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Long Island Turtles: Nature's Survivors

This is the second part of the series about turtles likely to be encountered on Long Island and Kings Park.

In the last installment of this series about turtles, I discussed the basic physical features of turtles, and listed the species that are found on Long Island. Also discussed were some of the challenges to the survival of turtles in this area. Now, let's have a closer look at these interesting reptiles.

You can see members of the slider family of turtles basking in the sun on logs, rocks or other structure in ponds, lakes, or rivers. Often they’ll be piled up one atop the other, hind legs outstretched, in an effort to get to a piece of sunny “real estate.”

Several species may congregate together. The introduced species grow larger than the Painted Turtle. All have dark shells. The Painted Turtle has intricate yellow markings on its head, and also ornate red markings on the margin of its carapace.

The Red Eared Slider has prominent red markings on either side of its head. These distinguishing marks are best observed with binoculars, as upon your approach, they will likely slide into the water quickly for safety. This behavior earns this group the label “sliders.”

The Red belly Turtle and Yellowbelly Slider have dark carapaces, yellow markings on head and legs, and both have plastrons of red and yellow, respectively, making positive identification from a distance difficult. They are in general less frequently encountered.

Similar in look to the slider turtles is the lovely Spotted Turtle. Like them, the Spotted Turtle is adapted for life in water, having a low profiled shell. The carapace of this species is black and sprinkled with bright yellow spots, while the head and legs sport flashes of orange. This is a small turtle, growing between 4” to 5”. It is less likely to be found in large bodies of water, instead preferring small out of the way ponds, bogs, and slow moving streams. Observing one of these handsome creatures basking itself on a sedge covered hummock in a Long Island wetland is a real treat for any nature lover.

The Common Snapping Turtle, Eastern Mud Turtle, and Common Musk Turtle are also aquatic, species but very different in habit and temperament! These turtles are secretive, and do not frequently bask. Therefore they are less likely to be observed. The Eastern Mud Turtle is also the most rare turtle in New York State. This is a small turtle, growing to 4”. It is an olive brown to dark brown color, with a smooth, rounded carapace. It can be found in both fresh and brackish water, and may in fact require both. As this type of habitat has been degraded, in part due to “ditching” for mosquito control, the population numbers of the Eastern Mud Turtle have been impacted negatively.

Very similar to the Mud Turtle is the Common Musk Turtle. It is also small, olive brown in color, with the same pointed snout as the Mud Turtle. The Musk Turtle tends to have a more ridged shell, while the Mud Turtle shell is more rounded. Both species are able to emit a malodorous scent from musk glands when threatened. This capability has earned the Musk Turtle in particular the epithet “stinkpot,” and probably some other colorful names! Both of these reptiles patrol ditches and slow moving steams for invertebrates, small fishes, tadpoles, and carrion.

The Common Snapping Turtle probably qualifies for the title of  “ Most Notorious” turtle. It is a big turtle, weighing up to 45lbs. They have a nasty disposition when provoked. These characteristics have no doubt fueled exaggerated stories of canoe paddles and baseball bats being snapped in half by their jaws. Indeed, their serpentine necks can propel the turtle’s head quickly towards a threat or prey, and very sharp, powerful jaws make this turtle hazardous to handle. It can inflict injury.

Most of the time these reptiles are submerged, and typically you’ll only see their heads on the water’s surface, pivoting around to take in the action at the ponds, rivers, slow moving streams, and “sumps” that they inhabit. Dark in coloration, the shell is often covered in algae. They eat a wide variety of items. I have myself seen a large snapping turtle latched on to an adult Canada Goose, which eventually escaped the turtle after about 20 minutes of loud and violent struggle. They are more likely to feed on smaller vertebrates, such as fish, frogs, small mammals, and carrion. They will eat plants. I’ve observed one specimen eating skunk cabbage leaves, for example. Locally, large specimens can be observed in the fresh water portions of the Nissequogue River.

The Northern Diamond Backed Terrapin resembles the previously mentioned Slider Turtles in form and habits. It is unique however, in that it lives in brackish and marine environments. It’s a handsome creature, with a light, bluish grey skin attractively mottled with black markings. The carapace is a dark brown, with deeply ringed scutes, while the plastron is yellow with a dark pattern overlay. Look for this species in marshes, bays, and estuaries.

These turtles were once harvested nearly to extinction, as they where prized for the their meat. They were shipped into New York City literally by the trainload to become a delicacy on the plates of the well to do. When turtle meat fell out of fashion and harvesting was regulated, the numbers of the Diamond Backed Terrapin rebounded.

Now, demand for turtle meat in Asian markets domestic and abroad is on the rise, which unfortunately is again putting pressure on turtle populations around the world. In the Kings Park area, these turtles can be seen in the brackish and saltwater portions of the Nissequogue River. They commonly nest on sandy shorelines of beaches such as are found at Nissequogue River State Park. I've seen adult Diamond Back Terrapins in Long Island Sound and in the creeks at Sunken Meadow State Park.

While all the species discussed so far are sometimes seen on land, the Eastern Box Turtle is our only truly terrestrial turtle. These reptiles have a highly domed shell, with very variable markings that are attractive mixtures of yellows, oranges, and shades of brown. These colors and patterns make for very effective camouflage in the woodland or meadow habitats that these creatures favor. In summer they are often seen after a heavy rain, perhaps soaking in a trailside puddle. In that setting, carapace glossy with rain, colors vivid and aglow, they are a gem to behold.

If the Box Turtle feels threatened it has the ability to tuck its legs, head, and tail completely into its shell. This is achieved by means of a hinge on the turtle’s plastron. “Buttoned up” in this manner, the turtle is quite secure from predators such as foxes, raccoons, and other creatures. Box turtles are omnivorous, feeding on invertebrates, plants, berries, and mushrooms. Eastern Box Turtles are documented to have life spans of over 100 years, and they may spend their lifetime within an area of just a few acres if the habitat is undisturbed. While they are appealing creatures, it is never a good idea to remove one of these wonderful reptiles from its home in nature.

While a discussion of sea turtles is beyond the scope of this article, the reader should be aware that sea turtles do swim in the marine waters around Long Island. They may occasionally be found washed up on our shores, stunned or killed as a result of an abrupt change in water temperature with the arrival of winter. These unique reptiles are the Green Turtle, Loggerhead, Atlantic Ridely, and Leatherback turtles.

Turtles are nature’s survivors. Asteroids have impacted the planet, glaciers have advanced and receded, the dinosaurs and a host of other creatures have come and gone in their time, but the turtles, with their unique adaptations, have thrived. Yet today many turtle species are endangered or negatively impacted by the activities of humans. However, given a chance, with stewardship of the environment these remarkable reptiles can continue to coexist with us.

In researching for this article I came across many interesting facts about turtles too numerous to include here. I hope that the reader will be inspired by this piece and will seek out more information about the life history of these fascinating reptiles, hopefully by getting outdoors and observing them first hand. See you on Long Islands trails. 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Frank Mercuri September 24, 2011 at 03:57 PM
Great article Jan. I plan to photograph the Turtles at Smithtowns Long beach area by the northwest area after the picnic grounds and the private road. We had a box turtle for 33 tears and one day just walked away.
Cathy Clausen January 15, 2013 at 03:35 AM
Jan, Nice article. Just a note on the Eastern Box Turtle -- we see many of these wonderful creatures at the wildlife rehabilitation facilities at Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown. People find these guys crossing the road or in their yards and bring them to us to "be safe". But these turtles are highly territorial and if relocated, they will simply start walking home, crossing every yard and road in its way. If you find them in the road, help him across in the direction he is going, but don't take them from their home. They are a fine addition to any garden. You may lose a strawberry or two, but mostly slugs and worms and dandelions. Of course if you find any injured wild animal, then the resident should call Sweetbriar. Also for those turtle lovers out there, every year Sweetbriar has its annual Turtle Walk in late May or Early June where participants learn about Long Island turtles, and help us take our annual census of the box turtle population at the preserve.

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