Tantalizing Turtles

Tantalizing Turtles

Turtles have inhabited the earth for 220 million years, largely unchanged during that time; Virginia has 25 species and subspecies of turtles.

Woodland Box Turtle, common in Northern Virginia.

Woodland Box Turtle, common in Northern Virginia.

Although turtles are slow, unseen much of the year and often trivialized in cartoons, “Turtles provoke a sense of wonder and amazement,” Dr. Matthew Close told 67 enthusiasts on May 15 in an online presentation sponsored by the Friends of Dyke Marsh, the Friends of Little Hunting Creek and the Friends of Mason Neck State Park. Dr. Close is Associate Professor in Radford University’s Biology Department and treasurer of the Virginia Herpetological Society. 

Turtles are reptiles that have inhabited the earth for 220 million years, largely unchanged during that time. Virginia has 25 species and subspecies of turtles. In May, turtles start to move around, searching for food, mates and nesting sites.

Eastern Musk Turtle


Most have an upper shell called a carapace with keratin scutes and a lower shell called a plastron, a characteristic that makes them unique. Turtles never shed their shells. Individual turtles’ shells have unique patterns that stick with them, he said. 

They are ectothermic or cold blooded and bask and seek sunny spots to raise their body temperature. Turtles eat invertebrates and some vertebrates. Many terrestrial turtles hibernate or overwinter in burrows. 

They have low survivorship during their first few years because birds and mammals feed on the eggs and on small turtles. “Most hatchlings do not live past the first year, so it takes them a long time to replace themselves,” according to A Guide to the Turtles of Virginia. 

Turtles have what Close called “high site fidelity,” a homing behavior. An individual turtle will spend much time in the same place with their home range usually near their nesting site. “Box turtles need to be in touch with each other,” he offered.

Turtles are ecologically important because they help keep the ecosystem in balance by eating slugs, insects and algae. Birds, fish and raccoons eat turtle eggs. 

Virginia maintains a list of Species of Greatest Conservation Need, with Tier I indicating the highest need for protection of the animal and its habitat, down to tier IV, a classification indicating a need for some habitat protection or more information. On the tier I list are these: the bog turtle, eastern chicken turtle, green sea turtle, Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, leatherback sea turtle, loggerhead sea turtle and the wood turtle. 

“We know little about what they do day to day,” Close said, and for some species, “We don’t know what they eat, when they forage or when they mate.”

Virginia Examples

Close described several common Virginia species. The aquatic snapping turtle spends most of its time underwater. The largest turtle in the state, it can be almost 20 inches long and weigh over 50 pounds.

The almost eight-inch woodland box turtle is “very terrestrial” and can close itself totally, said Close. Its brown and orange carapace blends in with dead leaves. 

Eastern painted turtles have dark carapaces, yellow plastrons, red and yellow stripes on their neck, legs and tail and a yellow spot behind each eye.

Spotted turtles have a black carapace with at least one yellow spot on each scute. They are threatened by the illegal pet trade.

The most abundant non-native turtle is the red-eared slider.

Multiple Threats

Close outlined several threats:

Number one is habitat loss and fragmentation, for example, by development, roads and filling marshes.

Turtles are killed by vehicles and harmed by pesticides and litter.

Some people poach and collect turtles, some for their cultural traditions, for example, as trinkets or talisman. 

Diseases like the ranavirus can spread between species. 

How to Help Turtles

Leave turtles alone in the wild. 

Plant native plants, remove invasive plants and create wild areas.

Don’t keep turtles as pets.

Don’t relocate turtles. If you have to move one for its safety, move it in the direction it was headed.

Avoid littering and avoid using herbicides and pesticides.

“I enjoyed the program and learned a lot,” said Dixie Sommers. 

Carolyn J. Gamble concurred: “The talk was a very enjoyable learning experience.” 

More Information 

Turtle Species, http://www.virginiaherpetologicalsociety.com/ 

Wildlife Rehabilitators, https://dwr.virginia.gov/wildlife/injured/rehabilitators/