By, Steven Krichbaum (Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology)
The Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) occurs from northern West Virginia and Virginia through the northeastern US into southern Canada. They are “very rare and imperiled” and a “species of greatest conservation need” in WV’s wildlife conservation strategy.
Adult Wood Turtles have a brownish knobby carapace (upper shell) around 6 to 8 inches long with scutes (plates) that has concentric growth rings (annuli) similar to the growth rings on a tree. The hingeless plastron (lower shell) is yellowish with a dark blotch on each scute. Adults are often brightly colored with orange on the neck and limbs. They lay one clutch annually of around 10 eggs.
Wood Turtles are tolerant of cold climates, and are more active at lower temperatures than many other reptiles. In the winter they actually hibernate under water, and then become increasingly terrestrial during the summer. Wood Turtles typically are found in clear flowing, low gradient, rocky-bottomed waters and adjacent hardwood or mixed forests, meadows, and old fields. They are usually within 300 meters of water.
Favorite foods include mushrooms, herbaceous leaves, berries, and many kinds of small animals, including earthworms, insects, snails, slugs, and tadpoles. Wood Turtles sometimes climb into bushes to eat berries, and are known for “stomping on the ground” to draw earthworms to the surface to eat.
Wood Turtles do not reach maturity until they are around 14, and can live for more than sixty years. Slow growth and low reproductive potential means these turtles must survive and reproduce for decades just to replace themselves. Populations cannot sustain heavy adult mortality..
Man-made development of the Wood Turtle’s native range has degraded aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, shrunken available habitat, and fragmented populations – harming present populations and limiting their ability to repopulate areas. Global climate change also threatens their aquatic and terrestrial habitats. Populations may not be able to reproduce or survive long enough to make up for collection, predation, and road kill.
Nonetheless, there are opportunities for effective conservation action. Collection and poaching of wild Wood Turtles for pets needs to stop. We must also protect Turtle habitat (in the 300-meter buffer zones around streams) from logging, road building, burning, and other development. Preserving Wood Turtle populations and habitat in our National Forests and other public lands is critical for ensuring their long-term survival.
Wood Turtles depend on clean water and intact forests. The bottom line — what’s good for Wood Turtles is good for people too!