Welcome to the Kings Park Focus on Nature. The warmer temperatures of late spring and summer spur activity among Long Islands reptiles, and these seasons are when we are most likely to see turtles, which are the most recognizable and personable (if you can say that about a cold blooded creature) of our local reptiles.
Both aquatic and terrestrial turtles are frequently encountered in May, June and July, because most species are traveling to and from their nesting sites at this time of year. Even aquatic species such as the large Common Snapping Turtle will travel quite a distance from water to locate a suitable nesting site on land. Unfortunately Long Islanders are likely to see turtles attempting to cross roadways in an effort to nest. Road kill mortality is an issue in the decline of some species. If a turtle is seen crossing a road it is best to leave it. Unfortunately, well meaning people sometimes assume the turtle is “lost” and try to return it to a pond or other distant but “safe” location. This will result in the animal attempting to make the journey again, and perhaps being subjected to more hazards. Turtles don’t get lost – people do!
Turtles are uniquely constructed creatures with their shells being their most prominent feature. This protective adaptation acts as armor. It is a structure comprised of bone, which includes the reptile’s ribs, and also keratin. Keratin forms the outer layer of the shell, protecting the bone, and adding strength. Scales on the shell are called scutes. Keratin is a protein, that is the same material human fingernails are composed of. The top of the shell is called the carapace, while the underside shell is the plastron. This reptile’s shell is not its “house” that it lives in, but an integral part of the animal’s anatomy. It is really an amazing example of nature’s engineering for survival.
Turtles do not have teeth, but are well equipped to eat with beak like jaws which can be quite sharp, and in some cases are equipped with serrations. Turtles are not aggressive, but keep in mind they can defend themselves with a bite if harassed.
To round out the physical description of these creatures, we observe that they will have four scale covered legs with claws and a tail. Their overall form can vary depending on their lifestyle. Aquatic species will tend to have a more streamlined appearance, while land dwellers tend to be blocky in build. All turtles, whether terrestrial or aquatic, lay shelled eggs on land, usually in an excavated nest in sandy substrate.
With the exception of some sea turtles, turtles are cold-blooded. Their internal temperature varies depending on external environmental influences.
There are a number of turtle species found on our island, most of which are aquatic. I’ll focus on those types the casual nature enthusiast is likely to encounter while exploring the outdoors. The common names of all the Long Island species are: Common Snapping Turtle, Common Musk Turtle, Eastern Mud Turtle, Spotted Turtle, Painted Turtle, Eastern Redbelly Turtle, Yellowbelly Slider, Red-eared Slider, Eastern Box Turtle, and the Northern Diamondback Terrapin.
While all these creatures make the forests, meadows, and wetlands of Long Island their home, not all of them are native. The Redbelly Turtle, Yellowbelly Slider, and Red-eared Slider are introduced, and co-exist or compete with our native “slider” – the Painted Turtle. These non-native species are North American, but from other regions. They were popular in the pet trade. Raised in enormous numbers for sale in pet shops, many were then “set free” when their owners became bored with them. Enough survived to found breeding populations in our local ponds and lakes. In some cases they harbored pathogens which local turtles had no resistance to. In other cases their size and numbers allow them to out compete Long Island’s beautiful native Painted Turtle. The resulting negative impact on native aquatic turtles by these introduced species illustrates why captive pets should be acquired only when the responsibility for their care is understood, and they should certainly never be released in the wild.
In the next installment of this series about turtles, I'll focus more in detail on some of the species Kings Parker's are likely to see. Accompanying this article, are some photographs of a Common Musk Turtle. Common perhaps, but not often encountered, as it is secretive and spends much of it's time concealed underwater. If harassed, these turtles are able to emit a malodorous scent from musk glands. Believe me, the smell is an effective deterrent! We'll learn more about turtles in the next Kings Park Focus on Nature.