FRESHWATER TURTLES

Please Note:  This section is intended to give the reader a few interesting facts about the various Canadian freshwater turtle species rather than trying to be a detailed field guide. We urge those who are really curious about the turtles they see in our lakes and rivers to consult a good field guide such as,  “ A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America”, authors Roger Conant and Joseph T. Collins, Peterson Field Guide Series, 3rd Edition published by Houghton, Mifflin Company, ISBN 0-395-90452-8"  This book has gone through many editions so it can often be purchased inexpensively at a used book store or yard sale and even an older edition is worthwhile.

Painted Turtles

The Painted turtle group consists of four sub-species of which three occur in Canada. All are surface or mid-water turtles and all are omnivores (eat both plants and animals). All three have smooth, dark green or black carapaces with orange-red marking along the lower edge they are among the most attractive turtles in the world, often seen while basking.

Eastern Painted Turtle
Chrysemys picta picta


This sub-species is found in P.E.I., Nova Scotia, southern New Brunswick, the western portion of the Eastern Townships of Québec and the southern portion of central Québec. In this species the plastron is usually a plain cream colour but the definitive field mark is the border between the carapacial scutes (the scales on the back). The seams normally line up across the carapace, unlike the other Canadian painted turtles. All the painted turtles are primarily top water turtles, swimming and feeding near the surface rather than diving to the bottom of the water body. All are carnivorous when young, feeding on aquatic invertebrates, tadpoles, careless fish etc. As they grow toward maturity they become more and more herbivorous, dining on a variety of aquatic plants.

Average adult size: 112 mm. (4.5 in.) to 155 mm. (6 in.), lifespan possible to 35 years or more.


Midland Painted Turtle
Chrysemys picta marginata


This sub-species is found from western Québec and extreme eastern Ontario right across the lower half of Ontario to the eastern end of Lake Superior. They differ from the Eastern painted in that the carapacial scute joints are stepped rather than straight and there is almost always a black filigree plastral mark decorating the long axis of the lower shell.
The spaces between the filigree are sometimes partially filled with orange-red but this is most prominent in young turtles. Old adults may have faded to the point where the plastral decoration is hard to see. 

Size and lifespan as for Eastern painted turtles.

Western Painted Turtle
Chrysemys picta belli


The range of these largest of the painted turtles in Canada begins just east of Lake Nipigon and extends through the Prairie provinces to British Columbia. The carapace looks much like that of the other two Paints but the plastron is a brilliant orange with a beautiful black and orange filigree pattern that covers much of the surface. Lifespan is probably similar to the other sub-species.

Average adult size: 130 mm. (5.0 in.) to 180 mm. (7.0 in.), may reach 250 mm. (almost 10.0 in.)

Snapping Turtles

There is only one species in Canada and it is by far the largest and most misunderstood of our freshwater turtles. These are for the most part, bottom feeding animals. They can remain submerged for as much as an hour (normally only a few minutes) so they prowl the algal and plant thickets searching for prey. Food items include virtually every sort of plant and animal, living or dead, that can be found in their environment; crayfish, minnows, frogs, tadpoles, clams, insect larvae among them. In spite of their reputation most snappers probably rarely have the opportunity to capture waterfowl but if a bird is careless a large snapper will certainly try to take it. Carrion is eaten only if it is relatively fresh.

Common Snapping Turtle
Chelydra serpentina serpentina

The carapacial scutes are very rough and show three longitudinal keels (often reduced in older adults). The plastron is quite small and does not offer the protection of the painted turtle’s ‘suit of armour’ nor is that protection needed. The skin on the legs and head is rough and thick. Colouration varies from tan through almost black, often with faint tinges of pale yellow. The overall effect is to provide the excellent camouflage that enables the slow but stealthy snapper to sneak up on its prey. The long, thick neck is powerfully muscled and can be uncoiled from inside the body cavity in a flash. The beak is sharp and strong and can deliver a painful bite. There are two barbels on the chin that enable the snapper to smell under water.  Snappers are usually only aggressive when approached on land as they
feel vulnerable there. For the most part, snappers move slowly as their ambush feeding tactics work well at slow speed. These turtles are heavily preyed upon by humans as their flesh is tasty and people are unduly frightened by their menacing appearance.

Snappers are found throughout Nova Scotia, southern New Brunswick, southwestern Quebec, eastern and central Ontario and along the southern portion of western Ontario. They occur in southern Manitoba and southeastern Saskatchewan plus a small portion of the southwest of that province.

Adult size range: 200 to 300 mm ( 8 - 12 in.). Maximum longevity estimated at 50 - 60 years but probably 20 - 35 years is more common.

Common Musk Turtle
Sternotherus odoratus odoratus


This is the other ‘bottom walker’ amongst our Canadian freshwater turtles. This is a small species with a brown or black smooth, domed shell in side view, oval in plane view with a long neck and a pointed snout. The feet are small and soft so the Musk is not a great swimmer. The head and neck are striped longitudinally in white to pale yellow. They prowl along the bottom looking for aquatic snails, clams, insect larvae, tadpoles, etc. and are entirely carnivorous. The beak is small in females but very sharp...males have larger heads and can deliver a surprisingly painful bite if picked up. Most people have never seen a musk turtle as they rarely bask
and spend most of their time in the water and under cover. Apart from their bite, they  depend upon four glands near each end of the bridge that secrete an evil-smelling oily musk if the turtle is very frightened...hence the other name of Stinkpot. There are two barbels on the chin and more on the neck which enable the turtle to smell food under water.

The front lobe of the plastron is hinged in front of the bridge and both front and rear lobes are quite small. It is believed that the hinge is to enable the Musk to eat large pieces of food rather than to retract the head.

In Canada the Common Musk is found in lakes and rivers from the north shore of the Ottawa River in western Quebec through eastern Ontario as far as the western end of Georgian Bay.

Adult size : Usually 70 to 100 mm (3 to 5 in.) but can reach 137 mm. Longevity: up to 55 years.

Blanding’s Turtle
Emydoidea blandingii

This large species is notable for its army helmet shape (as seen from the side), its brilliant chrome yellow throat and a reputation as a wanderer. The smooth, unserrated shell is almost black with tan or yellow radiating lines of spots,
some of which are joined into short lines. The plastron is full coverage, has a lateral hinge just ahead of the bridge and is usually yellow with a black blotch in the outer posterior corner of each scute. The skin is, for the most part, blue-grey with some yellow tints on the legs except for the chin and throat which are a striking chrome yellow.

Canadian range of the Blanding’s runs from southwestern Quebec through all of Ontario as far as a line from mid Georgian Bay up to the Lake Nipissing area. There is a long isolated relict population in the Lake Kejimkujik region of Nova Scotia. Within the range this turtle prefers woodland ponds, lakes, slow flowing rivers and marshes that are not overgrown with bulrushes. The adults of this species are known to wander long distances both in their daily activities and also overland, the males in particular may show up miles from their home range. It may be that their high domed shell and large size enables them to store enough water for land travel as desiccation is a serious risk for most turtles when out of the water for a few days.

Blandings are mainly carnivores with a strong preference for the crayfish that they stalk in the weedy areas in which they prefer to live. Minnows, tadpoles, frogs, fish eggs and insects are eaten in the water but on occasion Blandings will forage on land. Terrestrial foods include worms, grubs, leaves, grass and berries. These may be consumed on land or carried to the nearest water and swallowed there. Swallowing is easier under water as the liquid lubricates the food item.

Adult size range: 12 - 19 cm. ( 5 - 7.5 in.) up to 26 cm. (10.5 in.).  Longevity: 55 years plus.

Common Map Turtle
Graptemys geographica geographica

The Map is an interesting species for several reasons. This is a large  ( in the female) species with special adaptation for life in rivers and large lakes. The oval carapace is serrated at the trailing edge and distinct, shallow vertebral keel. The carapace is olive green with fine yellowish reticulations that tend to fade in older specimens. In younger ones, the markings resemble the contour lines on a map, hence the name.  The plastron is cream coloured to yellowish in all age groups but in juveniles the seams are dark. The skin on the head and legs is olive to brownish black with an attractive pattern of longitudinal stripes. The feet are webbed and the rear legs and feet are much larger than the front. Their
strong muscles and wide webbing account for the Map’s ability to swim fast and deal with the strong currents typical of big rivers. They have excellent eyesight and respond to the sight of humans at a great distance so few people ever see one up close.

Common Map turtles are found in Canada from south central Quebec, up the Ottawa River at least as far as Portage du Fort, across Ontario to Parry Sound and down along the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes to Lac St. Clair and on up the Bruce Peninsula. Their lack of tolerance of human interference and their preference for ‘big water’ leads to a spotty distribution throughout the Canadian range.

Food preferences include aquatic snails, crayfish, clams, small fish and insect larvae.

Map turtles often migrate to and from a hibernation site in a quiet stretch of a river, even those that spend the summer in large lakes. The advantage seems to be that by holing up in a log jam in a river there is little chance of anoxia (oxygen shortage) because the water is moving, not still as in a lake.

There is a pronounced difference in adult size between male and female Map turtles; the males have a more steeply pitched (ridged) carapace and achieve only half to two thirds of the size of the females.

Adult size range: Females 180 - 275 mm ( 7 - 12.75 in.), Males 90 - 12.70 mm ( 3.5 - 5.0 in.). Longevity is at least 20 years.

Clemmys Turtles

Two of the four Clemmys species (Wood, Spotted, Bog and Western Pond turtles) are found in Canada. The Wood Turtle is the closest thing we have to a box turtle or a tortoise while the small, beautiful Spotted Turtle is a shy, seldom seen inhabitant of wetlands that most other turtles do not like. Both are in serious decline throughout their range, mainly due to habitat destruction, road kills and agricultural machinery.

Wood Turtle
Clemmys insculpta

This medium-sized turtle has a keeled carapace with rough textured scutes that clearly show growth rings (annuli). The rear edge of the shell is strongly toothed (serrated). The overall effect is that of weathered wood but probably the name comes from this species’ spending much time on land at the forest edge. The carapace is coloured brown with
faint yellow lines radiating from the centre of the scutes in some individuals. The bridge and plastron are yellow and each has a black blotch in the posterior outer corner. The head is black but the rest of the skin is brown with burnt orange or yellow on the throat and ventral surfaces of the legs.

The Canadian range of the Wood Turtle includes all but the southern third of Nova Scotia, all of New Brunswick, a small strip of Quebec above New Brunswick and much of western Quebec. Ontario has (or had until recently) disparate populations in the mid-Ottawa River Valley, much of southern Ontario and a population in the area between and to the north of Georgian Bay - Lake Superior. In every case, sandy or gravelly soils and suitable streams or rivers with sandy bottoms are present.

In streams the Wood turtle feeds on algae, small (dead) fish, tadpoles and molluscs. On land the principal foods are fungi (mostly mushrooms), various invertebrates, flowers, fruits and green leaves but almost anything that resembles food may be accepted on occasion, including carrion, bird’s eggs, baby mice and the eggs of other turtles. Both the seasonal availability of these foods and the weather determine the amount of time spent on land or in the water but loosely, in cooler weather Woods will be aquatic and in warm weather when food is plentiful on land they will be terrestrial. If they remain on land overnight they can toss dead leaves over themselves as camouflage. Some individuals demonstrate an interesting technique to capture earthworms. They find a more or less bare stretch of soil that is damp but not wet and then stomp first one front foot and then the other. This may cause the plastron to rap the ground too. The effect may simulate the pounding of rain on the soil (from the worm’s viewpoint) because it often causes earthworms to appear on the surface, only to meet a turtle.

Many turtle species are territorial and memorize the features of their habitat but none do so as well as the Wood Turtle. They can often find their way back to the home territory from well over a kilometre away and are good at solving mazes. Possibly the added danger of living partially on land, finding food and avoiding predators have made them more intelligent than other Canadian turtles.

Adult size range: 14 - 20 cm. (5.5 - 8 in.)    Longevity: Up to 33 years in the wild, up to 58 years in captivity.

Spotted Turtle
Clemmys guttata guttata

This small, shy, beautiful turtle is one of the most attractive species in Canada. The smooth, oval black shell is sprinkled with yellow spots, as is the head. Interestingly, these spots are actually clear areas in the scutes that show underlying yellow pigment. The lower surface of the marginal scutes is yellowish. The plastron is yellow in younger turtles with a large black blotch on each scute. These spots grow with age so in older specimens the plastron may become entirely black. The skin is grey or black on top with orange or pink colour below. Males have tan chins and brown eyes,
females have yellow chins and orange eyes.

Spotted turtles found in scattered locations in eastern, central and southern Ontario and may still be re-discovered in Quebec. They seem to prefer quiet fens and marshes although in the U.S. portion of their range they occupy a wide range of habitats. Wherever they are found, Spotteds are real homebodies, often remaining in the same small area for years or even decades. Turtles captured and marked in an eastern Ontario marsh in 1986 were recaptured two years ago either in exactly the same spot or less than 500 feet away. They also are among the least active of our turtles; they feed in the spring until the weather becomes very warm and then rest much of the summer. Even in the cooler autumn temperatures feeding is sporadic and then they hibernate for the winter. Unaggressive and long lived; they quietly go about their lives and are seldom seen by humans.

Foods include Aquatic plants, insect larvae, tadpoles, crustaceans, salamanders fish and carrion. The fact that they sometimes live in nutrient-poor habitats may contribute to this species’ catholic tastes.

Adult size range: 90 - 115 mm ( 3.5 - 4.5 in.)    Longevity: In excess of 30 years in the wild, much longer in captivity.

Eastern Spiny Softshell
Apalone spinifera spinifera
 


Easily the most unusual member of our turtle fauna, this animal is a descendent of a very ancient group that were around before the dinosaurs. It does not have a soft shell as such; rather it has the same internal skeleton as our other species but does not have the broadened ribs coming right to the margin of the carapace. In place of a layer of hard scutes (the part of the shell we normally see) there is thick, leather skin covered with minute tubercles that give it a texture somewhat like sandpaper. The ribs are there but only in the central portion of the carapace. The edges of the carapace are very flexible and enable this fast swimmer to manoeuvre with ease in the water. Every feature of the Spiny Softshell is designed to make it a superb aquatic predator. The ground colour is olive-grey with scattered dark-edged circular spots. Adult females are almost twice as large as the males (similar to the Map turtle) The overall impression is that of a discus-shaped turtle with a very pointed nose...almost like a snorkel. The feet are strongly webbed and make these animals very powerful swimmers. The neck is long, enabling the turtle to snuggle down in soft sand in shallow water and wait for small fish yet still reach the surface to breathe. Fleshy lips cover a very sharp beak capable of delivering a memorable bite to careless handlers or a potential meal.

The Canadian range is quite restricted, being limited to the lower Ottawa River, parts of the St. Lawrence and the Thames River drainage in southern Ontario. It is also found in lakes St. Clair, Erie and Ontario.  Soft bottoms with vegetation are preferred. Fallen trees are used for basking and both basking and nesting are carried out on sandbars.

Spiny Softshells are food generalists, feeding especially on fish both fresh and carrion, crayfish and plant material. Depending upon where they live various aquatic invertebrates may make up a significant portion of the diet. Food is either ambushed while the turtle is buried in the bottom or actively searched out under stones and in aquatic vegetation with that long snout. These animals can remain submerged for 20 minutes at a time, making food searches very efficient.

These are among the wariest of all turtles, very hard to approach and difficult to catch due to their agility in the water. Seldom seen by anyone in Canada.

Adult size range: 180 - 432 mm (7 - 17 in.) For females, males 125 -235 mm (5 - 9.5 in.). Longevity: Possibly as much as 53 years but normally probably closer to 25 years.

   

Glossary

Biologists tend to us specialized words that may not be familiar to the average person. They do this because these words have precise meanings where more general terms would not.

Carapace: The upper half of the shell. This is the vertebral column and the ribs plus overlying tissues including the scales on the outside of the carapace.

Scute: The scutes are the large scales on the carapace that protect the tissues beneath them from damage. They are made of keratin, the same material as human finger nails and hair.

Omnivore: An animal that eats both plants and other animals.

Carnivore: An animal that normally eats only other animals.

Sub-species: A group of animals that are very closely related to one or more other groups but have some differences that make them distinguishable from those other groups. Example: the various painted turtles; all look much alike in general body form and have more or less similar lifestyles yet they are clearly not all the same animal.

Plastron: The bony plates covered with scutes that make up the lower shell of a turtle.

Bridge: The bony structures that connect the carapace to the plastron on a turtle, leaving room for front and rear legs.

Beak: Turtles do not have teeth but rather, a beak somewhat like a bird.

Relict Population: A population that has been isolated in a relatively small area for a long time and is separate from others of its species.

Terrestrial: On land, as opposed to in water (Aquatic).

Serrated: A structure having a toothed appearance.

Marginal: The scutes around the edge of the carapace.

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