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Guide to Helping Massachusetts Turtles

10 species of native freshwater turtles live in Massachusetts, in addition to sea turtles. Of the 10 native terrestrial and aquatic species, six are listed under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA). Massachusetts also has one widely distributed, introduced (non-native) turtle species.

Table of Contents

MESA Listed Turtles

Blanding's Turtle

Photo by Lori Erb

Blanding's Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii)

Status: MA Threatened

Habitat: Shallow marshes, shrub-swamps, vernal pools

Geography: Eastern MA, except Cape Cod

Diamond-backed Terrapin

Photo by MassWildlife

Northern Diamond-backed Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin)

Status: MA Threatened

Habitat: Salt marshes

Geography: Coastal areas of MA

Northern Red-bellied Cooter

Photo by Bill Byrne, MassWildlife

Northern Red-bellied Cooter (Pseudemys rubriventris)

Status: MA Endangered, Federally Endangered

Habitat: Ponds and streams

Geography: Plymouth County, MA

Bog Turtle

Photo by Lori Erb

Bog Turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii)

Status: MA Endangered; Federally Threatened

Habitat: Fens

Geography: Southwestern MA

Eastern Box Turtle

Photo by Liz Willey

Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina)

Status: MA Special Concern

Habitat: Woods, fields, wetland edges

Geography: Throughout MA, except northwest corner

Wood Turtle

Photo by Mike Jones, NHESP

Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta)

Status: MA Special Concern

Habitat: Rivers, streams, fields, woods

Geography: Throughout MA, except Cape Cod and the Islands

Additional Resources   for MESA Listed Turtles

Non-listed Turtles

Species Habitat Geography
Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) Shrub-swamps, vernal pools, wet meadows, shallow marshes Throughout MA
Eastern Musk Turtle/Stinkpot (Sternotherus odoratus) Rivers, streams, ponds Throughout MA
Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) Most wetlands Throughout MA
Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) Most wetlands Throughout MA
Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)* Ponds and streams Throughout MA

*The Red-eared Slider is an introduced, invasive, non-native species in Massachusetts, but it is now widely distributed.  

Spotted Turtle. Photo by Mike Jones, MassWildlife
Spotted Turtle. Photo by Mike Jones, MassWildlife

Additional Resources   for Non-listed Turtles

Why are turtles in trouble?

Eastern Box Turtle. Photo by Mike Jones, MassWildlife
Eastern Box Turtle. Photo by Mike Jones, MassWildlife

Adult turtles live a long time! Some, like this box turtle, can live longer than 100 years. However, because turtle eggs and juvenile turtles have so many predators and other survival difficulties, only a small percentage of turtles even reach adulthood. Survival is critical for the adult turtles that are fortunate enough to have surmounted the many obstacles of their youth. For this reason, turtles must live for many years and reproduce many times to replace themselves and their populations. Losing any adult turtles, particularly adult females, can very quickly result in the local extinction of a population.

Most turtles need many types of habitats to fulfill all their survival needs. For example, Blanding's Turtles typically:

  • 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.

To access all these resources in one season, many turtles cross roads. Cars and trucks are among the top threats to turtles.

Turtles' number one threat is habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation from residential and commercial development. Other threats include:

  • collection as pets (both commercial and incidental)

  • disease

  • increased predation in urban and suburban areas

  • succession of nesting and other open habitats

Collection of Wild Turtles

Eastern Painted Turtle. Photo by Mike Jones, MassWildlife
Eastern Painted Turtle. Photo by Mike Jones, MassWildlife

All but three species of turtles in Massachusetts (Eastern Painted Turtle, Stinkpot, and Common Snapping Turtle) are protected, meaning they cannot be captured or kept. All other turtles require a permit to possess, alive or dead, including shells

If you are already in possession of a wild turtle, and it has been with any other turtles, or if it has been in captivity for a long time, please avoid releasing it. It could transmit a disease to other wild turtles. In these cases, you can contact MassWildlife Field Headquarters at (508) 389-6300.

If it has not been with other turtles, or been in captivity for long, please return it to the wild in the same location where it was found, so it can find food, shelter, and mates.

You can possess turtles purchased from pet stores, which should not sell state-listed species, but you can never release them into the wild. They may carry and transmit diseases to our native wild turtles (e.g. mycoplasma, Ranavirus)

Turtles in the Road

Look for turtles on roads, especially from mid-May to early July.

Avoid risking harm to yourself or others, if it is unsafe for you to pull off a road or try to dodge traffic. If you do have a safe opportunity to help move a turtle, move it in the direction it is already headed, off the edge of the road. It is trying to get to the habitats and resources it needs. Avoid taking turtles home, and avoid moving them anywhere farther away, even if you think it might be a "better" location.

Turtles move on roads, in yards, and across landscapes to get to the resources they need, including nesting areas. Turtles have strong homing instincts. If you move one, it will most likely try to return home, and in the process it will cross many more roads. The place you find them is the habitat they know most intimately, because they have grown up in the surrounding area. Moving turtles also increases the risk of spreading disease.

Injured Turtles

Please leave turtles with minor injuries, such as a hurt foot or damage to the outer rim of a shell, exactly where you find them. They are resilient, and they will most likely heal on their own. For major injuries, such as a large open wound, please contact a local wildlife rehabilitator, or a veterinarian or wildlife clinic.

Always call first, to make sure the rehabilitator can treat turtles. Not all veterinarians or wildlife rehabilitators are able to do so. Below is a list of providers that treat turtles. This list is not complete. Any provider who would like to be added to the list can contact Mike Jones at (508) 389-7863.

To find a licensed wildlife rehabilitator near you, please visit Find a wildlife rehabilitator.

Please also note that wildlife rehabilitators are not authorized to rehabilitate Endangered, Threatened, or Special Concern species protected under MESA. If you are not sure whether you have found a listed species, please contact the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.

Additional Resources   for Injured Turtles

Turtle Nesting

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. Avoid moving female turtles or any turtles to a "better" location.

Hatchlings 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. If hatchlings are moved out of harm's way, they should never be moved more than 50 yards.

Snapping Turtles

Snapping Turtle. Photo by Mike Jones, MassWildlife
Snapping Turtle. Photo by Mike Jones, MassWildlife

The best thing to do is to leave Snapping Turtles alone and they will typically move off within a few hours. Your house may have been built in 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 to coax it into a plastic tub or box. This is the best method because Snapping Turtles are fast and have very powerful jaws that can inflict a bad bite. 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; this can injure their spine.

Image credits:  Top Photo: Wood Turtle, Glyptemys insculpta. Photo by Mike Jones, NHESP

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