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Turtles of Delaware

Written on: July 26th, 2023 in Natural ResourcesWetland Animals

By Alison Rogerson, DNREC’s Wetland Monitoring and Assessment Program

Summer means warm weather (ok hot), spending more time outside, exploring the woods, wading in streams, and fishing. This makes it more likely that you will encounter one of Delaware’s 14 species of turtles! Safe to say that there is a turtle in every type of habitat you visit.

From saltwater rivers and bays to freshwater creeks, forested wetland ponds, dry forests, wet meadows, and freshwater ponds- there are turtles in everyone! But can you tell which one you’re seeing?Can you Name that Turtle?

Let’s start out in the dry upland forest and work our way out to the Delaware River and Bay, learning a few fun facts about six popular turtle species that call Delaware home and how to identify them.

A box turtle nosing around a wooded wetland.

Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina)

The box turtle is a common and attractive species found in forested upland habitat. They are small but noticeable because of their gold and black patterned shell. No two are the same and their colors and patterns vary widely. Their red eyes are sharp and help them locate food such as snails, insects, flowers, mushrooms, and worms. I once interrupted a box turtle munching on a mushroom for breakfast.

Watch out – this snapper is changing lanes in a road.

Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

Snappers can be found in many different habitats: slow moving streams, rivers, ponds, impoundments, and brackish or salt marshes. What makes them distinctive? Their size and shape. They are the largest Delaware species when fully grown, topping out around 35lbs and 18 inches long! They have a pointy snout, long tail, and large webbed feet. You may see them crossing or along the road – they come out of water to seek sandy areas to lay their eggs generally in May. Watch out for these adaptable reptiles on the road but keep your distance- they are known to be a bit defensive (and flexible) and will bite if threatened.

A rare shot of a big turtle in the wild (Photo Credit: Holly Niederriter)

Bog Turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii)

The bog turtle is one you are NOT likely to encounter but it’s special and I had to include it. This petite and secretive turtle is only found in the eastern United States, and they are considered critically endangered. Bog turtles are the smallest in North America, reaching only 4.5 inches in length. They are dark brown and black mottled with a distinctive gold to orange patch on the side of their neck behind their eyes. Bog turtles are difficult to spot not just because of their size, but also their habitat. They favor open, groundwater-fed wet meadows and bogs dominated by sedges and grasses. Decline in this species is largely due to habitat loss and fragmentation, and meadows succeeding into forests.

A red-eared slider basking on debris (Photo Credit: Alexandria Zoo).

Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)

Red-eared sliders are recognizable in many freshwater ponds and rivers, and as a favored pet. They are distinctive by a broad red strip behind each eye. Although popular and common to see in the wild, they are a non-native invasive species in Delaware. Oftentimes, pet owners release unwanted pets into the wild, which contributes to their spread and risks spreading disease to native turtle populations.

Spotted a spotted hanging out in a freshwater wetland.

Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata)

Spotted turtles are another small, aquatic species freshwater habitats, growing to between 3.5 and 5.5 inches (small enough to hold in one hand). Their dark smooth shell is marked with bright yellow polka dots. They prefer shallow freshwater forested ponds and spend more of their time underwater among leaf litter. In the winter, spotted turtles bury themselves deep in muddy sediment and enter brumation, where they slow heir metabolism drastically so they can live without food and very little oxygen. Like other species who rely on specific wetland types, spotted turtle populations are threatened by loss and fragmentation of habitat. Collection for the pet trade also poses a threat to them.

Up-close and personal with a terrapin in a salt marsh.

Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin)

This is one of my favorite turtle species in Delaware. Terrapins are unique in several ways. First, they are the only saltwater turtle in Delaware (not counting the odd sea turtle). The female is larger than males, measuring up to nine inches versus about 5.5 inches in males. They are common in the Delaware Bay and Inland Bays and are often spotted poking their heads up along tidal creeks and bays. They have a beautiful black and white spotted skin with distinctively light ‘lips’. They are meat-eating, and particularly enjoy menhaden and silverside fish. Unfortunately, many terrapins die each year as mistaken catch in crab traps, where they drown unless turtle exclusion devices are used. Many are also struck and killed on Route 1 in the Inland Bays as they cross the road to seek sandy nesting habitat.

If you are lucky enough to encounter any turtle in the wild, be gentle and let them be. Observe them doing their turtle thing, take some pictures but resist the idea to take them home. Wildlife belongs in the wild!

If you see a turtle crossing the road and want to lend a hand, carefully pick them (NOT by their tail) and move them across in the direction they were facing when you found them. Do this only if traffic allows safe conditions for yourself.

For more details on these turtles and more visit this turtle identification guide!

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