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Spotted Turtle

Scientific Name: Clemmys guttata

New York Status: Special Concern
Federal Status: Not Listed


Drawing of Spotted Turtle

The "polka-dot" turtle has yellow spots on the head, neck, legs, and upper shell or carapace. Background coloration is black. The number and arrangement of spots is extremely variable and changes with age. Hatchling turtles usually have one spot on each plate, while older individuals are well sprinkled with 100 or more. Occasionally, individuals without any spots on the shells may be found, but they still have yellow and orange markings on the face. The lower shell or plastron is yellow and black in color. Male spotted turtles have dark pigment on the hard portions of both jaws; females have yellowish coloration there. Spotted turtles measure 3.5-5.0 inches (9-12.7 cm) in length.

Life History

Spotted turtles are active from March to October and may be seen singly or in groups basking in the sun. The breeding season extends from March to May. During this time, males are in an active, almost frantic pursuit of females; several males may be seen simultaneously chasing one female. When the female is ready, she lets one male catch her and allows him to climb onto her back. He grasps her shell with all four feet, positions his tail next to hers, and mates with her.

In May, at the end of breeding season, females leave the breeding pools in search of nesting areas. They may wander a good distance and, unfortunately, many are killed crossing roadways. An open site, such as a meadow, field, or the edge of a road, is most often chosen for nesting. Digging typically begins in the evening. The female digs the nest, measuring 2 inches deep and 2 inches in diameter, with her hind legs and feet. She rests when the cavity is complete, then begins to lay the eggs. Only 3-4 eggs are laid. The female then covers the eggs, as most turtles do, but goes one step further in disguising the nest. She smooths the dirt by dragging her body over the ground. In about 11 weeks, the 1-inch hatchlings emerge and head for wet, grassy areas in search of food and shelter. Sexual maturity is reached in 8-10 years and most individuals live for at least 25 years. Some members of this species probably reach 50.

Diet consists of snails, worms, slugs, and spiders. Daylight hours are spent eating and basking in the sun. In the evening, spotted turtles submerge and spend the night on the pond bottom.

Distribution and Habitat

Map of Spotted Turtle

The range extends from southern Maine and extreme southern Ontario west to Illinois and south to northern Florida in the east. Isolated colonies can be found in southern Quebec, southern Ontario, central Illinois, central Georgia and northcentral Florida. Spotted turtles spend their lives in marshy meadows, bogs, swamps, ponds, ditches, or other small bodies of still water.


Loss of habitat has been largely responsible for the major decline of the spotted turtle throughout its entire New York range. In the early 1900's, it was reported to be the most common turtle in the vicinity of New York City. This turtle is very sensitive to pollution and toxicants and disappears rapidly with declining water quality. To further stress the species, pet collecting is currently responsible for the annual loss of significant numbers. Much concern has been expressed for this small reptile as local populations disappear. It is listed as endangered in Illinois and Ohio threatened in Maine and Vermont, special concern in Indiana, and protected in Massachusetts.

Management and Research Needs

More effort should be expended to document the statewide distribution and population trends of this species. Public education is necessary to inform people that populations are declining and efforts should be made to curb collecting. Habitat and water quality should be monitored in ponds and other water bodies with known populations of spotted turtles. Additional studies of life history and habitat use are needed.

Additional References

Babcock, H. L. 1971. Turtles of the Northeastern United States. Dover Publications, Inc., New York.

Behler, J. L. and R. W. King. 1979. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Conant, R. and J. T. Collins. 1998. A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America. Third Edition Expanded. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston.

Ernst, C. H., J. E. Lovich and R. W. Barbour. 1994. Turtles of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London.

Harding, J. H. 1997. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. 378 pp.

Pritchard, P. C. H. 1979. Encyclopedia of Turtles. T. F. H. Publications, Neptune, New Jersey.

Map adapted from Conant and Collins (1998), Ernst, Lovich and Barbour (1994) and Harding (1997)

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