Current Nature: Make Way For Turtles

Dr. Sarah Bois •

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A snapping turtle on Pout Pond Road in the moors.

In recent weeks, you may have noticed many turtles traveling around the island. We’ve gotten so many reports of snapping and painted turtles crossing roads and nesting in some inopportune locations that they may need their own Instagram (#nantucketturtlespotter).

Why did the turtles cross the road? To get to the other side of course! The turtles are crisscrossing roads, paths, driveways, and uplands to get to their nesting grounds. Now is prime nesting time for all of our turtle species. Nesting season is temperature dependent, but generally peaks in mid-June. You’ll see them wandering out of the water into the upland, sometimes crossing roads and paths to reach a favorite nesting spot.

Female snapper digging a nest at LLNF
A female snapper digging a nest at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation off Eel Point Road.

On Nantucket, we have three species of turtles (not counting the sea turtles we may occasionally see in water or on the shore): Spotted, painted, and snapping turtles. Spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata) are my personal favorite. The smallest of the three, these freshwater turtles are found in places like Squam Swamp and Squam Farm as well as the Windswept Cranberry Bogs and even way out on Eel Point Road at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation (LLNF), though in fewer numbers. The small, black turtles are dotted with yellow spots making them seem like characters in a picture book. As hatchlings, they usually have one spot per scute (or plate) on their shell. As they age, more spots develop. The pattern and number of spots is unique to each turtle and can be used to identify individuals. Think of it like an individual constellation on their backs!

Spotted turtles are a protected species in many parts of their range. They have been in decline for habitat loss, but also because of the pet trade where their cute features also make them vulnerable to illegal harvest and sale.

Eastern painted turtles (Clemmys picta picta) are the next size up from spotteds and are the most common freshwater turtle. They are distinct with the bright yellow stripes behind their eyes and by the beautiful red and orange markings on the edge of their smooth, dark shell (carapace). The painted turtle is the most widespread native turtle of North America and they are fairly abundant throughout their range. Their ability to adapt to aquatic environments altered by humans contributes to the relative stability of many populations of painted turtles.

Spotted Turtle on the edge of Eel Point Road
A spotted turtle on the edge of Eel Point Road.

Lastly, we have the ubiquitous and prehistoric snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) which is the one most often reported to the Current for road crossing and pool trespassing. Snapping turtles often seem ornery or aggressive to passersby, but it’s really their only defense. Snappers have only a thin plastron (the under part of the shell) which allows them freedom for strong swimming, but also exposes a lot of vulnerable turtle flesh. Their main defense is to “snap” at any potential threat. So keep those fingers and toes away!

Snapping turtles can be found in any fresh and even brackish water body on Nantucket. They like mud-bottomed, weedy wetlands, and are opportunistic feeders, dining on whatever is available: carrion, aquatic invertebrates, fish, amphibians, other turtles, snakes, the occasional ducklings, and all manner of aquatic plants. Please note that chicken legs from Stop and Shop are not part of their natural diet.

Right now, we are seeing these freshwater turtle species on land more often because nesting season is upon us. The female turtles leave the safety of the hidden depths to find proper nesting sites.

What are they looking for in a nesting spot? All three turtle species tend to lay eggs in sandy or loamy areas with open canopy – which is a lot of Nantucket!

In 2023, we had a snapping turtle nesting in our front garden at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation. Despite all the sandy trails and gravel drive, it was the sandy loam and wood chips of the garden filled with milkweed that attracted a snapping turtle. No eggs were actually laid in that nest, much to our dismay. I was hoping to be able to say that we were “growing turtles” in our garden. However, snapping turtles sometimes dig false or fake nests presumable to dupe predators.

Snapping Turtle on the side of the driveway at LLNF
A snapping turtle on the side of the driveway at LLNF.

What eats a snapping turtle nest? Eggs and hatchlings of any turtle species can be a snack for any number of predators; rats, birds of prey, snakes, and other turtles. On Nantucket, we are fortunate not to have so many predators as off-island (namely mammals). We do, however, have crows. After we found several snapping turtles nests dug up and eggs broken at LLNF in 2022, intern Luke McKay devised a plan to catch the culprit. He focused a motion-sensitive trail camera on a fresh turtle nest to see if we could trap the perpetrator on camera. You can read Luke’s account of the surveillance here and see a still of the crow criminals who systematically dug out each turtle egg and feasted after the adult turtle completed the nest.

If you think you found a turtle nest or if you see one being constructed, please leave it be. Turtles survive as a species by being long-lived individuals and producing many young each year with a few surviving to adulthood. We want our common species to stay common.

It's best let the turtle just do her thing. It takes a couple of hours to dig the nest, lay eggs, rest, and cover. Then she'll leave, and she won't come back until the following year. Between laying the eggs and returning to the site for the next clutch she'll have nothing to do with her young.

There is research to show that both painted and snapping turtles have nesting fidelity (nesting at the same site each year), but also travel fidelity; traveling the same route to that nesting area. Keep this in mind when driving and seeing turtle crossing signs. Landowners tend to put those out in areas where turtles regularly cross and, unfortunately, regularly are hit along the way.

Aside from paying attention to the signs and slowing down, what should you do if you see a turtle in the road?

Please avoid and stop if possible. If it is safe to do so, here are a few tips essential for turtle safety (and your safety):

  • First up: slow down, stop, and let it pass. If it is stopped or if you think you can SAFELY move the turtle, follow the directions below.
  • If moving a turtle, always bring it to the road edge in the direction it was headed. If you don’t, it will likely try to cross the road again. (Turtles have places to go, too!)
  • Never pick up a turtle by the tail. You can permanently damage their vertebrae.
  • Even if snapping turtles look old and slow, they can move fast when threatened and are likely to bite. If you have a shovel or a broom in your car, you can help them scoot across the road. Otherwise, let them go at their pace.

In general, we should leave wild animals where they are and that goes for turtles as well as baby birds, deer, and rabbits. It is not legal — individuals are not permitted to possess and/or raise any species of wild animal in captivity. Please resist the urge to take home any of these critters. The care requirements in captivity can be astonishing. A turtle’s needs can be easily met in the wild — lots of food, water, sunlight, and space to meet their individual, social, and ecological needs. It is difficult, if not impossible, to meet these same requirements in a human’s home. They may seem very vulnerable, but this is how they’ve evolved to persist over time. Nature knows best!

Actually, we should be pretty psyched to be seeing all these turtles. Snapping turtles are nocturnal and spend most of the time underwater, lying on the bottom in the muck. Painted turtles may bask on the edges of ponds but “plunk” right back into the water if spooked. Spotted turtles are rather elusive relying on camouflage to hide from predators.

Remember, we want to keep our common animals common, so please break for turtles!

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