A small and exceptionally handsome freshwater turtle that fits comfortably in the palm, adult Spotted Turtles are from 3.5 to 4.5 inches (9 to 11.5 centimeters) long. This makes Clemmys guttatathe second smallest turtle species, after the Bog Turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii), in the eastern United States.
Aptly-named, the blackish carapace (upper shell) of this species is dotted with small round yellow spots. Adult turtles may have from a dozen or so to well over 100 individual spots. Interestingly, the spots are actually transparent windows in the scutes that overlay yellow pigment deposits. In the wild, these spots are not meant to be flashy but rather to enhance crypsis—in waters speckled with duckweed, or when stationary on a leafy pond bottom, they make the turtle hard to visualize.
Hatchlings emerge with only one spot per each scute, but as they age and grow, they develop additional spots. The black heads and necks of these turtles are also decorated with yellow and/or orange spots. The plastron (lower shell) is yellow-orange with black pigment along the edge of each scute. Unlike the familiar Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina), the plastron lacks a hinge, meaning Spotted Turtles can’t fully close their shells (like Box Turtles). There are a number of differences between the sexes. Adult male Spotted Turtles have brown eyes, concave plastrons and longer tails than females. Adult females have orange eyes, flat plastrons and slightly greater shell heights than males. The Spotted Turtle has a much flatter and more stream-lined profile compared to the higher, domed shell of the Box Turtle.
The southeastern United States is recognized for its extraordinarily high species diversity of turtles. Complementing our efforts to protect the Gopher Tortoise, we are directing our efforts toward the conservation of a small, mostly-aquatic species, the Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata).
As with many species, habitat loss, habitat degradation and habitat fragmentation are the chief causes of Spotted Turtle population declines. Throughout the species’ range, wetlands formerly inhabited by Spotted Turtles have been drained and filled, or they have been rendered unsuitable by pollution, stream channelization, impoundments, eutrophication or other adverse impacts.
At many sites, upland and nesting habitats, as well as forest corridors connecting populations, have been lost to development, agriculture and commercial forestry practices. Urbanization and the accompanying increase in road density and traffic volume results in habitat fragmentation and therefore large numbers of turtles, including C. guttata, being killed when struck by vehicles. As with other plant and animal species, small and fragmented populations of Spotted Turtles are especially susceptible to extinction.
Due to their docile nature and beautiful coloration, Spotted Turtles have long been prized as pets by turtle hobbyists. Over-collection for the pet trade, including illegal collection, has dramatically reduced the size of some populations and eliminated others in portions of the species’ range.An unnatural and often human-subsidized overabundance of raccoons, a predator skilled at catching Spotted Turtle adults as well as finding and depredating nests, poses a serious threat to some populations.
Many Spotted Turtle populations have become isolated or have declined or disappeared due to habitat loss, road mortality and adverse impacts to wetlands. Fortunately, the species is now protected from collection (or collection is regulated) in the states in which it occurs. In 2012 the species was petitioned by the Center for Biological Diversity for Federal Listing status as “Threatened” and is currently state-listed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GADNR). In addition, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the Spotted Turtle as globally “Endangered.”