Tis the Season for Turtles: Maryland turtles are out and about in summer's warm weather.
Published July 28, 2020 in Conservation
A turtle isn't Maryland's state reptile for nothing.
Eighteen turtle species can be found throughout the state and in state waters—in ponds and bogs, streams and rivers, woodlands and wetlands—from the mountains of Garrett County to the waters of Worcester County and everywhere in between.
With so many turtles making their way (slowly) around, it's not uncommon for Marylanders to encounter them in the wild, particularly in summer when the weather is warm. If you see one, what should you do?
The general rule—as with all wildlife—is to keep a respectful distance and look but don't touch. You can disrupt a turtle's activity by touching or moving it. For example, aquatic species encountered on land are most likely females looking for a suitable spot to dig a nest and lay eggs. Females strive to find the perfect location where predators can't find their eggs and where their hatchlings can find their way back to water. Handling them during this vulnerable time would be very disruptive.
Eastern Box Turtle
With their dark shells covered in yellow-orange spots, Eastern box turtles are one of the most encountered species in Maryland, often found while hiking through forests. Unfortunately, many box turtle populations are now in decline due to habitat loss from development and road mortalities.
This woodland species is terrestrial, spending most of their time on land, in sunny open spaces as well as shady hiding places. They have a strong homing sense and are known to live out their lives in an area about the size of a football field, which is why they should never be picked up and moved.
An exception is if you find a box turtle in a place where it's not safe, like trying to cross a road. Each year, countless turtles are killed by cars. Among the tips the Mid-Atlantic Turtle and Tortoise Society offers for helping a turtle cross a road is to move it the shortest distance possible in the same direction it was heading, at least 30 feet from the road. Follow MATTS' recommendations for safely handling turtles, using two hands to hold both sides of the shell and lifting gently. A thorny briar patch or carpet of fallen leaves gives the turtle places to hide from predators.
From March to September, these turtles with bright red stripes on the side of their heads can be spied swimming and basking in the Inner Harbor, Lake Montebello and Lake Roland, among other spots in Baltimore City and most Maryland counties. They prefer freshwater habitats but can tolerate low-salinity, brackish water, and favor the still water of ponds, lakes, reservoirs and slow moving sections of rivers to fast moving streams.
These turtles are an invasive species, native to the mid- and south-central United States. Thanks to the pet trade, the red-eared slider is now the world's most widespread freshwater turtle. Hatchlings the size of a quarter can grow bigger than a dinner plate and live for 30 years, so irresponsible pet owners choose to release the turtles rather than continue to care for them. Red-eared sliders with shells bigger than 4 inches can still be sold in Maryland pet shops, but it's illegal to sell hatchlings. If you see red-eared slider turtle hatchlings for sale in Maryland, it's best to report it to the Natural Resources Police at 410-356-7060. And if you have a pet turtle of any kind that you can no longer keep, do the right thing; don't release it into the wild.
A close relative of the red-eared slider, the yellow-bellied slider, is now being observed with increased frequency around Maryland. Yellow-bellied sliders are native to the southeastern U.S. and, like the red-eared slider, are most likely now being seen in Maryland because people have released unwanted pets into the wild.
Snapping turtles are another common species found throughout Maryland, in or very near fresh or slightly brackish water. They can grow quite large—with a shell length ranging from 8 to 14 inches—and their bites pack a punch. Because their necks are long and flexible enough for their powerful jaws to reach most parts of their body, it's not a good idea to touch one or pick it up.
Female snapping turtles sometimes lay their eggs a fair distance from the water they emerged from, so you can sometimes find hatchlings far from water, trying to make their way to it. It's important to leave the hatchling outdoors, but if you feel it's in danger, you can carefully move it closer to the water's edge where there is plenty of mud and places to take cover.
The diamondback terrapin is Maryland's official state reptile and has been affiliated with the University of Maryland College Park since 1933. Terps officially became the school's mascot in 1994. To protect diamondback terrapins in Maryland, a 2007 state law (which the National Aquarium helped pass) bans removing them from the wild for commercial purposes.
Young terrapins are vulnerable to predators on land, in water and from the sky, including birds, raccoons, opossums and foxes. They prefer brackish water and spend their early years hiding in marsh grass habitat that gets flooded by high tides twice a day. If you find a terrapin out of habitat, it's best to release it in the nearest marsh grass habitat during a high tide.
Share What You See
If you happen to see a turtle or other reptile in the wild, whether during the City Nature Challenge or not, consider uploading a photo and information to iNaturalist to share your find with others!
by Marsha Walton
Herpetologist and University of Arizona Ph.D. candidate Earyn McGee’s research has her well prepared for obstacles like oppressive heat, treacherous terrain and even venomous animals. Her field research takes her to the Chiricahua Mountains of southern Arizona, where she’s determining the effects of stream drying on lizard communities for her doctorate research in conservation biology. This enables McGee a closeup look in studying lizards and their diet, and how the climate crisis may be altering it. She and the undergraduates she works with must first deftly catch the reptiles, weigh and measure them, then document their sex and overall health.
It is demanding and unpredictable work. And it has sometimes been made riskier by unsettling encounters with police, whose actions imply that, as a young scientist of color, she does not have a right to conduct her field studies.
“Where I work is pretty remote,” says McGee. “A lot of the time, it's Border Patrol, or some form of law enforcement stopping us [from working]. Last year, we had these military guys follow us into our site. A couple of days prior, we were out in the group with a whole lot of white people, we didn't have that same type of surveillance in the same exact spot,” says
Already well known as a science communicator on social media, McGee counters such racist incidents with the message that the natural world belongs to everyone to love and to protect. And she stresses that excitement for nature can come at any point in time, whether hiking through a National Park or looking up at a tree in New York City. Her courage in speaking out went viral shortly after a white woman made racist threats against Black birdwatcher Christian Cooper in Central Park on May 25, 2020. McGee and several colleagues, who had already been communicating about academic and diversity issues, sprang into action. They created #BlackBirdersWeek.
Photos and experiences soon flooded social media from all over the world. In interviews and podcasts during the week (May 31-June 5), scientists and naturalists shared examples of Black people, from birders to hikers to photographers, enjoying nature and outdoor spaces. The Central Park incident of racism, and the Twitter and Instagram responses to it, became another visible, widely shared facet in what’s become known as the U.S. Civil Rights racial injustice reckoning of 2020.
Besides her activism aimed at adults, McGee also shares her knowledge about wildlife conservation with a younger
audience. Lizards may be small, she says, but they can also be very swift and very clever. “[Catching] them the first time, depending on the lizard, can be relatively easy. But that next time when they see you coming, they're like, ‘Oh no, not this again,’ and they take off running,” she says.
And she has some stories of these types of experiences she often shares on her social media accounts. “So I'm running after this lizard, sprinting. This lizard is really putting up a good chase. I'm hopping over logs and rocks and stuff. I caught her, but before I did, I took a picture and I told people on Twitter the story of what happened,” says McGee.
Her followers were intrigued by the elusive lizard story. Since June 2018, thousands of curious students and adults regularly scour the photos on her informal Twitter quiz, using the hashtag, #FindThatLizard. After locating the reptiles, McGee then shares details about their camouflage, eating habits and survival skills. She’s heard from many science teachers who now start their classes off with this quest.
McGee says lizards are an easy sell to get kids hooked on science. In her outreach work, she shares fun facts about lizards, such as some lay eggs, some give live birth, others can even clone themselves. And what’s not to love about a Gila monster, asks McGee? “People pay money to come from all around the world for the hope of seeing this lizard (the Gila monster). It's one of few venomous lizards in the world, and compounds from its saliva have been used to create medical treatments for diabetes. So, lizards are cool,” she says.
McGee’s activism and fearlessness led to her recognition as one of the younger AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors. In her role as an ambassador, McGee shares with young girls her expertise on the power of social media for women and underserved minorities in STEM fields. She also hopes to introduce young girls to career paths in natural resources.
Still, McGee knows other types of outreach are needed to improve diversity and equity in STEM. While she says there is currently a lot of activism on her own campus to combat racism and xenophobia, McGee says institutions need to do more to assist Indigenous Mexican-American and undocumented students. When her studies are complete in about a year, McGee plans a career as a science communicator, perhaps hosting a nature show on TV. And her quest for social justice will stay closely tied to her career path. “I really want to be able to create pathways for Black, Indigenous, other people of color to enter into natural resources fields, and even if they don't want to do it as a job, maybe find it as a new hobby. So that's really what I hope to accomplish in the future,” said McGee.
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