common / Crossroads Weekend

Local turtles face daily hurdles, carry ancient appeal

Kate Evans

Cacapon State Park naturalist Renee Fincham displays a box turtle (left) and a painted turtle (right) that she uses in her park program. Cacapon State Park naturalist Renee Fincham displays a box turtle (left) and a painted turtle (right) that she uses in her park program.

Turtles have fascinated people over the ages with their slow, lumbering gait and armored shells where they retreat when danger is near.

Local residents see turtles often lurking in backyards, woods, streams, ponds, fields or along roadsides.

It’s common to hear stories of people making a sudden stop on county roads to help a turtle make its way across the pavement.

Ancient creatures

Turtles date back to the Dinosaur Age. Turtle fossils have been discovered that are considered more than 200 million years old and that precede other reptile species such as snakes and lizards.

“They are one of the oldest reptiles around,” Cacapon State Park naturalist Renee Fincham said.

Some 13 different turtle species make their home in West Virginia. They include box turtles, spotted turtles, musk turtles, snapping turtles, softshell turtles, wood turtles and painted turtles.

Box turtles can live up to 50 to 100 years or more. 
photo by Dan Ritenburg Box turtles can live up to 50 to 100 years or more. photo by Dan RitenburgFincham has been intrigued by turtles for years. She grew up on a farm where she encountered them often. Fincham creates turtle programs at the state park and in schools where she shares facts about their habitat and lifestyle.

Found all over the world

Turtles can be found all over the world, Fincham said. They are very unique because they carry their home on their back.

Turtles also have hard, scaly and leathery skin and claws on the end of their toes with which they tear meat. They lay their eggs and leave their young to hatch and fend for themselves, she noted.

Turtles have no teeth, but have a sharp beak with which they can slice and grab food. They can grab your fingers, which can be painful, Fincham said.

A small box turtle is seen up close while being held by Cacapon State Park naturalist Renee Fincham. A small box turtle is seen up close while being held by Cacapon State Park naturalist Renee Fincham.Most turtles are omnivorous, eating plants and animals. Turtles will eat worms, grubs, acorns, bugs, insects, slugs and larvae of any sort. They also eat grass, flowers and fruits and vegetables like strawberries, grapes and tomatoes.

Most turtles found in the state are aquatic and function as nature’s aquatic garbage men, said Division of Natural Resources (DNR) wildlife biologist Kieran O’Malley.

They eat dead vegetation, dead animals, live snakes, tadpoles, invertebrates, minnows and dead fish carcasses.

Box turtles eat mushrooms, berries, vegetation and earthworms—“ anything that can’t outrun them,” O’Malley said.


This painted turtle has characteristic red markings on its legs, neck and the edge of its shell. This painted turtle has characteristic red markings on its legs, neck and the edge of its shell.Turtles are cold-blooded animals and love to bask in the sun, said Fincham. They are often spotted sunning on logs and stream banks.

Turtles generally spend their lives within a small specific range or location. They have a great homing instinct and will exhaust themselves trying to get back home if removed from their location, Fincham said.

A box turtle has a small range of maybe four to 10 acres, said O’Malley. Some turtles hibernate during the winter in streams and can be found in summer on 3,000 - foot mountaintops, with a range of about a mile.

Most aquatic turtles live between 30 to 35 years. Box turtles can live from 50 to 100 years or more. Turtle shells or carapaces can range from five inches to more than 20 inches in length.

Box & painted turtles

Eastern box turtles live completely on land. The rings on top of a box turtles’ domed shell tell its age up to around 20 years, then the rings start overlapping, Fincham said. Male box turtles have red eyes, while females have brownish-orange eyes.

Painted turtles are an aquatic turtle and live mostly in ponds, lakes and streams. Painted turtles get their name because of their characteristic colors of yellow, orange and red, Fincham said. Water turtles have a flattened shell so they can swim easily.

Other turtles

A red-eared slider turtle she was given gets its name from a red band behind its eyes and from its habit of sliding down the bank into water. Turtles don’t really have true ears. They “hear” by feeling vibrations, she said.

Fincham also has a stinkpot turtle, which she found in a pond by her house. It lets out a musky odor when scared. Stinkpot turtles eat crayfish, minnows and aquatic worms.

Fincham said snapping turtles are large and have spikes on their back that make them look like a dinosaur. Snapping turtles can weigh up to 50 pounds and can be very aggressive.

The Eastern snapping turtles are very common in Morgan County streams and farm ponds, said O’Malley. They have very long necks that can reach completely around themselves. He recommends picking them up from behind if you have to move them.

Wood turtles

Wood turtles are a semiaquatic species whose shell looks like a cross section of a tree, she said. In spring they are found in water and in fall on land.

The Sleepy Creek Watershed Association has worked to raise awareness of the environmental threats to wood turtles, which include highway mortality, habitat loss, egg predators and recreational activity disturbing their nesting behavior.

Threats to turtles

Turtle populations have declined and are vulnerable due to low reproduction rates and the many years it takes to reach full maturity.

Turtles are also threatened by housing developments, high-speed roads, farm machinery and commercial collection for the pet trade or human consumption, O’Malley said.

The primary threat to box turtles are automobiles, said Fincham.

All turtles are protected from commercial collection under West Virginia law.

It’s not a good idea to move turtles far from where one finds them, O’Malley noted.

“Their chances of survival drop dramatically because they’re at a loss as to where to find water, food and shelter from the cold and heat,” he said.

People also try to make aquatic turtles into pets. Turtles require a lot of attention and care. Keeping turtles can also be risky, due to the risk of salmonella to infants and younger children, Fincham advised.

What can people do?

If you see a turtle trying to cross the road, pull over safely to the roadside if you can and put them on the other side of the road facing the direction they were heading, said O’Malley and Fincham.

“Keep an eye out for them and try to avoid running over them,” O’Malley said.

One has to be careful handling turtles since they can carry salmonella.

Fincham tells students and visitors to wash their hands with soap and water or use a disposable antibacterial hand wipe after touching any turtle.

If a turtle is found laying eggs, O’Malley advised trying to accommodate it and protect the nest from predators without drawing attention to it.

Turtles generally lay their eggs from late May to mid- June, which hatch anywhere from early August through September. Raccoons and foxes often prey on snapping turtle nests.

Turtles are long-lived animals that are slow to evolve and change, he said. They’re easy to study and have an interesting role in the environment.

“Turtles’ lives aren’t easy. Every day is a hurdle,” Fincham said.

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