If you ever see a turtle with a bright yellow throat and chin in a local natural area, consider yourself lucky—more than likely you’ve encountered a rare Blanding’s turtle.
Blanding’s turtles, Emydoidea blandingii, are medium-sized native chelonians (turtles and tortoises). The domed carapace, or top shell, is usually between 7 and 10 inches long. The shell’s smooth dark olive color speckled with yellow markings continues at the top of the long neck before switching to the species’ signature yellow throat and chin. Other unique features, like a hinged plastron (bottom shell), large eyes and seemingly smiling upward-curved mouth make these turtles one of the Great Lakes’ most charismatic animals.
Blanding’s turtles are semi-aquatic: They are at home both on land and in the water. They prefer densely vegetated water bodies with a soft bottom, such as lakes, ponds, marshes, sloughs and slow-moving sections of small rivers and streams. They often wander many miles on land to forage for food and nest. Like us, they are omnivores, consuming both animals and plants, although their diet is a little bit different: amphibian eggs, tadpoles, crustaceans, aquatic insects, worms, slugs, snails, leeches, leafy plants, fruits and berries—and even mushrooms poisonous to humans.
Blanding’s turtles are a long-lived species, and they commonly reach 70 years old in the wild and in human care. These cold-blooded creatures thrive year-round, even during harsh Great Lakes winters. Each year, they may hibernate from October to April, buried in mud and debris at the bottom of a shallow body of water. They are also semi-active during winter and have even been observed swimming beneath layers of ice.
Breeding can occur in spring, early summer and fall. Females search for a nesting site soon after breeding and prefer sandy soils. This preference may force them to travel far from their wetland habitats. During these nesting migrations, many females are struck and killed by cars while crossing roads. Once a female finds a suitable spot, she digs an area about 6 inches deep and 4 inches in diameter. She then lays a clutch of 6 to 20 eggs that will incubate for 60 to 80 days. Emerging hatchlings immediately crawl to wet meadow areas for food and shelter.
A species in need
Once found throughout the Great Lakes region, Blanding’s turtles are now restricted to small, scattered territories. Threats include habitat loss, through fragmentation and development, collecting for the pet trade, collisions with cars and predation by skunks and raccoons, whose populations have boomed and unbalanced the food web. The loss of vast tracts of wetlands, leaving widely separated fragments, not only depletes and divides the Blanding’s turtle habitat, forcing the turtles to travel farther to locate a mate and nesting area, but also increases its contact with human activity (like traffic). This species also matures slowly, taking up to 20 years to reach breeding age. Fewer turtles are making it. The International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists Blanding’s turtles on its Red List of Threatened Species, and the species is protected in most of its range.
Blanding’s turtles at Shedd
You have a good chance of seeing one of the two adult Blanding’s turtles that live at Shedd in the large waterfowl habitat in the At Home on the Great Lakes gallery. Another Blanding's turtle, a female, was rescued in 1988 after being struck by a car during her nesting migration. She arrived in critical condition and was carefully tended for more than a year before she began eating on her own. Although she’s blind in one eye, she satisfies her voracious appetite using her excellent sense of smell. She cannot be returned to the wild, but she’s a powerful ambassador for native wildlife, illustrating the importance of habitat conservation in the Great Lakes.
Blanding’s turtles and you
You can be an ambassador for Blanding’s turtles by learning as much as you can about local wildlife and helping to educate others. It’s important for habitat managers to know where protected species are observed, so if you see this turtle, please contact your state’s department of natural resources. Get involved by volunteering with habitat restoration projects or endangered and threatened species monitoring programs—check with your local county forest preserve for more information. If you choose to help a turtle cross the road, make sure you put it on the side it was moving toward.
So if you ever see a turtle with a bright yellow chin smiling at you, smile back—and join Shedd Aquarium in celebrating native Great Lakes wildlife!
Researching a Great Lakes Migration: The Sucker Spawning Run
Sometime between March and May, a massive migration takes place in the Great Lakes: the spawning run of white and longnose suckers.
Helping Blanding’s Turtles Get Ahead with a Head Start
About two years ago, Dr. Matt O’Connor, staff veterinarian, saw an opportunity for Shedd to get involved in the Forest Preserve District of DuPage ...
Shedd-Raised Endangered Turtles Off to Strong Start in Wild
The Blanding’s turtle head-start class of 2019 has left the building. By now, the yearlings raised at Shedd have found hiding places, honed their h...