Critter Curriculum
Wood Turtle photo
Wood Turtle Clemmys insculpta

The wood turtle is a moderately sized turtle with reddish-orange skin on portions of its neck and legs and a roughly textured, or sculpted shell. The adult’s shell is about 7 to 8 inches long. It spends the winter on stream bottoms and most breeding occurs in streams. Although it regularly returns to streams throughout year, it may travel up to 1000 feet from the stream while foraging for food in hardwood forests or meadows.

Turtles are an ancient group of animals, originating many millions of years ago. Wood turtles have likely been in Vermont for the past 10,000 years, following the retreat of the last glacier. In spite of their long history of success, wood turtles have not fared well recently in the face of human development and use of the landscape. The wood turtle is a species of conservation concern in the northeastern states, including Vermont, due to its region-wide decline.

Human activities are the main cause of the turtles’ decline. While it is rare that any person intentionally harms a wood turtle, the cumulative effect of our activities does have a negative impact. Although it is illegal to collect wood turtles in Vermont, people do remove them from the wild. Collection results in population decline and loss. A Connecticut wood turtle population was studied before and after a water supply area was opened to limited permit hiking. Wood turtle collection was the likely cause of this population disappearing after only ten years.

We also harm turtles by transforming their habitat into housing or commercial building lots, clearing away inadvertently hitting them with stream-bank vegetation, and mowing machines or cars.

Adult wood turtles may live 60 years, but egg and hatchling survival is extremely low. Survival of adult wood turtles is key to maintaining this species. Mature turtles are important because they manage to produce the few offspring that will carry the population into the future.

TURTLE TIME TABLE Early April -First emergence from water to stream bank. Initially, turtles stay near stream, then gradually move farther away.

Early June -Initial movements to summer foraging areas which may be 1000 feet from stream. These areas consist of meadows, wetlands and woods.

Mid June -Females with eggs move to nesting area. Some females will travel over one mile to nest. Return to foraging area within a few weeks.

June through mid September -Turtles spend up to a month at a time foraging well away from stream, but return to the stream for short periods.

Late August through mid November -Breeding occurs in the stream, and also occurs to a lesser extent in the spring months.

November through April - Turtles stay underwater at wintering sites in streams where they absorb oxygen through their skin. Some movement may occur during this time, but the turtles are generally confined to protected pools.

  • Habitat loss and alteration
  • Road mortality
  • Impacts from mowing machines
  • Commercial collection for pet trade
  • Casual collection when encountered
  • Isolation of populations
  • Turtle and egg predators such as raccoons and skunks
  • Locate roads more than 1000 feet from large streams and rivers.
  • Locate housing and commercial development away from streams, rivers, and wetlands.
  • Maintain natural vegetation along waterways.
  • Route recreation paths away from streams, never along the channel.
  • Teach children to respect wildlife. Leave wildlife in the wild.
  • Encourage friends and neighbors to protect stream corridors.
  • Promote town plans and ordi-nances that protect naturally veg-etated stream corridors and discour-age stream alterations.
  • If possible, avoid mowing mead-ows until late September.
  • If mowing May-September set mowing bar to 5 inches.
  • Learn more about the natural world.
  • Report collection of turtles to your local game warden.
  • Report unauthorized stream alterations to the Agency of Natural Resources (northeastern region: (802) 751-0129; central and northwestern region: (802)879-5631; southern region: (802) 786-5906).
  • Contribute to the Nongame Wildlife Fund on your Vermont income tax form.
  • Display a Vermont Conservation Plate on your car - and watch out for turtles crossing the road!