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Soaking up the Sun

June 17, 2014 at 12:27 pm
By Cam Shorb

Close-up Wood Turtle

Joyous whooping is a staple of any good river plunge, but next time try holding your hollering for a moment.  Approach the bank slowly and quietly, scan the sunny spots on the bank, and you might find something truly worth screaming about: one or more of the Arb’s four species of turtles.

The most common turtle in the Arb is the Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta), named for its vibrant red-orange underside and yellow-streaked neck.  Its 4-10 in. (10-25 cm) shell is smooth and relatively flat, without prominent bumps or ridges.  From a distance, the shiny black upper shell is even more noticeable than its festive underside, because it is so reflective.  A shiny spot on a log or rock is often a painted turtle. 

Our biggest turtle is the delightfully monstrous Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina), growing to 45 lbs (20 kg) in the wild, and as much as 75 lbs (34 kg) in captivity.  The dramatically jagged-edged, ridge-topped shells of adults commonly reach 18 in. (46 cm) and still look small compared to the beefy limbs and long tail that emerge from it.  On land, they are likely to feel threatened and will deliver their powerful bite, but in the water they would much rather flee, leaving swimmers nothing to worry about.

The Snapping Turtle, for all its chthonic charm, still must cede the title of Weirdest Arb Turtle to the Western Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera hartwegi).  Its 5-18 in. (13-46 cm) tan shell is covered in slick leathery skin rather than the usual hard plates, and its snout comes to a long quizzical point.

However, our most celebrated turtle is not the brightest or the biggest or the weirdest; it is the rarest: the endangered Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta).  It is dull brown with orange-tinged skin and a prominently humped shell.  Unlike the other turtles, it is more likely to be found walking in search of food or a nesting site than basking. If you find a bumpy-shelled turtle in the Arb, take a photo if possible and notify Nancy Braker (nbraker@carleton.edu).  Then go for a dip, come out, and bask on the riverbank with your newfound turtle friends.

-Cam Shorb ‘16 for the Cole Student Naturalists

Wood Turtle photo by Jeremy Hayward '09

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