Guest commentary: Don’t be a slowpoke: Bay’s turtles need your help now


Kathy Reshetiloff is with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay field office. First published by the Bay Journal.

Turtles have been roaming the Earth since the days of the dinosaurs — some fossils date back more than 220 million years.

In addition to being culturally significant in many societies, turtles are important to the environment. Some plant species depend on turtles to disperse their seeds.

The U.S. is a global hot spot for turtle biodiversity. It is home to more terrestrial and freshwater turtle species than any other country. Some species are found only here. And the Chesapeake Bay watershed, with its diverse habitats of streams, rivers, meadows, bogs, forests and marshes, supports a variety of turtle species.

Bog turtle

The bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii), a federally threatened species, is the smallest turtle in North America and one of the smallest in the world, maxing out at 4.5 inches. Bog turtles weigh about 110 grams (3.8 ounces) on average — the same weight as 42 pennies! Fossilized bog turtle remains discovered in Maryland’s Cumberland Bone Cave, were dated to the Irvingtonian Age (1.8 million to 300,000 years ago).

Diamondback terrapin

Diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin) are the only turtles known to spend their entire lives in coastal, brackish marshlands. They help keep marshes healthy by eating periwinkle snails, which, left to their own devices, can graze a marsh down to mud. While not as threatened as they were in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when turtle soup was very popular, diamondbacks still face threats — most notably, the loss of marshland from sea level rise.

Diamondbacks have also been inadvertently drowned in crab traps, but simple, low-cost bycatch reduction devices on traps can help them escape. Maryland now requires recreational crabbers to have these devices on their traps.

Eastern box turtle

The eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) is one of the primary seed dispersers for the spring-flowering May apple. Seeds consumed by box turtles also have a higher probability of germinating. The estimated life span of a box turtle ranges from 50 to 80 years. The sex of a box turtle depends on the temperature of its nest before it hatches. Eggs incubated in nests that average less than 80 degrees Fahrenheit tend to be males; those in warmer nests tend to be female.

Spotted turtle

Spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata) are small, aquatic turtles, named for the yellow dots scattered across their dark shells. Males have black or tan chins and yellow eyes, while females have yellow chins and orange eyes. Hatchlings have one spot on each section of their shell, and the number of spots increases with age. They favor shallow aquatic habitats, such as marshy meadows, swamps and bogs, with abundant vegetation to bask on.

Although renowned for lengthy life spans, turtles take a long time to reach reproductive age — often a decade or more. Because most don’t survive to adulthood (hatchlings and juveniles are bite-size snacks for predators), adults often must reproduce for their entire lives to sustain their population.

Turtles are among the most imperiled vertebrates in the world. More than 60% of the planet’s 356 species of turtles are considered threatened or are already extinct.

On top of habitat loss, climate change and car strikes, turtles face a growing threat that’s harder to see: illegal collection. Turtles are collected illegally in the U.S. for the pet trade, food and traditional medicine — exacerbating other threats.

To help protect turtles

  • Report suspected poaching behavior. If you know or suspect someone is collecting or selling wild turtles, call the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s tip line at 844-FWS-TIPS or email You can also contact your state wildlife agency.
  • If it’s safe to do so, help a turtle cross a road. Escort or gently carry it across the road in the direction it seems to be heading. Don’t ever move a turtle to an altogether different location. They are more likely to survive in familiar habitat.
  • Pet turtles require specialized care for decades so be sure you are ready for the commitment. If you are, be a cautious consumer. Before purchasing a pet turtle, ask for certification that it was bred in captivity and not captured from the wild.
  • If you are no longer able to care for a pet turtle, don’t release it into the wild, where it’s not likely to survive and could introduce diseases to wild populations. If you can’t find your turtle a new home, take it to an animal shelter.
  • Create a turtle-friendly yard by growing native plants, eliminating pesticide use, keeping some leaves on the ground in the fall and building small log or rock piles for cover.
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