Sudbury’s Turtles

Sudbury is home to 7 species of turtles: Painted turtles, spotted turtles, musk turtles, Snapping turtles, Box turtles, Wood turtles, and Blanding’s turtles.

These ancient reptiles are an important part of our local natural heritage. Box turtles and wood turtles have virtually disappeared from the area; we are aware of only a few, old, surviving individuals.

Turtles are also out and about now…which all too often means on area roadways. Unfortunately, many of our streets were built separating the ponds and streams where turtles live from the sandy upland open areas where turtles lay their eggs. Many turtles have adapted to these changed conditions by selecting the sandy strips bordering roads as their nesting areas. The hazards are obvious.

Each year dozens of female turtles are killed crossing roads in Sudbury as they lumber to nesting sites. Remember, turtles evolved to respond to danger by stopping in the their tracks and pulling into their shells until the danger has passed. While this may be fine in a natural setting, it spells almost certain death when the danger is traffic.

Because turtles live so long (over 50 years) the loss of a single female turtle represents the loss of many tens of future generation turtles.

Species of Turtles in Sudbury

Painted turtles are by far the most common. If you have ever glanced over into a stream or pond and seen gaggles of turtles basking on rocks and logs chances are they were painted turtles. Painted turtles are easily identified by their dark brownish-black top shells with individual plates outlined in yellow. The bottom shell is yellowish with an edge in a beautiful deep red pattern. There is a large yellow dot behind each eye. These turtles may to grow to lengths of ten inches over the span of their 15 year life. Nests, which typically contain a half dozen or more eggs, are dug about two or three inches into the ground then covered over with dirt.

Spotted turtles are similar to painted turtles except they are slightly smaller (about five inches) and, as the name suggests, have top shells covered with small yellow dots. Unfortunately spotted turtle populations are declining and they are on the Massachusetts Endangered Species List as species of special concern. Spotted turtles may be found in small isolated ponds and wetland areas, marshes, and vernal pools. Even though these animals may live thirty or more years spotted turtles lay only three or four eggs at a time and so the loss of even a single individual can have serious consequences locally.

Musk turtles are aquatic turtles, only coming on land to lay eggs. These fairly small turtles,  (about 3 to 4 inches) live in ponds and streams. They have greenish brown shells, pointy snouts, and two light lines running down each side of their face.

Musk turtles are quite common in Hop Brook, although they are not seen very often. They have the peculiar habit of climbing out on tree limbs to bask, sometimes several feet over the water! They are predators of aquatic invertebrates, small frogs, fish, etc. They are not particularly friendly and may bite if handled. More likely, however, is that you will be doused with a foul-smelling secretion. Hence the alternate name: stinkpot.

Snapping turtles do indeed snap, as anyone who has grabbed one can atest. And given their large adult size, sometimes sixteen inches or more, they can take a chunk out of your hand or arm if you get too close. But they are not vicious or nasty and only snap in self defense. Snapping turtles are important scavengers and predators in our native aquatic systems.

Snapping turtles are almost prehistoric in appearance and demeanor. Snapping turtles have a characteristic spiked ridge that runs along the centerline of the top shell from head to tail. The ridge continues down the tail giving the snapper is armored-tank like appearance. They are still abundant, which is no surprise considering they will eat anything that won’t eat them first. Females do not reach sexual maturity until around 14 years and may live to 80 years or more. They lay 20 to 30 eggs at a time.

Painted, spotted, musk and snapping turtles spend most of their time in ponds and wetlands. They venture onto dry land only to lay eggs or find new territory.

Box turtles were once very common in our area. Now they are rarely encountered and protected on the Massachusetts Endangered Species List. Box turtles are land turtles that live in the woods. Their name refers to their special ability to completely seal themselves up inside their shells, which is accomplished by virtue of a hinge on the bottom shell.

They are recognized by the high domed shells, blackish-brown with yellow splotches.

Box turtles live in very low densities, perhaps only several per square mile. Females have the amazing ability to store a male’s sperm for several years. This way she can choose a time for impregnation that is optimal. Thus, a female may lay eggs several years after her last encounter with a male! Females may deposit a half dozen

Wood turtles spend the winter and spring months in streams and rivers. The move onto land moist woodlands for the summer and fall. These turtles reach lengths of about 8 inches and their top shell is a light brown, with short pyramid-like keels defining each plate section. Wood turtles eat earthworms and berries. This turtle is also on the Massachusetts Endangered Species List.

Wood turtles and box turtles are suffering greatly from habitat loss and collection. If you find one, please leave it alone and call the conservation commission. [One exception: if you find it on a lawn in or in a roadway, please pick it up and bring it to the Conservation Commission office.] These animals do not wander far and may spend years within several hundred feet of the same location.

All of these turtles nest at similar sites: sandy, sunny, disturbed fields. Females often must cross roadways to get from habitat wetlands to suitable nesting sites. Road kill accounts for the vast majority of adult turtle losses in our area.

At the same time each year fewer and fewer young are surviving. Nesting sites are being destroyed by raccoons, foxes, skunks, raccoons, and development activities.

Turtles, having been around for hundreds of millions of years may be facing their greatest survival challenge. Please help. Each individual animal matters.