ASK MANY QUESTIONS ABOUT TURTLES
by Whit Gibbons
June 24, 2007
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 www.uga.edu/srelherp) 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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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