- (Le Conte, 1830)
Other English Common Names: wood turtle
Clemmys insculpta (Le Conte, 1830)
Taxonomic Status: Accepted
Related ITIS Name(s):
Glyptemys insculpta (LeConte, 1830) (TSN 668669)
French Common Names: tortue des bois
Unique Identifier: ELEMENT_GLOBAL.2.100280
Element Code: ARAAD02020
Informal Taxonomy: Animals, Vertebrates
Genus Size: B - Very small genus (2-5 species)
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Concept Reference: King, F. W., and R. L. Burke, editors. 1989. Crocodilian, tuatara, and turtle species of the world: a taxonomic and geographic reference. Association of Systematics Collections, Washington, D.C. 216 pp.
Concept Reference Code: B89KIN01NAUS
Name Used in Concept Reference: Clemmys insculpta
Taxonomic Comments: Molecular data and morphological evidence indicate that the genus Clemmys (sensu McDowell 1964) is paraphyletic (see Bickham et al. 1996, Holman and Fritz 2001, Feldman and Parham 2002). Based on morphological data, Holman and Fritz (2001) split Clemmys as follows: Clemmys guttata was retained as the only member of the genus; Clemmys insculpta and C. muhlenbergii were placed in the genus Glyptemys (as first reviser, Holman and Fritz gave Glyptemys Agassiz, 1857, precedence over the simultaneously published genus Calemys Agassiz, 1857); and Clemmys marmorata was transferred to the monotypic genus Actinemys.
Genetic data support the basic features of this arrangement. An analysis of emydid relationships based on molecular data (Feldman and Parham 2002) identified four well-supported clades: Terrapene; Clemmys guttata; C. insculpta and C. muhlenbergii; and Clemmys marmorata, Emys orbicularis, and Emydoidea blandingii. Feldman and Parham retained Clemmys guttata as the only member of that genus; regarded Clemmys marmorata, Emys orbicularis, and Emydoidea blandingii as congeneric (in the genus Emys, which has priority); and placed C. insculpta and C. muhlenbergii in the genus Calemys. However, Feldman and Parham were unaware that Holman and Fritz (2001) had given Glyptemys precedence over Calemys, so the correct generic name for these turtles under the arrangement of Feldman and Parham is Glyptemys. In contrast to Holman and Fritz (2001), Feldman and Parham (2002) argued that placing Clemmys marmorata in the monotypic genus Actinemys would unnecessarily obscure its phylogenetic relationships, and they recommended that marmorata be included in the genus Emys.
See also McDowell (1964), Merkle (1975), Lovich et al. (1991), and Bickham et al. (1996) for information on relationships among turtles of the genus Clemmys (sensu lato).
Global Status: G3
Global Status Last Reviewed: 11Nov2010
Global Status Last Changed: 11Nov2010
Rounded Global Status: G3 - Vulnerable
Reasons: Occurs in the northeastern United States and portions of adjacent southern Canada; apparently declining throughout most of the range; still extant in all 21 states and Canadian provinces from which recorded but rated as apparently secure in only 2 states; late maturity and very low annual juvenile recruitment make the species vulnerable to declines and limit recovery potential; threatened by over-collection (commonly illegal) and habitat loss and fragmentation; better information is needed on population trends and their relationship to specific threats.
Nation: United States
National Status: N3
National Status: N3
U.S. & Canada State/Province Status
Connecticut (S3), District of Columbia (SH), Iowa (S1), Maine (S4), Maryland (S4), Massachusetts (S3), Michigan (S2S3), Minnesota (S2), New Hampshire (S3), New Jersey (S2), New York (S3), Ohio (S1), Pennsylvania (S3S4), Rhode Island (S2), Vermont (S3), Virginia (S2), West Virginia (S3), Wisconsin (S3)
New Brunswick (S3), Nova Scotia (S3), Ontario (S2), Quebec (S2)
Canadian Species at Risk Act (SARA) Schedule 1/Annexe 1 Status: T
Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC): Threatened
Comments on COSEWIC: Reason for Designation: This species is declining across much of its range, and occurs in small, increasingly disjunct populations. It is more terrestrial than other freshwater turtles, which makes it extremely vulnerable to collection for the pet trade. It has a long-lived life history typical of turtles, so that almost any chronic increase in adult and juvenile mortality leads to a decrease in abundance. Such increased mortality is occurring from increased exposure to road traffic, agricultural machinery and off-road vehicles, collection for pets, and perhaps exotic food/medicines. Increased level of threat is associated with new or increased access to areas by people.
Status History: Designated Special Concern in April 1996. Status re-examined and designated Threatened in November 2007.
IUCN Red List Category: EN - Endangered
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species Protection Status (CITES): Appendix II
NatureServe Global Conservation Status Factors
Range Extent: 200,000-2,500,000 square km (about 80,000-1,000,000 square miles)
Range Extent Comments: Eastern North America, from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Quebec south to northern Virginia and Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, west through the Great Lakes region (including southern Ontario) to eastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa, and western Pennsylvania (Bleakney 1963, Gilhen and Grantmyer 1973, Green and Pauley 1987, Quinn and Tate 1991, Conant and Collins 1991, Harding 1997). Not known from Illinois or Indiana; occurrence in extreme northeastern Ohio was questioned as a possible native population (Conant 1975, Thompson 1953). See 1994 Herpetol. Rev. 25:144-146 for a discussion of occurrence on the coastal plain of Maryland.
Area of Occupancy: Unknown 4-km2 grid cells
Area of Occupancy Comments:
Number of Occurrences: 81 - 300
Number of Occurrences Comments: The number of occurrences has not been determined using standardized occurrence specifications, but probably there are at least a few hundred distinct occurrences.
Population Size: 10,000 - 100,000 individuals
Population Size Comments: Total adult population size is unknown but likely exceeds 10,000.
In the Great Lakes region, this species is generally uncommon to rare; locally common where habitat is intact and human disturbance is minimal (Harding 1997). It is rare in Minnesota and uncommon even in suitable habitat; populations are not large (Oldfield and Moriarty 1994). It is widespread but apparently rare in Maine (Hunter et al. 1992).
Number of Occurrences with Good Viability/Integrity: Many (41-125)
Viability/Integrity Comments: The number of occurrences with at least good viability has not been determined, but probably only a minority of occurrences have good long-term viability.
Overall Threat Impact: Very high - high
Overall Threat Impact Comments: The species has been seriously impacted by illegal collection. Entire populations along some streams have been eliminated. As a result, the distribution is now more discontinuous than it once was, and gene flow has certainly been reduced in some areas. Collection for pet trade (now illegal in most of the range) is the major threat to the survival of wood turtles. In the north, where development pressure is not great, collection may be the only serious threat. Collectors can easily clean out an entire population along many miles of stream in only one or two seasons of collecting, by timing collection to coincide with the turtles' emergence from hibernation. Although the level of illegal collecting is undocumented, experts in most states surveyed mentioned collecting as a major threat in their state. Most states and provinces in the range now have laws prohibiting mass collection and commercial use. Nevertheless, it is not illegal to sell wood turtles in the rest of the United States, or to export them. They commonly show up in pet stores on the west coast, and they are also shipped to Japan and Europe. Hundreds to thousands of wood turtles arrive in Florida for world-wide distribution each spring (Harding, pers. comm.). Levell (2000) discussed commercial exploitation for the live animal trade. The wood turtle was recently listed in Appendix II of the CITES treaty, which will mean that permits will be required for export of the species (Brautigam, A., 1992, in litt. to J. Harding). The summary prepared for this listing (Inclusion of Clemmys insculpta in Appendix II United States of America Doc. 8.46: No. 51) indicated that "reviewers concur that protective legislation at state and provincial levels in the United States and Canada appears to have done little to curb collection of this species." One reviewer for the CITES listing indicated that specimen price lists only reveal a small fraction of the numbers actually sold, and that sale prices in Europe were reported to exceed US $100 (J. Harding). Another reviewer had been offered $35 per animal and had found selling prices of US $35-200 (R. Brooks). In this same document, reviewer J. Kaufmann reported that Canadian collectors had collected (illegally) several hundred specimens from one stream in Pennsylvania over a couple days time. Clearly, the selling price and apparent ease of collection will continue to put pressure on this species until sales are effectively regulated. The Chelonian Advisory Group of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums has adopted a resolution calling for a cessation of collection of CLEMMYS spp. from wild populations, and limitation of purchase to specimens proven to be captive-bred.
In contrast to the vulnerability to direct human exploitation, wood turtles are fairly tolerant of moderate habitat alterations. For instance, though wood turtles are generally associated with wooded streams, they generally feed along the margins of woods, or in openings, where preferred berries grow. Thus, some clearcutting adjacent to streams may not be harmful (Harding 1990). They are also tolerant of moderate development/disturbance, such as shoreline hunting cabins used only a few times a year, timber harvest, light grazing, and low-intensity agriculture (Harding 1997). On the other hand, intense use, such as high-use canoe put-ins and campgrounds generally result in absence of the turtles along such stretches of stream (Harding, pers. comm.). In Connecticut, two formerly stable wood turtle populations declined drastically after a protected drinking water supply area was opened to recreational use (Garber and Burger 1995). Presumably most of the turtles that disappeared were taken by people. In Quebec, "agricultural development may have resulted in reduced predation but also in reduced growth and recruitment, as well as increased adult mortality" (Saumure and Bider 1998).
Habitat destruction and fragmentation due to intense development and accompanying stream alterations are serious problems in the southeastern portion of the wood turtle's range, especially northern Virginia (Mitchell 1994), northwestern New Jersey, southeastern New York and eastern Pennsylvania. Similar problems exist in the Great Lakes region (Harding 1997). "Certain fisheries management practices, such as sand bank stabilization and the digging of sand traps in streams, can eliminate nesting sites and reduce preferred turtle habitat" (Harding 1997). With increasing development, adult mortality due to road traffic also increases (Harding 1997).
Another detrimental aspect of development and intense recreational use is increased egg predation by predators that coexist well with humans. For example, egg predators such as skunks and raccoons commonly increase in abundance with surrounding development and degradation of natural habitat. Although this turtle is apparently adapted to high egg mortality, predation rates elevated above "natural" rates may reduce reproductive success below critical replacement rates. Raccoons may also increase adult mortality. Farrell and Graham found 16.8% of wood turtles captured over a 4-year study to be injured, primarily by raccoons. Harding (1985) provided further information on predation and injuries.
Wood turtles are also intolerant of all types of water pollution. Wood turtles showed declines in some areas in the 1950s and 1960s, probably in response to increasing insecticide use.
Short-term Trend: Decline of 30-70%
Short-term Trend Comments: Robust data on trend are not available for most occurrences, but available evidence indicates that this species is declining in many parts of its range, and trend is unknown but likely declining in most other areas. The species is not known to be stable or increasing in any substantial portion of the range. Decline in population size over the past three generations (which likely exceeds 50 years) probably has been substantial.
In the Great Lakes region, many local populations recently have been greatly reduced or extirpated by human activities (Harding 1997).
In southern Quebec, a local population in an agricultural area along the Sutton River declined by 50% over 7 seven years (Daigle and Jutras 2005).
Long-term Trend: Decline of 30-70%
Long-term Trend Comments: Long-term decline is primarily in abundance and condition of occurrences.
Intrinsic Vulnerability: Highly to moderately vulnerable.
Intrinsic Vulnerability Comments: Population biology (late maturity, very low annual juvenile recruitment) limits recovery potential, and heightens vulnerability to over-collection. Low mobility (relative to birds, e.g.), and tendency to home, reduce probability of recolonization of decimated populations. These characteristics necessitate early response to indications of decline.
Environmental Specificity: Narrow. Specialist or community with key requirements common.
Other NatureServe Conservation Status Information
Inventory Needs: Range-wide surveys to assess status and document impact of commercial collection, especially in Pennsylvania and New York, in the heart of range, and Maine, where wood turtles have no state protection. Ongoing or planned inventories in West Virginia, Minnesota, Maryland, and Vermont.
Protection Needs: Species was given CITES Appendix II protection in 1992, which means that permits will now be required for exports. State laws to protect from commercial collection needed in all states and provinces in range. Regulation of commercial sale also needed throughout USA. Also, habitat preservation, education, and moderation of recreational stream use.
(200,000-2,500,000 square km (about 80,000-1,000,000 square miles))
Eastern North America, from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Quebec south to northern Virginia and Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, west through the Great Lakes region (including southern Ontario) to eastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa, and western Pennsylvania (Bleakney 1963, Gilhen and Grantmyer 1973, Green and Pauley 1987, Quinn and Tate 1991, Conant and Collins 1991, Harding 1997). Not known from Illinois or Indiana; occurrence in extreme northeastern Ohio was questioned as a possible native population (Conant 1975, Thompson 1953). See 1994 Herpetol. Rev. 25:144-146 for a discussion of occurrence on the coastal plain of Maryland.
U.S. States and Canadian Provinces
Endemism: occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations
U.S. & Canada State/Province Distribution
CT, DC, IA, MA, MD, ME, MI, MN, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, RI, VA, VT, WI, WV
NB, NS, ON, QC
Note: Range depicted for New World only. The scale of the maps may cause narrow coastal ranges or ranges on small islands not to appear. Not all vagrant or small disjunct occurrences are depicted. For migratory birds, some individuals occur outside of the passage migrant range depicted.
For information on how to obtain shapefiles of species ranges see our Species Mapping pages at www.natureserve.org/conservation-tools/data-maps-tools.
Range Map Compilers: NatureServe 2008
U.S. Distribution by County
||County Name (FIPS Code)
New Haven (09009),
New London (09011),
Black Hawk (19013),
Cerro Gordo (19033),
Grand Traverse (26055),
Presque Isle (26141),
Mille Lacs (27095),
St. Louis (27137),
Alexandria (City) (51510)*,
Eau Claire (55035),
La Crosse (55063),
St. Croix (55109),
* Extirpated/possibly extirpated
U.S. Distribution by Watershed
||Watershed Name (Watershed Code)
Upper St. John (01010001)+,
West Branch Penobscot (01020001)+,
East Branch Penobscot (01020002)+,
Lower Penobscot (01020005)+,
Upper Kennebec (01030001)+,
Lower Kennebec (01030003)+,
Upper Androscoggin (01040001)+,
Lower Androscoggin (01040002)+,
St. Croix (01050001)+,
Maine Coastal (01050002)+,
St. George-Sheepscot (01050003)+,
Piscataqua-Salmon Falls (01060003)+,
Upper Connecticut (01080101)+,
Upper Connecticut-Mascoma (01080104)+,
Middle Connecticut (01080201)+,
Lower Connecticut (01080205)+,
Lower Hudson (02030101)+,
Sandy Hook-Staten Island (02030104)+,
Middle Delaware-Mongaup-Brodhead (02040104)+,
Middle Delaware-Musconetcong (02040105)+,
Lower Delaware (02040202)+,
Great Egg Harbor (02040302)+*,
Upper Susquehanna-Lackawanna (02050107)+,
Lower West Branch Susquehanna (02050206)+,
Lower Susquehanna-Penns (02050301)+,
Upper Juniata (02050302)+,
Lower Juniata (02050304)+,
Lower Susquehanna-Swatara (02050305)+,
Lower Susquehanna (02050306)+,
South Branch Potomac (02070001)+,
North Branch Potomac (02070002)+,
South Fork Shenandoah (02070005)+,
North Fork Shenandoah (02070006)+,
Middle Potomac-Catoctin (02070008)+,
Middle Potomac-Anacostia-Occoquan (02070010)+
St. Louis (04010201)+,
Black-Presque Isle (04020101)+,
Keweenaw Peninsula (04020103)+,
Upper Fox (04030201)+*,
Lake Winnebago (04030203)+*,
Lower Fox (04030204)+,
Upper Grand (04050004)+*,
Lower Grand (04050006)+,
Pere Marquette-White (04060101)+,
Lone Lake-Ocqueoc (04070003)+,
Thunder Bay (04070006)+,
Au Sable (04070007)+,
Au Gres-Rifle (04080101)+,
Otter Creek (04150402)+,
Winooski River (04150403)+,
Lake Champlain (04150408)+
Middle Allegheny-Tionesta (05010003)+,
Middle Allegheny-Redbank (05010006)+,
Lower Allegheny (05010009)+
Upper St. Croix (07030001)+,
Lower St. Croix (07030005)+,
La Crosse-Pine (07040006)+,
Upper Chippewa (07050001)+,
South Fork Flambeau (07050003)+,
Lower Chippewa (07050005)+,
Eau Claire (07050006)+,
Red Cedar (07050007)+,
Grant-Little Maquoketa (07060003)+*,
Upper Wisconsin (07070001)+,
Lake Dubay (07070002)+,
Castle Rock (07070003)+,
Lower Wisconsin (07070005)+,
Upper Cedar (07080201)+,
Shell Rock (07080202)+,
West Fork Cedar (07080204)+,
Middle Cedar (07080205)+,
Middle Iowa (07080208)+,
Lower Iowa (07080209)+
+ Natural heritage record(s) exist for this watershed
* Extirpated/possibly extirpated
Ecology & Life History
Basic Description: a medium-sized aquatic turtle
General Description: A medium-sized turtle with a low, broad, gray to brown, usually keeled carapace that is intricately sculptured with concentric growth layers; plastron is yellow, each scute having an irregular dark lateral blotch; adults have orange on neck and limbs and usually are 14-20 cm in carapace length, rarely to 23 cm (Smith and Brodie 1982, Conant and Collins 1991). Hatchlings average 26.6-34 mm carapace length (CL) (Harding and Bloomer 1979, Lovich et al. 1990) and have a tail that may be as long as the carapace.
Diagnostic Characteristics: Differs from box turtles and Blanding's turtle in lacking a hinged plastron. Differs from diamondback terrapin in habitat and having orange neck and leg skin in adults and a plain colored (vs. patterned) head in young.
Reproduction Comments: Copulates in spring or fall (e.g., Niederberger and Seidel 1999, Ernst 2001); mostly in spring in the north; usually late March-April and October-November in New Jersey (Farrell and Graham 1991); more often in fall than in spring in Virginia and central Pennsylvania (Kaufmann 1992).
Depending on local climate, eggs can be laid anytime from mid-May to early July. In New Jersey, Virginia, and Pennsylvania (Ernst 2001), a single clutch generally is laid in June. Clutch size usually is 4-18 (often 7-14). Clutch size averaged 11 in Wisconsin (Ross et al. 1991), about 9 in Ontario (Brooks et al. 1992).
In New Jersey, clutch size was 5-11 (mean 8.5) (Farrell and Graham, 1991). Harding and Bloomer reported that clutches averaged 10 eggs in Michigan, and clutches of 13-14 eggs were "not uncommon." Eggs hatch after 70-80 days, August-October (after about 70 days, generally in late August, in New Jersey). Sex is genetically determined, and sex ratios are approximately 1:1 at birth (Ewert and Nelson 1991).
In New Jersey, wood turtles grow to 165 mm (6.5 inches) in 7 or 8 years. In Michigan, growth rates are slower, and it may take as many as 12 years to attain a 169 mm CL (Harding, 1990). Growth rates for males and females are constant until secondary sexual differences begin to appear, when males begin to grow faster, and ultimately become larger than females (Lovich et al. 1990). Harding (1990) found that average CL of females was 182 mm (n = 105), and average CL of males was 200 mm (n = 86). After and early growth spurt, growth of both sexes slows considerably, until by 20 years of age, growth rates are so slow that annual growth rings on the shell no longer yield accurate age data (Harding 1990).
In Pennsylvania, secondary sexual characteristics began to appear at 5-9 years of age, at a size of 160 to 180 mm (Lovich et al. 1990). However, there is usually a delay of several years between sexual differentiation and sexual maturity. Maturity is apparently not attained until 12 to 15 years of age (Lovich et al. 1990, Farrell and Graham 1991, Harding 1990). In a long term study in Michigan, Harding reported that the smallest female found laying eggs was 158 mm carapace length and had twelve growth rings, indicating she was at least 12 years old. In New Jersey, attained maturity in 14th year (Farrell and Graham 1991). In Wisconsin, the youngest gravid female was 14 years old; the smallest male observed copulating was 20 years old (Ross et al. 1991). In Ontario age at maturity was 17-18 years (Brooks et al. 1992).
Nesting success generally is very low, with egg predators taking a heavy toll. One report conservatively estimated egg and hatchling mortality at 98% (Harding 1990). An Ontario population incurred a high rate of predation on nests and adults (Brooks et al. 1992). Reproductive success depends on a high rate of adult survival, long-lived adults that reproduce many times during their lifetime, and the occasional good season when a nest survives (Harding, pers. comm. 1992).
Adults may live for many years, with maximum ages of 32 years (wild caught) and 58 years (captive) reported by Harding and Bloomer (1979). In Pennsylvania, several known-age turtles marked as juveniles were found to live at least 30 to 42 years (Ernst, 1992, personal communication). Given the difficulty of aging turtles over 20 years, the wild caught age is likely conservative.
Ecology Comments: Solitary late spring-summer; may aggregate in or near hibernation sites. Not territorial (Kaufmann 1992, which see for a detailed study of social behavior in central Pennsylvania).
New Jersey populations averaged 12.5 adults/ha, but the turtles were usually concentrated around basking areas or favorite food patches, rather than spread evenly across an area. In New Jersey, population density over several years averaged 10.7/ha of suitable habitat (Farrell and Graham 1991). In Michigan, the populations seem to be more scattered, and density is likely considerably lower. In southern Quebec, density was estimated at 1.2 turtles per 100 m of river (Daigle 1997). In West Virginia, estimated density was 19.1 individuals per hectare of total habitat (287-337 individuals along a 1.7 km length of river) (Niederberger and Seidel 1999). In Pennsylvania, density for 240 ha of available habitat was 0.66 turtles/ha, whereas density for available riparian habitat where most turtles occurred was 4.42 turtles/ha (Ernst 2001).
The combination of late maturity, low reproductive success, and long-lived adults results in a population structure skewed heavily toward adults. Harding's study populations consisted of 80 to 85% adults. Farrell and Graham (1991) reported 3% juveniles (1 to 8 years), 53% subadults (9 to 13 years), and 34% adults (over 13 years) in one New Jersey population; almost half of the population comprised individuals over 14 cm in plastron length These characteristics combine to delay the detection of population declines, and to reduce the ability of small, declining populations to recover. A population studied in West Virginia included 46% juveniles (Niederberger and Seidel 1999).
Locally Migrant: Y
Long Distance Migrant: N
Mobility and Migration Comments: In Virginia, a male moved 1 km in one day from his hibernaculum to his normal home range (Ernst and McBreen 1991, Mitchell 1991). In New Hampshire, Tuttle (1996) recorded movements of over 900 m in one day.
After eggs are laid, adults in eastern populations often disperse to more upland areas for summer range, where they tend to remain within a fairly defined, though variably sized, area (referred to as "home range" below).
The home range is often elongate because of the tendency to follow streams (Strang 1983). Virtually all turtle locations are within 150-300 m of streams used by the turtles (Harding and Bloomer 1979, Arvisais et al. 2002). Based on the 95% convex polygon method, the largest home ranges have been documented in Quebec and Ontario (averaging about 24-28 ha; largest single-season home range = 132 ha) (Quinn and Tate 1991, Arvisais et al. 2002). Maps in Quinn and Tate (1991) depicted home ranges of up to about 1.9 km in longest dimension; one female moved 3.6 km in a fairly straight line from her apparent nesting site to her late summer range. Home range size documented by others is an order of magnitude smaller (average less than 7 ha) (Strang 1983, Kaufmann 1995, Ross et al. 1991, Tuttle 1996, Tuttle and Carroll 1997, Ernst 2001; see also Arvisais et al. 2002).
Wood turtles have a reputation of intelligence and agility. They are excellent climbers and easily escape from boxes and enclosures. They are quick to learn mazes, daily routines, and are known to be good at homing (Tinklepaugh 1932, Clement 1958). Caroll and Ehrenfeld (1978) reported that wood turtles could often return to the exact spot of capture when released up to 2 kilometers away. Homing ability fell off sharply beyond the 2 km distance, and learning, age, and sex were not found to influence homing ability.
Riverine Habitat(s): CREEK, Low gradient, MEDIUM RIVER, Moderate gradient
Palustrine Habitat(s): FORESTED WETLAND, HERBACEOUS WETLAND, Riparian
Terrestrial Habitat(s): Forest - Hardwood, Grassland/herbaceous, Sand/dune
Special Habitat Factors: Benthic, Burrowing in or using soil, Fallen log/debris
Habitat Comments: Wood turtles live along permanent streams during much of each year but in summer may roam widely overland and can be found in a variety of terrestrial habitats adjacent to streams, including deciduous woods, cultivated fields, and woodland bogs, marshy pastures. Use of woodland bogs and marshy fields is most common in the northern part of the range.
Wood turtles are often associated with the margins of woods. For example, in Wisconsin, wood turtles used wet mesic forest in riverbottom and riparian shrub/forest ecotones; most captures were in ecotones between alder thickets and grassy openings (Ross et al. 1991). In western Maine, within activity areas, wood turtles selected nonforested locations close to water with low canopy cover; within a watershed, they selected activity areas close to streams with moderate forest cover and little open water; overall they appeared to select forest edges to balance thermoregulatory and feeding needs (Compton et al. 2002).
Most activity is terrestrial June-August in Pennsylvania, May-October in New Jersey (Farrell and Graham 1991), but turtles commonly enter streams at night (Kaufmann 1992). Individuals occur mainly in streams in spring and fall. Some agricultural operations may be locally beneficial by providing a mixture of different food and cover types near wooded streams (Kaufmann 1992). Western populations are closely associated with water year-round, and eastern populations tend to be more terrestrial in the summer. According to Harding and Bloomer, Michigan wood turtles were never found more than 152 m (500 ft) from water, and had leeches (evidence of aquatic habits) at all times of the year. New Jersey wood turtles were found farther from water and were free of leeches during summer months. Hatchlings and small juveniles are much more closely associated with water than are adults. In Minnesota, Buech et al. (1990, 1991) found that nesting habitat and stream substrate are the most important habitat determinants. Wood turtles were never found in water where the bottom substrate was mucky. Harding (1990) reported that in Michigan these turtles are not found in clay-bottomed streams. However, Carl Ernst (1992, pers. comm.) reported that in Virginia and Pennsylvania the turtles can be found in streams with clay substrate. Harding (1990) also reported that wood turtles are usually found where openings in the streamside canopy allow growth of herbaceous plants. These openings provide both food and basking sites. As with other turtles, nesting wood turtles require loose substrate on fully exposed (unshaded) sites, such as sandy banks or sand-gravel bars in streams. When natural openings are unavailable they may use such man-made disturbances as road grades, railroad grades, sand pits, or plowed fields.
Overwintering occurs in bottoms or banks of streams where water flows all winter, including pools underneath a layer of ice; underwater muskrat burrows, beaver lodges, or over-bank root systems also may be used as winter hibernation (brumation) sites (Ernst 1986).
Reproductive activity (courtship, copulation) is aquatic (Ernst 1986). Eggs are laid in open sunny areas in fairly moist but well-drained, sandy or gravelly soil, commonly in clearings created by humans. Sites are usually near a stream, but females often appear along roads at this time of year, presumably looking for nesting sites in the soft shoulder material. This habit is a significant source of adult mortality. The female digs a hole in the dirt or sand with her hind feet, deposits the eggs and then carefully fills in the soil and tamps it flat (Pallas 1960).
Other turtles often share nest sites with this species. McBreen (1989) reported that Chelydra serpentia, Chrysemys picta, Terrapene carolina, Pseudemys rubrinventris used the same nest sites as wood turtles in Virginia. In Michigan wood turtles shared nesting areas with Chrysemys picta and Chelydra serpentina. In New Jersey, Clemmys muhlenbergi, C. guttata, Chrysemys picta, Chelydra serpentina, and Terrapene carolina commonly share nesting areas with wood turtles (Harding and Bloomer 1979).
Adult Food Habits: Carnivore, Frugivore, Invertivore, Piscivore
Immature Food Habits: Carnivore, Frugivore, Invertivore, Piscivore
Food Comments: Opportunistic omnivore. Pope (1967) indicated a strong preference for vegetable matter, including fruits, berries, tender leaves, and mushrooms. Harding and Bloomer (1979) listed insects, earthworms, mollusks, tadpoles, dead fish, and newborn mice as foods, with invertebrates and plant matter predominant. Favorite leaves include sandbar willow and strawberries (Harding 1990). Strang (1983) tallied food choices of wood turtles in their natural habitat in Pennsylvania and found that they ate fungi and green leaves most frequently (accounting for a total of 68% of all feeding observations), and fruits/flowers and insects about equally (totalling 32% of observations). In Pennsylvania, Ernst (2001) reported a diet of earthworms, leeches, caterpillars, fish (likely carrion), and Rana clamitans tadpoles and adults.
Feeds in water and on land (Ernst 2001). In some areas, reported to stamp the front feet or hit the plastron on the ground, which brings earthworms to the surface where they can be captured and eaten.
Adult Phenology: Diurnal, Hibernates/aestivates
Immature Phenology: Diurnal, Hibernates/aestivates
Phenology Comments: Most active diurnally, March or April through October or November (Farrell and Graham 1991, Ernst 2001). Some aquatic movements may occur in winter, especially in the southern part of the range. Activity peaks in morning in summer, in afternoon in spring and fall. Mating and egg layinh sometimes continue after dark. Does not estivate (Ernst 1986, Farrell and Graham 1991).
Males tend to be active and easy to find earlier in the spring than are females, whereas females are easier to find during the egg-laying season.
Length: 23 centimeters
Economic Comments: Very popular in the pet trade (Mitchell 1991).
Restoration Potential: It is possible to breed wood turtles in captivity as long as natural conditions, including winter hibernation, are approximated. However, Harding (1990), after more than 20 years studying wood turtles, strongly discouraged captive breeding for this species. He stated his arguments this way: "...release of hatchlings is poor compensation for removal of adults from a population, due to high natural mortality of the former. Based on Michigan data, the release of between 50 and 100 hatchlings would be required to balance the removal of one adult from the population. Head-starting of juveniles is an unproven technique; the recapture rate of head-started juveniles (1 year olds) in this study was less than 5%." Recovery of the species to historical levels is highly unlikely, because much habitat has been permanently lost to development. However, if commercial collection were stopped, in much of its range the wood turtle would require little active protection or management to remain secure.
Low recruitment rate may make recovery a slow process.
Preserve Selection & Design Considerations: Overall, land preservation is currently less important than regulatory protection from commercial collection for the pet trade. In the extreme southeastern portion of its range, land protection is of primary importance. In areas where human use conflicts with wood turtle needs, habitat protection should proceed. Preserve design should include protection of wooded stream corridors, nesting, feeding, basking, and overwintering sites, and an upland buffer would be necessary to include in preserve design. The size of the upland buffer would need to be determined from studies of local populations, since wood turtles vary considerably in home range size. Alternatively, a preserve could be fenced to prevent turtles from leaving the protected area, if adequate food, basking, nesting and hibernating sites were available within the preserve. Control of excessive nest predation should also be considered in preserve design. Finally, roads should not be placed close to and parallel to the stream, as adult mortality along roads is significant.
Garber (unpublished) suggested that populations with a minimum of 50 breeding adult females in a population might be viable.
Management Requirements: Because of low natural reproductive success, it is essential to respond to declining populations early. Habitat management could benefit this species in the portions of its range where human use and development are intense. Wood turtles are fairly tolerant of a variety of adjacent land uses. Any management compatible with maintenance of water quality, nesting and hibernating habitat, a reasonable food supply, and natural mortality levels, will be compatible with wood turtles.
Habitat improvement is probably best aimed at nesting, basking, and hibernating sites. Creation of openings in the woods along streams, where herbaceous vegetation and berries can thrive may be a necessary management activity in some areas. Maintenance of natural stream dynamics that create sand bars and islands, natural banks, and open sand shores, and restriction of intense human impact along rivers (restriction of designated campgrounds and access points), are probably the most critical foci of management. Some trout management practices, especially sand traps that remove sand and produce a gravelly stream bed, are counterproductive for wood turtles, which prefer sandy substrate.
Education is also an important management tool, especially on rivers that get heavy canoe use. Canoeists should be informed that this species is protected and should not be collected or used as a target for shooting.
In some areas, predator control would be of benefit. Management of habitat characteristics of adjacent uplands should be aimed at achieving a mixture of vegetation including forest-edge habitat without encouraging raccoon and skunk populations.
See Brewster and Brewster (1991) for information on the movements of captive-bred juveniles introduced into a wood turtle population in Wisconsin.
Monitoring Requirements: It is essential to conduct monitoring censuses at the proper time of the year. A good idea of population size can be obtained by walking or floating a stream when the turtles first emerge from hibernation. Three years of census are recommended to get an accurate estimate of population size (Harding, pers. comm.). Ideally, sites should be revisited during the nesting season to check nesting sites for signs of reproduction. Counting the number of nesting females is another method of estimating population size, since sex ratios are generally 1:1. However, this method will not account for juveniles. To get a clear picture of a particular population's dynamics, individual turtles should be captured, marked, aged, and sized. This is not practical for most range-wide surveys, but would be useful for representative, or critical populations. The overall status of the species is only poorly known at present (see above). A rangewide, concerted effort of thorough and repeated censuses over the next 3-5 years would help pinpoint the areas most needing attention, allow an accurate assessment of status, and greatly aid in documenting the impact of commercial collectors.
Management Research Needs: The biology of wood turtles is fairly well studied. The main research needed presently is an assessment of the rangewide status (see monitoring needs, above). Population monitoring and management would be enhanced by population studies, including viability analyses, on a few important populations from across the range. This would give a more complete picture of the status of the species. These studies would also help to identify the population parameters that best indicate population health, so these could be used to improve the value of monitoring efforts.
Research is needed to determine levels of predation that can be tolerated by wood turtles without causing population declines. Then, the impact of various human use patterns on predation level should be investigated so that predator controls can be instigated where needed.
Also needed is a better idea of the amount of feeding and summer habitat wood turtles use or require in different regions, so that management can be aimed at adequate habitat.
Biological Research Needs: Population viability analyses across range; levels of predation that can be tolerated; impact of human use on predation level; amount of feeding and summer habitat required in different regions and habitats.
Use Class: Not applicable
Subtype(s): Hibernaculum, Nesting Area.
Minimum Criteria for an Occurrence: Occurrences are based on evidence of historical presence, or current and likely recurring presence, at a given location. Such evidence minimally includes collection or reliable observation and documentation of one or more individuals (including eggs) in or near appropriate habitat where the species is presumed to be established and breeding.
Separation Barriers: Busy highway or highway with obstructions such that turtles rarely if ever cross successfully; untraversable topography (e.g., cliff); urbanized area lacking aquatic or wetland habitat; large impoundment or lake.
Alternate Separation Procedure:
Separation distance across continuous upland habitat: 1 km. Separation distance for locations along riverine corridors: 5 km. Separation distance for intermediate (e.g., mixed upland-riverine wetland) situations: 3 km.
A riverine corridor is measured along the river, not as a straight line distance. It includes areas that have stream-influenced conditions (geomorphology, vegetation, hydrology). Upland habitat lacks hydric soils and stream-influenced conditions.
Separation Justification: Available data (see Migration/Mobility comments) indiate that home ranges tend be be elongate (usually less than 2 km long) and follow streams, extending out from streams up to 300 m. These data suggest a separation distance of the nominal minimum of 1 km for expanses of upland habitat and at least 5 km for riverine corridors. The latter distance is roughly 2.5 times the maximum known home range length (Quinn and Tate 1991) and more than four times the maximum recorded home range length in most other studies, which, due to small sample sizes and minimal radio-tracking effort, likely underestimated movements.
Inferred Minimum Extent of Habitat Use (when actual extent is unknown): .5 km
Author: Hammerson, G.
U.S. Invasive Species Impact Rank (I-Rank)
Not yet assessed
NatureServe Conservation Status Factors Edition Date: 11Nov2010
NatureServe Conservation Status Factors Author: Hammerson, G., and J. Soule
Management Information Edition Date: 19Dec1994
Management Information Edition Author: JUDITH SOULE, MICHIGAN NATURAL FEATURES INVENTORY. PARTIALLY REVISED AND EDITED BY G. HAMMERSON.
Management Information Acknowledgments: Al Breisch, Andy Cutko, Rick Dutko, Bonita Eliason, Charles Fitchel, Jim Harding, Judith Harding, Dawn McKay, Joanne Michaud, Brian McDonald, Paul Novak, Chris Pague, Kathy Schneider, Clark Shiffer, Tim Vogt provided information on wood turtles in their states. Dr. Jim Harding of Michigan State University, and Dr. Carl Ernst of George Mason University reviewed the first draft and provided many helpful comments and unpublished information.
Element Ecology & Life History Edition Date: 12Feb2003
Element Ecology & Life History Author(s): SOULE, J., AND G. HAMMERSON
Zoological data developed by NatureServe and its network of
natural heritage programs (see Local Programs) and other contributors and cooperators (see Sources).
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