Article and photos by Troy Gipps
For creatures without fur or feather, winter is a waiting game. To escape the killing freeze they dig down in the cold dark muck that lies beneath Grafton’s wetlands and slip into a deep sleep. Faint evidence of life’s rhythmic pulse clings tightly to their core as snow blankets the landscape above. There they lie, motionless, to be awoken only by the gradual warming of spring. One such creature well adapted to survive New England’s long winters in this manner is the spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata).
Most people are familiar with the colorful painted turtle, which is commonly seen at local ponds just prior to leaping from its basking perch. The spotted turtle, however, is a shy creature that prefers aquatic environments unfriendly to human foot travel, such as flooded forests, vernal pools, marshes, wet meadows, bogs and woodland streams. These areas, often thick with grass hummocks, brush and deadfall, provide these small turtles with ideal habitat in which to hunt and evade predation. One such location in Grafton that supports a breeding population of spotted turtles is a small wetland complex that lies in the vicinity of Browns Road where it intersects with tracks from the Grafton & Upton Railroad.
The spotted turtle, which measures 3.5 to 5.5 inches in length, gets its name from the tiny bright yellow spots that cover its smooth black carapace, legs, head and tail. Spotting patterns vary considerably among turtles, which helps to identify individuals. It is interesting to note that spotted salamanders, which also inhabit vernal pools, are also black with bright yellow spots. There may be some evolutionary advantage to this pattern specific to vernal pool environments where sunlight filters down through canopy and illuminates the forest floor in an ever-changing pattern of light and shadow. The spotting pattern also blends in well with duckweed, which is a small floating aquatic plant frequently found in spotted turtle habitat.
Determining the sex of a spotted turtle is quite easy due to variances in the shape of the plastron (bottom shell), as well as eye, chin and beak color. Male turtles have a concave plastron, a brown or black jaw and brown eyes, whereas females have a flat or convex plastron, orange chin, red eyes and a yellow beak.
Spotted turtles reach sexual maturity in eight to ten years and can live to be at least 25 years old. They are, however, highly vulnerable to predation due to their small size and frequent terrestrial wanderings. It is not uncommon to find specimens with tooth marks on their carapace or one or more limbs missing. These turtles are the lucky ones. An encounter with a raccoon, a predator that is particularly adept at preying on this species, is often fatal.
The spotted turtle was originally added to the Massachusetts rare species list because of a lack of documented occurrences. Although recently delisted as a species of special concern, the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program believes this species is in need of some conservation attention. All but three species of turtles in Massachusetts (Eastern Painted Turtle, Stinkpot, and Common Snapping Turtle) are protected and cannot be captured and kept. It is still illegal to possess a Spotted Turtle.
The female spotted turtle normally lays three to four eggs each year, and she usually buries them about two inches below the surface of the soil. The eggs typically incubate for 11 weeks before hatching; at which point the newly hatched turtles usually search out habitats of their own. Hatchlings closely resemble adult turtles, but have fewer yellow spots.
The most dangerous time of year for the spotted turtle is shortly after it emerges from its winter hibernation in the very early spring (usually in March). Nearly paralyzed by the icy muck and water, spotted turtles labor to pull themselves up onto grass hummocks where the lay in plain view, exhausted and wholly dependent on the life giving rays of the sun. At this time of year, the passing of a cloud and the path of a predator can determine life or death for these turtles. Once warmed sufficiently, they spend a considerable amount of time in vernal pools where the feed on amphibian eggs, invertebrates and aquatic plants.
The emergence of spotted turtles is one of the earliest signs of spring, but finding one is a challenge for even a seasoned swamp walker. To improve your chances, arm yourself with insulated hip waders, a stout walking stick, a keen eye and a lot of patience. If you are lucky, you will join a short list of Grafton residents who have had the pleasure of meeting this elusive species.
Troy Gipps is a freelance writer and photographer who resides in Grafton, Massachusetts. He serves as the Vice President of the Grafton Land Trust.