Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas)

My friends and I walked over the cold sand along Tom’s Cove in Chincoteague, Virginia. I pulled on my gloves to ward off the November chill. We were there to find winter shorebirds, but we found something much, much cooler! A flock of geese ahead of us took flight, revealing a prone form behind them. We ran out to what we thought was a dead Snow Goose, but as we approached it became clear it was actually a sea turtle!

Chelonia mydas, the green sea turtle, is readily identified by their single pair of prefrontal scales. Their range is hard to describe, so I attached a picture. They breed mostly in tropical waters, but the Virginia Aquarium told me we have a couple C. mydas nests on our coasts as well. Other species of sea turtles Virginia sees in its waters include Loggerhead, Kemp’s Ridley, Hawksbill, and Leatherback. The other species known to nest with any regularity is the Loggerhead.

Range of the green sea turtle. Image appropriated from here.
Range of the green sea turtle. Image courtesy of this website.

C. mydas are unique among sea turtles for having a serrated lower jaw which they use to tear at grass beds. Although they are largely herbivores in their adult lives, they prefer a carnivorous diet until approximately their third year. The grass bed sites regularly fed upon by green sea turtles are known as ‘pastures’ and are a prime breeding ground for many marine animals such as sea horses. The West Indian Manatee is also a ‘pasture grazer,’ but it is not known whether the green sea turtle and the manatee compete for food.

Unfortunately, we soon discovered that the sea turtle we found had recently died. We called the Virginia Stranding Team, a group with the Virginia Aquarium that rescues live and collects dead marine mammals and sea turtles, to let them know about the turtle for collection. They asked us for the exact location, so we used Google maps to plot the location and send it to them. We also posed for some photos with the turtle to document our amazing find! The people at the aquarium collect dead sea turtles and perform necropsies to determine the cause of death, so that they can learn what threats sea turtles face and figure out ways to conserve them. Later, I contacted the aquarium and discovered our sea turtle friend passed from a cold stun – a sudden drop of temperature in the water.

Sea turtle selfie! Photographed by Mathew Anthony
Sea turtle selfie! Photographed by Matthew Anthony

Green sea turtles are listed in CITES as Appendix I and as endangered on the IUCN red list. Appendix I means the species is threatened with extinction and could be impacted by trade. Historically, C. mydas were much more numerous, but human exploitation and hunting has reduced populations to about 3-7% of their historic levels. Current conservation concerns include shrimp trawling, light pollution, and nitrogen pollution among others. Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) that are now standard for shrimp trawling nets prevent the drowning of sea turtles and dolphins, but it is thought that the sea turtles still die from shock, proving TEDs useless for sea turtle survival; hatchling sea turtles travel towards the lightest horizon which, naturally, would be the horizon over the ocean, but light pollution from cities and towns cause the hatchlings to travel in the opposite direction to be picked off by ghost crabs, raccoons, and other predators; excess nitrogen causes red algae blooms, outcompeting green algae and giving sea turtles one option of algae for consumption – the kind known to cause fibropapillomatosis, a herpes like virus plaguing sea turtle populations. Sea turtles have many conservation concerns but, due to their world-wide range, a global conservation effort is needed to conserve this species and other species of sea turtles.

C. mydas are readily identified by their single pair of prefrontal scales.
C. mydas are readily identified by their single pair of prefrontal scales. Photographed by Matthew Anthony
This green sea turtle passed from a cold stun - a sudden drop in temperature in the water
This green sea turtle passed from a cold stun – a sudden drop in temperature in the water. Photographed by Matthew Anthony

Thank you for reading! I used “Sea Turtles of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the United States” by Carol Ruckdeschel and C. Robert Shoop and “Turtles of the South east” by Kurt Buhlmann, Tracey Tuberville, and Whit Gibbons. This article was edited by Matthew Anthony. If you liked this post, you may want to read my other works. Follow my twitter to get updates!

Eastern box turtle, Terrapene carolina carolina

Eastern Box Turtle

Terrapene carolina carolina


 The North Carolina State Turtle

 

Male Eastern Box Turtle By: @cplaxton
Male Eastern Box Turtle
By: @cplaxton

The Eastern Box Turtle is truly one of my favorite turtle species.  This turtle is the only “land turtle” found in my state.  There are so many things that set the Eastern Box Turtle apart from the rest of the State’s species of turtle.  I am glad this little guy was chosen to represent our State.

The Eastern Box Turtle is a subspecies of the “Common Box Turtle”.  The Box Turtle currently has six living subspecies and one known extinct subspecies.  Four subspecies in the United States and the other two subspecies are found in Mexico.

Common Box Turtle Subspecies
  • United States
    • Florida Box Turtle, T.c. bauri
    • Gulf Coast Box Turtle, T.c. major
    • Three-toed Box Turtle, T.c. triunguis
    • Eastern Box Turtle, T.c. carolina
  • Mexico
    • Mexican Box Turtle, T.c. mexicana
    • Yucatan Box Turtle, T.c. yucatana
  • The Extinct Box Turtle of Georgia
    • Putnami Box Turtle, T.c. putnami

This article is focused on the Eastern Box Turtle.  It is the most dominant subspecies and is believed by most scientist to be the primary bloodline of Common Box Turtle.  We hope to eventually get the other members of this species online soon.  Many of the Eastern Box Turtles traits can be found in the other members of the species.

Female Eastern Box Turtle By:  @cplaxton
Female Eastern Box Turtle
By: @cplaxton

The Eastern Box Turtle is a bilobed, or double hinged plastron, turtle.  This allows the turtle to close its shell completely.  This ability to completely inclose it’s self within its shell is one way it can be identified against mud and musk turtles.  The carapace is a highly domed, rounded shell that has variable markings.  In most specimen, the Eastern Box Turtle’s markings are vivid.  The upper jaw is slightly hooked and many have a significant overbite.  The Toes are slightly webbed.

Eastern Box Turtles tend to get slightly larger than other members of the species.  They typically max out around 8 inches but some have been found just over 9 inches.  Males and females are very easily distinguished in Eastern Box Turtles.

How to Distinguish Male and Female

  • Males tend to be larger in overall size and weight
  • Males tend to have red or orange eyes and females tend to have tan, dull yellow, or brown eyes.
  • The female has a more highly domed carapace than males.
  • The plastron of males are concave while the female plastron is flat.
  • Males tend to have more color splashes on the head and feet than females.  Color on the carapace is usually equally colored.
Feeding and Diet:

Eastern Box Turtles feed on a number of things.  They are omnivores, meaning eater of plant and animals.  The Eastern Box Turtle will eat insects, worms and caterpillars, fruit and berries, mushrooms, and even carrion (dead animals).  The Young start out with a higher protein diet (meat) and gradually shift to more veggies as they mature.

I have found Eastern Box Turtles feeding on mushrooms regularly.  They also love cucumber gardens!  I have found them on strawberry farms as well.

General Activity/Behavior:
Old Male Eastern Box Turtle By:  @Geckoman0528
Old Male Eastern Box Turtle
By: @Geckoman0528

In my opinion, the Eastern Box Turtle is one of the most predictable turtles in my home range.  I can tell you before I even leave the house if they will be out or not.  They are fully terrestrial (North Carolina’s only one).  They do however love the occasional bath.  They are diurnal, or day time exclusive.  I find Eastern Box Turtles out within the first hour of daylight and the last couple hours of daylight more than any other time.

The Eastern Box Turtle is a very shy turtle.  They are very quick to go inside their shell and close up.  I have seen them stay in the shell for several minutes.  I have discovered that old males will sometimes stay out of their shell when picked up.

The Eastern Box Turtle is regularly hit by cars on the road.  Just to give you an example, one morning I left for work.  We had a very dry spell up to this particular day.  It hadn’t rained any real amount in 15 days.  The rain came in just before I began my travel to work.  The sun was also just coming up.

On this 8 mile stretch of road between work and my home, I encountered 11 box turtles.  Of the 11 that I seen, 4 were freshly hit.  (I did move the others to safety.  More on this later).

Habitat:

The Eastern Box Turtle can be found in many different kinds of habitat.  They can live in wooded areas, fields, parks, swamps, and sandhills.  Although they are terrestrial, they frequent streams, creeks, and ponds.

Reproduction:
Young Male Eastern Box Turtle By:  @Geckoman0528
Young Male Eastern Box Turtle
By: @Geckoman0528

The Eastern Box Turtle matures very slow.  Most do not reach maturity until they are 7 or 8 years old.  There are many that do not reach maturity until they are 10 or 11 years old.  The Eastern Box Turtle mates in early Fall.  The mother will lay 3-6 eggs the following spring. The young, if the nest survives, will hatch late summer early Fall.  The baby Eastern Box Turtle will only be a little over an inch at hatching.

Neat Fact:
Juvenile Eastern Box Turtle By: @Bill_nye_the_herper_guy
Juvenile Eastern Box Turtle
By: @Bill_nye_the_herper_guy

The Eastern Box Turtle deserves credit for a lot of neat facts.  So here it goes:

  1. Males and females are very easily distinguished as pointed out earlier in this article.
  2. The Eastern Box Turtle has a very small range.  Most turtles can be seen in the same field or seen crossing the same paths year after year.
  3. The Eastern Box Turtle has a homing drive.  If this turtle is moved away from its home, IT WILL TRY TO GET BACK HOME.
Herping Tips:

The Eastern Box Turtle is a creature of habit.  Once you learn a turtle you can easily predict his/her next move.  When I was younger, there was an Eastern Box Turtle i seen day after day, year after year.  I hope he is still doing well.

  1. Cruising the roads, at dawn and dusk, on rainy days yield good results.  I love looking for them when conditions are right because I want to get them out of the road.  (***If you find a Box Turtle in the road, carry him/her off the road in the direction he/she was headed***)
  2. Look along creeks, pools, ponds, and streams.  Especially when it has been dry for several days.
  3. Look in the underbrush.
  4. LISTEN….. I have found many Eastern Box Turtles just investigating the rustle of leaves and pine-straw.
Male and Female Box Turtle By: @cplaxton
Male and Female Box Turtle
By: @cplaxton
Special Note of Concern***

The Box Turtle (including all subspecies) are homing turtles.  DO NOT try to relocate.  If found in an unsafe area such as a road, move the turtle to a safe spot in the direction the turtle was heading.  A turtle that has been relocated will very likely die trying to get back to its home.  Especially if crossing a road is required to get home.

**  This is a quick observe, leave where you found species **

In many places, it is against the law to disturb Terrapene carolina.  Know the laws in your area.

Common Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina

Common Snapping Turtle

Chelydra serpentina


 

Common Snapping Turtle Donated by: @tjweave
Common Snapping Turtle
Donated by:
@tjweave

The Common Snapping Turtle is a very large freshwater turtle.  It has a very large head, a long neck, and a very long tail.  The tail is saw-toothed along the top ridge.  The carapace (or top shell) ranges from brown to black.  They are usually dark when born, lighten up as they grow to adult.  Older turtles begin to darken again.  The average length is between 8-14 inches with some individuals reaching over 20 inches.  They are heavy turtles averaging around 10-25 lbs with some weighing in as much as 50 lbs.  The carapace is known to have high ridges on the younger turtles that become much less pronounced as the animal ages.

First Place Snapping Turtle Photo By: @tjweave
First Place Snapping Turtle Photo
By: @tjweave
Large Adult Common Snapping Turtle By: @nick_wachter
Large Adult Common Snapping Turtle
By:
@nick_wachter

The Common Snapping Turtle is a long-lived species with a lot of the research indicating they can live well over 100 years.  In much of the common snapping turtle range, it is the largest native turtle species found.  The Southern USA has Alligator Snapping Turtles that get larger and some have Softshell Turtles that get close in length yet weigh much less.

Feeding and Diet:

The Common Snapping Turtle is omnivorous (eats meat and vegetation) however, it tends to be a bit more of meat eater than most turtles.  They are ambush predators catching other aquatic animals as they pass by.

The Snapper By: @brandoneargle1
The Snapper
By:
@brandoneargle1

Common Snapping Turtles feed on invertebrates, fish, reptiles, birds, mammals, carrion, and aquatic vegetation.  The Common Snapping Turtle regularly eats on dead or decaying animals that end up in the water.  When I was younger, my family had a ditch that was regularly filled with water in front of our home.  My dad would dump our left-overs in the ditch.  The Common Snapping Turtles in the area quickly learned to wait for nearly daily meals to be delivered straight to them.

General Behavior:

The Common Snapping Turtle is known from it’s rather aggressive defensive behavior.  The Common Snapping Turtle will snap aggressively when it feels threatened.  This behavior is especially intense when found or taken from the water.  Turtles found in the water, and the newly born are much less aggressive.

Snapping Turtle By: @xtremeherper12
Snapping Turtle
By: @xtremeherper12

Common Snapping Turtles are very aquatic.  Many are found with algae growing on their shells.  Snapping Turtles can spend months without ever leaving the water.  Most encounters of Common Snapping Turtle found on land, are from turtles on the move looking for a water source with more food or during periods of breeding and nesting.

Habitat:

The Common Snapping Turtle loves water.  They especially love still water.  They are found in drainage ditches, swamps, natural pools, ponds, lakes, and slow-moving rivers and streams.  Common Snapping Turtles are found in brackish water in coastal regions.  They can tolerate fairly high salt levels although they prefer less.  They tend to choose water sources stained dark, or have plenty of dark places to hide.  The Common Snapping Turtle is a shy turtle and typically stays submerged when threatened.  Muddy soft bottoms with plenty of aquatic vegetation make perfect homes for Common Snapping Turtle.

Reproduction:

Baby Snapping Turtle By: @ben_walsh
Baby Snapping Turtle
By: @ben_walsh

The Common Snapping Turtle will mate in early spring and lay their eggs in late summer.  They lay between 11-83 eggs that hatch out in early fall.  The Common Snapping Turtle nest is dug into a hole in the ground.  These nest are usually a considerable distance from water.  Females are at great risk during the laying season as Common Snapping Turtles are slow on land.  Many are struck by cars while they are crossing the road.  Young are also at high risk when they are first hatched.

Neat Fact:

Snapping Turtle Baby By: @tjweave
Snapping Turtle Baby
By: @tjweave

The Common Snapping Turtle can live over 100 years old.  It is speculated that some may live as much as 150+.  There have been many Common Snapping Turtle found with Indian arrowheads lodged in their shells!

Herping Tips:

  • While walking along ditches, creeks, ponds, and waterholes, be sure to look for them just below the water surface.  Many times all you will see is the outline of their shell under the water or the nose as it comes up for air.
  • When startled, the Common Snapping Turtle will swim off a short distance then bury themselves in the muddy bottom.

    The proper technique used to hold a Common Snapping Turtle By:  @brandoneargle1
    The proper technique used to hold a Common Snapping Turtle
    By: @brandoneargle1
  • DO NOT PICK UP a Common Snapping Turtle by the TAIL.  The tail is part of the animal’s spine and significant damage.  Pick up the turtle by the shell, far enough back not to get bitten.
  • Pick the turtle up to move it off the road, allowing it to bite a stick then dragging it across the road can cause damage to the plastron (bottom shell).
  • Young Turtles can usually be picked up safely.  The aggressive snapping action of this species is usually developed in yearlings.  With that being said, anything with a mouth can bite!

 Thanks again for checking in with Herper’s Guide.  Be sure to let us know how we are doing or share your Common Snapping Turtle stories below.

The Santa Cruz Mountains- A Herper’s Delight

Dark gray, lichen covered rocks come into view as we trek up a dusty, old trail. Having earlier retreated to a local diner to escape the midday heat, the now cool, spring air was a welcomed relief. As we reached the afternoon sunlit rock outcropping, thoughts of which snake species we would encounter first began to form. Would it be a Racer? Would a juvenile NorPac be taking in the mid-afternoon sun? Fence lizards watched us cautiously as we began flipping, making sure to replace each rock as we found them. Reaching a flat rock resting by the larger outcrop, I firmly placed my fingers around the sun soaked stone and lifted it up from the green grass. A flash of red, black and white appeared against the dark brown soil. Making a quick grab, I yelled “Zonata!” Luke Talltree uttered an obscene word of shock, while Jared Heald looked in disbelief as I presented the prize. In my hand was a snake that is often regarded as the “gem” of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

zonatarocks

 

All photographs by the author. http://www.zacharge.tumblr.com . Instagram: @zacharge

202187-262964

 (Coast Mountain Kingsnake- San Mateo County, CA)

The Mountains

Considered a part of the Pacific Coast Range, the Santa Cruz Mountain Range is situated along the western coast of Northern California. Beginning just south of San Francisco, the mountain range spans through San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz counties. Due to levels of varying elevation and a micro-climate that is greatly affected by the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Santa Cruz Mountain Range boasts a variety of different habitat types.  Drought resistant plant life, such as the coast sage scrub, characterizes the chaparral.  Brown colored needles and bark of evergreens litter the forest floor of coastal redwoods. Often studded with rock outcroppings, rolling grasslands and pine-oak clearings offer sun loving plant life a place to thrive. It is within these various areas that reptiles and amphibians flourish.

santacruz

rocksgrass

Snakes

The diversity of snakes within the mountain range is nothing short of expansive. Various species inhabit the different habitat types within the mountains, with many of their ranges overlapping. Generally preferring open breaks from the extensive stretches of coastal redwoods, it is not uncommon to find multiple species coexisting within the same area. This is especially true with species that inhabit chaparral, pine-oak, and grassland habitats. During months of optimal temperature and weather, one can easily find Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus oreganus), Western Yellow-bellied Racers (Coluber constrictor mormon), Pacific Gopher Snakes (Pituophis catenifer catenifer) and Coast Mountain Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis zonata multifasciata) all within the same rock outcropping. During the moister, cooler portions of the year, one may easily uncover smaller, more fossorial serpents, such as Ringnecked Snakes (Diadophis punctatus), Sharp-tailed Snakes (both the Forest and Common species of Contia), Nightsnakes (Hypsiglena) and the extremely docile Rubber Boa (Charina bottae) under both natural and artificial cover. The various ponds, creeks, and bodies of water that span throughout the range offer refuge for garter snakes, such as the highly variable Coast Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans terrestris) and the large bodied Santa Cruz Garter Snake (Thamnophis atratus atratus). Other snake species, such as the California Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula californiae) and the lightning fast Striped Racer (Coluber lateralis) also call the Santa Cruz Mountain Range home.

scarredboa

 (Northern Rubber Boa- San Mateo County, CA)

articlerattler

(Northern Pacific Rattlesnake- San Mateo County, CA)

articlelateralis

 (California Striped Racer- Santa Cruz County, CA)

articlegetula

 (California Kingsnake- San Mateo County, CA)

articlescgs1

 (Santa Cruz Garter Snake- Santa Cruz County, CA)

articleracer

 (Western Yellow-bellied Racer- San Mateo County, CA)

greenring

 (Pacific Ring-necked Snake- San Mateo County, CA)

articlecontia

(Sharp-tailed Snake- San Mateo County, CA)

articlenight

(California Nightsnake- Santa Cruz County, CA)

Lizards

Lizards are found in every habitat type that exists within the mountain range. Fence Lizards (Sceloporous occidentalis) are a common sight for anyone trekking along sun exposed trails and rock piles. Two endemic species of Alligator Lizard, the live-bearing San Francisco Alligator Lizard (Elgaria coerulea coerulea) and the often colorful California Alligator Lizard (E.multicarinata) can easily be found under rocks and logs in areas that may prove too cold for other  species, such as the temperate redwood forest. One may spy the bright blue tails of juvenile Western Skinks (Plestiodon skiltonianus) slipping through oak leaf litter during the earlier mornings and midafternoons as they search for arthropod prey. Horned lizards (Phrynosoma blainvillii), as well as California Whiptails (Aspidoscelis tigris munda) are also found within the Santa Cruz Mountain Range, often favoring chaparral in varying elevations.

articlegator

(California Alligator Lizard- San Mateo County, CA)

articleskink

(Western Skink- San Mateo County, CA)

Salamanders and Newts

The majority of the Santa Cruz Mountain Range lies within a temperature rainforest. Characterized by evergreens such as Coastal Redwoods and Douglas fir that thrive on the moisture generated by the Pacific coast, the generally cool and moist forests provide prime Caudata habitat. Year round streams and creeks that bleed into pools are home to the California Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus). Slender salamanders (Batrachoseps) and Ensatina are easily found under fallen evergreen bark and logs. The mountain range is also home to two species of Aneides– the large, yellow spotted Arboreal Salamander (A.lugubris) and the striking Santa Cruz Black Salamander (A.flavipunctatus niger). During the winter and early spring, it is very common to see mass congregations of both the California Newt (Taricha torosa) and the Rough-skinned Newt (T.granulosa) as they move to ponds and other bodies of water to breed. It should be noted that the aforementioned species are not restricted to the temperate forest. The more adaptable salamanders can be found during the cooler, wetter months within the grasslands, pine-oak clearings, and chaparral.

articlecreek

articletina(Yellow-eyed Ensatina- Santa Clara County, CA)

articledicamp

(California Giant Salamander- Santa Clara County, CA)

scblack(Santa Cruz Black Salamander- Santa Clara County, CA)

Frogs and Toads

Four species of native frog and toad are found within the mountain range. When the chaparral, grasslands, and pine oak forests are lush during the wetter seasons, the large bodied California Toad (Anaxyrus boreas halophilus) can be found under both natural and artificial cover. Sierran Tree Frogs (Pseudacris sierra) can often be seen jumping from reed to reed in almost any riparian area. Two spectacular species of Rana reside within the waterways of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The beautiful California Red-legged Frog (R.draytonii) can be found in many of the accessible ponds that exist within the grasslands, often favoring areas with thick aquatic plant life. Preferring rocky, sun exposed streams, the Foothill Yellow-legged Frog (R.boylii) can be found in certain locations within the range. While searching for these Anurans, one may spy the only native aquatic turtle that exists within the Santa Cruz Mountain Range, the Western Pond Turtle (Actinemys marmorata).

articlefrog

 (California Red-legged Frog- San Mateo County, CA)

articletreef

(Sierran Tree Frog- San Mateo County, CA)

Conclusion

The Santa Cruz Mountain Range offers an excellent representation of the biodiversity found within coastal Northern California. Any enthusiast of the outdoors will find the sheer diversity of fauna and scenic habitat simply breathtaking. The vast expansion of undeveloped natural land is certainly a welcome change to the busy cities that lie waiting just outside the Range. Field herpers will enjoy knowing that such a large amount of different reptiles and amphibians call this region home. One must simply pay a visit to the mountains to truly understand the sheer wonder and amazement.

santacruz