Why do turtles dig holes?

My children found an abandoned baby turtle in our yard and are begging to keep it. Should I let them?

J.H., Virginia Beach

I’m never in favor of keeping wild animals as pets. Your turtle wasn’t “abandoned”; it was captured by another species (that would be you) with no expertise in providing the food, shelter, or social environment necessary for its best care. I’m not alone in this opinion — the Humane Society of the United States and most veterinarians agree with me. You should return the turtle to where it was found and release it as soon as possible.

Another problem associated with turtles is that they carry salmonella bacteria, and can infect people who touch them and don’t wash their hands afterward. In the 1970s, the FDA banned the sale of baby turtles because a quarter of a million children developed salmonellosis — the same food poisoning you might get from undercooked chicken — directly attributable to contact with turtles. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control recommends that reptiles and amphibians not be kept in homes with children under 5 years old.

Of course, an injured animal presents a different situation, one that might require a brief stint in captivity. Had the turtle in your yard been hurt, I would advise you to take it to a vet who could evaluate the problem, monitor it for a day or two, then release it back into the wild.

If you — or your kids — are determined to own a turtle, buy one that’s been born and raised in captivity. (Eastern box and three-toed box turtles both do well as pets.) It’ll be used to eating “turtle food” and living in confinement, and won’t be as easily stressed as a wild-caught critter. Don’t forget, these animals can live 25 to 30 years, so it’s a long-term commitment. And always scrub up after handling a turtle.

Stand Back When Snapping Turtles Crop Up In The Garden

The best thing to do when this gal shows up in your garden is to let her be T. Susan Chang hide caption

toggle caption T. Susan Chang

The best thing to do when this gal shows up in your garden is to let her be

T. Susan Chang

Late spring in a New England vegetable garden is usually a time for the last asparagus, the crisp lettuce and arugula, the first pea shoots, and the first sprouting of warm-weather crops like peppers and zucchini. What you don’t expect to see planted in your beds are snapping turtles. But that’s just what turned up in mine twice this week.

I was talking in my garden with a friend when I noticed what looked like a large leather satchel tossed in the strawberry bed. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a 30-pound snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) — no doubt on leave from our nearby town pond — and capable of snapping off a finger with a beak curved as close and tight as my heavy-duty pruners. Over the next couple of days, reports of turtle sightings from friends and neighbors seemed to come in every few hours.
Apparently, the appearance of these uninvited garden guests was no fluke. It’s been happening a lot lately as their natural habitats shrink.

It’s nesting season, says Alexxia Bell of the Turtle Rescue League. Female snapping turtles leave their watery habitats behind once a year to lay eggs. “Basically, they like top loam, where a little sun will hit it. They’ll dig on a bit of a hill, not a valley,” she tells The Salt. In other words, from a turtle’s point of view, a recently cultivated raised garden bed looks like a pretty ideal spot.

You can eat the eggs, or call a wildlife rescue team to incubate them properly T. Susan Chang hide caption

toggle caption T. Susan Chang

You can eat the eggs, or call a wildlife rescue team to incubate them properly

T. Susan Chang

After finding a promising site, female snapping turtles scuffle the dirt with their hind legs and lay a clutch of 15 to 50 eggs. It’s best, Bell says, to “let the turtle just do her thing. After a couple of hours she’ll leave, and she won’t come back till next year.” Between laying the eggs and returning to the site for the next clutch, “she’ll have nothing to do with her young.”

In fact, the Turtle Rescue League encourages residents to create “turtle gardens” — what look like ordinary raised beds for flowers or vegetables, left unplanted for turtles to discover and use as nests.
Although it’s best to leave the snapping turtle alone, if you must move it, first make sure no small children or pets are close by, as sudden and unpredictable movement can rile it, Bell says. They do have a mean bite.

Approach quickly but calmly from behind, and place one hand palm up under the turtle’s belly — as in this video. Lift the tail near the base of the shell with the other hand, and don’t go within two feet of the beak, she says. Snapping turtles have long and flexible necks, and can stretch their heads backward over their shells and sideways all the way to their back legs to get at you when they feel threatened.

Don’t lift the turtle off the ground by the tail, as this can dislodge the turtle’s vertebrae and sharply reduce its chance of survival in the wild, Bell says.

When I returned to the garden a couple of days after my turtle encounter to transplant some zucchini, I found a bonus under the dirt — eggs that looked like 30 or so miniature pingpong balls. I spooned them into my transplant pots and brought them inside.

I consulted with friends online, who were equally divided over whether the eggs should be disposed of, incubated or eaten.

Two suggested they be eaten either raw or barely cooked with a hole poked in the top and a bit of soy sauce or green chili drizzled in (the latter method having been sampled by a friend traveling in Nicaragua, where turtle eggs and meat are widely consumed). I considered slurping one down, but the memory of Mrs. Snapper’s reproachful, prehistoric gaze eventually proved too much for me.
According to Bell, the eggs are very delicate, and the embryo within can be killed if turned or jarred. If you wait until the turtles hatch, they can be removed in a box to a lake or stream.

Some folks eat turtle stew and such — but if it’s all a little too Alice In Wonderland for you, a more ecologically-minded alternative is to contact your local conservation society to arrange for pickup and proper incubation. In the end, that’s what I did — in exchange for a promise that our family could be present when they begin to hatch.

Turtle Situations & Solutions

snapping turtle © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon

Turtles often find themselves navigating developed areas—you may find a turtle crossing a busy road, or laying eggs in your yard. We can help you decide when to intervene. In most cases, turtles should be left alone, and we also discourage people from taking wild turtles as pets.

Turtles Crossing Roads

In late spring and early summer, adult female turtles cross roads in search of nest sites. Each species has a different habitat requirement, but when searching for a nest site they usually choose sandy or loose soil in lawns, tilled or mowed fields, roadsides, and occasionally backyard compost piles.

It is often assumed that something is wrong when a turtle is crossing the road. People, with best intentions, mistakenly attempt to return it to water, take it home, or, take it somewhere that seems safer and release it. But the best thing to do is leave it alone. The turtle knows where it wants to go and may have been nesting in the same spot for many years—or even decades.

If a small turtle is in danger of being hit by cars, it can be moved in the direction it was headed, to the other side of the road. Snapping turtles can be dangerous and should not be handled. They are surprisingly fast for their size and can extend their necks the length of their carapace. NEVER pick up a snapping turtle by the tail because you could seriously injure it.

Turtles Laying Eggs in Yards

Turtles that are looking to lay eggs frequently wander into yards, especially those near ponds, lakes, and rivers. These animals should not be disturbed, but can be observed from a distance.

People often ask whether they should protect a turtle’s nest with fencing. This is not an easy question to answer. Predators that seek turtle eggs are usually a natural part of the environment. If you wish, you may flag the site in order to locate it in the fall and possibly observe the hatchlings.

Wild Turtles in Captivity

A serious threat to turtle populations has been the collection of turtles as pets. By law, only two species of turtles may be taken from the wild: snapping turtles and painted turtles. However, Mass Audubon discourages people from taking any turtle from the wild for the following reasons:

  • It reduces local populations.
  • If the owner grows tired of the responsibility and releases a turtle back into the wild, the animal may not survive, depending on the age when it was captured, the length of time in captivity, and the location of its release.
  • Turtles need special care so that they don’t suffer from skin infections and shell abscesses. Improper nutrition may result in eye disease, the softening of the shell, and the loss of bone mass.

Turtle Species in Massachusetts

There are 10 species of turtles in Massachusetts. They range from the tiny bog turtle, which measures 3-4” long, to the snapping turtle, which can reach up to 19” long. In addition, five sea turtles have also been found offshore or stranded on beaches. Learn More

Turtles and the Law

Massachusetts law makes it illegal to possess any turtle listed on the state and/or federal endangered species list. Although it is legal to collect some turtle species, we discourage anyone from doing so. No turtles, including snapping turtles, can be caught and sold for food without a permit from the state.

If you find a turtle that is listed under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, take a picture to confirm the identification, and notify the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.

Common Snapping Turtle

Scientific name: Chelydra serpentina serpentina

The common snapping turtle has a broad range and is found throughout the eastern two-thirds of the United States and in southern and eastern Canada.

The snapping turtle is a common inhabitant of Minnesota’s waterways, from rivers to lakes to swamps. It’s an important part of Minnesota’s environment. It is a predator and helps keep populations of other animals in balance.

Snapping turtles prefer slow moving and shallow waters, such as lakes and swamps. But, snapping turtles can also live on the edge of deeper lakes and rivers.

Although snappers live up north, they hunt like alligators. They will lie still in water and wait for an unsuspecting critter to swim by — usually a fish. If it is something that a turtle can eat, it will probably end up being the turtle’s next meal.

Baby snappers eat insects, worms, snails, small fish, water plants, and anything edible that it can find. Adult snappers eat larger critters, such as crayfish, fish, frogs, salamanders, tadpoles, toads, snakes, other turtles, small mammals and young water birds, such as ducklings. They are also scavengers and clean up dead animals and fish. What most people don’t know is that snappers also eat lots of plants. In fact, water plants make up to one one-third of their diet!

How did this type of turtle get its name? It’s because of how they eat. They will slowly approach their prey and then lunge at it with incredible speed. They move so fast that their prey doesn’t even see them coming. Then, “snap”! A fish can disappear instantly into the snapper’s mouth. Sometimes, a snapping turtle can catch two or three fish at a time!

Snapping turtles are very shy around people and try not to be noticed by us. That’s because they consider people a possible threat, so they will try to get away to defend themselves from us.

When a snapping turtle is caught by a person it is very aggressive and will lunge at you very quickly with its mouth wide open. Its jaws close with a loud “crunch” when its neck reaches full length. If it grabbed something in its jaws, it doesn’t easily let it go. Snapping turtles have a very strong bite and powerful jaws that are designed to cut, not crush. It can easily cut off your fingers. So, don’t bother snapping turtles — just leave them alone if you see them. And remember that they are important to have in our environment.

Occasionally, mutations occur in snapping turtles. One of the more common mutations is a turtle that has two heads (bicephalous). This mutation is not believed to be caused by something bad in our environment; most herpetologists (people who study reptiles and amphibians) believe it is just a part of nature.

Snapping turtles can live over 30 years in the wild. But, many of them don’t live very long. When they are hatchlings, lots of other critters prey on them, including birds, raccoons, cats, dogs, fox and other turtles. But, their main predator is people. Many people hunt them for meat — ever heard of turtle soup? Fortunately, there are now turtle farms that raise turtles commercially. And some states protect turtles so that they can’t be hunted.

In addition to problems with predators, snapping turtles also have problems finding a place to live. A lot of their natural habitat is being changed by people, making it unfit for turtles. So if you see a snapping turtle, you’ll know how important they are and how important it is for us to protect them.

Order: Testudines
Family: Chelydroidea
Genus: Chelydra
Species: serpentina serpentina

More Info

Links

  • Snapping Turtles of Canada
  • Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Want to know more about Minnesota’s water? Check out our Water page and find out how the MPCA helps to protect Minnesota’s water.

Turtle In My Yard

If you live next to a pond, lake, river, swamp, or other body of water, chances are you have turtle visitors in the late spring. With habitats shrinking due to land development, new roads, and even changing climate, turtles are traveling further, trying to locate a place to lay their eggs. More people are reporting turtles digging in their yards or along their driveways than ever before.

So what does this all mean?

First, CONGRATULATIONS, this is a real gift from nature. Very few people get to witness such a miracle of life. You are witnessing an act that has been taking place for over 200 million years. That mother turtle is doing what her mother did, and in turn, her mother’s mother did, all the way back through time, while dinosaurs roamed, and even earlier! The real miracle is that this humble turtle was never taught, never witnessed her mother, and yet she knows.

Nest selection is a very special process. That turtle in your yard chose your yard. Turtles visually look for a spot, then they sniff and rub their faces into the soil, and finally they dig. If something is not to their liking, they will keep searching, even if they already dug a deep hole. The turtle knows how important this act of nesting is for her species survival and so should we! Too many local populations are collapsing and it is all because that mother turtle, looking for a special spot, is unable to complete her task.

Week 6: Digging Holes and Dropping Eggs

Nesting season is winding down and that means that we are no longer monitoring our turtles at night to see where they lay eggs! We were able to follow a total of 21 turtles as they naturally nested in the wild and those nests will be periodically checked for depredation (destruction of nest by animals like raccoons or skunks who eat turtle eggs) until they hatch!

Natural Egg Deposition

In the wild, a Blanding’s turtle will typically nest in June. Nesting females can travel distances of two miles to reach their preferred nesting site! Many females have sites that they return to year after year and so when a turtle we are tracking moves a large distance very quickly around the month of June, we can be pretty certain that she is preparing to nest! Blanding’s turtles nest at night presumably in part to make it harder for predators to find the nests but can begin digging holes before sunset. During the night, the female may start to dig several different holes only to abandon them and move to dig a new hole. Females may continue this behavior for several nights, never completing a hole and laying eggs until all of the right conditions are met, many of which are still unknown. A completed hole is flask shaped and is roughly 12 cm deep with enough room to lay and bury the eggs. The female will dig with her front legs and back legs, and will also use her back legs to position the eggs after they have been laid. After all eggs have been laid, the female can spend several hours covering up the hole and then may spend the rest of the night under cover near the nesting site or make the journey back to her home range that very night. The eggs will spend approximately 2 – 3 months incubating (60 days) until they hatch. The hatchlings remain in their nest cavity after hatching to absorb the yolk from the eggs. After the yolk sac is absorbed, the hatchlings emerge to begin their own journey and find a home range.

Challenges to this natural cycle of nesting include nesting sites being developed on, depredation, and a low hatchling survival rate. The encroachment of people on historical nesting sites can lead to turtles wandering on roads and through populated areas to find nesting sites which may not exist anymore. And as discussed in previous blogs, overly inflated populations of mesopredators likeraccoons can lead to increased numbers of nests being destroyed and eaten. In Lake County, before the introduction of raccoon management at certain Blanding’s turtle sites, 92.3% of all monitored Blanding’s nests were depredated before the eggs had a chance to hatch. Given that in these same areas, Blanding’s turtle hatchlings born in the wild have a less than 1% chance of making it from egg to adulthood, these factors together create an unsustainable trend that contributes to the decline of these Blanding’s populations. Today, after a few years of raccoon management (was first implemented in 2013), we see that depredation of nests has decreased to 40% of monitored nests. Hopefully, with continued management along with other programs aimed at supporting Blanding’s in these areas, these populations will progress towards self-sustaining.

Quick Fact: Out of 100 eggs deposited in the wild, 7 eggs will successfully hatch. About 66% of those 7 hatched eggs will survive the first year. Less than 1% of the total 100 eggs will survive until adulthood.

Induced Egg Deposition

A program that all begins with nesting season is Lake County’s Blanding’s Turtle Recovery Program. This program utilizes the action of head-starting populations from young Blanding’s born and raised in captivity. Each season approximately ten gravid females are brought to McHenry County Wildlife Research Center to induce egg-laying. Currently prostaglandin is the drug of choice used to induce oviposition in Blanding’s turtles. Oxytocin had been used in the past however had been noted to cause effects such as turtles still exhibiting nesting behavior once returned to the wild, making them more prone to predation or trauma while looking for the perfect place to “nest.” Eggs are collected from these induced turtles and they are homed in an incubator at the Wildlife Research Center for development, while the female is returned to her natural habitat. Once in substrate and placed in an incubator the eggs can not be rotated or fiddled with; when an egg is laid the embryo inside attaches to the wall of the shell. Tampering with the egg can cause movement and deformation of the developing embryo, with a chance of embryo death. Physical development can be controlled with incubation temperature. Females tend to develop close to 30.5 degrees Celsius while males tend to develop in conditions closer to 26.5 degrees Celsius. Half males and half females are targeted for inhopes of further increasing population numbers – this is about what would happen in the wild. When eggs are incubated in captivity it takes about 45 days, compared to 60 in the wild, before hatching. This year we had ten turtles induced resulting in 128 eggs (plus Abigail’s 6 eggs)! About 85% of these will hatch successfully in captivity. The goal of the Recovery Program is to release 100 head-starts each year and this will surely be met for 2017. Hatching and raising these head starts in captivity provides a better chance of survival in the wild. Turtles that are at least a couple years old and significantly larger than newborn turtles have a better chance of reaching that sexually-mature adult age of 14-20 years old. These turtles that are then released into the wild to carry on their journey as termed head-starts. In future years, finding these turtles is a good reflection of population and species success. Recently, Lake County has initiated a program where you can “adopt” one of these turtles! By donating to the Blanding’s turtle recovery program you get the opportunity to name a specific turtle in which you receive a photo of and any future updates when that turtle is found in the wild – all while supporting an endangered species. Attached is a link where you can adopt one yourself!

Lauren’s High/Low:

This past week we have started to re-sample the tracked turtles for a second time. Over the course of the summer we are aiming to attain four samples from each of the approximately 50 telemetered turtles (May, June, July, August). We will be trying for all the turtle we come across to get multiple samples, but we don’t have a sure chance of seeing our trapped and handcaps again after we initially sample them. I was out with a telemetry set looking for Starla, a female who had just previously nested, when I “kicked” what I thought had to have been a turtle with my boot in the water. It certainly was – yup, this is a hand-capture! It was notched and so I sent the code to Gary who returned me with information that it was a head-started 2014 turtle and was also an initial capture for the year! It is always exciting, especially this far into the summer to get a turtle that has not been seen yet this season. I took a “shellfie” (turtle-selfie), marked GPS and put that gem into the front pocket of my waders to carry on in search of Starla. This was my high. I carried on and trekked through a fairly deep stream to find Starla where she swam around me in circles for five minutes. When I finally got her I put her in my backpack, packed up my telemetry and headed back to the base of our field site to work up these two turtles. I got back and unloaded my gear, took Starla out of my backpack, and reached into my pocket for my hand capture and… there was no turtle! It was gone, jumped out, disappeared, teleported somewhere somehow! This was my low. I walked the same trail back and forth twice while returning Starla and no sign of ghost turtle. It was a sad moment but that is when I decided I knew where I wanted to stack some of my traps for Blanding’s Bowl.

John’s High/Low:

This past week’s high was realizing how much more proficient Lauren and I are in the lab!! We had a few challenging days this week with the start of re-sampling all of our telemetered turtles again with one day giving us 16 samples! At the beginning of the summer, that amount of samples may have taken us until past midnight to finish but this week we were able to breeze through hemocytometers and PCV/TP to allow us to be home by 9:30! It was so rewarding to reach a visible benchmark in our lab skills and I can’t wait to see how much more we can improve throughout the rest of the summer!

My low for this week was having a battle over my traps with a gang of raccoons. I set my turtle traps this week in an area that has dried up significantly with the lack of rain in Lake County over the past couple weeks. Some of my traps had to be set in shallow water and when I checked them the day after setting them, HALF of my traps had been dragged out of the water and the sardine cans ripped open and emptied! I had known that raccoons were in the area but I was surprised at their resourcefulness and dexterity it must have taken to remove the sardine cans and rip them open! By the end of the week, 6 of my 10 traps had their sardine cans eaten on multiple days and one of my traps was hidden or dragged so far away from its original site, that I was unable to find it again! It was amazing to see how smart and crafty these raccoons could be, but it would have been more amazing if they could have been crafty with something other than my traps this week.

Lake County Forest Preserve’s Adopt a Turtle Program

Turtles are laying eggs now. Just like birds. OK, so not exactly like birds. To begin with many birds, robins and mourning doves and red-winged blackbirds and many others built nests and laid eggs as much as two months ago. Turtles are just now laying their eggs.

We saw a snapping turtle laying in our pasture a few days ago. We didn’t actually see that snapper’s eggs. We saw this big turtle with its rear in the ground, and we knew it was a female and she was laying. We knew when she finished she’d cover her eggs with dirt. We could have waited and dug the eggs up after that turtle had covered them and left, but we didn’t. A raccoon or an opossum might, however.

Birds, most birds, sit on their eggs, incubate them, then feed the nestlings after they hatch. Turtle eggs are incubated by the warmth of the earth, which is why they aren’t laid earlier. Turtles wait until the ground is warm, until summer, and then they lay their eggs. When the eggs hatch, the little turtles dig their way out and are on their own.

Turtles themselves spend the winter in the earth, water turtles buried in the mud of the bottom of a lake or pond or marsh. They don’t have gills. They can’t get oxygen from water like fish. But those that live where lakes and ponds freeze over, where the ground freezes to a depth of several inches, survive for months without air.

Woodland turtles dig into the ground and bury themselves in the earth as the days get short and the nights turn cold. They, too, survive through the winter without air.

Falling temperatures drive turtles into winter quarters; rising temperatures bring them out. When the snow and ice are gone, when the sun is shining brightly, those turtles that have spent the winter buried in the mud in the bottom of lakes and ponds emerge, swim to the surface and clamber out on logs and rocks. There they bask in the sunshine, as much a sign of spring as the male red-winged blackbirds that have returned from winter in the south and call from cattails nearby.

Water turtles, woodland turtles, those are two general categories. There are a number of species in those categories, which are not official classifications, just convenient designations based on habitat. That snapper we saw in our pasture is a water turtle. Its home is in the water, but snappers leave the water to lay their eggs, then return to the water. Other water turtles of our area are map, mud, musk, painted and softshell. Box turtles, and there are several species, are woodland turtles.

Woodland or water turtle, however, this is the time of year when all turtles go to land and lay their eggs. This is the time of year when turtles are seen, and many killed crossing roads. If I’m not in a hurry or in traffic when I see a turtle in the road, I often stop, get out and carry it across the road. However, I’ve seen people deliberately swerve their car to run over a turtle in the road.

Turtle, turtle, turtle; tortoise, cooter, slider, stinkpot; they’re all of a group, all reptiles. They all wear a shell, a shield on their backs called a carapace, a shield underneath called a plastron. They’re all slow-moving on land, though those that spend much time in water can swim quite rapidly. They catch and eat worms, insect larvae, small fish, other small animals and vegetation. They’re slow-moving, that is, except their head and neck. They can strike quickly, and the bite of a large snapper is a painful experience.

NEIL CASE may be reached at [email protected]

Turtles of Wisconsin

Turtle Eggs

Turtles like this common map turtle, use their
egg tooth to cut through the tough outer shell
in order to hatch. Can you spot the egg tooth?

All turtles lay their eggs on land, most in a nest that they dig. Most nest once a year, but some painted turtles and map turtles may nest twice in the same season. Nesting usually occurs around or after dusk, but it may also happen near dawn or even occasionally during the day. Smaller turtle species lay about 3-5 eggs while larger turtles like the snapping turtles lay from 30-80 eggs. Once the eggs are laid, the female turtle leaves them to hatch on their own. Turtle eggs are often uncovered and eaten by foxes, raccoons and skunks.

Eggs incubate from 60 to 90 days in Wisconsin, depending on the species. During a cool summer, it might take even longer. Some eggs laid late in the season may not hatch until the following spring. Those that hatch in early fall, will overwinter in the nest. A glycol-like antifreeze keeps the eggs or hatchlings from freezing during the winter. But, if the winter is very dry or cold with little snow cover, many of the eggs and hatchlings will die.

Fun Fact. Here’s an interesting tidbit about turtles. The incubation temperature of eggs determines the sex of turtles in most Wisconsin species including Blanding’s, maps, painted, ornate box, and snapping turtles. For these species of turtles, nests produce more females at high incubation temperatures and more males at lower temperatures.

Compared to other animals, turtles are very slow to mature. Female Blanding’s turtles may take from 17-20 years to reach sexual maturity. But, since turtles are generally long-lived creatures, this hasn’t been a problem. The fact that turtles can live and reproduce for many decades is probably why they have survived for so long. But, recently, human activities have increased the death of adult turtles. Many turtles are killed by cars as they cross roads. Also, our elimination of large predators has allowed medium-sized predators to increase. These medium-sized predators like foxes, raccoons, and skunks have increased the predation on turtles nests. We’ll have to keep a close eye on turtle populations.

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