Of Woods and Water: In Search of the Wood Turtles of Appalachia

By Jordan Gray

Clear skies and bright, penetrating sunshine have warmed the frigid morning of only hours ago to a balmy (for this time of year) 50° Fahrenheit. Alongside a clear mountain stream in the Appalachian Mountains, Houston Chandler of The Orianne Society and I slip into our chest waders, preparing to step into the water.

Wood Turtles are inhabitants of cool, clear, moving streams, creeks, and rivers, and their adjacent terrestrial habitats. Protecting these habitats is vital to their survival.

During my visit here just two months ago, the woodland vegetation was lush with summer foliage, and the water was comfortably in the low 70°s. Now, copper colored leaves grip the trees in a sparse patchwork of color amongst leafless grey branches. The water too has dropped roughly 30° to the low 40°s chill of mid-autumn, a numbing temperature. These, however, are perfect conditions to find North American Wood Turtles (Glyptemys insculpta).

Regarded in this state as Threatened, and by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as Endangered, the wood turtle finds refuge in a mosaic of riparian woodlands, moist meadows, vegetated floodplains, and upland hillsides. The most important requisite being that these habitats are adjacent to cool, clear, moving streams, creeks, and rivers.

The shell pattern of the wood turtle is well suited to the habitats they utilize.

The natural history of the wood turtle is one of a Jekyll and Hyde-like utilization of the landscape. For much of the year they are a turtle obligated to an aquatic lifestyle where they breed and brumate (reptilian hibernation). During the other, they are a turtle who moves between terrestrial haunts, sometimes many kilometers per annum. Here, they feed on nature’s natural bounty before returning to the water once more.

As is often the case for wildlife, agriculture, livestock pastureland, and ever sprawling suburbanization has fragmented, degraded, or eliminated the habitats wood turtles rely upon to thrive. Even here, where we stand upon the creek’s bank in the Appalachians, human intrusion into the wood turtle’s domain is evident. Luckily, however, in this locality they continue to persist.

Once a common spot for finding wood turtles, degradation of the stream’s riparian zone and bank makes this bend no longer optimal for them. Now, they are rarely found here.

Having followed wood turtles in this location for the better part of 25 years, we slip into a segment of the creek where I know we will find them. This is Houston’s first time looking for wild “woodies,” so there is a slight pressure to show him the unmatched beauty of this turtle in its natural habitat. Slowly gliding through the water, our eyes fixated on the rocky bottom underfoot, we walk upstream to where I know several individuals make their home.

Today, however, none can be found here, and we make sure not to disturb any potential hibernacula (hibernation sites) where turtles may be hiding just out of sight. The simple pleasure of finding a turtle is not worth degrading these all too important overwintering sites.

The distinct black “Rorschach” pattern on the plastron of the wood turtle fades with age. Young adult wood turtles are often unrecognizable later in life.

With no luck yet, and arriving back at our starting point, we start our foray downstream. Within minutes we are within the realm of an old male, turtle 589, who I’ve come to expect in this small stretch of stream year after year. He’s well over 18 years old, but how old he is exactly cannot be elucidated by physical appearance alone.

The range of the wood turtle spans several geographic regions, from the Great Lakes to Maritime Canada and south through New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and into Northern Virginia. All of these have a marked distinction between active and dormant seasons. Because of this, one can age a wood turtle with a fair degree of accuracy up until about the age of 18 by counting the growth annuli, or rings, on its scutes (the segments of keratin overlaying the bony shell). After their 18th growing season, wood turtles typically stop adding new growth annuli, and the shell begins to wear down from environmental forces. I wouldn’t be surprised if this male celebrated his 18th year long ago.

Turtle 587 can be distinguished by adding the shell markings together.
(100 + 400) + (10 + 70) + (7) = 587. This number will remain encoded in the turtle’s marginal scutes for the duration of its life.

“Found him!” I call out to Houston who is a few paces from me.

Plucking him from the water, however, I realize it’s not 589 at all. The unique code of file notches along the outer rim of his carapace (top shell) confirms that this, rather, is turtle 587. He too is an old male, but not one whom I’ve seen with regularity. In fact, this male was marked by two friends and I in 2012, as part of a range-wide occurrence and data-gaining initiative by the Northeastern Wood Turtle Working Group, and I haven’t seen him since. I’m glad to see him again.

We take several photos to document the turtle, including an obligatory selfie with Houston commemorating his first wild wood turtle, and place him back in the stream where we found him.

Jordan Gray (left) and Houston Chandler (right) commemorate the finding of the day’s (and Houston’s) first wild wood turtle.

“There’s one,” Houston says, pointing to a mangle of tree roots only minutes later.

I try to gain a visual of the turtle myself, but it quickly slips away into its refugia. Knowing that there are probably other turtles tucked away within this complex of roots, logs, and fallen leaves, we choose to not disturb their winter refuge and move on. We are soon rewarded by yet another wood turtle who is actively perusing the stream bed in an adjacent pool.

Male wood turtles are commonly found in solitude, staking claim to a pool in the stream as they await their chance to breed females, who too have returned to the water for winter.

This specimen, an adult male, is new to me, displaying no physical markings on his carapace as a turtle I’ve stumbled upon in past surveys. We photograph his carapace and plastron (bottom shell) for recording keeping and continue downstream. Not far from him, we happen upon our fourth turtle, another male, also new to me.

A colloquial name for the wood turtle is “Old Red Legs.” Depending on geographic region and population, the skin color of wood turtles may be found in various shades of yellow, pink, orange, and red.

Males tend to be more commonly encountered during my stream forays as they remain active in and around communal hibernacula, patiently waiting for females to come out of hiding or return to the stream for winter. This behavior is a reproductive strategy they employ in hopes of mating with a female during the final days before winter takes its grip on the landscape. He too is photographed for record keeping.

We continue for another 2 kilometers, finding one more turtle known to me by its carapacial markings, and several others that have not been recorded until today. Out of the nine turtles found today, seven are “new” adult specimens­­—this elates me, as it demonstrates that there is still much knowledge to gain from this population.

It is not uncommon to find wood turtles with missing limbs from an interaction with a predator such as a raccoon or otter.

Finishing our day in wood turtle’s domain, we step out of the creek and tromp through its riparian woodland until we reach a gravel road that takes us back to where my car is parked. Standing on the bank where we started our venture hours ago, we take one last look at the creek, watching as the last of the day’s sunlight dances upon the ripples of the water, wondering how many turtles escaped our searching eyes. Many I believe.

Here, at least for now, the population appears as robust as it did 25 years ago, when my grandfather and I first started walking the stream in search of woodies. Hopefully it will continue to be for the next generation.

Sadly, the beautiful wood turtle, a once common species, has declined throughout much of its range. For wood turtles to remain on the landscape we must protect their habitats and always leave wild turtles where they belong, in the wild.

###

North American Wood Turtles are protected in every American state and Canadian province in which they exist, ranging in status from a Species of Special Concern to Endangered. Once an abundant turtle, habitat fragmentation, alteration, and destruction, road mortality, and collection for the pet and food trades have severely depleted, if not altogether extirpated populations. To help wood turtles, please never take one from the wild, do not purchase illegally collected turtles, use best land management practices for wildlife, and report any sightings to your state or provincial herpetologist. The best place for a wild wood turtle is in the wild!

Leave a Comment