The Turtles of Nantucket

Nantucket Island is home to three species of native turtles: painted, snapping and spotted turtles. There are rumors of a fourth species and we need your help in finding it!

Eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys picta)

Eastern painted turtle

Eastern painted turtles are perhaps the most common turtle on Nantucket and can frequently be seen in groups basking in the sunshine on rocks or logs or floating to the surface of Hummock Pond to poke their heads above water for a breath and a look around. They can be distinguished from other turtles by the bright yellow stripes behind the eyes and by the beautiful red and orange markings on the edge of the shell (carapace) and the bony plate on the underside (plastron). They can be found in nearly every body of water on Island, including bogs, swamps and deep ponds. Painted turtles are mostly carnivorous but will also eat aquatic plants growing on pond bottoms.

Common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

Common Snapping Turtle

One of the most notorious turtles on Nantucket is the snapping turtle. Any old-time Nantucketer will tell you stories about snappers as big as “toilet seats” or the “monsters” they’ve seen in Hummock Pond. Snapping turtles are certainly the largest and most prehistoric-looking species on Island and a close encounter with one won’t soon be forgotten as they often “hiss” and can make a fast snap at you with their powerful, hooked jaws when they are approached. Their legs, neck and head cannot be fully retracted within their shells like other turtles and the plastron is much reduced rendering these turtles relatively vulnerable – the armor of the snapping turtle is not quite as complete as that of other species of turtles. Perhaps their aggressive nature makes up for this vulnerability.

Hatchling snapping turtle showing a reduced plastron

The image above shows how reduced a snapping turtle plastron is compared to the spotted turtle below, whose head, neck and legs can be withdrawn to relative safety inside the shell:

plastron of a spotted turtle

Snapping turtles will eat anything they can swallow including fish, worms, snakes, small waterfowl and even other turtles, but they will consume aquatic vegetation as well. You can find snapping turtles in just about any body of water on Nantucket and they are often seen crossing roads as they travel from one wetland to another. If you find one in danger of being run over, they can be safely held from the back of the shell, or use a large stick to scoot it across the road. Just make sure to keep out of range of its mouth! They’re quicker than they look!

Spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata)

In his beautifully written new book, Nantucket: A Natural History, Island author, Peter Brace quotes an obviously biased NCF staff member who apparently believes spotted turtles to be “the cutest” of all the Nantucket species. This is clearly the truth, see for yourself:

Hatchling spotted turtle

Spotted turtles are the most secretive of the Nantucket turtle species and are infrequently encountered. They are reclusive and choosy about the water bodies they inhabit, preferring shallow, muddy bogs and shrub swamps with ample sphagnum moss and will almost never be seen in the deeper, open ponds of Nantucket. As you might guess, spotted turtles are named for the bright yellow and orange spots that adorn their shell, head and legs. When they are born, each hatchling has one spot per scute, or plate, on its shell. As they grow, more spots appear in a seemingly random pattern that is unique to the individual, much like the finger prints of humans! The black and orange splotched pattern on the plastron is unique to each turtle as well. The spotted turtle was listed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as a “species of special concern” until 2006, when it was removed from the state endangered species list. It remains relatively rare statewide though and many believe the Nantucket populations to be some of the largest and healthiest in the state! If you walk in Sanford Farm in the evenings in June, you may be lucky enough to see female spotted turtles emerging from their wetlands to lay eggs in the drier, sandy soil. Enjoy the spectacle but observe them from a distance and leave them be!

Have you seen Eastern Box Turtles on Nantucket? We want to know!

There is some archaeological evidence that eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina) were present on Nantucket in the past and there are rumors that there are still a few out there! While you drive, bike, hike or run through Nantucket’s Moors, pine forests, and grasslands, keep an eye out for turtles like this:

Eastern box turtle
photo credit: Liz Willey

… and please report these sightings ASAP! If possible, please take a picture (a GPS point would be especially handy if you have the technology!) and call the Nantucket Conservation Foundation as soon as possible at (508) 228-2884!

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2 Responses to The Turtles of Nantucket

  1. Pingback: Nantucket’s Most Wanted Turtles! | Nantucket Conservation Foundation's Science and Stewardship Department

  2. Pingback: Controlling Phragmites with Salinity | Nantucket Conservation Foundation's Science and Stewardship Department

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