List of Turtle Species in Vermont 2023 (ID + Pictures)

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List of Turtle Species in Vermont (Identification, Range, & Pictures)

Trees in Vermont
Vermont has a number of ponds & lakes that provide homes for its 7 native turtle species. Richard Ricciardi / CC BY 2.0

For a state that is famous for its harsh winters, Vermont may not seem like the ideal habitat for cold-blooded animals. But for the 40 native species of reptiles and amphibians that call Vermont home, the muddy springs and warm, humid summers make hibernating for half of the year worth it.

Vermont is the second least populated in the country, with a population of under 650,000. While habitat loss is still a major concern for wildlife in Vermont, much of the state remains densely wooded with over 5 million acres of boreal and deciduous forests. The numerous healthy ponds and lakes scattered throughout Vermont are the perfect home for its 7 native turtle species.

Only 2 of these species, the common snapping turtle and the painted turtle, are thriving to their fullest extent. With the remaining 5 species designated by Vermont’s Wildlife Division as “of concern”, time is of the essence for citizens and researchers alike to carefully learn more about these fascinating species.

Listed below are the 7 turtle species that are Vermont natives and some interesting facts about them.

1) Wood turtle

Wood turtle in hands
The wood turtle can be identified by its bright red, orange, or yellow throat & inner arms. Steven Lamonde / CC BY 4.0
  • Scientific name: Glyptemys insculpta
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Adult weight: 1.5 – 2.5 lbs (0.7 – 1.1 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 5 – 9 in (12.7 – 22.9 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 9.2 in (23.4 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 40 – 80 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 50+ years
  • Conservation status: Endangered

The wood turtle is a fascinating yet highly endangered Vermont native. It can be distinguished by its large, brown carapace, pyramidal scutes, and vibrant red, yellow, or orange on its throat and inner arms. As opposed to the dark, unmarked skin on the dorsal surface of its body, the wood turtle has a bright yellow plastron with black splotches on the outer edge of each scute.

As its name would suggest, this semiaquatic species typically lives in forested streams and spends much of its active months in the woods. It primarily spends its time in the water when it hibernates in cold, fast-flowing streams.

The wood turtle has a hunting technique that is unique to the species, known as worm stomping. It stomps the ground with its feet in a rhythmic manner to reproduce the sound of rainfall or a burrowing mole. This tricks worms into surfacing, where they are then eaten by the wood turtle. Outside of worms, the wood turtle has an omnivorous diet that includes fungus, flowers, crayfish, and berries.

To discover why they are endangered, scientists have fitted many adult wood turtles with GPS units. These studies revealed one major cause for endangerment — wood turtles travel far distances from one body of water to the next, putting them at risk of vehicles and poachers.

With wood turtles, the death of any individual can have a massive impact on the population of the species overall. They have a late age of reproduction, at 14 – 20 years, which is rarely reached. Additionally, 70 – 100% of eggs in a given nest fail to hatch due to predation, disturbance, or poor development, according to several Michigan studies. The few turtles that survive to adulthood may reproduce for decades and even have a social hierarchy based on age. Adult wood turtles have no natural predators and instead prematurely die at the hands of humans.

2) Painted turtle

Midland painted turtle basking
Two painted turtle subspecies can be found in Vermont, including the midland painted turtle (pictured). Liz Smith / CC BY 4.0
  • Scientific name: Chrysemys picta
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Adult weight: 0.6 lbs (300 g) males, 1.1 lbs (500 g) females
  • Adult carapace length: 3 – 6 in (7.6 – 15.2 cm) males, 4 – 10 in (10.2 – 25.4 cm) females
  • Maximum verified size: 10.5 in (26.7 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 55+ years
  • Lifespan (captive): 25 – 40 years
  • Conservation status: Least Concern

In 1994, the painted turtle became the official state reptile of Vermont, and for good reason. As noted in the resolution which named it the state reptile, painted turtles are beautiful, hardy, and great at insect control. It is a common species that is often seen near any body of freshwater due to its basking habits. Painted turtles spend much of the day basking, in part to rid themselves of parasitic leeches.

There are four total subspecies of painted turtles, two of which can be found in Vermont. Both of these subspecies, the midland and eastern painted turtles, have several traits in common. In particular, they have a black head with yellow stripes on each side and blotches on top, along with two yellow spots on each side of their head and red stripes along their arms. Their plastrons are bright yellow and may or may not have a central dark splotch.

Midland and eastern subspecies can be distinguished by their carapaces. Both have dark, smooth, slightly domed shells with red and yellow markings and a brightly colored underside. Like most turtles, the midland turtle has alternately arranged scutes. On the other hand, the eastern painted turtle is the only known species with scutes aligned straight across its back. These subspecies have overlapping ranges and are known to cross-breed.

Painted turtles hibernate throughout the winter beneath the mud, but some may hibernate in abandoned muskrat and beaver lodges. They become active once again in the spring and breed soon after. Males can be distinguished from larger females by the long claws they use for touch-based courtship. Females typically have 1 – 2 clutches of 4 – 10 eggs annually, but many females “skip” years. After hatching, young painted turtles are primarily carnivorous and only develop a more omnivorous diet as they reach adulthood.

3) Spotted turtle

Spotted turtle on rock
Spotted turtles develop more spots on their carapace as they age. Nick Block / CC BY 4.0
  • Scientific name: Clemmys guttata
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Adult weight: 0.25 – 0.5 lbs (113 – 227 g)
  • Adult carapace length: 3.5 – 5 in (8.9 – 12.7 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: Unknown
  • Lifespan (wild): 30+ years
  • Lifespan (captive): 50+ years
  • Conservation status: Endangered

This small, attractive species is named for the bright yellow dots on its gray or black carapace and skin. Young turtles are born with one bright dot on each scute, but develop more small dots with age. Older individuals may be freckled with over a hundred small dots. This species has skin a similar shade as its carapace with a pair of yellow or orange blotches on its head. Males have an unmarked chin, brown eyes, and a thick, long tail. In contrast, females have orange eyes, an orange or yellow chin, and a narrow tail.

Due to factors such as its small clutch size, frequent poaching, and its sensitive nature, the spotted turtle is a highly protected S1 species in Vermont with as much as a 50% diminish in the last 30 years. It requires slow-flowing or standing water and is often one of the early indicators of poor water quality, with populations in dirtied ponds quickly declining. The spotted turtle is a fairly aquatic species that spends most of its time in the water when not basking. When too hot and during the night, it often shelters itself and burrows in mud.

The spotted turtle has a widely varied diet but is preferably carnivorous. It typically eats aquatic insects but has been known to hunt worms and even millipedes. Hunting occurs when the turtles become active in spring and ends during the winter.

Despite a projected longevity of around 30 years in the wild, spotted turtles may live as much as 14 years before becoming sexually mature. Reproduction occurs during the active months, with males fighting one another for mates. Female spotted turtles lay 1 – 8 eggs per clutch, typically only laying one clutch per year.

4) Eastern spiny softshell turtle

Adult eastern spiny softshell turtle
The eastern spiny softshell turtle gets its name from the tubercles that can be found along the front of its carapace! ksandsman / CC BY 4.0
  • Scientific name: Apalone spinifera spinifera
  • Other common names: Northern spiny softshell turtle
  • Family: Trionychidae
  • Adult weight: 0.3 lbs (136 g) males, 33 lbs (15 kg) females
  • Adult carapace length: 5 – 9.25 in (12.7 – 23.5 cm) males, 7 – 17 in (18 – 43.2 cm) females
  • Maximum verified size: 18 in (45.7 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 50+ years
  • Lifespan (captive): 25+ years
  • Conservation status: Least Concern

The eastern spiny softshell is a highly distinct member of the softshell turtle family. As with other softshell turtles, it has a soft, leathery carapace with small projections that make it rough like sandpaper. The eastern spiny softshell is specifically named for the front edge of its carapace, which has several tubercles.

Other major identifying features for this species are its large, webbed feet with three claws each and its long, pointed snout which it uses to probe through substrates for food. This turtle is almost exclusively carnivorous but may ingest plant material on occasion. They are highly sexually dimorphic, with females typically 100 times heavier than their male counterparts.

Per the IUCN, eastern spiny softshell turtles are a species of least concern, but in Vermont, they are designated as an S1 species, along with the wood turtle and spotted turtle. The population in Vermont is extremely limited, and it is found almost exclusively in the northeast corner of Lake Champlain. Conservation efforts appear fruitful according to Toni Mikula, a Vermont Fish and Wildlife specialist, but finding quantifiable evidence is difficult given the reclusive nature of the species.

Spiny softshells are an entirely aquatic species that prefers a soft bottom substrate and plenty of vegetation to hide in. They may bask on rocks, flats, and debris for hours on end, but can also stay underwater for long periods due to their ability to breathe through their thin skin. Despite this, eastern spiny softshell turtles are incredibly sensitive to the buildup of lactic acid in their bodies and require highly oxygenated water to continually stay underwater.

Because of their need for oxygenated water, this species has unique hibernation requirements. Rather than burying themselves in the mud at the bottom of lakes like many other species, eastern spiny softshell turtles typically hibernate in shallow dens known as hibernacula near the surface of the water.

Females in particular become sexually mature based on size rather than age. As spiny softshells in Lake Champlain tend to grow more slowly than other populations, they tend to mature later, around 12 years of age. Females dig nests within 300 feet of the shoreline in soft sand or gravel with little to no vegetation. They typically lay around 20 eggs per clutch but may lay as many as 30 depending on body size.

5) Common snapping turtle

Common snapping turtles in fish pond
Common snapping turtles aren’t fussy about where they live, tolerating most permanent bodies of water. inbetweenbays / CC BY 4.0
  • Scientific name: Chelydra serpentina
  • Other common names: Snapper
  • Family: Chelydridae
  • Adult weight: 10 – 35 lbs (4.5 – 16 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 8 – 14 in (20.3 – 35.6 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 75 lbs (34 kg) and 19.3 in (49 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 30 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 40+ years
  • Conservation status: Least Concern

The common snapping turtle is often claimed to be the most abundant species in Vermont despite rarely being seen. This is mostly due to just how prolific it is and how comparatively high hatchling survival rates are compared to other turtles. Female common snapping turtles dig deep, concave holes in the months of May to June to lay their eggs in. After laying 20 – 40 eggs, the snapping turtle kicks dirt over the hole to cover them and provides no further parental care.

Furthermore, common snapping turtles are not picky with their habitats and will tolerate almost any permanent body of water, including brackish water. It prefers slow-moving bodies of water with sandy or muddy substrates whenever possible, and will move long distances to reach other waters if necessary. When it isn’t laying or moving to another body of water, common snapping turtles are rarely seen on land, even basking under the surface of the water.

When seen, they are easily identifiable despite their grayish-brown color and lack of markings. This large species has a long tail with spines running along the top and a long, flexible neck. Its large and prominent beak has a rough cutting edge used for tearing meat rather than crushing. In particular, it tends to prefer fish and carrion, but will also eat algae and most other things smaller than its beak. While young individuals tend to actively forage, older snapping turtles often sit motionless for hours and ambush passing fish or even turtles.

In addition to their strong biteforce, common snapping turtles are not recommended to be handled due to the far reach of their neck. Luckily, the species is not naturally aggressive towards humans and actively avoids confrontation whenever possible. If cornered or caught out of the water, it can and will defend itself with a nasty bite.

6) Common map turtle

Common map turtles on log
The common map turtle is one of the most widespread map turtle species in North America but is considered to be at risk in many regions. Annie Bélair / CC BY 4.0
  • Scientific name: Graptemys geographica
  • Other common names: Northern map turtle
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Adult weight: 0.3 – 0.9 lbs (136 – 408 g) males, 1.5 – 5.5 lbs (0.7 – 2.5 kg) females
  • Adult carapace length: 4 – 6 in (10.2 – 15.2 cm) males, 7 – 10 in (17.8 – 25.4 cm) females
  • Maximum verified size: 10.63 in (27 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 20+ years
  • Lifespan (captive): 15 – 20 years
  • Conservation status: Least Concern

As its name would suggest, the common map turtle is the most widespread of all map turtle species in North America. The map turtle genus is named for the intricate, map-like patterns on their carapace. In common map turtles, this carapace is domed with a strong central keel and serrated outer shell. They have a network of yellow lines on each green scute.

It is designated as a species of least concern by the IUCN, but many regions consider it at risk. In areas such as Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, and Ontario, it is considered endangered. In Vermont, common map turtles are a species of concern with an S3 designation.

Despite being the least sexually dimorphic member of the map turtle genus, female common map turtles regularly weigh up to 10 times as much as males. Concerned with lowering common map turtle numbers, one Canadian researcher created female decoys to observe the mating preferences of male common map turtles. As he suspected, larger females were consistently-favored choices.

Females lay 2 – 3 clutches of 10 – 12 eggs per breeding season in open, sandy areas. Uniquely, common map turtles do not bury themselves in mud or debris to hibernate. Instead, they simply hibernate in open waters.

This species is almost exclusively carnivorous, primarily eating freshwater mollusks, insects, and carrion.

7) Eastern musk turtle

Eastern musk turtle resting on log
Eastern musk turtles may be poor swimmers, but they’re very good climbers and regularly scale trees! stephen / CC BY 4.0
  • Scientific name: Sternotherus odoratus
  • Other common names: Common musk turtle, stinkpot
  • Family: Kinosternidae
  • Adult weight: 1 – 2 lbs (0.45 – 0.9 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 2 – 5 in (5 – 12.7 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 5.4 in (13.7 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 40 – 60 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 50+ years
  • Conservation status: Least Concern

With an adult carapace size of as little as 2 inches in length, the eastern musk turtle is the smallest turtle species in Vermont. Also known as “stinkpot”, the musk turtle has earned its name for the foul scent it gives off when handled.

This species is widespread and is of least concern throughout most of the country, but in Vermont, it is designated as a species of medium priority. Its only known populations in Vermont are found in the waters of the Western Rutland County area, such as the shallows of Lake Champlain. The exact population of this species is difficult to know for certain, as it is nocturnal and rarely basks.

Along with its small size, the eastern musk turtle has an innocuous appearance, with a slightly domed dark shell that is often covered in algae. In younger individuals, two light-colored stripes may be seen on either side of its head, but these grow fainter with age. Similarly, the strong keel that makes hatchling musk turtles identifiable flattens with maturity. Males are distinguished by their thicker tails that end in a spine.

Despite being an almost entirely aquatic species, eastern musk turtles are poor swimmers. They prefer slow-moving shallows that they can “walk” along in search of food, including seeds, insects, and anything else it can swallow. In the rare instances this species basks, it is known to be a surprisingly good climber and regularly scales trees.

Females typically lay 2 clutches of 1 – 9 eggs a season in shallow burrows or beneath debris. It is common for females to share nesting areas.

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