Wood Turtle

Glyptemys insculpta 

State Species of Special Concern

Wood Turtle

Background: Wood turtles may be found throughout Connecticut, but they have become increasingly rare due to their complex habitat needs. Wood turtles also have become more scarce in Fairfield County due to the fragmentation of suitable habitat by urban development.

Range: Wood turtles can be found across the northeastern United States into parts of Canada. They range from Nova Scotia through New England, south into northern Virginia, and west through the Great Lakes region into Minnesota.

Description: The scientific name of the wood turtle, Glyptemys insculpta, refers to the deeply sculptured or chiseled pattern found on the carapace (top shell). This part of the shell is dark brown or black and may have an array of faint yellow lines radiating from the center of each chiseled, pyramid-like segment due to tannins and minerals accumulating between ridges. These segments of the carapace, as well as those of the plastron (bottom shell), are called scutes. The carapace also is keeled, with a noticeable ridge running from front to back. The plastron is yellow with large dark blotches in the outer corners of each scute. The black or dark brown head and upper limbs are contrasted by brighter pigments ranging from red and orange to a pale yellow on the throat and limb undersides. Orange hues are most typical for New England’s wood turtles. The hind feet are only slightly webbed, and the tail is long and thick at the base. Adults weigh approximately 1.5 to 2.5 pounds and reach a length of 5 to 9 inches.

Habitat and Diet: Wood turtles use aquatic and terrestrial habitats at different times of the year. Their habitats include rivers and large streams, riparian forests (adjacent to rivers), wetlands, hayfields, and other early successional habitats. Terrestrial habitat that is usually within 1,000 feet of a suitable stream or river is most likely used. Preferred stream conditions include moderate flow, sandy or gravelly bottoms, and muddy banks.

Wood turtles are omnivorous and opportunistic. They are not picky eaters and will readily consume slugs, worms, tadpoles, insects, algae, wild fruits, leaves, grass, moss, and carrion.

Life History: From late spring to early fall, wood turtles can be found roaming their aquatic or terrestrial habitats. However, once temperatures drop in autumn, the turtles retreat to rivers and large streams for hibernation. The winter is spent underwater, often tucked away below undercut riverbanks within exposed tree roots. Dissolved oxygen is extracted from the water, allowing the turtle to remain submerged entirely until the arrival of spring. Once warmer weather sets in, the turtles will become increasingly more active, eventually leaving the water to begin foraging for food and searching for mates. Travel up or down stream is most likely, as turtles seldom stray very far from their riparian habitats.

Females nest in spring to early summer, depositing anywhere from 4 to 12 eggs into a nest dug out of soft soil, typically in sandy deposits along stream banks or other areas of loose soil. The eggs hatch in late summer or fall and the young turtles may either emerge or remain in the nest for winter hibernation. As soon as the young turtles hatch, they are on their own and receive no care from the adults.

Turtle eggs and hatchlings are heavily preyed upon by a wide variety of predators, ranging from raccoons to birds and snakes. High rates of nest predation and hatchling mortality, paired with the lengthy amount of time it takes for wood turtles to reach sexual maturity, present a challenge to maintaining sustainable populations. Wood turtles live upwards of 40 to 60 years, possibly more.

Conservation Concerns: Loss and fragmentation of habitat are the greatest threats to wood turtles. Many remaining populations in Connecticut are low in numbers and isolated from one another by human-dominated landscapes. Turtles forced to venture farther and farther from appropriate habitat to find mates and nesting sites are more likely to be run over by cars, attacked by predators, or collected by people as pets.

Other sources of mortality include entanglements in litter and debris left behind by people, as well as strikes from mowing equipment used to maintain hayfields and other early successional habitats.

The wood turtle is imperiled throughout a large portion of its range and was placed under international trade regulatory protection through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1992. Wood turtles also have been included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List as a vulnerable species since 1996. They are listed as a species of special concern in Connecticut and protected by the Connecticut Endangered Species Act.

How You Can Help
  • Conserve riparian habitat. Maintaining a buffer strip of natural vegetation (minimum of 100 feet) along the banks of streams and rivers will protect wood turtle habitat and also help improve the water quality of the stream system. Stream banks that are manicured (cleared of natural shrubby and herbaceous vegetation) or armored by rip rap or stone walls will not be used by wood turtles or most other wildlife species.
  • Do not litter. Wood turtles and other wildlife may accidentally ingest or become entangled in garbage and die.
  • Leave turtles in the wild. They should never be kept as pets. Whether collected singly or for the pet trade, turtles that are removed from the wild are no longer able to be a reproducing member of a population. Every turtle removed reduces the ability of the population to maintain itself.
  • Never release a captive turtle into the wild. It probably would not survive, may not be native to the area, and could introduce diseases to wild populations.
  • As you drive, watch out for turtles crossing the road. Turtles found crossing roads in June and July are often pregnant females. They should not be collected but can be helped on their way. Without creating a traffic hazard or compromising safety, drivers are encouraged to avoid running over turtles that are crossing roads. Also, still keeping safety precautions in mind, you may elect to pick up turtles from the road and move them onto the side in the direction they are headed. Never relocate a turtle to another area that is far from where you found it.
  • Learn more about turtles and their conservation concerns, and educate others.
  • If you see a wood turtle, leave it in the wild, take a photograph, record the location where it was seen, and contact the Connecticut DEEP Wildlife Division at deep.wildlife@ct.gov or call 860-424-3011 to report your observation.

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