Season of the Turtle

As the days grow longer and the temperatures consistently warm up, there are more opportunities to observe and admire the variety of turtles that make their home in the New Jersey Pinelands.



As the days grow longer and the temperatures consistently warm up, there are more opportunities to observe and admire the variety of turtles that make their home in the New Jersey Pinelands. Wherever you go in the Pinelands, whether you are hiking one of the forested trails or paddling a sparkling cedar river, chances are you will meet a turtle, or two, or three…

As early as late March turtles start to emerge from brumation, a state of inactive torpor where turtles will burrow into the mud or leaf litter and soil for a cool down, slowing the metabolism. Energy and oxygen requirements are very low until the temperatures increase, warming up their bodies. As they “wake up” it’s important for turtles to bask in the sun to activate normal metabolism, start moving muscles again, begin foraging, look for a mate, and nest to ensure the survival of the species. It’s important to avoid disturbing these early risers as they clear the lactic acid from their bodies. They resume aerobic respiration after a period of oxygen deprivation that results in anaerobic energy production. They are extremely vulnerable during this time.

Turtles and many other reptiles are ectotherms, specifically poikilotherms, that can survive a wide range of temperatures because their internal temperature is dependent upon the environment. Most mammals and birds are endotherms, or homeotherms, that regulate internal temperatures through internal energy processes. They are less reliant on ambient temperature, but optimal survival is dependent upon a more specific temperature range. Turtles react and respond to their environment in order to survive.

As spring progresses and the blueberries and huckleberries blossom with the promise of a bounty of small juicy berries, the turtles are on the move, following their ancient paths through bogs and rivers, forest and fen…and busy roadways. These ancient reptiles evolved to survive in diverse habitats and conditions but nothing prepared our wildlife for the challenge of road crossings and how we, as humans, have changed the landscape in so many ways.

Turtles, like many other animals, are egg layers. Females searching for suitable nesting sites to bury their eggs are most vulnerable, and to compound the risk they are carrying precious cargo; the next generation. 

Take care when traveling roadways, and obey the speed limit. Stop or pull over when it is safe to do so and allow a turtle safe passage. If you need to intervene by physically moving the turtle, be sure you place them in the direction they were heading in, and never take a wild turtle into captivity or move it away from its local habitat.

For example, box turtles are especially sensitive and rarely range outside a mile and a half from their homes and they know their home territory well. Relocating them can be a death sentence as they roam endlessly trying to find their way back home when they should be foraging or finding a mate.  

Eastern Box Turtle

Box turtles are a terrestrial species that are often encountered on wooded trails or even suburban backyards (a great reason to avoid toxic pesticides). Their average lifespan is 30-50 years but records have shown they can actually live over 100 years. These turtles are omnivores and they feed on a variety of foods such as invertebrates like slugs, snails, and worms to carrion, leaves, fruit, and fungi.  Males are easily distinguished from females by eye color and a concave plastron (lower shell), the male’s iris is red/orange while the female’s eyes are brown, and females have a flat plastron. Both sexes have a highly domed carapace (top shell) and can grow up to 8” long, but average around 4.5 to 6.5” in length. Box turtles have the ability to completely withdraw into their shells, using a hinged plastron that seals them up, safe inside. Their head and scutes, or the skin that covers the bony plates of their shell have very distinctive markings that are unique to each individual, like a fingerprint. Coloration varies from cream, and brown, to a black background with orange to yellow blotches that help these turtles blend into the forest floor, keeping them hidden from predators. Habitat loss and road crossings are their biggest threats. 

Redbelly Turtle

While enjoying a peaceful paddle down a Pine Barrens river or hiking alongside a lake you are very likely, in fact, I can ALMOST guarantee, that you will encounter a Pine Barrens favorite – the big ol’ Redbelly Turtle, also known locally as a red-bellied cooter. About the size of a dinner plate, these turtles that are named for their bright red plastron in contrast to a dark green to black carapace, are often spotted perched in piles upon a sunny spot on a log or grassy river bank. While some of the time they greet you with a big sploosh and splash as they retreat to the safety of their aquatic world, most of the time they are gregarious and don’t always seem to mind watching as paddlers just float on past as they follow you with their eyes. Being a Gen X’er, they remind me of E.T. This group on Batsto Lake has obviously found their “Zen” as they take a few yoga poses, warming and stretching each limb in the morning sun, ignoring the paparazzi. I could use a little of that myself.

Redbelly Turtle Yoga Session

Like our box turtle friends, they will be seeking out nesting sites in the spring and summer, except laying 10-20 eggs (box turtles only lay 4-9 eggs), using the same site year after year. Nests are frequently raided by raccoons, skunks, opossums, and crows. Crows have even been observed waiting for turtles to finish their egg-laying business and then raiding the nest, as if the turtles were convenient snack dispensers. Good thing they lay lots of eggs! If the eggs survive they will hatch in about 12-16 weeks with only a small percentage surviving into adulthood living to 50 years old or more. Young redbellies are primarily herbivores but as they mature they will eat crustaceans, insects, tadpoles, and small fish.

Painted Turtle

In the company of Redbellies, one will often see the smaller painted turtle. Only about 8-10” long these beautifully marked turtles live up to their name with colorful red, white, and yellow markings against a darker green background of their skin. The scutes of the carapace are more clearly defined and the plastron is yellow, making them distinguishable even as juveniles from the Redbellies. Painted turtles enjoy eating aquatic insects, tadpoles, snails, and also plants like algae and cattails seeds and stems. Redbellies and painted turtles are opportunistic feeders that will eat a variety of foods and seem to tolerate each other quite well. Painted turtles can sometimes even be seen basking on top of a larger Redbelly. 

Spotted Turtle

Another turtle that is not encountered as often as the aforementioned species is the beautiful Spotted Turtle. Observed in slower backwater areas and streams and shallow lakes and bogs, these semi-aquatic little turtles grow to about 5” and are easily identified by their smooth dark carapace with small yellow polka dots. These small freckle-faced turtles spend a considerable amount of time on land preferring edge habitats along marshes and mossy hummocks where they love to bask in the sun, however, they do not wander very far from water except to lay their eggs in warm, sunny soil. These turtles lead a more solitary lifestyle enjoying sunny spots all to themselves and avoiding the pile-ups that are seen with redbellies and painted. As the spotted turtles mature, their yellow spots begin to fade. They are omnivores but mostly seek out the worms and frogs in the muddy bottoms that also become their winter refuge when it’s time to brumate. Spotted turtles are a “Special Concern Wildlife Species” according to, meaning there is evidence of decline or inherent vulnerability where any destruction or modification of habitat could result in the Spotted Turtle moving to “Threatened” status. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service petitioned back in 2012 to list the Spotted Turtle as Federally Threatened and conducted a study in 2015, a review is pending for a final determination this year. This illustrates how vital the habitats that are preserved here in the NJ Pinelands are to so many species that are at risk. 

Musk or Stinkpot Turtle

Another favorite is the little 2-4.5” Musk, or “Stinkpot” turtle, named for the odor released from a small scent gland located behind the forelimbs. Musk turtles spend most of their time in the slower waters of shallow rivers and heavily vegetated lakes. Locally they are affectionately called the Pine Barrens Tree Turtle as they are known to climb up high onto overhead branches and have been observed at least 6 ft up in a tree above the water’s surface, even clinging vertically to a branch if it’s a suitable diameter. Their claws enable them to shimmy up high to find a nice sunny perch with a quick escape if needed as they high dive, taking a plunge into the stream (or canoe!) below. Watch for falling turtles! These compact little cuties can be seen walking along the sandy river bottom or lake’s edge as they forage for their favorite snacks including earthworms, leeches (an ecologic service), small fish and frogs, carrion, and aquatic plant material. They have long necks, small barbels on the chin and throat, dark brown shells and two stripes on each side of the head that vary in color from white to cream with a dark green background, and a pointed snout that acts as a snorkel when they are happily hidden in the mucky bottom. While the populations seem stable they face the inherent threats that other turtles face, especially when leaving the safety of the water to lay eggs and entanglement in fishing lines in the muddy bottoms. 

Old female Snapper just after laying eggs

One more turtle that many of us have encountered is the Common Snapping Turtle. Our own “Chonkosaurus”- notoriously grumpy and ill-tempered, these present-day dinosaurs deserve respect. One of the largest freshwater turtles in the world, they spend so much time in the quieter, still waters of marshes and bogs that they often grow layers of algae over their carapace. The carapace can measure as long as 20 inches and they can weigh on average up to 22 lbs, although larger turtles have been documented. They are tough, courageous, and heavily armored with a neck that extends the length of their body and powerful jaws to defend themselves and to feed. They are also opportunistic feeders and will eat a variety of plants and animals. They can occasionally be found basking but prefer to stay submerged or float at the surface to warm in the sun. They become active in April as they begin to mate and by late May into July, females will leave the bogs and swamps seeking out warm sandy areas to lay their eggs. They are at a very high risk of being struck by vehicles at this time and they are often seen early in the season trying to cross the roads around Atsion near Pinelands Adventures. They are usually the first “rescues” to occur as males begin seeking mates, last year’s hatchlings emerge, and then females are out to nest. We are always on the lookout for these fantastic beasts and willing to lend them a helping hand, even if they don’t appreciate it. It’s best to try and stop and wait for them to cross but they don’t always cooperate. Always try to observe the direction of travel before approaching, as soon as they feel threatened they will turn and face you no matter where they were going. Adults can be heavy and too difficult to lift from the back so a wide shovel may come in handy to move them or a thick coat or blanket to toss over them (don’t expect to use it again for anything else). NEVER lift a snapper by the tail as it will injure their spine. 

Snapper Turtle Hatchling

The species described here are only 6 of the 13 species that live in the Pine Barrens of NJ, including the endangered wood turtle and bog turtle. In the estuarine regions of the Pinelands National Reserve, we have the Northern Diamondback Terrapin that is also on the decline as nesting activity coincides with increased traffic into coastal towns.

Below are some resources on how to safely assist a turtle crossing the road or what to do if you find an injured turtle or witness illegal trapping or collecting:

Tips – Helping Turtles Cross the Road

Cedar Run Wildlife Rescue

Margate Terrapin Rescue

Pinelands Preservation Alliance

NJ Pinelands Commission

Please help by supporting organizations that help rehabilitate injured wildlife and those that protect and preserve habitats for them to go back to. Watch out for wildlife crossing our roadways, especially in the state forest and wetland areas, which are home to so many reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals.