Wildlife Wednesday: Blanding’s turtles

Wildlife Wednesday: Blanding's turtles

Turtles have lived on Earth since before dinosaurs existed. One rare species, the Blanding’s turtle, lives primarily in the Great Lakes region. This specific turtle, along with painted and snapping turtles, makes its home at Wildlife Recovery Association’s Little Swamp Sanctuary in Midland County.

Dr. Jim Gillingham, former professor of herpetology at Central Michigan University, explained how turtles’ body shape has evolved very little, despite being around for 220 million years.

“The dinosaurs first appeared around the same time, but the turtles outlasted them by about 65 million years,” Gillingham said. “In spite of that success, today turtles are probably the most threatened vertebrate group on earth. They need our help wherever we can give it.”

Turtle shells offer some protection from predators. The bottom shell, called a plastron, has flexible tissue which allows adult turtles to pull the shell tighter to the top shell, an action which may make the turtles’ head and feet less vulnerable.

The shells are also an adaptation of the turtle skeleton, acting as the reptiles’ ribs. The Blanding’s turtle’s upper shell, called the carapace, is a dark mossy green with small yellow spots. The breastplate has brown and yellow markings that are unique to each turtle.

“This pattern may be able to identify each individual turtle, just as a fingerprint identifies a person,” said Barb Rogers of Wildlife Recovery Association.

Blanding’s turtles can be identified by the bright yellow on the bottom of their neck and chin, which they may show off in a form of communication. The yellow coloring can be seen when the turtles bask in the sun; when they detect danger, they retract their colorful neck into their shell.

One of the deadliest enemies to Blanding’s turtles is the raccoon. Raccoons can locate turtle nests – located in holes dug in sandy banks – by smelling the scent that the female turtle leaves as she deposits her eggs.

Wildlife Recovery Association’s Barb Rogers says everyone can help turtles in many ways. People can help turtles cross the road, protect their eggs from predators, and share information about their habitat needs with others.
Here are some ways you can help protect turtles – whether they be Blanding’s turtles, painted turtles or snapping turtles.
1. If you see a turtle crossing the road: If it can be done safely, pick up the turtle and move it in the direction it was going and place it beyond the shoulder of the road. Snapping turtles can often be safely picked up at the base of the tail.
2. If you see a turtle depositing eggs: Protect the eggs with a wire cage (an unused bird cage without a floor will work) and fasten the cage firmly to the ground with stakes. Another method is to place a heavy weight over the top so that raccoons and other predators cannot get to the eggs. Remove the cage or cover after a week so the young turtles can dig free and return to the wetland. Another possibility is to put a different scent such as a spray disinfectant on top of the nesting area.
3. If driving through wetland habitats: Drive slowly and carefully. Drive around turtles and other wildlife.

“With raccoon populations at very high numbers, the turtle populations need help,” said Rogers.

Blanding’s turtles are known to roam about a half mile in order find a mate in early spring; they can travel another half mile to locate potential nest sites in the summer. During this time, they are susceptible to many dangers, including vehicles, predators, and humans who pick them up and transport them to another location.

“Turtles have the ability to sense their location and will travel great distances to reach their home,” Rogers stated. “If they are moved very far from where they are found, they are in great danger when they try to return because they are not familiar with the ground.”

Gillingham explained that pregnant Blanding’s turtles can move 500-1,000 meters from their home area to lay their eggs.

“Blanding’s turtles typically move much farther to nest than other turtles, such as painted or snapping turtles,” Gillingham said. “Blanding’s turtles tend to be attracted to wetlands, known as shrub swamp or buttonwood swamps, for mating in the spring. Such wetland types are therefore very important to the success of these turtles. They much prefer this type of habitat as opposed to open water areas.”

Blanding’s turtles can live to be about 75 years of age and reach sexual maturity at 15 to 20 years old.

“Young Blanding’s turtles have to live a long time before they even get a chance to repopulate their habitat,” Rogers said. “The young ones need to be carefully protected in order that we have a continuing population of these wonderful friends of the swamp.”

Wildlife Recovery Association owns and protects woody wetlands where Blanding’s turtles live. The Blanding’s turtle can be found in the upper Midwest, New England and southern Canada, according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service. They are threatened by loss and fragmentation of habitat as well as water pollution and the overpopulation of certain predators.

Just like the red-headed woodpecker is listed as being of “special concern” in Michigan, so is the Blanding’s turtle, meaning it is rare, but not legally protected. The Blanding’s turtle is also listed as of “special concern” in Ohio and Wisconsin. It is listed as a threatened species in New York and as endangered in Indiana and Illinois.

Wildlife Recovery Association is a 501(c)3 charitable organization dedicated to education, rehabilitation and research to benefit wildlife, and management of a sanctuary to protect rare and sensitive species. To donate to help these magnificent animals, visit wildliferecovery.org or write to Wildlife Recovery Association, 531 S. Coleman Road, Shepherd, MI 48883.

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