What kinds of turtles can you find in California?”

 

common turtles in california

 

I was amazed at the number of turtle species there are in California!

 

In fact, there are so many species I have broken them down into a few different categories.

 


Today, you will learn about the 8 different kinds of turtles in California.

 


Freshwater Turtles in California:

Freshwater Turtles make up the largest group of turtles native to California. They are strong swimmers and spend most of their lives in or very near water.


#1. Common Snapping Turtle

  • Chelydra serpentina

types of turtles in california

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Weighs 10 to 35 lbs. and is 8 to 18 1/2 inches long.
  • The snapping turtle has a long tail, chunky head, and large webbed feet.
  • The carapace (upper shell) coloring is black, brown, or olive with no distinct pattern.

 

Snapping Turtles have isolated populations throughout California.

 

Look for them living in marshes, lakes, ponds, rivers, and slow streams. They prefer areas with plenty of aquatic vegetation to hide in, and insects, fish, frogs, and birds to eat.

Snapping Turtle Rangemap:

Credit: Virginia Herpetological Society

 

Snapping Turtles are best known for their powerful jaws. While there aren’t any recorded incidents of one of their bites causing amputation to a person, it can cause infections serious enough to require an amputation. In fact, their jaws are so strong that snapping turtles commonly eat other turtles!

 

These turtles are usually docile but will become very aggressive if removed from the water. One of the best ways to calm an aggressive individual is to place it back into the water, where it can feel safe. I know I have personally picked them up with a large snow shovel to get them off the road and back to safety!

 


#2. Western Pond Turtle

  • Actinemus marmorata

species of turtles in california

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 3.5 to 8.5 inches long.
  • Their limbs have prominent scales, and the head is spotted or webbed with black.
  • Carapace coloring is black or dark green to brown with some yellowish spots. Usually, a pattern of dots or lines radiates from the center of each shell plate.

 

These turtles can be found in California in ponds, lakes, rivers, and even irrigation ditches. It prefers habitats that give it access to plenty of aquatic plants like watercress, water lilies, and cattails. Western Pond Turtles are omnivorous, and their diet includes insects, frogs, tadpoles, and even carrion.

Western Pond Turtle Rangemap:

In California, the Western Pond Turtle’s population is extremely endangered.

 

Habitat loss due to development and invasive pet turtles that have been released into its environment has contributed to their decline.

 

In addition, over-hunting for food has put additional pressure on them. For example, Western Pond Turtles were once the main food source for hogs that were bred on Hog Island in California! The hogs learned to dive for the turtles in the shallow water of the lake. They got so good at hunting and eating the turtles that, unfortunately, the population there is now extinct.

 


#3. Spiny Softshell Turtle

  • Apalone spinifera

common turtles in california

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Females are 7 to 21.25 inches long; males are 5 to 12.25 inches long.
  • The carapace is flexible with a rough sandpaper texture, with a single row of spines or cones along the middle of the back. There is also a row of pointed tooth-like appendages on the edge of the carapace.
  • Coloring is olive, gray, or brown with black spots on some individuals.

 

Look for these turtles in California in lakes, rivers, and streams with sandy or muddy bottoms and little or no vegetation. I often see them sunning themselves on the banks while kayaking down slow-moving rivers.

Spiny Softshell Turtle Rangemap:

 

Spiny Softshell Turtles will eat anything in the water they can swallow, including insects, crayfish, and even small fish! To catch a meal, this species buries itself in mud or sand with only its head uncovered and grabs its food as it swims by.

 

Spiny Softshell Turtles can “breathe” underwater by absorbing oxygen through the skin of their throats. This is a useful adaptation because they spend very little time out of the water, even sunning themselves in shallows or floating on the surface.

 

Along with the ability to absorb oxygen through its skin, the Spiny Softshell Turtle has some other unique adaptations that make it perfectly suited for its environment. Its leathery shell is extremely flat, and it has webbed feet and long claws, which allow it to swim quickly away from predators and bury itself in the muddy bottom.

 

Its most unique feature is its nose, which is long and snout-like! It can poke its nostrils out of the water and stay completely submerged to protect itself from hungry predators!

 

 


Tortoises in California:

As you’ll read below, there is only ONE species of Tortoise in California!


#4. Desert Tortoise

  • Gopherus agassizii

 

types of turtles in california

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 8 to 15 inches long.
  • The carapace is high and domed with no definite pattern but usually ridges in concentric circles on the plates.
  • Coloring is brown, gray, or horn. The belly is yellowish or light brown.

 

Desert Tortoises live in arid climates in California and can withstand very little rain and intense heat. They prefer firm ground for building burrows and also use rocks as shelter. Their burrows have a characteristic half-moon-shaped opening.

Desert Tortoise Rangemap:

This tortoise spends 95% of its life underground, conserving water and energy and only coming to the surface for food and to breed. It can survive ground temperatures of up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit! In fact, the Desert Tortoise is one of few species that can withstand the extreme heat and lack of rain in Death Valley.

 

The Desert Tortoise is an “indicator species,” one that shows the health of an ecosystem by its population health. Unfortunately, this species is in widespread decline throughout its habitat. Reasons for this decline and the decline of many desert species include urban expansion, mining, natural predation, and off-road vehicle use that destroys their burrows.

 

 


Sea Turtles in California:

Because of their migratory nature and ability to range far into the ocean, sea turtles are not truly “native” to one part of the world. The sea turtle species below can be seen on the coast of California.


#5. Green Sea Turtle

  • Chelonia mydas

species of turtles in california

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Weighs 150-420 lbs. and is 30 to 60+ inches long. However, some individuals have been recorded much larger, more than 600 lbs!
  • The carapace is smooth, with 4 sections on each side.
  • Coloring is olive, brown, or gray. Its name refers to a layer of green body fat found under its shell.

 

Green Sea Turtles live in coastal lagoons and bays throughout California. Incredibly, they rarely come to shore except to lay their eggs, preferring to spend most of their time in the water. They are actually tough animals to see because they are extremely fast swimmers and prone to hiding or fleeing with any signs of danger.

Green Sea Turtle Rangemap:

Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries)

 

Did you know Green Sea Turtles use the Earth’s electromagnetic waves?

 

In a process known as Natal Homing, these incredible turtles use magnetic crystals in their brains to read the magnetic waves coming from the Earth. They use this information to find the specific beach where they were hatched to lay their own eggs! Though it sounds like science fiction, it’s a common mechanism in many sea turtles.

 

A subspecies of the Green Sea Turtle is the Black Sea Turtle. Unlike Green Sea Turtles, they are found only on the Pacific coast. Black Sea Turtles in California are similar in most ways to Green Sea Turtles. They face the same threat of extinction, and the only major difference is that they are darker in color and have a very limited habitat.

 

One of the most concerning threats to Green and Black Sea Turtle populations is climate change.

 

The warming of seawater is changing the migration & nesting pattern of the turtles. Interestingly, the sand temperature changes resulting from climate change also affect the ratio of male to female turtles, which can cause changes in breeding patterns and decreased hatch populations. Poaching, bycatch, nesting site loss, and disease are the other top threats to Green and Black Sea Turtles.

 


#6. Loggerhead Sea Turtle

  • Caretta caretta

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • The average weight is 300 lbs. and 35 inches long. Record Loggerhead Sea Turtles have reached over 1,000 lbs!
  • The carapace coloring is red to orange-brown, edged in yellow. The belly is cream to dusky beige.
  • The Loggerhead’s carapace sections are much more pronounced than any other sea turtle.

 

The Loggerhead Sea Turtle gets its name from its large, blunt head!

 

It uses its powerful jaws to feed on much harder prey than other sea turtles, such as whelks, conch, and other hard-shelled invertebrates.

 

In California, Loggerhead Sea Turtles are rarely seen, mostly because they live where most people typically never visit. They love open oceans and can swim great distances between breeding seasons.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle Rangemap:

Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries)

The largest nesting population of Loggerhead Sea Turtles is right here in the USA! Unfortunately, most other nesting populations, such as ones in the Caribbean and Japan, have seen a recent steep decline – up to 90% of the total nesting population has declined in these regions. Part of the reason for the steep decline is that Loggerhead Sea Turtles don’t reach reproductive maturity until age 35!

 

The most concerning threat to Loggerhead Sea Turtles in California is bycatch. This happens when they are unintentionally caught in a net or trap meant for fish or shrimp, which can cause the turtles to drown or be severely injured when they try to free themselves.

 

Loggerhead Sea Turtles have an interesting way of keeping their shells healthy. They allow fish to “clean” them by eating the barnacles and other parasites that live in their shells!

 


#7. Leatherback Sea Turtle

  • Dermochelys coriacea

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Weighs 600 to 6,000 lbs and is 48 to 96 inches long.
  • The carapace is made of flexible, leathery skin, and the coloring is black to slate gray.
  • The sections of the carapace are diamond-shaped, stretching the length of the body.

The Leatherback Sea Turtle is the largest sea turtle in California!

 

It ranges all over the world into every ocean but prefers temperate to cooler water during most of its life. Leatherback Sea Turtles are highly migratory and will travel up to 10,000 miles per year between foraging and nesting grounds! Its hatching grounds in the USA range along the western coastline.

Leatherback Sea Turtle Rangemap:

Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries)

 

Like most sea turtles, Leatherback Sea Turtles face severe population decline and are listed as endangered in most countries. One of the primary threats to Leatherback Sea Turtles is the collection of their eggs for human consumption. Even though they are a protected species in most countries, poaching and illegal collection are still common.

 

One of the most interesting features of the Leatherback Sea Turtle is its speed; even though it is the largest living sea turtle, it’s also the fastest. Swimming speeds of nearly 22 miles per hour have been recorded! It uses this speed to travel great distances, often traveling over 3,600 miles between nesting and foraging grounds. Considering their size, they’re pretty fast on land too!

 


#8. Olive Ridley Sea Turtle

  • Lepidochelys olivacea

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Weighs 80 to 100 lbs. and is 20 to 29 inches long.
  • The carapace coloring is uniformly olive green to brown, and looks nearly round from above.
  • The skin is usually grayer in color than the shell.

 

Olive Ridley Sea Turtles are the most numerous sea turtle in the world!

 

They can be found in the protected, calm water of bays and lagoons in California. However, they prefer warmer water and generally stay in the open ocean, ranging into the temperate climate of California less frequently than other sea turtles.

Olive Ridley Sea Turtle Rangemap:

Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries)

 

Even though Olive Ridley Sea Turtles have the largest worldwide population of any sea turtle, they are still endangered. Their population worldwide has decreased 30-50% since scientists began to track it. Fishing net by-catch, direct harvesting for meat and eggs, and pollution are all threats to the Olive Ridley Sea Turtle.

 

Like Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles, the Olive Ridleys use a strategy called “arribada,” coming to shore by the thousands to nest in groups.

 

One feature that sets the Olive Ridley Sea Turtle apart from other sea turtles is its front and back claws, which extend from its flippers. Males use their claws to hang on to females when mating, and females use their claws when they dig their nests.

 


Do you need additional help identifying turtles?

Try this field guide!

 


Which of these turtles have you seen in California?

 

Leave a comment below!