Traveling down a dirt road necessitates a slow speed to avoid pot holes and ruts, which result in certain front end repairs. This required unhurried pace has led to a few encounters with wildlife; most recently, a particularly long-necked turtle moseying across the road.
Not the usual small, box turtle type, but a rather sizeable turtle with a longer than wide shell (also called a carapace) that was about ten inches long. Getting out taking a closer look, the black legs and rump had vertical, yellow stripes; the front legs had a wide, yellow stripe; the ventral side of the shell (i.e. plastron) was yellow and the carapace was finely wrinkled and nearly black.
After a few pictures, the turtle went on its way and so did I.
Identifying it would not be as simple. Overall, twenty species of turtles, belonging to six different families reside in North Carolina. Five of these species are sea turtles, the aforementioned Eastern Box Turtle is basically terrestrial, and the rest are aquatic, preferring ponds, wetlands and streams.
Immediately ruling out sea turtles and the familiar box turtle, still left four families and fourteen species. Mud and musk turtles (Family Kinosternidae) are all much smaller than this species. This turtle did not have a soft shell, so Family Trionychidae could be ruled out. The one species of snapping turtle (Family Chelydridae) with its large, bulky head bears no resemblance to this turtle.
Even after narrowing down to the pond and marsh turtles and terrapins (Family Emydidae) with ten species, the ID was not easy. Size ruled out two more, coloration and shell pattern ruled out another two, and habitat further eliminated two more (because they are not present in the Coastal Plain).
The three remaining suspects were the Yellowbelly slider, River cooter and Chicken turtle. The River cooter (Pseudemys concinna) has a shell with flared edges, which this turtle does not. Also, since the Yellowbelly slider (Trachemys scripta) is the most common turtle in the Southeast, it was most likely in my mind. The turtle in question was walking around on dry land, but near a ditch, a close-by sluggish creek, and a bog area, so the habitat was comparable.
However, my process of elimination was not complete so I checked with a couple of herpetologists, to be sure. This turtle lacked the large, yellow spot behind the eye of Yellowbelly sliders. Also, the coloration of the neck with its rather netlike, yellow pattern is distinguishing, as is the broad, yellow stripe along the front of each foreleg. (Sliders have thin vertical, yellow stripes.) The Chicken turtle (Deirochelys reticularia) it was.
Interestingly, the Chicken turtle gets its common name because the meat, which was once favored by many in the South, is said to taste like chicken.
But, be warned that while shy, in general, this basking turtle can reach a long way over, under, and around its shell to bite. It is essentially aquatic, but strays far from water especially during nesting season or when their habitat drys up. Typically, Chicken turtles reside in isolated, seasonal wetlands and still freshwater environments in the Coastal Plain of the southeastern U.S. from Virginia to Texas.
Their numbers appear to be declining and the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program designates this species as significantly rare with the need for monitoring and conservation action. (This was my stumbling block – the likelihood of coming across an uncommon species on a common day.)
Unlike, other North American turtles, Chicken turtles nest in the fall or spring. Females are able to retain their eggs for six months or more if conditions are unsuitable for nesting. Most other turtles nest in the spring and can only retain their eggs for a few weeks before they are ruined.
Normally, “several clutches of 5-15 elliptical eggs are laid in a cylindrical nest four inches deep and three inches across,” according to www.senecaparkzoo.org. The hatchlings are one inch at birth and look like the adults.
Males mature at four inches and females at seven inches in length. Males can be distinguished by a long, thick tail and are a bit smaller than females. Chicken turtles mainly eat tadpoles, frogs, fish, snails, worms, aquatic insects, and crayfish, but adults eat some vegetation, too.
In the northern part of their range, Chicken turtles hibernate buried in mud or in the leaf litter of the wooded areas surrounding their wetland home in winter, which is also used for nesting.
To put into perspective, Dr. Whit Gibbons of the University of Georgia explained, “This is a species that depends on a mix of land types…It shows that we have to consider an animal’s total life cycle if we are going to conserve the species. We can’t just protect [one portion] and say we’re protecting a species”.
Chicken turtles are just one example of the need to examine conservation issues and protection measures within an ecosystem perspective, rather than the usual single species approach. The greatest threats to turtles are habitat destruction and degradation with many more killed crossing roads.
When you go slow and keep your eyes open, you never know what may cross your path. If a Chicken turtle happens your way, several herpetologists would be interested in the location of the sighting including those at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences.
This article was originally published in 2006 by The Brunswick Beacon. Reprinted with permission.