It was a few years ago, but I remember finding my first wood turtle like it was yesterday. After a determined half hour into a survey with biologists and navigating through tall phragmites and poison ivy, I spotted something moving towards the stream we were walking along.
My first wood turtle was slowly trying to get away from us on land and back into the nearby waters. I looked into this little guy’s eyes and there was just something mesmerizing about them.
Wood turtles are a threatened species in New Jersey and are being petitioned to be listed as federally endangered.
They can be well camouflaged with the wood-shaped pattern on their carapace (top part of their shell) but have bright orange necks and legs.
The decline in populations is due to habitat fragmentation, degradation and the pet trade industry. It’s understandable to want to keep one as a pet but when you learn how difficult it can be for wood turtles to reach the reproductive age of 14 years old, and live up to 30-40 years, it makes it a little easier to put them back.
Female wood turtles nest around May and June and may travel miles, as well as cross multiple roads, just to find an appropriate nesting site. Once a female lays her eggs in a cavity underground that she created, the eggs are then vulnerable to predation from birds, raccoons, foxes and rodents. Should they survive to hatch, around July or August, they then make the trek to the freshwater streams that they like to inhabit.
Wood turtles are unique in that they spend their life practically 50/50 on land and in water, while most species of turtles have a preference for one habitat or another. This means that clean water and adequate habitat in the areas surrounding the water is essential for their survival.
The diet of wood turtles is omnivorous and consists of small fish, crustaceans, invertebrates and vegetation both in water and on land, such as algae and skunk cabbage or berries. I have not seen it yet myself but it has been documented that wood turtles will bang their plastron (the lower part of their shell) on the ground to drive worms to the surface for consumption.
Since that fateful day of finding my first wood turtle, I have found dozens more and it is still as exciting as the first one I found. Assisting in the monitoring of an endangered or threatened species can determine management strategies that can help with rebuilding populations to more sustainable numbers.
I highly encourage anyone that has an interest in the outdoors to volunteer some time to their local biologists to help with research.