Posts Tagged ‘carapace’

Very Late Spotted Turtle in Brainard Marsh

Monday, October 20th, 2008

Mature Female Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata)

Every day brings a fresh surprise to Turtle Journal.  As we write this post tonight the thermometer has plunged to one degree above freezing.  This morning pegged a little higher at 41 and nudged ever so slightly upward during the day under clear skies and hefty northerly winds.  Since we figured critters would be scarce, we shot some distant photos of Bird Island this afternoon in preparation for a future kayak trip when winds subside.


Brainard Marsh, Sippican Lands Trust

On the way back to the office, we stopped at Brainard Marsh, a 6.1-acre conservation area under Sippican Lands Trust.  We’ve been monitoring the spotted turtles in a small pond in the middle of the property for the last few years.  With cold winds and chilly temperatures, we didn’t expect to find anything, but the area is quietly beautiful on an autumn afternoon.

Female Spotted Turtle; Notice the Anomalous Bump

Crunching over fallen oak leaves and wind-snapped twigs, we approached the pond as stealthy as the Keystone Kops.  At the edge of a moss covered bank, we spied a small, seemingly immobile rock with yellow dots about 25 feet ahead through thick bramble.  Even though we toe-danced forward, our crackles should have aroused a brumating turtle.  Yet we reached the still immobile “rock” that was cold to the touch and discovered a mature female spotted turtle, fully tucked in and apparently sound asleep.  She must have crawled up the bank to bask in the noon day sun, only to fall into chilly shadow by mid-afternoon.

Female Spotted Turtle on the Move

In bright sunshine she warmed up and stretched her legs.  This turtle sports quite a bump on her carapace (top shell), left of the 4th right costal.  You may notice that she also has a number of shell abrasions and an unusual number of vertebral scutes (8) running down the center of her carapace.

Female Spotted Turtle; Note Colorful Neck, Flat Plastron, Thin Tail

She could easily be identified as female based on gender dichromatism in this species.  Females have bright colored necks (orange or yellow), while males are darkly colored (brown).  Females also have a flat plastron (bottom shell), while males have an abdominal cavity in the center of the plastron.  Finally, females have a slender tail, while males have thick tail.

Male Spotted Turtle; Note Dark Neck, Plastron Concavity, Thick Tail

The image above is a typical male spotted turtle for comparison with dark colored neck, plastron concavity and thick tail.

Female Spotted Turtle Carapace (Top Shell)

A close-up of her carapace (top shell) shows the eight vertebral scutes down the center, as well as her yellow spots.  While they may seem ornate out of context, when she is within her element, the randomly spaced dots blend perfectly with background pond flotsam floating across the surface of the water.  For those who feel particularly sharp-eyed and skilled at turtling, you may enjoy the test below.  Find Waldo; that is, locate the spotted turtle in the photograph.

Where’s Waldo?

Yes, Virginia, there is a spotted turtle in the picture.

Sad Tale of Three Dead Leatherback Sea Turtles

Monday, September 8th, 2008

Leviathans of the sea and giants of the reptile family, leatherback sea turtles define the term superlative.  Ranging in weight up to a ton and the size of a small Volkswagen, no one who has encountered one of these living relics in the wild comes away from the experience unchanged.  They are simply magnificent beasts that peacefully ply the world’s oceans in search of slurpy jellyfish.  The open mouth of a leatherback sea turtle (see below) is perfectly configured for this quest and is the last thing that a jellyfish senses before the lights go out.

Mouth of 650+ Pound Male Leatherback Sea Turtle

Unfortunately, we humans offer them a complex series of lethal obstacles to avoid during their peaceful voyages.  Gill nets drown them, longlines hook them, propellers slice them, weirs trap them and lobster buoys entangle them.  Especially during the summer months in Cape Cod and Buzzards Bays as they chase plentiful jellyfish, endangered leatherbacks face a host of potential threats.

Male Leatherback Arrives at Wellfleet Sanctuary for Necropsy

A freshly dead 650+ pound male leatherback beached in Provincetown on Sunday and Mass Audubon’s Bob Prescott, the state sea turtle stranding coordinator, conducted a necropsy at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to determine the cause of death and to gather scientific information to help us conserve this endangered species.  In addition to his staff, Bob (with large caliper below) was assisted by Kara Dodge, a PhD candidate at UNH and former NOAA sea turtle coordinator, and the Turtle Journal team.

Bob Prescott (Calipers), Don Lewis (Camera) and Kara Dodge (Scalpel)

Too large for normal scales, the mass of leatherbacks is determined by weighing the Mass Audubon pickup truck at the dump with the turtle inside, and then re-weighing the truck without the turtle.  The post revealed that this animal had been very healthy.  “It had everything going for it,” stated Bob and Kara.  Both flippers showed signs of a recent entanglement, but nothing so severe that these wounds would have caused death.  Instead, the cause of death was determined to be drowning.  The likely scenario for the death of such an inherently healthy animal is that it got entangled in a buoy line with both flippers wrapped in the rope and perhaps its body trunk as well.  With the last series of spring tides, the turtle may not have had sufficient line to reach the surface.  Like all turtles, leatherbacks are air breathers and will drown if held under water for a sustained period.  How this drowned animal had then become disentangled from the lines that had been wrapped tightly around its flippers is merely a matter of conjecture.

This evening we received a call from Bob Prescott that there had been a report of a dead leatherback on a Westport beach near Horseneck.  We drove out to the site and after about 30 minutes of searching, we discovered a badly decomposed and deflated leatherback sea turtle.  Talking to a local resident, we learned it had been bouncing along the beach for at least the last three days.  We estimated the carapace at approximately 161.3 centimeters, but decomposition and deflation may have altered any accurate rendering of its precise size.  Bones were exposed throughout from head to back to flippers.

Decomposed Leatherback Sea Turtle in Wesport, MA

Another decomposed, 600 pound leatherback washed ashore at Pico Beach in Mattapoisett Saturday night (  Dealing with one dead leatherback is serious as population numbers of this critically endangered species continue to plummet.  Finding two dead leatherback carcasses in a weekend is a tragedy; but three dead leatherbacks fall beyond emotions and words.  Yet, a ray of turtle hope winked through the afternoon when a call came into the Hotline.  A woman found a small 1/2 dollar size turtle in Plymouth, Massachusetts as kids were placing it in the ocean and the animal was being forced back to the shore by wave action and its own volition.  She thought she had discovered a baby sea turtle, or perhaps a diamondback terrapin hatchling.  A few questions cleared up the mystery.  Color?  Dark, almost black.  Long tail?  Yes, very long.  Bump along the tail?  Yes, like an ancient dinosaur.  Jagged edge along rear of carapace (top shell)?  Yep.  Does it have a yellow “button” in the middle of its tummy?  Yes.  Congratulations!  You are the proud holder of a snapping turtle hatchling.  With just a few more questions we discovered the local fresh water source from whence the hatchling probably came, either through its own design or more likely with the help of local kids.

Snapping Turtle Hatchling

You’re right.  Snapping turtles aren’t endangered and they’re not leatherbacks.  But that doesn’t diminish the joy in helping a hatchling find hospitable habitat where it might have a fighting chance of survival.  Saving one turtle … even a snapper … isn’t a bad way to close the day.