1. Why are turtles in trouble?
Adult turtles live a long time! For example, Box Turtles are known to live longer than 100 years. However, because turtle eggs and juvenile turtles have so many predators and must face many other survival difficulties, only a small percentage of turtles ever reach adulthood. Therefore, the survival of adult turtles, which have been fortunate enough to surmount these obstacles, is very important. For this reason, a turtle must live for many years and reproduce many times in order to replace themselves in their population. Losing any adult turtles, and particularly adult females, is a serious problem that can tragically lead to the eventual local extinction of a population.
Most turtles require multiple types of habitats to fulfill all of their survival needs. For example, Blanding's Turtles usually overwinter in permanent wetlands, feed in upland vernal pools, nest in open gravelly upland areas, and move among marshes, shrub swamps and other wetland types throughout the summer. In order to access all of these resources in one season, many will cross roads. Roads are one of the most prominent threats to turtles. The number one threat is habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation due to residential and commercial development. Other threats include collection as pets (both commercial and incidental), disease, increased levels of predation in urban and suburban areas, and succession of nesting and other open habitats.
2. May I collect a wild turtle?
All but three species of turtles in Massachusetts (Eastern Painted Turtle, Stinkpot, and Common Snapping Turtle) are protected and can not be captured and kept. It is illegal to possess a Spotted Turtle. All other turtles require a permit to possess live or dead individuals (including shells).
3. May I possess a turtle as a pet?
You may possess any turtles purchased from a pet store (pet stores should not be selling state-listed species). However, these turtles should never be released into the wild; they may harbor diseases that can be transmitted to our native wild turtles (e.g. mycoplasma, Ranavirus).
4. What should I do if I already have a protected species of turtle that came from the wild?
Do not release it into the wild if it has been kept with any other turtles or if it has been in captivity for a long period of time! It could transmit a disease to other wild turtles. In these cases, contact the Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program (508-389-6360). Otherwise, individuals returned to the wild should be set free at the same location where they were found. That's where they know where to find food, shelter, and mates.
5. What should I do if I see a turtle on the road?
First and foremost, do not risk getting hurt or causing harm to others by unsafely pulling off the road or trying to dodge traffic. However, if the opportunity to safely move a turtle occurs, move
it in the direction it was heading and off the edge of the road. It is trying to get to habitats and resources it needs. Do not take turtles home or move them to a "better location". See question 8 for directions on how to move a Snapping Turtle. Report rare species to Natural Heritage using the Rare Species Observation Form.
6. Is the turtle lost? Should I move a turtle to a better location?
Turtles that are found on roads, in backyards, and in other unexpected areas are moving about the landscape to reach resources they need, such as nesting areas. Don't take them to a "better place"! Turtles have strong homing instincts, so if you move one to "better" habitat, it is very likely to try to return home and in the process cross many roads. Where you find them is the area that they are familiar with; they know it intimately because they have grown up in the surrounding area. Moving them also increases the risk of spreading disease to other wild turtles.
7. What should I do with an injured turtle?
Turtles with minor injuries (e.g. a hurt foot or damage to the outer rim of the shell) should be left where you found them. They are very resilient and will likely heal just fine on their own. When injuries are major (e.g. large open wound), you should contact a local wildlife rehabilitator, veterinarian or wildlife clinic. Always call first to make sure they treat turtles! Not all veterinarians or wildlife rehabilitators will accept turtles. We have started a list of veterinarians and rehabilitators in the state that treat turtles. This list is not complete and persons that would like to be added to the list should contact Mike Jones at (508) 389-7863. If you're not sure if you have a listed species, contact the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.
8. A turtle is digging a nest in my yard, what do I do?
Nesting season is from late May to early July, with a peak in early June. Females nest in fields or residential yards, areas where the nest will get sunlight throughout the day to incubate the eggs. They prefer patches of bare sandy soil when available. If you find a nesting female the best thing to do is to keep people and animals away from the area until she has finished nesting, which can take several hours. If it is a rare species, take a picture of the female before she leaves the area and report your observation to NHESP using the online VPRS reporting system or on a paper Rare Animal Observation Form. Female should not be moved to a "better location".
9. I found a hatchling, what should I do?
Hatchlings typically emerge from the nest cavity from late August through early October. However, some (especially eastern painted turtles) may overwinter in the nest cavity and emerge in early spring. If you find a hatchling box turtle, you should take it to the nearest forest edge and release it near cover material such as a downed tree branch or pile of leaves. Box turtle hatchlings have a distinct midline ridge with three prominent bumps
and a light colored dot in each scute (plates or scales on the top shell) (see photo below).
The spotted turtle also has light colored dots in each scute but does not have a raised midline ridge. For hatchlings of all other species you should take them to the nearest vegetated area (forest edge, wetland edge). It is best to release them by cover material, like a pile of leaves. If the hatchling is found in the upland, move it to safety but remember that pond edges support many predators (bullfrogs, water snakes, herons, and raccoons) and studies have shown that several species of hatching turtle spend several weeks on land before moving to the water.
10. Snapping turtle questions
The best thing to do is to leave them alone and they will typically move off within a few hours. Your house may have been built in an an area where they had previously been nesting. Many turtles exhibit nest site fidelity where they return to the same location several years in a row. If you must move a snapping turtle, use a broom and plastic tub (or box) to capture them, by coaxing them into the tub. This is the best method because snapping turtles are fast and have very powerful jaws (can sever fingers). A snapping turtle can reach your hands if you lift it by the sides of its shell, but they cannot reach your hand directly under the shell, or at the bridge of the shell. Do not lift them only by the tail; that can injure their spine.
11. What else you can do to help:
- Report occurrences of state-listed species to Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program using a photograph of the turtle and filling out the Rare Animal Observation Form on paper or online using VPRS.
- Be more aware of turtles on the roads, especially from mid-May to early July.
- If mowing farmland or fields where there are known populations of box or wood turtles, restrict mowing times to September 15th through May 15th. This avoids the peak times turtles are found in the fields. If that's not possible, raise the mower blade to a height of 7 inches. For more suggestions see the NHESP Advisory Mowing Guidelines for ways to minimize turtle mortality while mowing fields and shrublands.
- Identify turtle habitats in your town.
- Ride ATV's only in areas designated for ATV use. ATVs can run over turtles and crush nests. If you see these activities in undesignated areas, call the Environmental Police 1-800-632-8075.
- Don't leave food outdoors for other animals if you have turtles on your property. This attracts small mammals such as raccoons, fox and skunks, which prey on turtles of all ages.
- Educate others about the conservation needs of turtles!
If you have other questions about turtles, please contact Mike Jones, State Herpetologist at (508) 389-7863 or firstname.lastname@example.org