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Herp Atlas Newsletter Spring 1996

Herp Atlas Logo
Herp Atlas Logo


New York State
Amphibian and Reptile Atlas Project

Department of Environmental Conservation
Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources


Focus on Turtles

This spring, we'd like to ask our atlasers to focus their efforts on observing and reporting turtles. New York State has 12 native species of land & freshwater turtles and five species of sea turtles. Only two of these species (snapping and painted) occur statewide, however, and many are fairly rare, so this should be a bit of a challenge. Turtles are most easily located by visiting a pond, lake or river on a sunny day when many individuals are likely to be basking. A good way to identify a species is to approach the area quietly by foot or canoe and use binoculars or a spotting scope. Note the shape of the carapace (top shell) and any patterns or colors on it, colors and patterns on the feet and head and overall size. The shells of basking turtles often appear plain green or brown from a distance because of algae growth, so getting a good look at other physical characteristics may be crucial to a proper identification.

Rarest of all of our turtles is the bog turtle, occurring only in Seneca, Dutchess, Columbia, Ulster, Putnam and Orange Counties. The carapace, head and legs of a bog turtle are plain brown, but the species can be easily recognized by orange patches on either side of the head and by its small size; a full grown adult measures about four inches in length. Bog turtles are suffering from loss of wet meadow habitats.

List of Turtles that occur in New York - text box image

The Blanding's turtle and the box turtle both have a plastron (bottom shell) that is hinged. This affords them excellent protection from predators because they can pull in their head and legs and close the plastron so that no flesh is left exposed. Other turtles have a solid plastron that is joined to the carapace by a "bridge" on either side of the animal. These turtles can still retract their head and legs, but remain somewhat vulnerable because their flesh is not fully protected.

The box at the right lists turtles that occur here in New York State. The status of those that are on the state endangered species list is indicated in parenthesis (E = endangered, T = threatened, SC = special concern). Additional protection is given to some species by New York State's Environmental Conservation Law. Under this law, the wood turtle, bog turtle and the box turtle are considered small game species, but have no open season. Public Health Law prohibits the sale of turtles with a carapace length measuring less than four inches. When you're out looking for turtles, please remember that a license is required to collect or possess (or sell) any protected species. The use of devices to capture turtles such as traps, dip nets, pitfalls or seines requires a special license from the Department of Environmental Conservation. It is illegal to take turtles with a hook and line.

There are plenty of habitats and plenty of ways to observe turtles. Here's hoping that you will get out there and find them. Many turtles make their first appearance in the spring when the air and water temperatures reach 50° F. We had our first reports for 1996 from Long Island in March. Have fun!

Measuring, Sexing and Aging Turtles in the Field

Since we are encouraging atlasers to focus on turtles this year, we thought some information on collecting data on animals in the field would be helpful. Taking standard body measurements and determining sex are important parts of this procedure. When dealing with turtles, we use calipers to take four measurements: the carapace length, shell height and width, and plastron length. If the turtle is uncooperative (legs & head flailing), try holding it on its back; this usually encourages them to pull in their appendages. Snappers, softshells, musk and mud turtles often try to bite, so be careful.

Sex can be determined in a variety of different ways, depending on the species. In general, the plastron of a male is somewhat concave while a female's plastron is flat. This permits better contact during mating. Male turtles generally have long, thick tails with the cloaca positioned relatively far from the edge of the plastron. Females, on the other hand, have a short tail with the cloaca close to the base.

In painted turtles, the claws on the front feet of the male are much longer than those of the female. Male box turtles usually have red eyes, while females have yellow ones. In spotted turtles, females have a light-colored lower jaw and orange-red eyes; males have a dark lower jaw and brown eyes. Behavior can be an indication of sex, too. If you see a painted turtle or a snapping turtle walking on land during the summer, you can be fairly certain that it is a female. She is likely to be looking for a sunny spot to lay her eggs. Some field guides provide a bit of information on determining sex, or least give the expected size for males and females. Although it only covers six of our turtle species, the Stokes Guide to Amphibians & Reptiles does provide details on determining sex.

We're Progressing in Leaps & Bounds!

Last spring, in our very first newsletter, we encouraged our volunteers to focus their efforts on observing and reporting frogs and toads (Focus on Frogs). This turned out to be quite a success. In the last interim report, spring peepers had been reported in 229 quads. This time around, the number has increased to 370, meaning that spring peepers were reported in an additional 141 quads during 1995 alone. The number of quadrangles with green frogs reported increased by 130 and quadrangles with bullfrogs and wood frogs by 94 and 95 respectively. The average number of additional blocks where 7 common species were reported was 94.

While progress has been made as a result of efforts to focus on this particular group of species, much work remains. Each of the species mentioned above is common and occurs statewide and should therefore be easy to report in each of the 100 topographic quads. There are still 615 quads with no peepers reported, 591 quads with no green frogs reported and 691 quads with no bullfrogs reported. So, while we are asking you to focus your efforts on turtles this year, don't forget to keep an eye out for those frogs as well!

Updated Interim Reports Available

John Ozard, our computer guru, has completed an updated set of interim reports. These include data from 1990 through 1995. One of the reports is a set of maps showing the preliminary range of each species as records have indicated.

Another report lists the species that have been reported in each topographic quadrangle. We also have an updated map of the state showing the number of species that have been reported in each of the 985 topographic quadrangles. If you would like a copy of any of these reports, please contact us at the following address: NYS Amphibian & Reptile Atlas Project, NYSDEC, Bureau of Wildlife, Delmar, NY 12054-9767.

There are still a number of quadrangles with NO species yet reported (oh my!), including much of Clinton and Franklin Counties, central Herkimer County, central and southern Delaware County into northern Sullivan County, as well as Allegeny, Chautauqua, Wyoming and Niagara Counties. We hope that you will request copies of these county reports and use them to focus on areas that still need attention.

A Visitor from the Past
by Tom Tyning

I was on comfortable and soothing ground the other day. The woods were familiar as was the trail, mostly worn because I had tread on it for over twenty years. I have searched this area for plants and animals, collecting information, photographing butterflies and wildflowers and mostly using it as a great refuge from day to day life. Like most people I have my own special getaway where I am as comfortable as I am anywhere, including home.

So it was to my utter pleasure that I encountered one of my oldest acquaintances at this site very recently. I was walking along, not particularly focusing on any one thing. A few birds vocalized only rarely. A turkey vulture swooped low over the treetops. The first of the woodland asters had opened their flowers. But for the most part it appeared to be just another quiet walk in the woods. Then I looked down at my feet.

After my eyes focused I still could not quite tell if this was an apparition or had I finally discovered one of the great patriarchs of North America - an adult box turtle. Here, on the bed of oak leaves and lowbush blueberry, in the dappled afternoon light, a box turtle fits into its environment like most other species. The caramel-colored shell, alternately dotted and then streaked with cream spots and swirls, makes for one of the better camouflaged animals we have. I am always impressed when I find one crossing a highway. Here, in my own"backyard" and under more natural conditions, I was ecstatic. My excitement was to be enhanced, however, when something about this animal seemed familiar.

Drawing of an Eastern Box Turtle

I kneeled down to take a closer look. The dark head held two glowing, coral-red eyes, indicating that this was most likely a male. Female box turtles tend to have brown eyes. Its high domed shell, a characteristic of the eastern box turtle, was pitted and ragged along the edges. This is typical of old turtles and none in this country grow older than a box turtle. Accurate estimates of up to 125 years or even more have been made on New England box turtles. As I stretched to see more detail of the animal, which I left untouched, a tiny hole along the front, left margin of its shell struck me. This was indeed an animal I had known. Back in 1974, I was in the Forestry and Wildlife Department at the University of Massachusetts and under the tutelage of Dr. Wendell Dodge, and others. Dodge was one of the pioneers of radio telemetry and he was helpful, if not amused, when this local undergraduate announced that he wanted to put a radio on a box turtle and follow it for a couple of years. This was the turtle I had found almost twenty years ago and it was a mature adult then. The transmitter antenna was affixed to the turtle's shell by drilling two small holes on the edge of the shell. I spent a great deal of time with this fellow, following it on its short, but almost daily jaunts. I watched it feed on blueberries and mushrooms. Each night the turtle dug into the leaf litter, usually next to a fallen tree and actually created a small, dome-shaped den, called a form. Its entire activities were confined, during the time I followed this animal, to a small area - perhaps an acre or less. But after the study was over and the transmitter removed, I could not for the life of me find that animal again, no matter how hard I looked or how familiar I was with his habits. I had even followed him to where he dug three inches into the soil and spent the winter. Over the past many years I have checked and re-checked that exact spot as well as most other locations where he spent his time - but to no avail. I was sure that my old friend had passed on, one of the last of a declining species in Massachusetts. That is, until the other day, when at least one of us was extremely pleased with the reunion. It's hard to determine what a turtle thinks. After two decades, this box turtle was sitting within fifty feet of where I first found him. He probably thought I had not seemed to have gone very far either.

Learn About the Marsh Monitoring Program

The Marsh Monitoring Program is a cooperative effort of the Long Point Bird Observatory, Environment Canada and the U.S. Great Lakes Protection Fund to gather baseline information on the health of marshes by surveying populations of birds and calling amphibians in marshes throughout Ontario and the Great Lakes States. A goal of the project is to assess the progress and success of marsh rehabilitation efforts, and to monitor population changes and habitats over the long term. The program uses volunteers who set up a route and monitor it. If you are interested in participating in this effort, you can get information by writing to Program Coordinators Amy Chabot or Natalie Helferty at Long Point Bird Observatory, P.O. Box 160, Port Rowan, Ontario, Canada, NOE 1MO.


In addition to funding provided by New York State, financial support for the Amphibian & Reptile Atlas Project has been provided by the following:

  • U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Federal Aid to Endangered Species (Section 6)
  • U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Partnerships for Wildlife
  • Return a Gift to Wildlife Checkoff
  • Andrew Sabin
  • New York Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit at Cornell University
  • New York Turtle and Tortoise Society

This issue of the newsletter was printed courtesy of the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society.

NYS Amphibian & Reptile Atlas Project
Bureau of Wildlife
625 Broadway
Albany, NY 12233-4754

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