Nebraskans are fortunate to have a wide variety of turtles to observe. They occupy most habitats throughout the state. From the arid west to the Sandhills, to the wetlands of the Rainwater Basin and the mighty Missouri River in the east and everywhere in between, these ancient survivors continue to add to their 230-million-year-old story.
Unfortunately, it is only recently in geologic history that turtles of the world are facing a largely uncertain future. Many turtle species have gone extinct in recent decades. Many more are facing this same fate. These animals that are generally considered the slow pokes of Nature can’t evolve quickly enough to compete with the rapid pace of human-induced habitat destruction, overharvesting for food and for the pet trade, introduced predators and our toxic pollution.
Even here in the wildlife-rich state of Nebraska, several of our nine species of chelonians are crawling along a fine line between maintaining the status quo and sinking quietly into oblivion. Regulations passed recently in Nebraska have awarded our turtles legal protections dependent on species, which ranges from regulated harvest of some species as game animals to protections which make it illegal to possess others.
For many years I provided educational turtle programs to schools, scout groups, summer camps and retirement homes, and one thing I have learned is that most Nebraskans don’t know much about our turtles. Often what they think they know is based on hearsay and myths handed down from grandpa and dad.
I hope this article will prove useful in informing the public about these wonderful creatures.
Western Painted Turtle Perhaps the best known of Nebraska’s turtles is the western painted turtle (Chrysemys picta belli), also known as the northern painted turtle. This medium-sized turtle can attain a length of 8 to 10 inches. Adult females are larger than males, with the male having a longer tail and also longer claws on the forelimbs. These longer claws are used to stimulate the female during courtship (he gently strokes her face with his claws); they also help the usually smaller male to hold on to the female during copulation.
The mating period is largely influenced by the weather. Normally in Nebraska it occurs from late March through April and into May, but mating behavior has been observed throughout the warm weather months. These same parameters can be applied to all of Nebraska’s turtle species.
Normally in June the female will lay a clutch of oval-shaped eggs in a flask-shaped depression she will excavate in the ground using her hind limbs. Depending on the size of the female, up to 20 eggs may be laid. Some females will lay more than one clutch annually, and not all females will lay eggs every year. Typical of Nebraska’s turtles, most young will emerge after 60 to 80 days. With painted turtles, nests that are laid later in the year may produce young that do not emerge from the nest until the following spring (overwintering).
Most nests don’t survive long enough to hatch and will be destroyed by predators such as skunks, opossums, raccoons, coyotes, snakes, insects, some rodents and even feral cats, among many other predators. The young that emerge from any surviving nests will then run the gauntlet of crows and other predatory birds, as well as the aforementioned predators, as they begin their journey toward aquatic habitat. Once having reached the relative safety of the water they are taken by several species of fish, including largemouth bass and northern pike, as well as bullfrogs, herons and occasionally other turtles.
Painted turtles prefer slow-moving or still waters with abundant vegetation. They can be found in natural ponds and lakes, farm ponds, creeks and rivers, sewer ponds and irrigation ditches. They are omnivorous, meaning they eat both plant and animal matter. They are opportunistic and will eat many species of insects, mosquito larvae, amphibians and fish, and will also take advantage of any dead animals (carrion) they may happen upon.
Because people are prone to picking turtles up off of roads and making them into pets, I offer the following story. Being known by many as the turtle man, people have approached me for advice in taking care of turtles.
An old woman once brought me a painted turtle and asked that I tell her what was wrong with it. The animal was in a cardboard box along with a rotting hunk of meat. Her complaint was that the animal wouldn’t eat and that she’d had it a month. I asked her what she kept it in. She replied, “This box.” Imagine her embarrassment when I sternly told her that the turtle was slowly starving to death since it has to be in water in order to swallow food. That animal came home with me and was subsequently rehabilitated and released. My point—if keeping turtles, other reptiles or any animal as a pet, do enough research to provide the animal a healthy existence. I often encourage children (and old ladies) that insist on keeping a turtle as a pet to keep it a few days at most and return it to whence it came.
The top shell or carapace of the painted turtle ranges from olive green to almost black in color and is often coated with algae. The bottom shell of a turtle is called the plastron. On our painted turtles it is a beautiful red (hence the name “painted turtle”) and has a dark blotch in the center. The head and legs are striped with yellow and red. Like all of our aquatic turtles, painted turtles spend the winter underwater, either simply lying on or burrowed into the bottom.
Turtles are not just out wandering aimlessly when they come upon a road. Painted turtles as well of Nebraska’s other turtle species are prone to excessive road kills where roads have bisected their natural habitat and migration routes. Especially vulnerable are females who may migrate long distances to find suitable nesting sites, and then back again. They may travel even further in areas where nesting sites have been altered by the hand of man. All too often these turtles are struck deliberately as they attempt to cross our busy highways.
If you are inclined to move a turtle off of the roadway, always place it off of the road in the direction it was going. If not, it will simply attempt to cross again. Only move turtles off the road if it is physically safe for you to do so. A few years ago a child in the southern U.S. was killed by oncoming traffic trying to move a turtle from the road. I know from experience that your spouse will not appreciate it if you run into the road to kick a painted turtle out of the path of an oncoming semi truck. (I kicked it because there was not time to stop, bend down and pick it up.)
Ornate Box Turtle Another well-known species of turtle in Nebraska is the ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata). This is the only fully terrestrial of our turtles, the others being mostly aquatic. It once ranged from the eastern boundary of Nebraska westward throughout most of the state. Due to conversion of habitat to agricultural use as well as roadways, towns, acreages, industrial sites and other developments, this species is most common now in the Sandhills region of the state where it is able to coexist with ranching. Box turtles still exist in a few other fragmented populations throughout parts of its former range. These extant animals are usually old adults that spend the remainder of their lives existing on the fringes and rarely if ever encountering mates.
They may attain a length of 6 inches. The shell can close tightly via the use of muscular hinges. This has been compared to a closed box, thus the name “box” turtle. The shell is yellow and brown, and the pattern varies widely from one individual to another. Adult males usually have red eyes.
Usually four to six eggs are laid in the spring. The diet consists mainly of insects, flowers, some fruits and carrion. Box turtles have been observed scavenging through cattle droppings looking for insects. For thousands of years the same process occurred as bison converted the grass to prairie coal. This trait is valuable to ranchers as box turtles break up “cowpies” and allow new grass to emerge where the dung was covering the ground. I have encountered many of these turtles beneath mulberry trees, all with purple-stained faces and front feet from gorging themselves on the tasty fruit.
Sadly, many “old timers” I have spoken to (from Nebraska) have related to me how very common box turtles were only a few decades ago and how they rarely encounter them nowadays. In some parts of the state, the sighting of a box turtle becomes a noteworthy event. Sad indeed.
Formerly the box turtles of Nebraska, as well as other species of reptiles and amphibians, were collected without limit by commercial collectors to be sold for medical research or for food. Others were exported around the country for the pet trade. These animals (and turtles in general) typically do not adapt well to captivity, and most die a slow death at the hands of keepers who do not know their specialized requirements.
Common Snapping Turtle Perhaps the most notorious of Nebraska’s turtles is the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Its aggressive reputation is greatly exaggerated as it is only defensive when captured, molested or removed from the water. When given a chance, it will avoid human contact altogether. Another exaggerated trait of this animal is its reputation as a killer of waterfowl and game fish. As an opportunistic hunter, it will take these items when the opportunity presents itself; however, studies have indicated that vegetation comprises a large quantity of its normal diet (75 to 90 percent), and even giant snappers eat large quantities of insects and insect larvae. Carrion is an important part of the snapping turtle’s diet as well.
I have observed fisherman catching snappers, cutting off the head or killing the animal and leaving it for dead. This unethical behavior is also illegal—snapping turtles are classified as game animals in Nebraska and protected as such. These uneducated fishermen have explained to me that they killed the turtle to protect the game fish population. A turtle taking advantage of a stringer of struggling fish does not equate to a predator that specializes in fish—which snapping turtles do not. Ducks are also not in any particular danger from snappers—hen ducks are very good mothers and sense underwater movement very well; more often than not, they are able to lead their broods to safety. Bass, pike and invasive bullfrogs are much more lethal predators of ducklings than are snapping turtles. Regardless, this predator-prey interaction has persisted for millions of years, and predators and prey are necessary for a healthy ecosystem.
Some folks consider snapping turtle meat a delicacy. I have heard that the chore of butchering the animal is not worth the little meat that can be obtained from even a large turtle. Others have told me that it is not difficult if you know the right way, and this must be the case since the turtle-eating tradition is popular in many parts of the country, and Nebraska is no exception. A wide variety of companies offer snapper meat for sale over the Internet. Classified as a game animal in Nebraska, the sale of snapping turtle meat, shells or products from snappers harvested in Nebraska is illegal.
Although I didn’t catch or butcher the animal, I have tried turtle meat. To me it tasted very much like chicken—but not as good. I would prefer a young chicken that quickly reaches eating size to butchering an animal that took decades to accumulate very little meat and is such a chore to butcher.
This long-lived animal occupies the top spot in the Nebraska waters where it occurs (statewide). As the top predator, it accumulates all of the toxins absorbed by all the other components of its diet. A study in some of New York State’s agricultural areas revealed that snapping turtles that were tested contained levels of toxins (pesticides, herbicides and industrial chemicals) one thousand times the legal threshold for banning the consumption of fish. People that routinely eat snapping turtles from contaminated streams, ponds and rivers could be putting their health at risk. Considering the breadth of the agriculture industry in Nebraska and the amount of chemicals used on farm fields, it is likely that our snapping turtles harbor even larger concentrations of chemicals harmful to humans.
The record size for a wild-caught Common Snapper is 76 pounds. I have seen several in Nebraska that weighed over 50 pounds and recently heard of a harvested specimen that weighed 71 pounds before it was butchered in northern Nebraska, but I have been unable to authenticate this. These large beasts can inflict serious injury to inexperienced handlers through the use of their sharp beak, sharp claws, and lightning-quick strike. All risk to people can be avoided by simply leaving the animal alone. Just like humans who have been bitten by rattlesnakes, most humans whose bites have been attributed to snapping turtles are men who are bitten on the hand, often while intoxicated. The best advice: leave the snapper alone!
Up to 100 eggs have been recorded from a Nebraska specimen but usually around 30 is the norm. They are slightly smaller than a ping-pong ball and about the same shape.
This prehistoric beast is unlikely to be confused with any other turtle in Nebraska. Its spiked tail is reminiscent of the dinosaurs, and the jagged rear edge of the carapace reminds one of a saw blade.
Long, pearly claws are evident, and when observed, it is clear this hardy survivor is an evolutionary success and a truly beautiful wonder of our natural world.
One time south of O’Neill, Neb., I came upon a pair of well-dressed young women standing in the middle of Highway 281. They were on their way to a wedding. I was on my way to a different wedding. A large snapping turtle was blocking one lane of traffic, and these two ladies were having limited success getting the large female turtle to bite the sock they were putting in front of it. It would bite down and the girls would drag the 20-pounder a few inches before the snapper let go again. As traffic was backed up, I offered my assistance.
I grabbed the turtle by the tail and moved it into the water-filled ditch on the opposite side. Snappers can be safely carried for short distances in this way by experienced handlers. Novices can also drag the turtle by the tail. I’ve heard of others using brooms to usher them from the road or others picking them up with shovels. That’s great if you have the compassion to help in a situation like this (thank you, ladies), but keep your personal safety in mind, too.
One of my most cherished moments in educating people about turtles came when I was fishing on the land of a farmer friend of mine from near St. Paul. I caught a nice-sized 30-pounder in his creek and proceeded to take it up to his front porch to show it to him. My friend and his wife, George and Marilyn Wall, took a step back when they saw the huge reptile on their front step. Eventually they came outside and took a look at him. I pointed out some of the biology of the algae- and leech-covered swamp thing and explained its diet and its role in the ecosystem. The nervous turtle lunged for me every time I gave it an opportunity. I told the Walls what a beautiful animal I thought it was. George countered as he said to me, “That is probably the most hideous thing I’ve ever seen, but I’m glad they are down there living in my creek.”
The underside of the snapper is unlike any other Nebraska species. Its head and limbs are so large that a larger plastron would make withdrawing into the shell difficult. In addition, with its sharp claws and powerful beak, it has no need for the additional protection that a full shell would provide.