Out of Sight: Why Most People Never See a Wood Turtle

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With a distinct black head, vibrant orange legs, and a shell sometimes patterned with brilliant yellow spots and striations, you might think Wood Turtles are easy to spot. Specializing in river valley habitats, Wood Turtles are quite rare in most areas, but even in the few remaining places where they are common, most people never see one. Other species, such as Painted Turtles and Red-eared Sliders, can be spotted from hundreds of feet away sunning themselves on rocks and logs, sometimes in large numbers. Wood Turtles rarely bask out in the open like that and instead wedge themselves into brambles with their butt sticking out into filtered light. When I look for Wood Turtles, what I’m really looking for is the edge of a shell sticking out of weeds and woody debris.

The Wood Turtle sunning itself in this image is in the exact center of the picture and could easily be overlooked as a piece of debris. This is an example of typical basking behavior in this species.

 The main reason for their secretive nature is that Wood Turtles spend a lot of time on land away from water, so while a Painted Turtle only needs to jump and sink to escape a predator, Wood Turtles are not afforded that luxury. Consequently, Wood Turtles spend the vast majority of their time in hiding, even when they are doing something else, such as basking. The only times I typically find Wood Turtles out in the open is when they are trying to get from Point A to Point B and can’t do so without exposing themselves, so it is not surprising that most people are unfamiliar with the species. 

Although brightly colored, this young Wood Turtle may spend days on end foraging in thick vegetation, followed by days on end in the river, but only a minute or two out in the open while crossing a beach between the floodplain and stream.

When asking landowners for permission to survey for Wood Turtles along streambanks, I have nearly lost count of the times they’ve said something along the lines of “Feel free to look, but I’ve lived here for over 50 years and if there were an orange-legged turtle on my farm I’d know about it,” only to then find the turtles on my first visit to their property. My favorite reaction was from a farmer who, upon seeing his first Wood Turtle less than an hour after our chat, responded “Well I’ll be dipped,” a phrase common among dairy farmers that loosely translates to “I stand corrected.” As it turns out, the turtle we found together was probably older than the farmer and had been living on his farm the entire time. After finding the first together, he ran ahead, determined to find one on his own, and now walks the streambank looking for the turtles a few days each spring, texting me pictures of the few he has spotted.

A few land managers and I were visiting a site this fall to plan upcoming restoration work, and had been standing by this Wood Turtle for about 10 minutes before any of us noticed it tucked under the leaflitter, watching us from below.

There is also a seasonal component to why so few people see Wood Turtles. In the early spring and late fall when the species is concentrated along streams, the air and water is cold, rivers are flooded, the ground is muddy, and vegetation is either dead or sparse, so not many people are out swimming, fishing, or boating. Then, once Memorial Day rolls around and people flock back outdoors to enjoy trails and hit the water, the turtles have already dispersed to their summer habitat where spotting one is more a matter of luck than anything else. Yet, most records of Wood Turtles from members of the community do come in during the summer months simply because that is when people are most likely to be outside. 

Tucked deep in woody debris, this Wood Turtle was still receiving enough filtered light to warm itself one sunny morning.

The Wood Turtle’s secretive nature is key to their survival. Not only does their cryptic behavior protect them from predators, but when people find turtles they sometimes take them home (unaware that doing so is illegal), either to keep as long or short term pets or to illegally sell as part of an international black market. Regardless of the reason these turtles are removed from the wild, very few make it back to their home and collection is a contributing factor to why so many populations are in decline. Their secrecy can also work against them because, no matter how many times someone reads about Wood Turtle conservation needs, seeing is believing, and without seeing these turtles in the wild it is hard for some people to take the need to protect and restore their habitat seriously. Overall, their cryptic nature is still working to the Wood Turtle’s advantage, and it’s up to those of us familiar with their ways to help others understand the roles they play in river valley ecosystems. If you’ve never seen a Wood Turtle, take some comfort in knowing that if you’ve been to the right stream, a Wood Turtle has seen you.