will be less pronounced and smooth. Older adults may have algae growing on the carapace as well. This becomes good camouflage making it harder to see them among the vegetation or logs they can be hiding under. I think you can notice from the photos how well they can blend into their surroundings as they lay motionless in the water with merely their eyes and nostrils above the water. The plastron (bottom shell) is yellowish to tan giving the appearance it has been stuffed in a suit a few sizes too small.

Snapping turtles live in almost any shallow, mud to sand bottom freshwater ponds and lakes, to brackish habitats that have slow moving water. Their average weight is 20-30 lbs, but they can weight as much as 40-60 lbs. That is one huge snapping turtle I wouldn’t want to tangle with.

Snapping turtles have a reputation for being bad-tempered, but that seems to be only the case when they are out of the water and are of course more vulnerable. They will hiss and yes bite if threatened. In the water they will normally swim away from humans as most animals will do. Truly most wild animals don’t want human contact.

On a outing to Fountain Rock last fall I took my grandsons down to the quarry pond to see the different types of turtles that live there. You can purchase turtle pellets to feed the turtles during the warmer months. Upon walking across the board walkway that surrounds the pond on one side, we noticed turtles coming up to the surface everywhere. They felt the vibrations as we walked across the walkway. As we fed the pretty Painted turtles and Red-Eared sliders we noticed a large object also surfacing. Yes there, right up front staring at us was a quite large snapping turtle. I called his expression a bit bemused as it appeared he wondered why we were not also throwing some of those delicious pellets his way. We obliged and next thing we knew several others were surfacing and waiting for their fair share. As we walked down the walkway they continued to follow us hoping for more handouts. I think that shows just how easily they adapt to
seeing humans and don’t mind some tender morsels.

Snapping turtles are “omnivores” and their diet consist of: fish, insects, aquatic vegetation, frogs, birds, turtles, snakes, worms, leeches, tadpoles and carrion. Nowhere could I find fingers and toes as part of their natural diet.

One thing we need to realize is although adult snapping turtles have few predators such as alligators and humans, which harvest them to make turtle soup, their young become easy prey for other animals. A large percent of their eggs are eaten by raccoons, foxes and skunks. The hatchlings become prey for large fish, water snakes, wading birds such as the Blue Heron, bullfrogs, hawks, animals, even adult snapping turtles themselves will dine on the young. The snapping turtles may eat some of the cute, little cuddly creatures we all love, but in turn their young, which are quite cute in their own way, become food for other creatures.

Snapping turtles mate in the water April-November. About a year ago while taking my grandsons on a golf cart ride around a near by field, we came upon a large snapping turtle. Our reaction was one of surprise. What was a snapping turtle doing in the middle of a field. After researching I learned this was not unusual. The female will leave the water to find a nesting site. This can be near the shoreline or in a field a distance from the water such as this one was. This also explains why we see so many snapping turtles crossing the roads. They may cross roads to seek out nesting sites. Many become road kill during this time. If you see one, please by no means pick it up by the tail to move it. This can cause great harm to the turtle. Don’t get anywhere near the head, and remember it can stretch its head far out and quickly turn to snap. Use a stick to coach it along, or simply wait for it to get across. Many a nature lover keeps a shovel in their car to move turtles and snakes out of harms way. The eggs are laid mid-May to mid-June. The eggs are leathery annd white, round, ping pong ball size and the nest can contain 20-40 eggs.

Hopefully you can appreciate the importance these not so cuddly, sometimes fowl-tempered turtles play in our ecosystem. I like to think of
them as “crotchety” old cowboys like those in the Western movies of my youth.

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