11 different species of turtles can be found in Massachusetts. Massachusetts has 10 native terrestrial and aquatic turtles (not including sea turtles). 6 of these are listed under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA). Massachusetts also has 1 widely distributed, introduced (non-native) turtle species.
Guide Turtles of Massachusetts
MESA Listed Turtles
Photo by Lori Erb
Status: MA Threatened
Habitat: Shallow marshes, shrub-swamps, vernal pools
Geography: Eastern MA, except Cape Cod
Photo by MassWildlife
Status: MA Threatened
Habitat: Salt marshes
Geography: Coastal areas of MA
Photo by Bill Byrne, MassWildlife
Status: MA Endangered, Federally Endangered
Habitat: Ponds and streams
Geography: Plymouth County, MA
Photo by Lori Erb
Status: MA Endangered; Federally Threatened
Geography: Southwestern MA
Photo by Liz Willey
Status: MA Special Concern
Habitat: Woods, fields, wetland edges
Geography: Throughout MA, except northwest corner
Photo by Mike Jones, NHESP
Status: MA Special Concern
Habitat: Rivers, streams, fields, woods
Geography: Throughout MA, except Cape Cod and the Islands
|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|
*This is an introduced invasive species and is non-native to Massachusetts, but is now widely distributed throughout the state.
Why are turtles in trouble?
Adult turtles live a long time! For example, box turtles can live longer than 100 years. Yet, because turtle eggs and juvenile turtles have so many predators and other survival difficulties, only a small percentage of turtles ever reach adulthood. 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 to replace themselves in their population. Losing any adult turtles, and particularly adult females, is a serious problem that can lead to the eventual 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 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),
increased levels of predation in urban and suburban areas, and
succession of nesting and other open habitats.
Collection of Wild Turtles
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. All other turtles require a permit to possess live or dead individuals (including shells).
If you are in possession of a wild turtle, do not release it back into the wild if it has been 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 at (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.
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).
Turtles in the Road
Be more aware of turtles on the roads, especially from mid-May to early July.
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".
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.
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 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 accept turtles. Below is a list of wildlife clinics and veterinarians in Massachusetts 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.
To find a licensed wildlife rehabilitator near you, please see the Find a wildlife rehabilitator page.
Please keep in mind that wildlife rehabilitators are not authorized to rehabilitate Endangered, Threatened, or Special Concern species protected under MESA. If you're not sure whether you have found a listed species, please contact the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.
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. Females should not be moved 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.
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 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; this can injure their spine.