The Wood Turtle. Photo: Pete Oxford

The Wood Turtle is a medium-sized, semi-aquatic turtle that primarily occurs in the Northeastern United States and Canada. The shell is characterized by pyramid-shaped growth rings that give a sculpted appearance. The top of the head and limbs are dark-colored and contrast with bright red, orange or yellow on the chin and underside of the limbs.

 
 
 

The Wood Turtle’s scientific name, Glyptemys insculpta, refers to the shell appearance. Wood Turtles were formerly placed in the genus Clemmys but were moved to Glyptemys along with Bog Turtles, to better represent evolutionary relationships. They are within the family Emydidae, which includes the majority of turtles in the United States including pond turtles and box turtles.

The Wood Turtle is limited to the northeastern and upper midwestern regions of the United States and Canada. They reach their northern extent in the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and range as far south as Northern Virginia. Western populations are found in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Wood Turtles occupy a broad range of habitats, although the presence of streams or rivers nearby is generally a requirement. They can be found in forest floodplains, fields and meadows. Overwintering occurs in streams with intermediate flow, either at the bottom or within the stream bank. Summer is spent more terrestrially but still in the general vicinity of streams. They are found typically in early successional open habitats but with access to forest edges.

 
 
 

Movement of Wood Turtles is centered around the stream. Turtles also move to upland habitats, usually within a few hundred meters at most from the stream. However, turtles may move longer distances along the stream corridor, up to around a kilometer. Home range size is around 30 hectares (74.1 acres). However, females can move further (greater than a kilometer) to find appropriate nesting habitat.

Wood Turtles are omnivorous and thus eat a variety of foods. These include invertebrates, small vertebrates such as tadpoles, fruits, grass and algae.

Mating occurs primarily in late summer and fall, although it can occur anytime during the active season. Females nest in spring and early summer. Nests are dug in loose soil, often in sandy areas near streams. Clutch size can range up to 12 eggs, and eggs typically hatch in late summer and fall. Hatchling turtles may hibernate in the nest or emerge and hibernate elsewhere. There is no parental care. Wood Turtles have a very long generation time with time to sexual maturity occurring up to 18 years.

Wood Turtle

Wood Turtles are a globally-endangered turtle primarily distributed in Northeastern North America that depend on large landscapes with healthy rivers and undeveloped uplands for survival. They represent a genus that includes only them and the equally-threatened Bog Turtle, so it represents a unique portion of turtle diversity. Their reliance on clean, well-oxygenated, streams also means that they are a good indicator of the health of riparian ecosystems.

As a long-lived species with low fecundity (reproductive rate), Wood Turtles are especially susceptible to mortality and disturbance. Therefore, probably the greatest threat (as with most species) is habitat alteration, particularly along watercourses. Development along streams not only eliminates natural habitat, but any addition of roads presents a potential significant source of mortality. Wood Turtles may be able to coexist with agricultural development based on their preference for early successional habitats, but they are often killed by farm equipment in fields. Finally, Wood Turtles are extremely attractive turtles and are often targeted by the pet trade even though collecting Wood Turtles from the wild is illegal. Therefore, illegal collection is also a conservation concern.


 

 

Related Information

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Northeast Kingdom

Characterized by undeveloped stretches of wilderness, the Northeast Kingdom is where Northern hardwoods meet the southern reaches of the boreal forests.

Vernal Pools

Vernal pools are extremely important temporary wetlands for amphibians and are where adults go to breed and where their young develop.