Environmental Information Series
Turtles of New York
Many cultures tell fascinating tales about turtles. Several North American Native tribes speak of a great turtle floating in a primal sea, before there was any land. Here lived all the other animals piled upon its massive shell, drifting and waiting. As the story suggests, turtles have been around for millions of years, coming into being, like many other modern reptiles, during the age of the dinosaurs.
Common Turtles of New York
Only the snapping turtle and the painted turtle are really common across New York. Snappers are the largest New York freshwater turtle, reaching shell lengths of 19 inches and weights of 70 pounds. They can be found in a variety of water systems, from pristine Adirondack lakes, large rivers, and marshes to farm ponds, salt marshes, and the Erie Canal.
However, they seem to prefer slow-moving shallow areas with muddy bottoms. The top of the shell, or carapace, is dark in color and serrated along the back edge. The bottom shell, or plastron, is smaller than that of most other turtles and exposes a lot of flesh. Most people only see them when the females leave the water in early summer to locate nesting sites where they lay between 20 and 80 ping pong ball-shaped eggs. Unfortunately, many of the pregnant females get hit by cars when crossing roads to reach their nesting sites. Although many people eat snapping turtles, one should exercise caution because these animals are long-lived and eat near the top of the food chain. This means that any toxins and pollutants in their prey can accumulate in larger doses in these turtles. For example, if one fish ingests a small amount of toxin and a snapper eats five fish, the turtle now has five times as much toxin as each fish.
The other common turtle, the painted turtle, is much different. They are quite a bit smaller, reaching about 6 inches along the shell. These very aquatic turtles have colorful yellow and red stripes on their head and limbs. The carapace is smooth and dark with yellow and red borders. The plastron is bright yellow, with or without dark blotches, depending on the sub-species. It is commonly seen basking on warm summer days, usually on partly-submerged logs or rocks. Its diet consists primarily of animal material, but it will eat algae and plants.
Uncommon Turtles of New York
One remarkable New York resident is the diamondback terrapin, a coastal species that prefers brackish water. The carapace is textured with grooves and ridges. This turtle has whitish-gray skin decorated with black flecks on its head, neck and limbs and a dark mustache mark above the upper lip. In the past, it was over collected for human consumption, but it has recently been categorized as a game species to regulate the harvest. Two other species listed as game in New York are the box turtle and the wood turtle, but there is no open season for them. The ability to fold itself up, due to a hinge on the plastron, is what gives the box turtle its name. This is New York's most terrestrial turtle and a popular summer pet. It is easily recognized by its brown shell adorned with a yellow sunburst pattern. The male has red eyes and the female has yellow eyes. The wood turtle is thought to be one of the most intelligent turtles, being able to complete simple mazes. Its carapace is sculptured with a radiating yellow pattern while the plastron is yellow with many dark blotches in the corners. In some individuals the skin can have a red hue.
The spotted turtle is listed as a species of special concern, meaning these turtles seem to be slowly disappearing from places where they were once found. These animals are also called polka-dot turtles, due to the presence of a few bright yellow dots on their head, legs and carapace. They are fairly terrestrial, but never found far from water, living in marshy meadows throughout the state except for the Adirondack Mountains.
The threatened Blanding's turtle also has yellow spots on its carapace, but the spots are smaller in size, greater in number, and duller in color. It is most easily recognized by its bright yellow chin. This species lives in areas of shallow water and abundant woody vegetation in the lower Hudson Valley and St. Lawrence regions. North America's smallest turtle, the endangered bog turtle, also occurs in New York but is very rare. The major distinguishing feature of this animal is a bright yellow patch behind each eye. Despite their name, bog turtles are found in wet meadows, not bogs. New York has only two populations, one in the southeast portion of the state and another smaller one in the western region.
All three of the turtles just mentioned are currently being headstarted in New York zoos. Headstarting entails collecting and feeding wild hatchlings until they are significantly larger, and then releasing them at the same spot that their mother was found. This gives the turtles a better chance to survive and have hatchlings of their own. At the Bronx Zoo/Wildlife Conservation Park in New York City, spotted turtles are being headstarted. Farther north, in Syracuse, bog and Blanding's turtles are being given a better chance. Conservationists hope these efforts will make a difference in the fate of these reptiles.
The map turtle is a large species that, due to its size, is sometimes confused with the snapper but is only known to occur in Lake Erie, the Susquehanna drainage, and the Hudson River. The spiny softshell, which looks more like a pancake with legs than a turtle, occurs mostly in the western third of the state. The stinkpot, or the common musk turtle, is a small turtle with a smooth, dark, high domed carapace. It emits a foul smelling odor when disturbed. A close relative, the eastern mud turtle, occurs in New York only on Long Island. This threatened turtle is similar to the stinkpot, but the carapace dome slopes off sharply in the rear, the plastron is fitted with two hinges instead of one (like the musk) and the skin is often spotted or streaked with yellow.
Five kinds of ocean-going turtles may be found in New York coastal waters from time to time. For one species, the Atlantic Ridley, recent research suggests that the Long Island Sound may function as a critical habitat for juveniles. This is a very important find because this endangered sea turtle is one of the rarest of all the marine turtles. The green, hawksbill, leatherback, and loggerhead may also be found off the coast at certain times of the year.
What You Can Do to Help Save the Turtles
If you see a turtle of any kind crossing the road, try to stop and assist it across in the direction it is travelling. Many pregnant females are killed by cars every year. With large snapping turtles, be sure to shuttle them without lifting them off the ground. Avoid their face, because they are fairly aggressive and have a nasty bite.
The New York State Department of Health forbids the sale of turtles under five inches because they may be carriers of salmonella bacteria. If you touch a turtle, regardless of its size, be sure to wash your hands carefully and thoroughly to prevent illness.
We suggest not to capture any wild turtles to keep as pets. But if you should, keep them only for a few months in the summer and release them well before it turns colder. It is important to release them in the exact spot where you found them. All New York turtles hibernate, and many of them return to the same hibernation sites year after year. If they do not relocate these sites, it may harm the animals in the long run.
If you have pet turtles, it is important to give them a well-balanced reptile diet.
Consult a local veterinarian on the proper diet for your animal. Please do not release
store bought pets out into the wild.
Proper habitat is essential to the survival of all animals, so do your part to provide them with suitable areas to live (wetlands, non-polluted waterways, undeveloped shorelines, etc.). Turtles have lived in New York longer than most other animals, including humans. Please be mindful of our slow-moving docile friends.
Checklist of the 18 Turtle Species Found Within New York
- Common Snapping Turtle
- Stinkpot or Common Musk Turtle
- Eastern Mud Turtle (Threatened)
- Spotted Turtle (Special Concern)
- Bog Turtle (Endangered)
- Wood Turtle (Special Concern)
- Eastern Box Turtle
- Northern Diamondback Terrapin (Special Concern)
- Redbelly Turtle (not native - introduced)
- Common Map Turtle
- Red-eared Slider (not native - introduced)
- Painted Turtle (two subspecies)
- Eastern Painted Turtle
- Midland Painted Turtle
- Blanding's Turtle (Threatened)
- Eastern Spiny Softshell
- Green Turtle (Threatened)
- Atlantic Hawksbill (Endangered)
- Loggerhead (Threatened)
- Atlantic (Kemp's) Ridley (Endangered)
- Leatherback Sea Turtle (Endangered)
Conant, Roger and Joseph T. Collins. 1991. A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians: Eastern and Central North America. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, MA. 450 p.
Written by Dawn Ford and Glenn Johnson, Environmental and Forest Biology, SUNY-ESF. Illustrated by Melinda Gray Ardia and Liza Corbett