Wildlife Wednesday: Blanding’s Turtles

Turtles have lived on Earth before dinosaurs existed. A rare species, the Blanding’s tortoise, lives mainly in the Great Lakes region. This particular turtle, along with painted and biting turtles, finds its home in the Wildlife Recovery Association’s Little Swamp Sanctuary in Midland County.

dr. Jim Gillingham, a former professor of herpetology at Central Michigan University, explained how turtles’ body shape has evolved very little, despite being around for 220 million years.

“The dinosaurs first appeared around the same time, but the turtles outlived them by about 65 million years,” Gillingham said. “Despite that success, turtles are probably the most endangered group of vertebrates on Earth today. They need our help where we can give it.”

Turtle shells provide some protection from predators. The lower shell, called a plastron, has flexible tissue that allows adult turtles to pull the shell more tightly against the upper shell, an action that makes the turtles’ heads and feet less vulnerable.

The shells are also an adaptation of the turtle skeleton and act as the ribs of the reptiles. The top shell of the Blanding turtle, called the carapace, is dark moss green with small yellow spots. The stock stock has brown and yellow markings that are unique to each turtle.

“This pattern can identify any individual turtle, much like a fingerprint identifies a person,” says Barb Rogers of the Wildlife Recovery Association.

Blanding’s turtles can be recognized by the bright yellow on the undersides of their necks and chins, which they can show off in a form of communication. The yellow color can be seen when the turtles bask in the sun; when they detect danger, they retract their colorful necks into their shells.

One of the deadliest enemies of Blanding’s turtles is the raccoon. Raccoons can locate turtle nests — which are located in holes dug in sandbanks — by smelling the scent the female turtle leaves as she lays her eggs.

Wildlife Recovery Association’s Barb Rogers says everyone can help turtles in many ways. Humans can help turtles cross the road, protect their eggs from predators, and share information about their habitats with others.
Here are some ways you can help protect turtles – be it Blanding’s turtles, painted turtles, or snapping turtles.
1. If you see a turtle crossing the road: If it is safe to do so, pick up the turtle and move it in the direction it was going and place it past the berm of the road. Snapping turtles can often be safely picked up at the base of the tail.
2. If you see a turtle laying eggs: Protect the eggs with a wire cage (an unused bird cage without a floor will also work) and secure the cage to the ground with stakes. Another method is to place a heavy weight over the top so that raccoons and other predators cannot get to the eggs. Remove the cage or cover after a week to allow the young turtles to burrow freely and return to the wetland. Another option is to apply a different scent such as a spray disinfectant on top of the nesting space.
3. When driving through wetland habitats: Drive slowly and carefully. Drive around turtles and other wildlife.

“With very high numbers of raccoon populations, the turtle populations need help,” Rogers said.

Blanding’s tortoises are known to roam about half a mile to find a mate in early spring; they can travel another half a mile to find potential nesting sites in the summer. During this time, they are susceptible to many hazards, including vehicles, predators, and people who pick them up and transport them to another location.

“Turtles have the ability to sense their location and will travel great distances to reach their home,” Rogers said. “If they are moved very far from where they were found, they are in great danger when they try to turn back because they don’t know the ground.”

Gillingham explained that pregnant Blanding’s turtles can move 500-1000 meters from their habitat to lay their eggs.

“Blanding’s turtles usually go much further to nest than other turtles, such as painted or snapping turtles,” Gillingham said. “Blanding’s turtles are often drawn to wetlands, known as shrub swamps or buttonwood swamps, to mate in the spring. Such wetland types are therefore very important to the success of these turtles. They much prefer this type of habitat to open wetlands.”

Blanding’s tortoises can live to be about 75 years old and reach sexual maturity when they are 15 to 20 years old.

“The young Blanding’s tortoises have to live a long time before they have a chance to repopulate their habitat,” Rogers said. “The juveniles need to be carefully protected so that we have a lasting population of these great friends of the swamp.”

Wildlife Recovery Association owns and protects wooded wetlands where Blanding’s turtles live. The Blanding’s tortoise can be found in the upper Midwest, New England and southern Canada, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. They are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as water pollution and the overpopulation of certain predators.

Just as the red-headed woodpecker is listed as being of “special concern” in Michigan, so is the Blanding’s tortoise, meaning it’s rare, but not protected by law. The Blanding’s tortoise is also listed as of “special concern” in Ohio and Wisconsin. It is listed as an endangered species in New York and as endangered in Indiana and Illinois.

Wildlife Recovery Association is a 501(c)3 charitable organization committed to education, rehabilitation and research for wildlife, and the management of a reserve to protect rare and sensitive species. To donate to help these beautiful animals, visit wildliferecovery.org or write to Wildlife Recovery Association, 531 S. Coleman Road, Shepherd, MI 48883.

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