by Whit Gibbons

June 24, 2007

Most U.S. turtles lay eggs on land sometime between April and July. Hence, many questions arise at this time related to the nesting phenomenon. A single answer covers the following three queries.

Q. - My children and I arrived home today to find a slider turtle (identified by photos on about the size of a dinner plate laying eggs in our backyard. We live in coastal South Carolina along a freshwater creek that feeds into the Ashley River near Charleston. We were absolutely amazed and excited by this event. Once I figured out what she was up to, we left her alone to finish her work. We were glued to the back door watching her. I assumed that once she left I would be able to mark the nest. She was amazing! We have crawled on the ground and still cannot figure out exactly where she buried those eggs! How do we find the nest and see the eggs or babies?

Q. - I have read that turtle eggs of most species hatch in two to three months but that after that the hatchlings of some stay in the nest through the winter. I don't want to interfere with nature, but just the fact that I live here interferes with nature. Is there anything I could or should do to help these turtle have the best chance of survival?

Q. - I have heard that baby turtles hatch in late summer but stay in an underground nest for the entire winter, emerging in the spring. Is there any truth to this?

A. - Like other animals that have nests that might be vulnerable to predators, turtles are secretive about where they lay their eggs. Even finding the nest of a gigantic sea turtle that lays a hundred eggs can be difficult even when tracks to and from the ocean indicate the general area. Likewise, most freshwater and terrestrial turtle species hide or camouflage their smaller underground nests. Being unable to find a nest after watching a female turtle from afar is not uncommon.

But raccoons, foxes, and crows are much better at finding and raiding turtle nests than people are. The mammals probably achieve this by having a more effective sense of smell. Crows are careful observers and will watch a female turtle dig her nest. Most turtle nests observed by turtle biologists are ones that predators have already found and destroyed, leaving broken egg shells on the surface as evidence.

Most predation occurs within the first week after the eggs are laid. Thus, if you know within a couple of feet or so where a turtle has dug a nest and laid her eggs, you can stake down a large square (two or three feet on a side) of half-inch hardware cloth on the ground over the site as protection. Leave it for at least a month. Remove the hardware cloth in late summer and install a little fence that encircles the assumed nest area. The fence can also be of hardware cloth and should be about six inches high. The little ones will be corralled and can be captured if you check the fence daily at the right time of year. We've done this many times and it works great.

When should you start looking for the emerging hatchlings? For the vast majority of U.S. turtles that nest in late spring or early summer, the eggs will hatch in late summer or fall. However, the hatchlings of many species of freshwater turtles display a trait known as overwintering whereby the eggs hatch but the babies remain on land in the nest through the winter and emerge from the ground in the spring.

Among the most common species that overwinter in the nest are painted, slider, and eastern mud turtles. Exceptions of course occur, but in our studies of more than a thousand hatchlings we have observed of these species, over 98% overwinter in the nest. In Michigan, painted turtles even weather the frozen soil conditions that precede spring. In contrast, newborn sea turtles, snapping turtles, and map turtles typically travel toward the water in late summer or fall, soon after hatching.

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