Tuesday, July 17, 2012


There are two native freshwater turtles in the Pacific Northwest. One is very common, the other quite uncommon. The common one is the Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta), found all over the interior of the region south to northern Oregon and locally in western Washington and the Willamette Valley. Painted Turtles are seen in great numbers basking on logs and rocks in warm lakes in the summer, but they are shy and quickly slide into the water when approached.

These turtles are all omnivores, with a wide diet including water plants, insects, crayfish, fish, tadpoles, and dead animals. In some species, mating takes place in the fall, but the sperms don't approach the eggs until spring. This is called delayed fertilization and is common in temperate-zone reptiles. The females then come ashore in summer and dig a hole in the sand in which to lay their clutches of round, white eggs. The eggs may overwinter or hatch in fall, in that case the young turtles usually overwintering in the nest and emerging the following spring.

The other native freshwater turtle is the Western Pond Turtle (Actinemys marmorata). This species, once widespread in western Washington and Oregon, has disappeared from much of its range north of the Columbia River. Considered a species of special concern, much conservation effort has been expended on it. Biologists hatch turtle eggs in captivity, then release the young when they are large enough to be less vulnerable to predation. This very successful program has been going on for two decades at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo and has resulted in a present population of around 1500 turtles in the wild in Washington.

The most frequently observed turtle in much of western Washington is not one of these natives but is the introduced Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta). This species, the most common turtle in the pet trade, has been introduced all over the world. People keep the cute babies for a while, then tire of them and toss them in the nearest lake. This may be humane treatment, but it's not good for the environment, as these invasive turtles compete with native turtles and transmit diseases to them.

Two other species have turned up in Lake Washington and elsewhere, the Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera). These very distinctive turtles also are native to eastern North America. Both get quite large, and they live a long time and keep on growing, so there are probably a few monsters out there. They are also aggressive species that will bite fiercely, so caution is advised!

Any account of Pacific Northwest turtles should mention the marine turtles that show up in our waters. Leatherback Turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) are regular off the Washington coast. Although sea turtles are basically tropical, this is the species that ventures into colder water than the others. When seen from a pelagic birding trip, Leatherbacks usually show up as a blob in the water, only the head visible. At closer range the big ridges down the shell can often be seen. Other sea turtles, including Green (Chelonia mydas), Loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and Pacific Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) are much rarer, but a few have been found washed up on northwest beaches.

Dennis Paulson


Tim said...

Great blog, Dennis. I just saw a Spiny Softshell on Lake Washington today, which must have been at least 2 feet long. Just the size alone made it look more like a sea turtle than something you'd expect to see in Lake Washington.

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