Meet the turtles of Will County

Here's a closer look at the turtles that populate our local waterways

|  Story by Meghan McMahon |


Nature has a way of balancing itself out, and turtles are an example of that. These reptiles are among the slowest creatures roaming the Earth, but their shells offer them the protection they need because their lack of speed leaves them exposed to danger from predators.

More than 200 species of turtles live across the world, but only 17 live in Illinois. Of those 17 species, 11 live in Will County, according to Forest Preserve District wildlife ecologist Becky Blankenship. Two Illinois turtle species — the Blanding’s turtle and spotted turtle — are state endangered. Another, the ornate box turtle, is state threatened. If you think you’ve seen a threatened or endangered animal in Illinois, you can report it to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources

While endangered and threatened species have populations that have reached critically low levels, many turtles in Illinois are affected by habitat loss and alteration of habitats, according to IDNR. In addition, some turtle species are captured for the pet trade and some are overexploited for food.

There are a few things you can do to protect turtle populations wherever you live, Blankenship said. For starters, don’t collect turtles or their eggs from the wild. And don’t release pet turtles into the wild. (Note: It is a violation of the District’s General Use Ordinance to dump animals in the preserves.)

Taking it a step further, don’t let other pets, like cats and dogs, roam freely outdoors. Pets can spread parasites and disease in natural areas, and they prey on native wildlife, Blankenship said. Around your house, don’t feed wildlife of any kind, and avoid using mesh netting for erosion control because animals can become trapped or injured.

If you spot a turtle crossing the road, remove it from harm’s way if possible by placing it safely off the roadway in the direction it was traveling, Blankenship said. (And make sure to wash or sanitize your hands afterward.) If the turtle is heading away from water, trust that it knows what it is doing. Turtles often travel away from waterways to nest, and if you move it opposite of the direction it was traveling, it will likely start its journey over again.

If a roadway near your home is a place where turtles are often hit by cars, contact the government agency in charge of the roadway to inquire about getting a turtle crossing sign installed, Blankenship recommends.

Let’s take a closer look at the turtles that populate our local waterways. But first, some turtle basics. For example, a turtle’s shell actually has a few technical terms. The top of the shell is called the carapace, and the bottom is the plastron. Scutes are the bony plates that make up the carapace. The scutes are made of keratin, just like our hair and fingernails.

Most — but not all — of our local turtles are primarily aquatic, but it’s not unusual to see turtles out of the water, moving to or from a nearby nesting site. Turtles are also commonly seen basking, or sunning themselves, on rocks and logs surrounding waterways.

Here are more details about the 11 turtles that live in Will County.

Common snapping turtle

A common snapping turtle on a trail.

(Photo by Suzy Lyttle)

Common snapping turtles are the largest turtle in northern Illinois. Another kind of snapping turtle, the alligator snapping turtle, also lives in Illinois, but only in the southern part of the state, according to the Illinois News Bureau. The two turtles are the only two snapping turtle species in the world.

These large turtles can have shells ranging from 8 inches to 18 inches long, and they can weigh between 8 pounds and 35 pounds, according to Animal Diversity Web. They have long tails, and in some cases a snapping turtle’s tail can be longer than its shell. Like many turtles, they eat a combination of plant and animal matter.

Snapping turtles live in all kinds of waterways, but they prefer shallow waters with muddy bottoms that are surrounded by vegetation, reports the Illinois Natural History Survey. While they are known for being aggressive on land, they are more docile in the water. They don’t pose threats to swimmers because they will seek escape rather than confront the threat.

Painted turtle

A painted turtle on a rock.

(Photo by Anthony Schalk)

Painted turtles are the most common turtles in North America, and they live across the entire United States, according to the Burke Museum. These turtles are easy to identify from their bright red and yellow markings and stripes, giving them the painted appearance for which they are named.

They are medium-sized turtles, with shells ranging between 4 inches and 10 inches long, the Burke Museum reports. Their upper shell ranges from green to black in color, and their bottom shells are mostly yellow.

Painted turtles typically live in shallow waters with rich plant life and muddy bottoms, reports IDNR. They spend most of their time in water, but often sun themselves on rocks and logs along the water. These turtles eat both plants and animals. Younger painted turtles typically eat a variety of small aquatic animals while older turtles feed more on plants.

Spotted turtle

A spotted turtle in the grass.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

If you spot a spotted turtle (pun intended), consider yourself very lucky. These turtles are state endangered, and historically they have only been known to live in the northeastern part of Illinois, according to INHS. Most recently, these turtles are reported to live in only two places in Will County and nowhere else in the state.

The population of spotted turtles is threatened by loss of habitat due to the development of urban areas in northeastern Illinois, states IDNR. The turtles are also affected by natural succession of wetlands, which is the normal process of how vegetation changes in a habitat area.

Spotted turtles are small, about 3½ inches to 4½ inches long. They have black shells with yellow spots, and they also have yellow spots on the tops of their heads, according to IDNR. They typically live in shallow wetlands, and they eat aquatic plants and animals. Spotted turtles are aquatic, but they do spend time sunning and basking on land.

Blanding’s turtle

A Blanding's turtle in the grass.

(Photo courtesy of Matt Serafini)

Blanding’s turtles are the only other turtle, in addition to the spotted turtle, that is endangered in Illinois. Many factors negatively affect their population, but major threats include habitat destruction and habitat fragmentation, Blankenship said.

These turtles mostly live in the shallow, quiet waters of marshes and heavily vegetated lakes as well as in the wetlands of prairies and meadows, according to INHS. They are medium-sized turtles, with shells between 7 inches and 9 inches long.

Blanding’s turtles have dark-colored shells covered in an array of lighter-colored spots and markings, INHS reports. They are most easily recognizable because of their yellow chins that give them the appearance of smiling. They mostly eat other animals, including insects, crayfish and snails.

Northern map turtle

A northern map turtle on tree bark.

(Photo courtesy of Joel Craig)

Northern map turtles are so-called because the markings on their top shells are said to look like what waterways or roads look like on a map, according to the Animal Diversity Web. In older turtles, the lines may not be as visible because of darker pigment in their shells.

Northern map turtles, also known as common map turtles, typically live in slow-moving bodies of water, such as large lakes and the backwater areas of rivers and streams, according to INHS. It’s not uncommon to see them basking on nearby rocks and logs, but they will jump back into the water at the slightest disturbance.

These are medium-sized turtles, with males between 3½ inches and 6½ inches long and females between 7 inches and 10 inches long. They are omnivores, and they eat a lot of aquatic insects and small crustaceans. Females, because they are larger than males, are also able to crack open mussels, clams and crayfish.

False map turtle

Close-up of a false map turtle.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

False map turtles are similar in appearance to northern map turtles and other map turtles, but they can be distinguished by a vertical bar behind their eyes, according to INHS. They also lack the eye spot that is usually visible on northern map turtles.

False map turtles typically live in rivers and the backwaters of rivers that have muddy bottoms. In Illinois, they are most common in the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, INHS reports. They prefer areas with plenty of places for basking, but like northern map turtles they are quick to slip back into the water if there are any disturbances nearby.

These turtles are similar in size to northern map turtles, with females about 1.5 times larger than males. They eat plant and animal matter in about equal quantities, eating aquatic vegetation as well as insects and mollusks.

Eastern box turtle

Close-up of an eastern box turtle.

(Photo by Chad Merda)

We typically think of turtles as aquatic animals, but box turtles like the eastern box turtle are an exception to this. They predominantly live on land, usually in wooded or forested areas or along the edges of wooded areas, according to the Smithsonian National Zoo. Often they are seen near water sources such as ponds or streams or in areas that are wet from heavy rainfall.

Eastern box turtles can be distinguished from other box turtle species by the bright yellow and orange markings on their otherwise dark shells, according to INHS. They are small- to medium-sized turtles, with shells ranging from 4½ inches to 6 inches long.

Because they don’t live in water, their diet is different than most of our local turtles. Like many other turtles, they are omnivores and typically eat fruit, fungi, insects, eggs and some small fish and amphibians, the national zoo reports.

Wonder why they are called box turtles? It’s because of their shells close up entirely like a box, with their heads and legs safely inside, according to the Purdue University Extension. Their shells close up so tightly that even small insects can’t get inside.

Ornate box turtle

An ornate box turtle on sand.

(Photo courtesy of Paul Dacko)

Like eastern box turtles, ornate box turtles are mostly terrestrial, preferring sand prairies in northern and central Illinois, INHS reports. These turtles are threatened in Illinois and are not nearly as common in their range as the eastern box turtle.

Ornate box turtles are similar in size to eastern box turtles. They have dark brown shells with a yellow stripe and yellow lines coming out from the center of each scute, according to INHS. Some ornate box turtles have spots on their heads.

Ornate box turtles are omnivores, but they eat more animal matter than many other turtles. Their primary food sources are insects, worms, snails, tadpoles, bird eggs and carrion.

Blankenship is studying the ornate box turtle population in the preserves to determine how to best manage land to protect them and to ascertain whether the population is stable.

Red-eared slider

A red-eared slider poking out of the water.

(Photo courtesy of Bertrand Leclercq)

The red-eared slider is the most common turtle in Illinois. It is one of three subspecies of the pond slider, and it is the only one that lives in the state, Blankenship said. They are named for the conspicuous red or reddish-orange patches on the sides of their heads, although only female and juvenile red-eared sliders have these patches, according to IDNR. As they get older, it’s not uncommon for these turtles, particularly the males, to become less vibrant in color.

Red-eared sliders are medium-sized turtles, ranging from about 5 inches to 8 inches long, reports the Missouri Department of Conservation. Like many turtles, young red-eared sliders eat mostly small aquatic species, while the older turtles eat mostly plants.

They live in permanent bodies of water, including rivers, lakes and ponds, and they prefer waterways with muddy bottoms. They are often seen basking on rocks and logs near the water’s edge, and the term “slider” in their common name refers to their ability to quickly slide into the water while basking.

Eastern musk turtle

An eastern musk turtle on rocks.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Eastern musk turtles are one of the smallest turtles not only locally but in the world, typically measuring just 2 inches to 5 inches long when fully grown, according to INHS. These turtles are also called stinkpots because they release a substance with a foul-smelling odor when they are threatened.

These tiny turtles typically have grayish-brown dome-shaped shells and yellow stripes on their necks. The hatchlings mostly eat aquatic invertebrates and dead fish, but as they get older they begin to eat more plant matter than animal matter, INHS reports.

Eastern musk turtles live across Illinois and most of the eastern United States. They are not very strong swimmers, so they prefer still or slow-moving waters, especially marshes and wetlands. Because they prefer shallow wetlands for their habitat, they are considered an indicator of clean water and healthy wetland habitats, according to INHS.

Spiny softshell turtle

A spiny softshell turtle on a rock.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Think all turtles have hard, protective shells? Think again. Three softshell turtle species live in North America, including the spiny softshell turtle, which lives right here in northeastern Illinois.

Spiny softshell turtles are one of the largest turtles that populate Illinois waterways, although they are not a large as snapping turtles. Females’ shells can be 7 inches to 19 inches long, while males’ shells are between 5 inches and 10 inches long, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

Spiny softshell turtles usually live in slow-moving waterways with muddy or sandy bottoms, INHS reports. They eat aquatic animals, mostly insects but also crayfish and small fish. They camouflage themselves from their prey by burying themselves in the mud or sand at the bottom of the water, leaving their heads exposed to snatch prey swimming or floating by.

Another softshell turtle, called the smooth softshell turtle, also lives in Illinois, but it is state endangered and is only known to live in a handful of counties in central and southern Illinois, according to INHS. Smooth and spiny softshell turtles are similar in appearance and can be distinguished from one another by the presence of the small spines along the front edge of the spiny softshell turtle’s top shell.

(Lead image courtesy of  Joyce Flanagan)

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