About Turtles

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

Turtles are reptiles, like snakes and lizards, but they’re more ancient than either of those groups. The first turtles appeared over 200 million years ago. Although many turtle species live in the water, all must breathe air and lay eggs on land.

Identification

All turtles have shells. Because these shells are made of modified bones like ribs, turtles can’t crawl out of them. The shell covering a turtle's body consists of a top part called the carapace, a bottom part called the plastron, and connecting parts called bridges.

Turtles have no teeth. Instead, their jaws are hard and bony with sharp edges.

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 species sea turtles often visit our shores, some of which get stranded. Learn More

Behavior

Turtles are frequently seen basking in the sun on logs, rocks, or embankments. This behavior serves many purposes, including helping to promote muscle activity and digestion, encouraging leeches and other parasites to drop off, and triggering the production of vitamin D, which is essential for strong shells.

People often ask, “What do turtles do in the winter?” All but one of our species overwinter in mud and leaf litter in water bodies, like bottom of lakes, ponds, tidal flats, or gentle streams, and may become active during warm spells. The eastern box turtle is the exception: it burrows into loose soil or sand, or seeks shelter in old mammal holes.

Life Cycle

All turtles, including sea turtles, lay their eggs on land. Female turtles dig their nests in summer, typically in June or July. Some species will excavate a number of holes; these "false nests" may serve as deterrents for predators. After laying eggs in the hole and covering them with dirt, the female departs.

After two or three months, the young turtles hatch underground (though the young of some species will overwinter in the nest). The hatchlings dig their way to the surface and head for their preferred habitat. At this point they are very vulnerable, and often fall prey to skunks, raccoons, foxes, mink, bullfrogs, hawks, and other carnivores.

Food

Turtles have varied diets. For example, the diet of eastern box turtles includes fruit and slugs, diamond-backed terrapins will eat crustaceans and mollusks, and snapping turtles will eat plants, crayfish, and carrion (dead or decaying animal flesh).

Situations & Solutions

Turtles often find themselves navigating developed areas—you may find a turtle crossing a busy road, or laying eggs in your yard. We can help you decide when to intervene. In most cases, turtles should be left alone, and we also discourage people from taking wild turtles as pets. Learn More