Turtles’ bodies are much like other reptiles, with scaly skin and a tapered tail, but they boast a unique protective shell. The top of the shell is called the carapace and the bottom the plastron. Their backbone is actually part of the carapace, so if you find an empty turtle shell, you’ll see vertebrae fused into the center of it.

Turtles mate and lay eggs in the springtime. Gravid (pregnant) turtles will sometimes travel a great distance from their usual habitat, particularly if they are aquatic. Their eggs can drown, so they need to get to higher ground, and typically seek out loose soil. Turtles will dig a chamber with their legs and lay a clutch of eggs inside. The eggs are round to oblong, and white or cream-colored. If the nest is not predated, hatchlings will emerge several months later.

Eastern Painted Turtle

Chrysemys picta

The most common aquatic turtle seen basking in Westchester’s lakes and ponds is the eastern painted turtle.

Painted turtles are on the smaller side, with a mostly dark carapace. Their head, neck and sometimes legs are striped with yellow, orange and red. The edges of the shell may also have reddish markings, and the plastron is solid yellow. They are omnivores, eating both plants and small creatures. They hibernate during the winter, at the bottom of a lake or pond.

Red-eared Slider

Trachemys scripta elegans

Invasive Species

Red-eared sliders are not native to New York, but due to people releasing pets into the wild, they have spread to many of our lakes and ponds. They look similar to painted turtles, but have a telltale red patch behind their eye. The plastron is often yellow with dark spots.

The unfortunate impact of this invasive species is that painted turtles can be pushed out of their habitats our out-competed by the more aggressive red-eared sliders. In some states, they have banned selling them as pets due to growing problems in the wild. In New York, it is illegal to release any captive turtle into the wild (or to capture and keep as a pet any wild turtle).

Spotted Turtle

Clemmys guttata

Species of Special Concern in New York

Spotted turtles are small, black turtles with yellow spots on the shell, head, neck and legs. Occasionally you may find one without any spots on the shell, but typically they start out with one spot per scute when hatchlings, with the number of spots increasing with age. They are sexually dimorphic when mature. Males have an indentation on the plastron, brown or black chin, and typically have brown eyes. Females usually have orange eyes, and a yellow or orange chin.

Common Snapping Turtle

Chelydra s. serpentina

The common snapping turtle is easily differentiated from other turtles by its bulky appearance. Their plastron is tiny and their bodies looks like they have fat rolls oozing out, but they are aggressive and strong. They also have long necks that can reach back to about the halfway point of their shell (so if you do have cause to handle one, hold the shell above their back legs).

Snappers will eat anything–animals, plants, even carrion. They can be found in all kinds of bodies of water, but particularly like shallow, muddy spots. They can live to be 30 or 40 years old, and get very large–the record for a snapping turtle is 75 pounds.

Eastern Musk Turtle

Sternotherus odoratus

Musk turtles, also known as stinkpots since they will emit a foul-smelling musk if threatened, are a small turtle with a brown-black mottled shell. They have two distinct yellowish stripes on their face and neck. Musk turtles are nocturnal and rarely seen basking. They forage in the evening for food such as insects, algae, or mollusks. They are most often found in shallow, slow-moving bodies of water with abundant vegetation and a soft muddy bottom.

Wood Turtle

Clemmys insculpta

Species of Special Concern in New York

Wood turtles have brown to black shells with heavily sculpted pyramid-like scutes (scales) on the carapace. Their skin is also brown to black, with orange on the neck and around the limbs.

Wood turtles frequent fields and wooded areas around streams and rivers with sandy or gravelly bottoms. They are diurnal omnivores, and will seek shelter at night.

Eastern Box Turtle

Terrapene c. carolina

Species of Special Concern in New York

Eastern box turtles have a high, domed carapace that is dark brown with yellow markings. Its shell markings, which become more distinctive as they increase in age and sun exposure, help it blend into the forest floor. Unlike most turtles, box turtles have a hinge in the middle of their plastron, so they can pull themselves entirely into their shell and close it up fully, like a box.

Box turtles are primarily terrestrial, commonly found in meadows, open woodland and forest edges, often with a water source nearby. They are opportunistic omnivores. Males normally have red eyes, while females have brown. Sadly, this species is listed in New York due to habitat loss, road mortality and collection for the pet trade.

Northern Diamondback Terrapin

Malaclemys t. terrapin

Diamondback terrapins can only be found in brackish water, either along the Hudson or Long Island Sound. They like to brumate in tidal creeks, and will often nest on sandy beaches.

Diamondback terrapins have a brown to gray wedge-shaped carapace, with concentric rings on the individual scutes and sometimes orange or yellow markings. Their head and limbs are often white with black spots. They eat snails, clams and worms, and have a gland within their eye that secretes excess salt.