Turtles are reptiles of the order Testudines and have bony or cartilaginous shells that protect their torso. The shells are actually modified backbones and ribs that have evolved into interlocking plates. The upper shell of the turtle is called the carapace. The lower shell is called the plastron. The sides of the shells are joined by bony structures called bridges. The carapace is covered in a rough layer of modified skin made of keratin and is often patterned in horny scales called scutes. Keratin is a hard protein responsible for many animals’ mineral-like structures (scales, nails, beaks, talons, feathers and porcupine quills). Many turtles can retract their legs and head into the shell for further protection. Several species, called Box and Semi-box turtles, have hinges on the sides that allow them to close their shells almost completely.
Not all turtles have hard shells, however. Soft-shelled turtles, like the Eastern Spiny Soft-shell, have a leathery and pliable shell made mostly of skin and cartilage. These aquatic species lack the protection that comes with a full bony shell, but make up for it with a lower profile and better maneuverability in water.
Turtles come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. We have no native tortoises (land turtles) in New York, although a variety of sea turtles can be found off of Long Island. The turtles in New York are primarily terrapins, having close ties to fresh or brackish water, but can and may traverse solid ground.
Turtles in New York
Unfortunately, many of New York’s turtle populations seem to be in decline. Loss of habitat and pollution have put a lot of stress on native turtle populations. Invasive and aggressive species, like the Red-eared Slider, which was most likely released into the wild from a pet collection, have put additional pressures on these sensitive animals. We have three species that are categorized as “Special Concern,” and one listed as “Threatened” by the state. The Bog Turtle, with its stringent habitat requirements, is Endangered in NY State and on the list of Federally Threatened animals.
There are some turtles that are well established in the waters and wetlands of our state. Most turtle encounters are going to be with either Painted Turtles or the (much larger and certainly more aggressive) Snapper. Both species can be found throughout the state.
Turtle Books and Field Guides
New York State Turtle Species Identification Guide
Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii)
AKA: Semi-box turtle.
Identifying characteristics: An oblong, dome-shelled turtle, often identified by its bright yellow throat and chin; dark grey/black top shell (carapace) with yellow/cream speckles. The yellow bottom shell (plastron) has a symmetrical pattern of dark blotches. Adults may have a completely black plastron. The skin is dark and may have light speckles. They are similar in appearance to box turtles, but have a larger tail. The hinged plastron allows it to close the anterior opening of its shell for protection, but not the posterior. The Box Turtle can completely close its shell.
Size: Average shell length of 7-9 inches.
Habitat: Shallow ponds with plenty of vegetation; marshes; swamps and lake inlets. They prefer shallow water and muddy bottoms.
Food: Carnivorous. Primarily snails, insects, crayfish and small vertebrates.
Other Info.: Tolerant of cold temperatures, but not heat, which is why they are generally distributed in northern states.
Scattered across the finger lakes and eastern NY
Status:Threatened in NY due to diminishing habitat. Threatened in many other states.
Bog Turtle (Clemmys muhlenbergii)
AKA: Muhlenberg turtle
Identifying characteristics: A very small turtle with a characteristic bright orange or yellow blotch on each side of its neck. The skin is dark and the top shell (carapace) is somewhat rectangular (looking top down). Some aged specimens may have smooth shells from burrowing in the silt. The shell is domed, but not very high.
Size: Average shell length 3-3.5 inches.
Habitat: Wetland bogs with plenty of moss or silt substrate, wet fields. Near clean water sources and with plenty of sunlight for basking. High humidity and abundant plants, but little tree cover. Since these habitats are usually successional and eventually develop trees and shrubs, bog turtles are ever-threatened while these ideal habitats are both naturally and artificially changed.
Other Info.: Their small (1 inch) young are easy targets for predators. Very sensitive to environment quality. Considered the smallest turtles species in the US.
A few populations in Western NY and the Hudson Valley.
Status:Endangered in NY due to diminishing habitat. Federally Threatened
Common Map Turtle (Graptemys geographica)
AKA: Northern Map Turtle
Identifying characteristics: A low-profile, dome-shelled turtle is named by its distinctive top shell (carapace) that has a pattern of yellow lines that resemble erratic river lines on a map. These lines may fade with age. The shell color ranges from brown to olive to dark grey. The carapace has a shallow dorsal keel and a moderately serrated back edge. The bottom shell (plastron) is most often yellow. Its skin is a dark olive with yellow, cream or orange striping. Small light spot located behind each eye.
Size: Average male shell length of 4-6 inches. Females are larger: 6-10 inches.
Habitat: Wetland habitats with plenty of vegetation, slow current and soft bottoms such as some rivers and large creeks, reservoirs, large lakes.
Food: Omnivorous. Snails, insects and larvae, clams, crayfish and aquatic plants.
Temperament: Elusive, wary.
Other Info.: The majority of this turtle’s time is spent under water. Although it may be found basking in groups on logs early in the morning. They are diurnal, active both day and night. Females have broader heads and jaws more adapted for cracking mollusk and crayfish shells.
Found in Western NY and around Lake Ontario and the Great Lakes region.
Common Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus)
Identifying characteristics: A generally small turtle with a highly-domed and smooth oval top shell (carapace), usually black or brown in color. The carapace may have a distinctive keel, which wears with age. The skin is dark olive and there are 2 yellow lines that run from the snout to the neck; one line above the eyes, and the other below the eyes. Their heads are triangular with a pointed snout and sharp beak. The legs are short and the neck is long. The tails of males are usually longer than females. Juveniles may have a rough shell.
Size: Average shell length of 3.5-4.5 inches.
Habitat: Mostly aquatic, bottom-dweller. Shallow, well vegetated areas of lakes, ponds, slow-moving rivers and creeks with soft bottoms.
Food: Carnivorous. Primarily crayfish, mollusks, insects and small fish.
Temperament: Elusive, wary, but aggressive if cornered.
Other Info.: Releases a foul odor when threatened. Will bask on logs and trees over or close to water, offering them a quick escape. A very common pet species. Rarely seen out of water.
Spread across Central and Western NY as well as adjacent states.
Common Snapping Turtle
(Chelydra s. serpentina)
AKA: Snapper, Snake neck
Identifying characteristics: A large turtle with a massive head, long and highly mobile neck and powerful beak-like jaws. The top shell (carapace) comes in various shades of brown with pronounced ridges (that lessen with age) and a serrated back edge. Their tails are long and spiked. Snappers appear like they have outgrown their shell with their robust body structure. Their skin is rough and bumpy.
Size: Average shell length of 8-14 inches. 10-35 lbs.
Habitat: Aquatic. Shallow ponds lakes and slow-moving rivers/canals with muddy bottoms and plenty of vegetation. They will travel on land, often across roads, to reach a new habitat or to lay eggs.
Food: Omnivorous. Fish, carrion, invertebrates, aquatic plants, small birds and mammals.
Temperament:Aggressive and dangerous.
Other Info.: Since they cannot retract their head and feet fully into the shell, they use aggressive displays when confronted. Their bite is quick and strong, often injuring people, sometimes taking off a finger or toe. Some snappers can reach their neck halfway around their shell, making them risky to handle. Picking them up by the tail will most often injure them. It’s best to leave them alone.
Well-distributed across the state.
Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene c. carolina)
AKA: Semi-box turtle.
Identifying characteristics: This high dome-shelled turtle is often identified by its completely hinged shell, which can close completely hiding its soft parts from danger. Its shell is usually brown / olive / black with brightly-colored patterns of lines, spots and blotches. Skin color is variable and may share the variable colored patterns of the shell. Younger turtles tend to have brighter colors. Their toes are only slightly webbed.
Size: Average shell length of 7-9 inches.
Habitat: Forested areas, damp meadows and fields and sometimes marshes and bogs. During hot and dry weather, it will burrow into damp muddy areas. They can often be found under forest debris.
Food: Omnivorous. Primarily snails, slugs, insects, fruits, mushrooms (some of which are toxic to humans) and small amphibians. Their diets are opportunistic.
Other Info.: Often kept as pets. Like most turtles, males are often identified by their concave bottom shell (plastron). They are diurnal, active day and night.
Scattered throughout Western NY and the Hudson Valley region.
Status: rare Special Concern in NY
Eastern Redbelly Turtle (Pseudemys rubriventris)
AKA: Red-bellied Cooter
Identifying characteristics: A large turtle with an elongate, oval shell, which comes in brown or black with some red/orange markings. The bottom shell (plastron) is red/orange, often with black blotches. The skin is black with yellow/cream stripes. The eyeballs appear to also have a stripe running through them, probably as an adaptation to help them hide.
Size: Average shell length of 10-14 inches.
Habitat: Aquatic. Relatively deep water, rivers, creeks, marshes, ponds or lakes with soft bottoms and plenty of vegetation.
Food: Omnivorous as juveniles, herbivorous as adults. Primarily snails, fish, tadpoles, earthworms, insects and aquatic plants.
Temperament: Docile, wary.
Other Info.: Basks on rocks close to water.
Scattered across central and western NY.
Status: uncommon, exotic
Eastern Spiny Softshell (Apalone s. spinifera)
Identifying characteristics: This turtle is an easy one to identify. It has a very flat, round and soft skin shell that gets more bony towards the center. This turtle looks like a brownish/green pancake with a head and legs. The shell lacks the bony scutes (scales) that other turtles have and instead is made of tough skin. The shell may have some small spines in the front. Males have a light green/olive shell with small black spots. Females have a dark green shell and large blotches. The legs and feet have a pattern of dark lines and speckles. The snout is large, pointed and is used as a snorkel. It may have two lines running down the head from the snout past the eyes, both on the top and bottom. The feet are highly webbed.
Size: Average shell length of 14 inches. Some reaching over 25 inches. Females are generally twice the size of males.
Habitat: Aquatic. Ponds, marshes, rivers and lakes with muddy bottoms and minimal vegetation. They require elevated sandy nesting areas near shore.
Food: Carnivorous. Insects and crayfish. They use both foraging and ambush techniques to capture prey.
Temperament: Wary, elusive.
Other Info.: Diurnal: active both day and night. Often found basking on logs close to water. When disturbed, will dive under and bury themselves in the mud or sand. Well-adapted for staying under water for a long time, as they can adsorb oxygen through their skin. Very fast, agile swimmers.
Scattered across western NY
Status:Special Concern in NY
Diminishing as waterways become more polluted.
Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)
Identifying characteristics: A mid-sized turtle with a relatively low-domed top shell (carapace) that comes in olive to black with yellow/red accents. These accents may diminish with age. The bottom shell (plastron) is a bright orange/red and has a beautiful symmetrical design that looks like it was painted. This pattern may also fade with age. Yellow and red stripes on the neck.
Size: Average shell length of 7-9 inches.
Habitat: Most aquatic habitats, but prefers shallow, calm areas of lakes, ponds and marshes with plenty of vegetation.
Food: Omnivorous. Aquatic and terrestrial plants, slugs, snails, insects, small fish, carrion, algae.
Temperament: Docile, wary.
Other Info.: One of the most common turtles in N. America ranging across the entire continent. Will usually bask in groups on logs and along the shore.
Common across the state.
Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)
AKA: Red-eared Terrapin, Elegant Terrapin
Identifying characteristics: Easily identified by the broad red stripe running from the eye down the head towards the shell, although this may fade in older specimens. Sometimes they may also have a red spot on top of their head. The top shell (carapace) of juveniles starts out as a bright green with yellow and darker green patterns of wavy lines. As they age, the carapace becomes more yellow. As time goes on, the shells take on a more dull and uniform shade of olive. Elderly specimens may have brown to black shells with no patterns. They are easily confused with the Painted Turtle.
Size: Average shell length of 5-6 inches for males and 8 inches for females.
Habitat: Quiet aquatic habitat with abundant vegetation. Ponds, lakes, backwaters.
Food: Omnivorous. Aquatic and terrestrial plants, slugs, snails, insects, small fish, young birds and eggs. Prefers dragonfly larvae.
Temperament: Docile, wary.
Other Info.: Intolerant of colder temperatures, which limits their range and survival in the north. Often found basking on rocks, logs, grass and banks. They are very popular pets and have been introduced as an invasive species in many parts of the world due to the pet trade.
Some populations scattered throughout the state. Populations are the result of artificial introduction.
Status: Rare in NY, but very common throughout the world and in most pet stores.
Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata)
Identifying characteristics: Aptly named for its spotted shell, this small turtle has a dark brown or black top shell (carapace) with a pattern of scattered round yellow spots. Its bottom shell (plastron), is either yellow or faint orange with a black blotch on each bony plate (scute). Shell markings may fade with age. Its skin is black and has the same yellow spots as the shell.
Size: Average shell length of 4.5 inches.
Habitat: Aquatic, preferring shallow waters with muddy bottoms and abundant vegetation. They will travel on land to bask, nest or search for a new habitat and will often be found hiding under leaf debris.
Food: Omnivorous. Aquatic and terrestrial plants, slugs, snails, insects, small fish, crayfish, carrion, algae.
Other Info.: Tolerant of cold temperatures, but not heat, which is why they are generally distributed in northern states. A common pet.
Distributed in small populations across Western NY and the Hudson Valley region.
Status:Special Concern in NY due to loss of habitat and pollution.
Wood Turtle (Clemmys insculpta)
Identifying characteristics: An oblong, dome-shelled turtle with a brown/grey top shell (carapace) with a small central keel. The color of the shell and its fine grain ring pattern looks very similar to wood. The bottom shell (plastron) is yellow with a black blotch on each bony plate (scute). The head is generally black, often with small colored spots, while the limbs may be a lighter color. The neck and portions of the limbs close to the shell are often a yellow or orange.
Size: Average shell length of 6-10 inches.
Habitat: Semi-aquatic. Although they prefer moving water, such as rocky or sandy streams and rivers, they can often be found away from water in bushy and wooded areas. They need moist sand for nesting.
Food: Omnivorous. Herbaceous and woody plants, fruits, fungi, algae, slugs, snails, insects, earthworms, carrion. Feeds both in and out of water.
Other Info.: Diurnal (active both day and night). An odd behavior has been observed in some populations of wood turtle: by stomping their feet or shell on the ground, they encourage earthworms to surface, and then they feast on them.
Well distributed across the state and adjacent states.
Status: common, but numbers are diminishing due to loss of habitat and “removal” by humans.
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