Turtle Species in Massachusetts

There are 10 species of turtles in Massachusetts. They range from the tiny bog turtle, which measures 3-4” long, to the snapping turtle, which can reach up to 19” long. In addition, five sea turtles have also been found offshore, or stranded on beaches.

If you come across any turtles listed under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, it should be photographed to confirm the identification and the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program should be notified.

Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii)

Blandings turtle © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon

Found in the eastern half of the state, it has a dark body and a bright yellow throat, and grows up to 9” long. It inhabits a variety of habitat types, and eats both plants, such as duckweed and sedges, and animals, such as fish and snails.

Status

Threatened under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. It’s illegal to kill, harass, collect, or possess this turtle.


Bog Turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii)

bog turtle © USFWS
bog turtle © USFWS

The rarest turtle in the state, the bog turtle is under threat from habitat loss and collection for the pet trade. It’s tiny, just 3-4” long, with a bright yellow spot on either side of its head. True to its name, it lives in bogs and other wetlands. It mostly eats invertebrates such as slugs and insect larvae.

Status

Endangered under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act and federally Threatened. It’s illegal to kill, harass, collect, or possess this turtle.


Diamond-backed Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin)

Diamond-backed terrapin © NOAA
Diamond-backed terrapin © NOAA

A coastal species inhabiting estuaries and mud flats, the diamond-backed terrapin grows up to 9” long, and eats snails, small crustaceans, worms, and some aquatic plants. In order to survive in salty environments, it excretes excess salt through orbital (eye) glands.

Status

Threatened under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. It’s illegal to kill, harass, collect, or possess this turtle.


Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina)

eastern box turtle © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon
eastern box turtle © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon

Terrestrial, wandering forest floors, fields, marsh edges, and many other habitats, the eastern box turtle is primarily found in the warmer parts of the state. It eats many plant and small animal species. In the late afternoon, it builds a domelike structure from grasses or leaves—called a form—in which to spend the night.

Status

A Species of Special Concern under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. It’s illegal to kill, harass, collect, or possess this turtle.


Eastern Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus)

Eastern musk turtle

A denizen of slow-moving water, the eastern musk turtle rarely basks and only leaves the water to lay eggs. Its diet includes mollusks, tadpoles, and aquatic insects and plants. It has a pointy face and a high-domed shell, and is also known as a stinkpot—when startled, it will emit an unpleasant odor.


Northern Red-bellied Cooter (Pseudemys rubirentris)

northern red-bellied cooter
© Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon

It’s only found in one county in Massachusetts: Plymouth County. This large turtle (up to 12” long) looks somewhat like a painted turtle, but lacks the two yellow markings behind the eyes. The plastron (lower shell) is pink in males and red in females. It prefers freshwater ponds with basking sites and aquatic vegetation, and mostly eats plants, but may occasionally consume meat, such as fish or tadpoles.

Status

Endangered federally and under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. It’s illegal to kill, harass, collect, or possess this turtle.


Painted turtle (Chrysemys picta)

painted turtle © Rosemary Mosco, Mass Audubon
painted turtle © Rosemary Mosco, Mass Audubon

It’s common throughout the state in shallow bodies of water that offer places to bask. In fact, it can spend as many as six hours a day basking in the sun! It grows up to 8” long. It has a smooth olive shell and yellow stripes on its head, with two distinctive yellow spots behind each eye. Its diet is varied and includes aquatic plants, small fish, and snails.


Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

snapping turtle © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon
snapping turtle © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon

Found in all sorts of water bodies, from rivers to lakes to marshes, the snapping turtle can grow up to 19” long. It has three ridges on its carapace, as well as a spiky tail. It eats many different plants and animals, and becomes more vegetarian as it ages. Snapping turtles can be aggressive and deliver a painful bite if threatened, possibly because their small lower shell (plastron) leaves them vulnerable. Give them plenty of space, and be aware that their neck can stretch the length of the shell. Never grab one by the tail—you could seriously injure the turtle.


Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata)

spotted turtle © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon
spotted turtle © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon

Small, the spotted turtle only grows up to 4.5” long. It has a smooth dark shell with little yellow polka dots. It lives in wet meadows, marshes, bogs, small ponds, and slow-moving streams. It mostly eats animals, such as worms and frogs, but will occasionally eat plants.


Wood turtle (Clemmys insculpta)

wood turtle © Chris Ruggiero
wood turtle © Chris Ruggiero

The wood turtle spends most of its time on land. It feeds both on land and in the water, eating animals such as insects and earthworms, and plant foods such as algae and grass. It grows up to 8” long. It has a shell that resembles carved wood, and its neck and part of its legs are bright orange.

Status

A Species of Special Concern under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. It’s illegal to kill, harass, collect, or possess this turtle.


Sea Turtles

juvenile sea turtle © TurtleJournal.com
juvenile sea turtle © TurtleJournal.com

Most adult sea turtles are truly tropical or sub-tropical creatures. Yet certain species of juvenile sea turtles come north to feed along the east coast and return south before the onset of winter. While highly unlikely, it is possible, with luck, to find five species of sea turtles in Cape Cod waters. Learn more about the five species of sea turtles seen in Massachusetts and what Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is doing to save cold-stunned and stranded sea turtles.