Early last September, a nest full of baby Snapping Turtles hatched here at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth. We found as many of them as we could and moved most of them to different locations near the pond and the Presumpscot River, where they could safely crawl to the water.
We kept one of them, the biggest and the muddiest, to spend the winter in our Discovery Room, so it could get a head start on its growth and teach us all about the early life of these ancient creatures. The turtle became quite popular both with staff and visitors; we nicknamed it Muddy. With a turtle this small, it’s hard to tell if it’s male or female so we decided to refer to them using they/them pronouns.
Now, almost nine months later, this turtle is a bit bigger and ready to move from their little tank to the big pond. We will move the turtle to the sanctuary’s pond this week, where it will enter into a new and exciting aquatic ecosystem. This is likely the same pond that one or both of their parents live in, as well as potentially some of their siblings. These other turtles likely became active four to six weeks ago, just around the same time as many aquatic insects and molluscs started to emerge.
For most of the winter, our turtle ate a steady diet of mealworms, first smaller and then larger ones. They especially liked to snap up the wriggling worms floating on top of the water. They are quite quick for a turtle! Recently, we have started to introduce small insects, snails, and plants from our pond, so that they can get some practice with different types of prey. They have quickly learned how to catch different types of swimming insects at varying depths and scoop snails off of the bottom of the tank. These different feeding techniques will allow them to utilize diverse food sources throughout the year.
The day after we found the turtle (September 8), they weighed 12 grams; their most recent weight on May 19 was 33.65 grams! This means that they have almost tripled in size. Snapping Turtles can grow to be more than 20 pounds (about 9000 grams), so they still have a long way to go, but they will certainly have a head start on their siblings that spent the winter tucked into the mud underwater.
We’ve put up a new poster in the Discovery Room so that you can leave some goodbye wishes for our turtle on the next phase of their journey. They have delighted countless visitors over the winter, and we will all miss the sight of that little pointy snout sticking up out of the water. We will post a video of their release into the pond soon, so that everyone can see! While it’s sad to see them go, it’s time for them to learn to be a truly wild turtle. Keep an eye out this summer for our next Discovery Room residents!
Here are a few more of the many questions you submitted about our turtle:
How do turtles hear?
It may not look like it, but turtles do have ears! Since they spend most of their lives in water, turtle ears are hidden behind a membrane of skin inside their heads. This prevents water from constantly getting in their ears when they are underwater. Turtles are capable of hearing lower-frequency sounds than most other reptiles, since these frequencies are more easily transmitted underwater.
Why do turtles lay their eggs up in sand?
There are a few reasons why turtles lay their eggs in sand. First, sand is much easier for the mother turtles to dig into compared to the wet mud near the places they usually live. Second, the mother turtles will travel away from their home pond to lay their eggs so that their offspring will spread out into different areas and not have to compete with each other. Third, the eggs need warmth from the sun to incubate, and the mother turtles usually choose open, sandy patches that get lots of sunlight. Snapping Turtles lay most of their eggs in May and June, so keep an eye out for them in the next few weeks!
How many different species of turtles are there in Maine?
There are eight species of turtles in Maine. You are most likely to encounter Common Snapping Turtles and Painted Turtles, the two most common species. Pond Sliders, including Red-eared and Yellow-bellied Sliders (subspecies), are an introduced species native to the southeastern US and northern Mexico, and are usually seen together with Painted Turtles (sliders look similar but are larger). The other five species are uncommon to endangered: Eastern Musk Turtle, Eastern Box Turtle, Wood Turtle, Spotted Turtle, and Blanding’s Turtle. If you encounter any of these less common species, you should report them immediately to Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) by email (email@example.com) or phone (207-941-4475). You can also submit your sightings of any reptile or amphibian to the Maine Amphibian and Reptile Atlas.
What is the biggest turtle?
Common Snapping Turtles are the largest turtles in Maine, by far: the largest one found in the wild weighed 75 pounds! Alligator Snapping Turtles are the largest species found in North America, mostly in the southeast and Mississippi watershed. They can grow to over 175 pounds! There are a handful of species of giant softshell turtles in southeast Asia that can also reach this size. These turtles are all tiny compared to the true champions of size: sea turtles. The Leatherback Sea Turtle can weigh up to 1100 pounds and grow to almost six feet in length. These massive turtles range throughout the world’s oceans, from the Arctic to the tropics; if you are very lucky, and on a boat offshore, you could even see one swimming through the Gulf of Maine!
Can you give the turtles a friend? They seem lonely. Why do the moms not take care of the babies?
Both of these questions have the same general answer: Snapping Turtles are not social animals, and they prefer to not have others in their territory that will compete with them for food and other resources. This is why mothers travel up to a mile to lay their eggs, and also why the baby turtles crawl away from the nest in every direction, hoping to eventually reach a new pond or wetland.
We answered some of your other questions in our first blog post about the turtle, so take a look here!