“What kinds of turtles can you find in Pennsylvania?”
I was amazed at the number of turtle species there are in Pennsylvania!
In fact, there are so many species I have broken them down into a few different categories.
Here are the 13 different kinds of turtles in Pennsylvania:
Freshwater Turtles in Pennsylvania:
Freshwater Turtles make up the largest group of turtles native to Pennsylvania. They are strong swimmers and spend most of their lives in or very near water.
#1. Common Snapping Turtle
- Chelydra serpentina
- 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 are widespread throughout Pennsylvania.
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. Painted Turtle
- Chrysemys picta
- 2.5 to 10 inches long.
- The carapace is low to the ground and generally dark brown or black.
- As the name suggests, they have distinctive yellow, green, and red striping on the carapace, head, and limbs.
The Painted Turtle is one of the most recognizable turtles in Pennsylvania because of its beautiful coloring! Look for the bright reds and yellow-greens on its shell, limbs, and head.
Painted Turtles live near water with minimal movement, such as ponds, marshes, small lakes, and slow-moving streams with sandy bottoms. They are attracted to areas with plenty of aquatic plants, which is their primary food source.
Painted Turtle Rangemap:
It is almost impossible to accurately assess the population of Painted Turtles in Pennsylvania. Many people keep them as pets and then release them into the wild, causing an ever-expanding range and unstable reproduction rates. These released turtles can also put pressure on natural populations.
In the wild, Painted Turtles can hold their breath for up to 30 hours in temperate water!
They also have the ability to remain dormant in near-freezing water for up to 4 months. This ability is essential when temperatures often go below freezing.
#3. Northern Map Turtle
- Graptemys geographica
- Females are 7 to 10.5 inches long. Males are 3.5 to 6.25 inches long.
- Thin yellowish lines form a web on the carapace, similar to a contour elevation map. This is how map turtles get their name.
- Coloring is usually dark brown or dark green with lighter green stripes on the neck.
These turtles live near rivers and lakes in Pennsylvania. They prefer large bodies of water with debris for basking and spend winters dormant, completely submerged.
Northern Map Turtle Rangemap:
Credit: Virginia Herpetological Society
Northern Map Turtles are primarily carnivores, with most of their diet made up of mollusks like snails and clams. It also eats insects, crayfish, and occasionally plant matter if animal prey is scarce.
You may have a hard time spotting the Northern Map Turtle in the wild! Even though they are active during the day, they are very shy. A basking group of Map Turtles will slide quickly and quietly into the water to hide at the slightest disturbance, leaving no trace that they were there.
Interestingly, Northern Map Turtles can absorb oxygen through their skin while dormant!
During the cold winter months, this species hibernates with other turtles underwater and remains slightly active. They don’t surface at all to breathe but instead absorb enough oxygen to survive. This process is called cutaneous respiration.
#4. Northern Red-Bellied Cooter
- Pseudemys rubiventris
- 10 to 12.5 inches long.
- The carapace is usually patterned and highly variable, with reds, olive to green, black, and brown sections.
- Red markings on the belly and sides are almost always present.
As its name suggests, this species has a vibrant red plastron that is sometimes marked with green spots.
These turtles primarily live in freshwater lakes, streams, and ponds in southern Pennsylvania.
Northern Red-Bellied Cooter Rangemap:
Credit: Virginia Herpetological Society
If the circumstances are right, this turtle will venture into brackish streams near the coast. We know this because there have been barnacles found on some individuals.
One way to tell the Northern Red-Bellied Cooter apart from other turtles is to look at the pattern on its head. The lighter markings form a distinct arrow shape on the head, pointing toward the snout!
#5. Spiny Softshell Turtle
- Apalone spinifera
- 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 Pennsylvania 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!
#6. Smooth Softshell Turtle
- Apalone mutica
- Females are 6.5 to 14 inches long; males are 4.5 to 10.5 inches long.
- The coloring of the carapace is gray to olive. Females have dark gray to brown or olive mottling.
- The carapace is rubbery and smooth, with no spines or projections on the back.
Smooth Softshell Turtles prefer larger, fast-running rivers, but they can also be found in lakes and large ponds. They are particularly susceptible to damage caused by polluted water and face habitat threats because of this.
Smooth Softshell Turtle Rangemap:
On land, they are the fastest turtle in Pennsylvania!
Though most people assume that all turtles are slow-moving, the Smooth Softshell Turtle must be quick to outrun predators since its soft shell doesn’t provide much protection. Seriously, you need to look at this video to see just how fast they can run!
It is also a very strong swimmer and can move through the water at up to 12 miles per hour!
#7. Eastern Mud Turtle
- Kinsternon subrubrum
- 2.75 to 4.75 inches long.
- The carapace is smooth, with black or olive coloring. The belly is yellowish-brown, sometimes with black or dark brown markings.
- Hatchlings have a rough carapace with more coloring that fades as the turtle grows.
Eastern Mud Turtles live in far southeastern Pennsylvania in shallow water, such as ditches, wet meadows, marshes, and swamps. As their name suggests, they prefer muddy, silty-bottomed water over sandy or gravelly.
Eastern Mud Turtle Rangemap:
Because the Eastern Mud Turtle is small and nondescript, with no unique markings, it can be hard to identify. One feature that sets it apart from other species is the hinges on its lower shell, called a plastron, and forms two “K” shapes when viewed from the side. To see what I am talking about, take a look at the video below!
Unlike most other turtles, the Eastern Mud Turtle does not hibernate during cold winter months. In fact, it does the opposite! Instead, these turtles become dormant during the hottest part of the year! This is called estivation.
#8. Eastern Musk Turtle
- Sternotherus odoratus
- 2 to 4.5 inches long.
- The head features two light stripes set on very dark brown or black skin.
- The carapace can range from light olive to almost black, with irregular black markings.
The habitat for these turtles in eastern Pennsylvania is slow-moving, sluggish streams and still bodies of water. It prefers areas with dark crevices where it can hide, and lots of plant matter to burrow in.
Eastern Musk Turtle Rangemap:
If you happen to disturb an Eastern Musk Turtle, it probably won’t take you long to identify it. As its name suggests, when threatened, they emit a foul, musky odor. This scent can be detected on land, in water, and even waft through the air to ward off predators.
In fact, in other areas, they are even known by another name – Stinkpot!
Another unique feature of the Eastern Musk Turtle is that it can climb trees! Individuals have been observed fairly high up in the branches. They climb to avoid predators and find a safe place to rest.
#9. Spotted Turtle
- Clemmys guttata
- 3.5 to 4.5 inches long.
- The coloring of the carapace is olive to dark brown with light yellow spots.
- The head and neck have irregular yellow or orange spots and streaks.
Spotted Turtles prefer shallow marshes, bogs, and swamps. They are equally comfortable on land as they are in the water.
Spotted Turtle Rangemap:
Credit – United States Geological Survey
The population of these turtles in Pennsylvania is declining rapidly due to habitat loss and human interference. Because of their unique shell patterns, Spotted Turtles are often removed from their habitat and sold as pets. As a result, they are listed as an endangered or protected species by many governing bodies.
In the wild, Spotted Turtles are aggressive hunters and will seek out live prey such as worms, slugs, millipedes, and spiders. They are also extremely smart! Studies using mazes have concluded that the Spotted Turtle has the same brain capacity as a mouse!
In the video below, you can see their unique pattern!
#10. Blanding’s Turtle
- Emydoidea blandingii
- 6 to 9 inches long.
- The coloring of the carapace is usually brown, with many lighter spots that run together to form bars or streaks.
- Blanding’s Turtles have a distinctive bright yellow throat and chin.
These turtles live in marshes, bogs, and small streams in the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania but also are found on land. They nest in open grasslands, often quite far away from their water source.
Blanding’s Turtles are fascinating to researchers who study longevity. This is because they have an extremely long lifespan, even for turtles, and show almost no signs of aging, no matter how old they get. So it’s possible that a Blanding’s Turtle could live indefinitely if no outside factors affect its safety!
Blanding’s Turtle Rangemap:
The oldest known Blanding’s Turtle was 83 years old!
And this individual was still alive and going strong at this age! In addition to having a very long lifespan, these turtles have a very long juvenile period and do not start to reproduce until they are 18-20 years old. But once fertile, it’s believed they are capable of reproduction well into their eighties.
#11. Bog Turtle
- Glyptemys muhlenbergii
- 3 to 3.5 inches long.
- The coloring of the carapace is brown to black with yellowish or red centers. Orange patches appear on either side of the head.
- The belly is often dark, sometimes with a few light spots.
The Bog Turtle is the smallest turtle in Pennsylvania!
It prefers to live in swamps, muddy-bottomed streams, and sphagnum bogs. Groups of up to TWENTY Bog Turtles often share a small area.
Bog Turtle Rangemap:
The Bog Turtle is listed as Critically Endangered in Pennsylvania. Its population is declining for several reasons, including a low reproduction rate, poaching for the pet trade, and automobile accidents.
There are currently quite a few groups trying to repopulate the species, and captively bred Bog Turtles have recently been released into the wild with transmitters. Hopefully, these efforts will result in an increased population of this interesting species!
Bog Turtles have lived in Pennsylvania for many centuries and are considered one of the oldest turtle species in the area. Fossils that are indistinguishable from modern Bog Turtles have been found and dated back to 1.8 million years ago!
In the below video, you can see a pair of fully grown Bog Burtles being handled by a researcher – compared to most turtles, they look tiny!
#12. Wood Turtle
- Glyptemys insculpta
- 5.5 to 8 inches long.
- The limbs of the Wood Turtle have prominent scales and are gray-brown in color with bright orange and yellow splotches.
- The carapace is very rough with concentric grooves and ridges.
Look for these turtles in Pennsylvania on land. However, Wood Turtles do stay near the water and venture into it frequently. They also winter at the bottom of deep pools or rivers.
Wood Turtle Rangemap:
Credit: Virginia Herpetological Society
Wood Turtles have been studied frequently and undergone numerous scientific and common name changes. Other commonly-used names for the Wood Turtle are the Sculptured Tortoise, Red-legged Tortoise, and Redleg.
Fossil evidence suggests that the Wood Turtle was pushed south by glacier activity during the last ice age. Remains of Wood Turtles in southern states have been found dating back 11,000 years! Climate changes have allowed Wood Turtles to re-populate their original northern range.
Box Turtles in Pennsylvania:
As you’ll read below, Pennsylvania only has ONE species of Box Turtle. Hopefully, you will find it as interesting as I do!
#13. Eastern Box Turtle
- Terrapene carolina
- 4.5 to 6 inches long.
- The carapace is high and domed, usually with a ridge along the center running from head to tail.
- Coloring is highly variable, but a pattern of olive, browns, and tans is almost always present.
The Eastern Box Turtle can live for over 100 years under the right conditions!
A typical lifespan for one in the wild or captivity is about 35 years. But in an optimal enclosure, one could live for much longer without the threat of predators or man-made hazards.
In Pennsylvania, the habitat of the Eastern Box Turtle includes woodland areas and dense thickets. It prefers areas with lots of access to sunlight and food sources nearby.
Eastern Box Turtle Rangemap:
The vivid designs and relatively easygoing nature of Eastern Box Turtles make them attractive as pets; unfortunately, this contributes to their decline in population. These turtles require very specific conditions to thrive in captivity. Special UV lighting, large tanks with fresh, clean water, vitamin and mineral supplements, and relatively deep substrate to burrow are just some of the requirements to keep them healthy as pets.
Because box turtles are often taken from the wild in Pennsylvania for the pet trade, most states have prohibited the capture and sale of this species. Unfortunately, many pet turtles die due to poor conditions or are abandoned because they are too hard to care for.
The markings of the Eastern Box Turtle are so variable you may have a hard time recognizing one by the shell alone! Some have lines running from the center of each scute, and some have rings of dots that form a lace-like pattern. Other individuals’ lighter markings can merge so that the carapace is almost completely light-colored instead of the usual dark background! The video below demonstrates the huge variability!
Many people believe that the vivid coloring on the shell of the Eastern Box Turtle fades with age, but this is incorrect. The shell of most box turtles in captivity fades over time due to lack of natural sunlight!
Do you need additional help identifying turtles?
Try this field guide!
Which of these turtles have you seen in Pennsylvania?
Leave a comment below!