Ten species of turtles are found in Michigan and they are an important part of our state’s ecosystems. Turtles can survive in a variety of habitats such as woodlands, grasslands, lakes, rivers, wetlands, and cities.
- The Blanding’s turtle is a species of special concern in Michigan.
- Blanding's turtle occurrence map.
Report observations and find species occurrence maps at The Michigan Herp Atlas.
Turtles belong to the reptile family along with snakes, lizards, crocodiles, and alligators. Reptile young are hatched from shelled eggs or born alive and are essentially miniature versions of their parents. Reptiles depend on the outside environment for body heat because they do not produce it internally.
A turtle’s shell helps to provide protection from predators.
- Turtles cannot climb out of their shell!
- A turtle’s shell is composed of two parts. The upper portion, or carapace, is made of flat bones covered by broad scales and is connected to the backbone and ribs.
- The lower shell is the plastron and includes the ribs.
- Turtles can have different shapes or features to their shells. For example:
- Box turtles have special hinges that allow them to partly or fully close their shell to protect their head and legs.
- The spiny soft-shell turtle has a rubbery, pancake-shaped shell for fast swimming.
- Snapping turtles have hard, heavily armored shells for added protection.
- Turtles do not have teeth, but have a beak for eating their food. Turtles that eat meat will have a hooked beak to help them easily slice and tear food apart.
- Turtles with flat, wide beaks use them for mashing up vegetation or shellfish.
- Turtles are cold-blooded, which means that they do not produce their own body heat. For this reason, they are often seen basking in the sun during the spring and fall. The sunlight also helps repel parasites, like leeches. Turtles go dormant during the winter in order to survive the cold temperatures.
- Courtship displays begin shortly after turtles emerge from their hibernation sites and vary greatly. Some examples include:
- Male eastern box turtles give the females gentle chin nibbles.
- Male painted turtles softly stroke the females with their long toenails.
- Male snapping turtles engage in aggressive territorial struggles.
- Turtles nest during late spring to mid-summer and the females will seek out sunny sites with damp sand or soft soil for their eggs.
- For many turtles, the gender of the hatchling is determined by the temperature of the egg. The specific temperature varies by species; however, warmer temperatures typically produce females and cooler temperatures produce males.
- Females form a shallow nest by kicking soil with their hind feet. She lays the eggs and leaves as soon as they are covered.
- It takes about two months for the eggs to hatch. Some baby turtles may spend the winter in the nest and then emerge in the spring.
- Many predators will find and eat turtle eggs and when the tiny baby turtles emerge from the nest many predators will catch them for an easy meal.
- Turtles are among the longest living animals on earth and they take a long time to sexually mature.
- Box turtles can surpass a century in age; the oldest known box turtle lived to be 138 years old!
- Female turtles tend to take longer to reach sexual maturity than males.
- Some Michigan turtles could take up to 20 years to mature!
Turtles and People
Turtles are harmless to humans, although, like any wild animal, may bite to protect themselves.
Most turtles spend some time on land - so don’t worry if you see one far away from water, they are not in trouble or lost! Turtles will move over land to find mates, nesting sites, and new ponds, lakes, or streams to colonize. If you see a turtle away from water, please leave it be.
Conservation and How You Can Help
Turtles face a variety of threats in Michigan, and around the world, ranging from pollution and habitat loss, to nest predation and overharvest. Turtles play an important role in the natural environment by contributing to the ecological systems as predator and prey.
Take and possession of Michigan’s native reptiles and amphibians is highly regulated. See the current Fishing Guide for these important rules and a list of protected species.
Four Michigan species are currently listed as threatened, endangered, or species of special concern:
- Blanding’s Turtle - Special Concern
- Eastern Box Turtle - Special Concern
- Spotted Turtle – Threatened
- Wood Turtle - Special Concern
You can help turtles by...
- Learning all you can about our native turtles. Check out the library and visit parks and nature centers that offer turtle programs.
- Knowing your state and federal laws that protect turtles and their habitats.
- Knowing regulations on the take of reptiles and amphibians that can be found in the current Michigan Fishing Guide
- Purchasing a fishing license.
- Supporting efforts to protect turtle habitat.
- Enjoy watching turtles in the wild but DO NOT take them home as pets. Michigan’s turtles belong in the wild.
- Never buy wild caught turtles from pet dealers and do not release captive-reared turtles into the wild.
- Be alert for turtles crossing roads. Only if it can be done safely, you can help a turtle cross a road. Always move it in the direction it was heading.
- Reporting any turtle sightings to www.MIHerpAtlas.org and help us measure changes or trends in their populations.