Turtles: The Evolution of a Project – Part 2

So, there we were, it was the end of April and we had a permit to mark aquatic turtles as they come ashore to lay eggs along the paths and trails here at the Museum. Data sheets, tools, and whatever else I need to do the job were at the ready. Now we wait on the turtles to start emerging from the water to search out nesting sites.

The plan is to catch the turtles as them come ashore, not go into the water and catch them with a net. We want to catch the ones that are moving about the landscape to see who and how many are doing so each spring and summer.

Realistically, I know that I’m not going to see every single turtle that comes out of the Wetland’s muddy brown water to lay eggs. I’m not here early enough or late enough in the day, and I can’t be in several places at once during the rest of the day. It takes a turtle a matter seconds to cross a path and disappear into the woods on the other side or slip back into the water. If you’re not there to see them make the crossing you’re not going to catch them. Of course, I’ll be looking for them in the grass and other likely places as well, but most will be seen while they cross the path here at the Museum.

To optimize the amount of turtle encounters, I put out an all-staff email requesting that anyone seeing a turtle to please contact me via radio and I’d get to the site as quickly as possible.

The first call came in from Animal Keeper, Jill. Jill was in Explore the Wild and I at the entrance to the Dinosaur Trail. It was 5 minutes to closing. Part of my job is to make sure that all visitors are safely indoors at closing time. Could I afford to leave my position at the Dino Trail and possibly miss a visitor who, unaware that we were closing soon, wandered down one of the paths in my absence? Luckily Ranger Ro was on duty and she maintained the watch at the Dino Trail while I headed down to mark the first turtle of the season.

I hopped in the Club Car and drove as fast I could (5 mph) down to Explore the Wild. When I got there I saw Jill standing next to the Gator (John Deere Gator) with her foot in the blackberry bramble that grows alongside the path. She had her foot on a turtle. I put on my gloves, got my bag of goodies and went over to see what she had. It was difficult to make out exactly what it was under her foot but it looked like a Painted Turtle.

It was indeed a painted. It’s shell was clearly visible as it “bolted” into the brush and away from me. I tried to grab the turtle but couldn’t get a grip on it. It was gone. With a torn glove and blooding forearm I emitted a few words of frustration, thanked Jill, and headed back to continue closing the outdoor areas of the Museum.

The next afternoon as I was just starting to make the rounds at closing time, I saw another painted crossing the path about 50 yards or so in front of me. I grabbed my gear and ran for the turtle. A few seconds later I was standing on the edge of the path watching the turtle slip beneath the muddy water, speeding away to safety. Turtles can be quite fast when they want to be!

Hmmm, two turtles in two days and they both eluded me.

The next few days and weeks went much better. No more Eastern Painted Turtles were seen but I did mark a handful of Yellow-bellied Sliders and a couple of Common Snapping Turtles were captured, measured, and photographed (although stronger and more powerful, yellow-bellieds and snappers are apparently slower than painteds, the speedsters of the group).

I didn’t mark the snappers, because for the most part I was alone and didn’t want to risk being snapped. The snappers did, however, allow me to measure their carapace (with care) and one of them had very distinct “dings” in its shell which will make future identification easier.

Here’s some images to gaze upon.

The arrows point to “dings” in this snapper’s shell (COST #51612). This snapper measured 29 cm from the front of its shell to the center notch at the rear of its shell.
The arrow points to the “V” notch that I filed into the 2nd marginal scute on the right side of a yellow-bellied (YBSL #00-02). She measured 26.5 cm, front to back of shell.
Same turtle as above. Note the “ding” in its shell which should help distinguish this turtle while out basking.
I decided to mark the rear scutes with a square or flat bottomed notch since these turtles have many natural “V” notches in their shells (YBSL #92-02). She measured 26.4 cm front to back.

And finally, I’ve been noticing much variation in the plastron coloration of these turtles. I’m not quite sure what to make of this variation, but I plan to be better informed soon.

Not sure what the color variation means. Are these both the same species, hybrids, or is this typical within the species?

So far I have nine turtles marked and or photographed, including “Chip” who was seen and photo’d on 5/24 by Animal Department Director, Sherry Samuels as she (Sherry) was leading a Black Bear Program. I would liked to have measured Chip’s shell. She’s a big yellow-bellied and it would have been interesting to see just how big she is.

Chip, from her good side (5/24/12 – Sherry Samuels).

I had hoped that I would have data on more turtles by this time of the season (end of May). But, I now know more of what to expect next year. And, it may not be over quit yet. There may be a few more turtles making their way up to lay eggs before this season ends.

Thanks to everyone who called in their sightings of turtles, Animal Keepers Jill Brown, Marilyn Johnson, and Kimberly Lawson, Exhibits Prototyper, David Wilkinson, Landscape Tech, Jose Lopez, Facilities Techs, Daniel Bjorklund and Dale Hill, Butterfly House Director, Uli Hartmond, Rentals Assistant, Emily Rush, Ranger Kristin and everyone else who kept an eye out, and are still watching, for turtles.

I missed many turtles due to my not being on site as they (the turtles) were being reported. On a few occasions I couldn’t make it to the specific location in time to catch a turtle before it slipped away into the woods or back into the water. In general though, it worked out quite well. And, as I said earlier, there may be more turtles to capture this season, if I can get my hands on them.


I try to catch them
they will always slip away
striped painted turtles

Haiku, Phoebe Dodge


2 responses to Turtles: The Evolution of a Project – Part 2

  1. Jill says:

    If you happen to come across a male do you mark them too or just the females that are laying?

    • Greg Dodge says:

      Yes, if I see a male, and if I can catch it, I will mark it.
      The original idea was to mark females but if a male presents himself it would be interesting to know where he was when seen, how large he is, and what behavior he was exhibiting when captured. And, of course, in order to identify him if he is ever seen again it would be helpful if he had some sort of mark.
      By the way, all of the above data and more is being taken on the females that are captured.
      Thanks for your question.

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