Let’s talk about turtles

Published 9:22 pm Tuesday, June 23, 2015

By Biff and Susan Andrews

A couple of days ago, a 12-inch turtle exited “our” lake, walked up the hill about 125 feet and laid some eggs. At that size, she was not the most common turtle — a painted turtle — so I tried to research her species, and this is what I found.

The basics: Turtles are some of the most ancient animals on Earth, basically unchanged for about 200 million years. They are reptiles, of the order “Testudines.” There are three or four basic types of testudines:

  • Tortoises live only on land. They have club feet in the rear like an elephant with small claws or nails in front. They are extremely long-lived, with one Galapagos tortoise now known to be 326 years old. There’s only one kind of tortoise in Virginia, the box turtle. It has a hard, high, heavy shell. The male has a dent in the middle of the chest (the plastron), while the female is flat-chested (go figure). Males usually have red eyes.
  • Terrapins live in brackish water, marshes and river inlets along coastlines. The type we have here in the James and Chesapeake are diamondbacks, as each small scute on the back (carapace) is diamond-shaped. The females are the much larger sex. There’s a reason why the Maryland mascot is the terrapin, as Maryland is coastal inlets everywhere.
  • Sea turtles off our coasts and nesting on our beaches may be one of five species: loggerheads; green turtles; the huge leatherbacks (up to 1,500 pounds) that live offshore; the Kemps-Ridley that lives well inshore; and, on rare visits, the beautiful Hawksbill turtle. These turtles have flippers for propulsion, without claws. I think the largest leatherback ever weighed tipped the scale at 2,000 pounds (10 feet long).
  • Freshwater Turtles: These are those lumps on logs in ponds, lakes and rivers, the ones that dive off when you approach. They comprise two thirds of all the turtles in Virginia and North Carolina. There are about 20 species. They have webbed feet for swimming but claws for hunting. Their shells tend to be smooth and streamlined for swift passage through the water. As noted, the painted turtle (about eight inches) is the most common. Then there are a lot of cooters, sliders, mud/bog/spotted turtles that may be up to 12 inches long, and the snapping turtle, which gets huge.

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So that’s the overall view of turtles. Which type was it that climbed the hill from the lake to lay her eggs? It was definitely an Eastern River Cooter… or a Red-Eared Slider.

I think. Maybe. Next time I’ll go inspect more closely.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at b.andrews22@live.com.