Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Painted Turtles, Massachusetts

The official reptile of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is the Garter snake. Of our New England neighbors, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut have not deigned to designate an official reptile. Vermont’s is the Eastern painted turtle. New York chose the Snapping turtle (“You got a problem with that?”).

Massachusetts could have as easily gone with the painted turtle, which is common on the Assabet River upstream of the Ben Smith Dam and also other calm water sites that do not go dry in summer. Painted turtles are native to much of North America. The species is divided into four sub-species (Eastern, Southern, Midland and Western), with full fertility among the subspecies, so that hybrids are common along the regional borders.

Eastern Painted Turtles sharing a fallen tree. Dark areas on surface
are blobs of algae and duckweed.
“Painted” comes from the color patterns on skin and shell. Head, neck and limbs are dark green with yellow/white stripes. For the Eastern, the top of the top shell is uniformly dark, but the underside of the top shell – around the edges – has an alternating pattern of dark and red/orange. Southern have a red strip down the middle of the top shell. Western have a colorful bottom shell. 

Eastern painted turtles, if they survive the first year, can expect to live 20 to 30 years; 50 years is not unheard of. The adult size of roughly six inches (shell length) is reached in the initial handful of years. The daily routine is wake up, bask in the sun to warm up, swim around eating plants and water insects, bask more, eat more, go to sleep. Once the sun sets, painted turtles snuggle down underwater, in the mud, and stay there to morning. There is some absorption of oxygen through the skin, but basically, their metabolic rate is so slowed that they are able to go through the night without breathing.   

The business of reproduction has some interesting quirks. Painted turtles reach sexual maturity in four to six years. Males court females in late spring, using their longer claws to stroke her neck and face. If she is receptive she will dive to the bottom, where he will join her to mate. Females store the sperm internally, so that one clutch of eggs may have several fathers. Eggs are laid on shore, buried a few inches below the surface in sandy/soft soil. The hatchlings, smaller than a quarter, emerge from the eggs in September. Interestingly, hatchlings have two entirely different emergence behaviors depending on location. In the south, hatchlings dig there way out and head toward water, while here and farther north, they will remain underground until the spring thaw.

Eastern Painted Turtles sharing a fallen tree, with water lilies about to bloom.
We dream of turtles, but do turtles dream? All mammals appear to dream, as indicated by periods of REM (rapid eye movement) and other brain activity. Birds also have REM sleep, albeit different rhythms from mammals. The evidence for reptiles is less clear, but for now, the answer appears to be “Probably not.”   

So, there it is. Life is long and simple. Wake, bask, eat, bask more, eat more, sleep, don’t dream. Hibernate all winter and mate in the spring. Child rearing consists of heading away from the water for one evening a year to lay eggs. Otherwise, more wake, bask, eat, sleep. Repeat for 10,000 days.

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