By Neil Case
---- — We put the horses in their stalls in the barn, gave each his or her morning food supplement, then started to walk around the pasture as the horses ate. The sky was clear, the sunshine bright and warm. A robin sang from a tree at the edge of the pasture, a cardinal whistled and red-winged blackbirds, a yellow warbler and a common yellowthroat called from the nearby marsh. Then one of our dogs caught our attention pawing at a turtle, snapping at it, acting as if it was going to pick the turtle up.
I called the dog off as we walked over to look at the turtle. It had its head and legs drawn into its shell, as turtles do, and its rear was backed into a shallow hole. It had been laying eggs, we assumed, though we couldn’t see any eggs. I assumed, also, that it had come out of the marsh to lay its eggs. We left the turtle to its business, took the dogs, went back to the barn, let the horses out and returned to the house.
Our hard-shelled pasture visitor was a painted turtle, one of the few species of turtles I recognize. But it’s common, in many places the most common, most numerous turtle in North America. While it is easily identified, it is variable in size and markings, so variable that four subspecies are described in A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians by Roger Conant. Those subspecies are eastern, midland, southern and western. The southern is smallest, its carapace or upper shell only four to six inches long. The western is the largest, its carapace five to ten inches long. All four have red, orange or yellow markings on the carapace.
This was the third painted turtle we’ve seen in our pasture this year. Each was found by one of our dogs. A dog was carrying one in its mouth when we first saw it, its head, legs and feet drawn into its shell which had protected it from injury.
Painted turtles are among the first we see in the spring. Even before the ice is completely gone from the surface of the marsh we see them on logs during the day when the sun is out. They’ve been in the marsh all winter but they’ve been out of sight, buried in the mud of the marsh bottom.
Turtles are among the oldest of animals. There were turtles on earth when dinosaurs lived. Individual turtles also live to be very old as determined by counting lines in a shell, somewhat like rings in the trunk of a tree, or by makings on the shell. One turtle marked on the shell lived 138 years.
Turtles, tortoises and terrapins are all similar, all shelled, slow moving critters. They wary in size and from the little two or three inch one sold in pet stores to the giant leatherback, a sea turtle with a length of six to eight feet and a weight of 1,600 pounds, perhaps even as much as a ton. The biggest land turtles of North America are the snapping turtle and the alligator snapping turtle. The record for a snapper, according to Conant, is nearly 20 inches with a weight of 86 pounds. The record for an alligator snapper is 26 inches with a weight of 219 pounds.
Turtles which might be seen in northern Indiana, in addition to painted and snapping, are spotted, map, Blanding’s, which is endangered, box, spiny softshell, and stinkpot, which is also called mush turtle and stinking jim. I’ve seen painted and snapping, spotted and box and one softshell which was a painful experience. Friends brought me that turtle and I picked if up with a hand on each side, like I had snappers. A softshell has a long neck however, long enough that it reached around and bit me.