Terrapin Talk: The Turtles of Land Between the Lakes and How to Identify and Approach Them

May 15, 2020

Why'd the turtle cross the road? More importantly, is it safe to move it to the other side? LBL Woodlands Nature Station lead naturalist, John Pollpeter, speaks to Tracy Ross about the diverse turtle population of Land Between the Lakes and how to identify and approach turtles in the wild.

From the beginning of May into the rest of the summer, "you're going to start noticing, especially driving some of these backcountry roads, turtles getting up and moving around," Pollpeter begins. "In particular, you're going to start seeing a neat little turtle called an eastern box turtle. You might've seen some in your yard. Maybe you were hiking on a trail."

"They're almost like a tortoise, but they're actually more closely related to pond turtles," Pollpeter continues. "They're very colorful, about six inches, and they have a big, domed shell. They get the name box turtle because they can pull their legs, head, and tail completely in and shut 'the door' behind it." The 'door' is actually a fused ribcage called a plastron, which allows the turtle to shut out larger threats like raccoons, coyotes, and even dogs.

Land Between the Lakes is also home to the second-largest freshwater turtle in the world, the alligator snapping turtle. "[Land Between the Lakes] has one large [snapping turtle] per bay usually," Pollpeter says. "I think the largest one I've ever heard pulling out of the lake was 105 pounds. They're protected because they're very rare [due to] a low reproductive rate."

"Most people have never seen one because they live their entire life completely underwater," Pollpeter explains. "What they're probably seeing is the more common snapping turtle, which can get up to 50, 60 pounds. They're the ones that you're going to find, like box turtles, crossing the roads at this time."

An interaction with a common snapping turtle can end much worse than one with an eastern box turtle, so it is important to learn how to quickly differentiate the two species. "Most of your more dangerous [turtle species], like common snapping turtles, have sort of a pig face," Pollpeter says. "They're going to be covered in moss and kind of look very dirty."

Box turtles, on the other hand, "don't look dangerous at all," Pollpeter explains. "Box turtles are cleaner. They're real pretty. They have a domed shell. A lot of times, they'll have colors like yellow and orange and white mixed in on top with some red or brown eyes. They're going to look very safe. Some of the other turtles you're going to have, like your pond turtles, are going to have that classic turtle shape with green shells and that face that you'll see a lot of times when you're out fishing or walking along a creek bed."

So, what to do with the next sluggish, shelled friend you find in the road? "We always encourage people to, if it's safe, go ahead and move a box turtle across the road so it doesn't get hit," Pollpeter says. "You always want to move a box turtle across the road the same direction that it's going. You never want to move a box turtle because they have a very high home fidelity. They are very particular about the four-acre territory that they roam, so you don't want to take it too much further away from there."

If the turtle you find is rough-shelled, mossy, and plainly colored: stay back. "You might just block traffic a little bit and let them cross the road on their own. Common snapping turtles are pretty aggressive," Pollpeter says. "They have a little bit of a jumping capability, and their neck can stretch halfway across their shell. The alligator snapping turtle, which has a much rougher shell and hawk-beak, they don't really jump too much, and their neck can't move that far. They're a little bit safer than the common snapping turtle, but we don't usually see those out on land unless they're laying eggs in the sand along the beach."

Regardless of which turtle you find, Pollpeter does not suggest taking the animal home as a pet. "As a person that takes care of turtles in the nature station, I can't think of a worse pet," Pollpeter laughs. "Their aquariums constantly need to be cleaned and are kind of nasty. Box turtles live up to 100 years. You're going to have to put that in your will." 

Conversely, if you have a pet turtle at home and are thinking of transplanting it to Land Between the Lakes, Pollpeter warns against it. "[Turtles] have a very specific diet, and if you weren't feeding it that correct diet, they may not do very well or survive. They may actually get deformed shells and have deformities and things that make their life more complicated. 

Luckily, Land Between the Lakes' large turtle population makes it easy for terrapin-enthusiasts to appreciate turtles in their natural environment while keeping themselves and the animal safe. "They're real fun to watch and observe. They are an animal that has an important role to play in our ecosystem, and I hope that everyone gets a chance to get out and see some this summer," Pollpeter concludes.