List of Turtle Species in Michigan (Identification, Range, & Pictures)
Almost entirely surrounded by four of the five Great Lakes (Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior), Michigan is home to an array of rare and distinctive ecosystems and organisms. Though the logging industry boom of the 1800s and ongoing urbanization have resulted in a historic loss of over 50% forests and, similarly, over 50% of its wetlands (over 5,600,000 acres), this unique state still provides critical habitat for nine turtle species, four of which are currently listed as endangered, threatened, or species of special concern. One species found here is considered possibly introduced though not widespread, meaning technically ten turtle species can be found in the state.
Additionally, as our understanding of the importance of wetlands grows and we work toward building and improving sustainable forestry initiatives, the loss of the habitats these turtles rely on for survival is slowing, and even reversing in some cases. Much work still needs to be done, but in the meantime, we aim to increase awareness and understanding by delving into some interesting facts about a few of these nearly 300 million-year-old creatures.
Michigan’s 10 Turtle Species
Of these ten species, nine are considered native and one (the red-eared slider) is considered to be very likely introduced to the state through the pet trade. However, this is contested as there are some small native populations of red-eared sliders as far north as Ohio and the southern end of Lake Michigan in Indiana, so there is a slight possibility that some of these sliders traveled further north to Michigan or are remnant populations from thousands of years ago.
1) Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) – Native
Blanding’s turtles are most easily identifiable by their rather tall, quite domed, smooth carapace rather reminiscent of a helmet and bright yellow chins and throats. Their shells are usually brown, black, or olive and can have small, light-yellow spots, though these are not always present. Additionally, their upper jaw has a sort of notch that makes these turtles look rather like they’re giving a charming smile. Their shells can be up to 11 inches in length.
Most often, Blanding’s turtles much prefer shallow, heavily vegetated waters such as those of ponds, various wetlands including marshes and fens, and the shallower coves and inlets of lakes. Though they can occasionally be found along rivers, they much prefer slower, more stagnant waters with ample weedy vegetation for them to hide in. They are primarily carnivorous, feeding on insects both aquatic and terrestrial, crayfish, leeches, snails, frogs, and small fish.
Considered a species of special concern, many scientists have been fighting for the better part of two decades to get these vulnerable turtles on the endangered species list for greater protection. However, these turtles have evolved their own method of protecting themselves from would-be predators – their plastron, or the part of their shell that covers their chest and abdomen, is hinged! This hinge exists along the shell between the chest and abdomen (technically, the pectoral and abdominal scutes), and allows the turtle to flex and close its shell almost completely and quite tightly. Many a curious person and data-collecting scientist have gotten their fingers pinched!
2) Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) – Native
A difficult species to misidentify, the common snapping turtle is identified by its robust size, thick and meaty legs, long pointed tail, and obvious serrations and points along the back edge of the carapace. While juveniles can have shells with pointed, ridged scutes, adults typically have much smoother carapaces that can even be covered in algae and mosses due to great deals of time spent hunkered down in shallow water and mud. If you happen to see the underside of a snapping turtle, you’ll notice they hardly have a plastron at all! Their plastron, or lower shell, is greatly reduced to allow for greater range of motion. This is why snapping turtles are so aggressive – they have significantly less protection than most other turtle species.
Snapping turtles prefer permanent bodies of water such as lakes, ponds, and slow-moving streams or rivers. They’re more likely to be found where fairly thick bottom muck and dense vegetation exist, as they spend much of the daytime hours dug down into mud and vegetation both for protection and sit-and-wait hunting, preferring to sun themselves by floating near the surface when needed rather than outright basking like other turtles. Snappers eat a variety of aquatic plants, insects, fish, frogs, snails, crayfish, and just about any other vertebrate or invertebrate small enough that shares its territory. They usually eat underwater, as this is both easier and safer for them.
Incredibly long, mobile necks and a strong, sharp bite mean you should never attempt to pick up a snapping turtle. There are many who claim pulling and/or picking them up by the tail is safe, but this is not true at all for the turtle. Picking up any turtle, particularly one as heavy as a snapping turtle, more often than not breaks their spine by literally pulling it apart and results in an incredibly painful, slow death for them.
Snapping turtles are very often misunderstood as mean, but simply provide these animals with enough space and they will leave you alone. If you must move near one temporarily, keep a long stick on hand for them to safely bite onto should they become aggressive before you can move away. Do not jab at them or taunt them. More often than not, these guys are just as afraid of us and eager to have distance. Though it did certainly give us both a fright, I once stood on a snapper in a pond without realizing it until it began to move beneath me! I stepped aside, exited the water, and the snapper swam away, glad to be rid of me.
3) Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) – Native
The Eastern box turtle also possesses a domed, helmet-like shell, and a hinged plastron to allow for more complete and tight closure when needed. Again, try to pry at these turtles with your fingers and you’re likely to get a nasty pinch! Typically, their shells are dark brown or black with yellow and orange patterning that can look like spots, lines, or somewhat connected blotches – each one is unique! Unlike the scutes of the also domed Blanding’s turtle, the scutes of the Eastern box turtle are not quite as smooth and have noticeable lines and ridges, particularly in younger individuals. Interestingly, males usually have red eyes while females have brown or yellow eyes, though it’s not impossible for them to have red eyes, as well.
These turtles are more on the terrestrial side, most often found in moist deciduous woods, agricultural fields, savannahs, and even dunes with ample vegetation. So long as they have access to cover via plants, whether they’re shrubs or grasses and sedges, soil more on the sandy side for easier nesting, and ready access to water like bogs, marshes, ponds, or slow-moving streams, box turtles aren’t overly picky about their location. They’re not fantastic swimmers, and don’t spend much of their time in water.
They aren’t picky about food, either, and eat a variety of terrestrial and aquatic plants, snails, worms, various insects, and mushrooms. Once summer hits, they will seek out and stay in blackberry and raspberry patches until they’ve eaten every berry that they can reach! They also readily consume tender mayapples when they’re in season, and serve as valuable dispersers of this, and many other, plant species.
Due to heavy poaching of this species for the pet trade, their numbers are declining and they are federally protected. It is absolutely illegal to capture or otherwise harm Eastern box turtles, but they are still at risk from agricultural equipment, cars, and habitat destruction.
4) Eastern Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus) – Native
A fairly small turtle whose shell only grows up to about 6 inches in length, the musk turtle has a smooth, dark carapace that can be gray, closer to black, or brown, sometimes with darker-hued spots, streaks, or splotches. They have a smaller than average plastron, though not nearly to the extent of a snapper. A key distinguishing feature can be the presence of vivid yellow stripes, two on each side, that run from the end of the nose and above and below each eye down the neck to the base of the shell, though in more mature individuals these stripes can be quite faded. They have somewhat pointed noses.
Though they can somewhat flex their plastron, they lack an actual hinge, and this in combination with a somewhat small plastron and a small size in general leaves these turtles vulnerable to a variety of predators. However, musk turtles, as their name might imply, have a trick up their sleeve – they have special glands that excrete a strong, musky scent that can help deter threats. Because of this, these turtles are sometimes known as “stinkpot” turtles. Their small size and plastron mean they can also be more on the aggressive side when provoked.
Eastern musk turtles can be found in ponds, lakes, rivers, marshes, swamps, and virtually any other permanent body of water that is relatively clear with sandy or rocky bottoms and moderate vegetation in and around the water. Their lives are almost entirely spent in water, save for brief basking periods or to nest, both of which typically occur very close to water. They eat leeches, small crayfish, tadpoles, aquatic insects, dead fish, algae, roots of aquatic plants, and other plant matter.
5) Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera spinifera) – Native
A quite unique turtle, the spiny softshell turtle completely lacks a hard shell and instead has a very smooth, flat, rubbery carapace and plastron. Because of this, they are quite flexible for a turtle, and incredibly fast swimmers! They have fully webbed feet, further contributing to their speedy swimming. They are often brown, olive, or russet in color. Males, hatchlings, and juveniles have black spots on their carapace, while mature females have darker mottling rather than spots. Their head and long neck are often spotted or mottled with gray or black, regardless of gender or age. Females can grow up to nearly 20 inches in length, while males typically grow closer to 10 inches in length (not including neck and tail).
So named for hardly noticeable spines at the front of their carapace near the neck that are quite harmless, spiny softshells are most often found in moderate to fast-flowing water such as rivers and streams. They greatly prefer those with sandy or muddy bottoms and tend to avoid rocky or gravelly waters presumably due to their lack of a hard, protective shell. They bask on sandy banks, and are so fast that often the only clue you’ll have as to their presence is a loud “splash” as they dive into the water at the slightest disturbance. Amazingly, they are able to respire through their skin (though they do also possess lungs), which allows them to remain underwater for quite long periods of time.
Their swift, agile nature allows them to be primarily predatory, eating crayfish, small fish, aquatic insects, and tadpoles. They occasionally will eat leaves and seeds, though it’s theorized that this is at least sometimes accidental as they attempt to catch animal prey. They feed by chasing prey, probing along the bottom with their long snouts, and by waiting in mud and ambushing prey.
6) Northern Map Turtle (Graptemys geographica) – Native
So named for the intricate network of grey or black-bordered orange, yellow, to tan lines that curve and swirl atop their grey, brown, or olive carapace, Northern map turtles are often a beautiful site. In addition to their map-like patterning, their dark head, neck, and legs are typically striped with yellow, orange, or even green. This can fade somewhat in adults, but most will still retain a small triangle-shaped bit of lighter coloration behind each eye. There is a notable size difference between genders, with females reaching up to 11 inches of carapace length while male carapaces typically only grow to just over 6 inches in length.
These turtles prefer large bodies of water like lakes (including the edges of the Great Lakes themselves), slower-moving rivers, reservoirs and impoundments, large ponds, and marshes with plenty of open water. They don’t seem to have much preference for substrate, being found in waters with sandy, muddy, rocky, and gravelly bottoms alike. They don’t mind vegetation but prefer to stick to more open water. They are mostly carnivorous, eating snails, crayfish, and clams preferentially, but they’ll also eat aquatic insects, dead fish, and some plant matter.
7) Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta picta) – Native
Likely the turtle that many Michiganders are most familiar with, painted turtles are one of the few whose numbers are seeming to increase rather than decrease. With their relatively smooth, dark carapace often patterned with vivid red coloration around the edges, painted turtles are distinctive and easily identifiable. Their head and neck are often covered with yellow striping, while their legs may have yellow and/or red striping. The plastron can be entirely yellow-brown or covered with red, orange, or even pink patterning. They’re a relatively small turtle, with those in Michigan typically reaching closer to a 7.5-inch carapace length at maturity.
Incredibly long and sharp claws allow them to dig for food and nesting, as well as to tear apart vegetation and prey for consumption. They’re omnivores, known to eat aquatic vegetation (including duckweed, which isn’t invasive here but grows quite quickly), algae, plant roots, aquatic insects, crustaceans, and mollusks like crayfish and snails, leeches, tadpoles, small fish, and dead fish or animals.
Painted turtles are most often found in still or slow-moving waters with soft, mucky substrate like lakes and ponds, but may also be found in vernal pools, water-filled ditches, and the occasional river or stream. Their ability to be incredibly cold-tolerant (with some individuals being seen swimming beneath the ice in winter while other turtles are quite dormant!), as well as their varied diet and high tolerance to pollution, is part of why these turtles continue to be so successful. However, poaching for the pet trade is common for these turtles due to their smaller size and pretty coloring, and crossing roads during breeding and nesting season is particularly dangerous.
8) Red-Eared Slider (Tracheyms scripta elegans) – Possibly Introduced
Commonly kept as pets (though, again, please never capture wild turtles!), red-eared sliders are so named for the bright red spot or stripe that exists behind each eye. Their smooth, dark carapace can have yellow and black striped or blotched patterning, and the legs, head, and neck typically have narrow yellow and black striping, as well. Hatchling and juvenile red-eared sliders often have bright green skin and carapaces, with muted yellow striping present on both. Males and females are similarly sized, both able to reach a maximum carapace length of up to nearly a foot. They are sometimes mistaken for painted turtles; however, just look for the red to orange stripe behind the eye, as painteds lack this feature.
There are only a handful of known small, scattered populations of red-eared sliders in Michigan, and there is much argument as to whether these were introduced by people releasing pets into the wild or they are natural populations. There is some intriguing evidence that red-eared sliders may have once been more abundant in Michigan, and that therefore the existing small, scattered populations there may be native. Some shell fragments from American Indian archaeological dig sites in Michigan indicate that these sliders previously existed further north, perhaps prior to the last major ice age.
They can be found in virtually any permanent body of water with ample vegetation and basking via banks or logs, including rivers, lakes, swamps, marshes, ponds, deep ditches, and reservoirs. The name “slider” is in reference to their propensity for smoothly and quickly sliding into the water at even the smallest out-of-place sound or movement. They eat vegetation, insects, snails, tadpoles, small fish, plant matter like roots and seeds, and algae alike.
9) Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) – Native
Quite a small turtle, spotted turtles typically obtain a maximum carapace length of 5.5 inches regardless of gender. Their smooth, somewhat domed shell is black or very dark brown and has variable yellow spots. Some individuals may have a great many yellow spots, some may have only a handful, and on rare occasions, they may have none at all, either due to genetics or fading with age. There are often also small yellow spots on the head, neck, and legs.
A threatened species in Michigan, there are only a handful of known populations of spotted turtles in this state, with most of them quite scattered. Their small size, more docile nature, and unique spots put them at high risk for poaching for the pet trade. They seem to enjoy more acidic or calciferous locations such as bogs, fens, sphagnum wetlands, and tamarack swamps, but have also been found in some shallow ponds and flooded meadows or savannas. They much prefer clear, clean waters, being quite sensitive to pollution, with muddy bottoms and plenty of both emergent and aquatic vegetation for hiding, basking, and occasional browsing.
Mostly carnivorous, spotted turtles favor eating aquatic insects, tadpoles, spiders, worms, snails, crayfish, and carrion, but they will occasionally eat tender plant leaves and roots, some seeds (particularly those of water lilies), and algae.
10) Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) – Native
Its Latin name translating to “sculptured turtle,” the wood turtle is so named for its brown carapace with ridged scutes that appear to have been carved out of wood. The yellow plastron often has a square of black in the bottom outer corner of each scute. These plastron scutes contain distinct lines called annuli, which, much like tree rings, can be counted to estimate an individual’s age, though these lines can become quite worn down and faded with age. If these lines are too faded to count, the individual is likely at least 20-25 years old, but may be as old as 70! Regardless of gender, adults can reach up to 10 inches in carapace length, though males have shorter, thicker tails than females.
From autumn through spring, wood turtles are largely aquatic and can be found in or near mostly sandy-bottomed or gravelly rivers and streams. In the summer, however, they become much more terrestrial as they search for mates and suitable nesting habitats. They will often wander through woodlands, swamps, wet grassland environments, and alder and willow thickets. Typically, they stay within the floodplain of their chosen stream or river. They feed readily on vegetation like violets, dandelions, willow leaves, berries such as raspberries and strawberries, algae, mushrooms, and will also eat insects, snails, slugs, earthworms, and may occasionally be found scavenging dead animals if they’re not too rotted.
Considered an “imperiled” species of special concern in Michigan, wood turtle numbers have been decreasing due to habitat loss and degradation, being hit by cars and boats, and agriculture. Additionally, as much as 80% of nests are predated mostly by raccoons, but also minks, foxes, coyotes, ravens, and feral cats. Many of the state’s herpetologists are working to get the wood turtle protected as an endangered species, but somewhat limited knowledge of this rare turtle is part of what makes doing so difficult. Over the last couple of decades, conservation and university groups like the Michigan Natural Features Inventory have initiated state-wide surveys and studies in an effort to better understand and document this sensitive, rare species.
Behler, J. L., & King, F. W. (1998). In National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American reptiles and Amphibians. essay, Knopf.
Harding, J. H., & Mifsud, D. A. (2017). Amphibians and reptiles of the Great Lakes region. University of Michigan Press.