The Wood Turtle in Michigan

Turtle by LuckyGus

Turtle, photo by LuckyGus

Updated September 30, 2008: LuckyGus captured this photo on the Betsie Valley Trail in Benzie County. Below you can read about TurtleGate ’08, which was touched off when I misidentified this turtle as a common snapping turtle. My Ranger Rick Top Terrapin Tagger badge has been repossessed and sources tell me that a number of zoologists are “keeping an eye on me”.

The Michigan DNR’s page on the wood turtle (which should have helped me identify it) says that:

As its scientific name, Glyptemys insculpta, implies, the shell of the wood turtle is one of the most ornate of the turtles in Michigan. A noticeable keel running down the back of the carapace and the pointed edges of the scutes along the back edge add to its sculpted appearance. The yellow on the underparts of its neck, legs, and stomach, plus the highly visible deep circular growth rings of the scutes on the brownish carapace help with identification. The adult carapace length is 6.3 to 9.4 inches (16 to 24 cm)

Wood turtles live in rivers with sandy-bottomed streams and rivers. They spend most of their time in the river from September to May, but in summer can be found foraging in woods, swamps, and meadows in the upland areas edging the stream or river. Logs or banks near water and sunny woodland openings are often utilized for basking.

These turtles are omnivores eating a variety of plants and animals and carrion found in and along the river. Wood turtles employ a unique technique to hunt earthworms. Using either an alternating foot stomp, or by lifting and dropping its shell on the ground, they create vibrations in the ground. These vibrations will cause earthworms to surface where they are quickly snatched for a meal. Anglers seeking bait can employ a similar technique. A stick stuck in the ground and wiggled back and forth to create vibrations will cause earthworms to leave the ground.

Michigan’s wood turtle population has declined in recent years and it’s considered rare in the northern Lower and Upper Peninsulas. More about wood turtles can be found at Wikipedia’s Wood Turtle entry, and from the MSU Museum’s “critter guy”, James Harding who notes that They may not be taken from the wild or possessed without a scientific collector’s permit issued by the DNR.

You can also check out What’s Up With the Wood Turtle? from for a look at fieldwork being done in Northern Michigan on the wood turtle.

(from July 2008) TurtleGate Update: A Nation in Slow, but Very Real Peril

I have finally gotten back to this to find out if I am indeed a dirty, no-good turtle mis-indentifying so-and-so or merely guilty of the litany of other things that I may or may not be guilty of per the comments. From the Michigan DNR Turtle page I was able to learn:

  • The eastern box turtle appears to not look like this turtle at all.
  • The wood turtle appears to have a black face, but this photo looks sort of similar.
  • However this snapping turtle’s shell looks very similar.
  • I am forced to conclude that I don’t know the answer.
  • I’ll end with a shout-out to a herpetologist or other expert to set me straight.

11 thoughts on “The Wood Turtle in Michigan

  1. Sorry i wasn’t trying to be rude. This looks to me like an Eastern Box Turtle. This is a very common and diverse species which can look quite different region to region. Here’s a pic of one that looks more similar the only reason i know for a fact its not a snapper is snappers never have color on them, they’re predators more than scavengers/herbavores like this turtle. I have a pet Alligator snapper in fact. They’re vicious looking. I’ll have to take some pictures of him.


  2. It is a wood turtle. The highly sculpted shell is a big clue. They are very interesting turtles and on the State protected list, so look, but don’t touch. I’ve saw many of them while doing field work in the state while a grad student at UM. That one looks to be quite an old one. It is not known for sure, but they may hit 75-100 years old, if they can avoid cars.

    One other small correction, no Alligator snappers in Michigan (natively), they only get as far north as the Mississippi River to Illinois and Iowa.


  3. I stand corrected.. i guess i assumed that they were native since i found him as a fresh hatchling.. must be a fluke..

    By the way, I’ve found with my snapper having him since birth, that they can be domesticated and actually quite friendly. Mine acts similarly to a domesticated Painter turtle, it likes to be pet, and will eat from my hand.. never hisses, never bites. I’ve officially taken the “snap” out of a snapper! No joke!


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