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Exploring the Western NY Wilds: The wood turtle – an Allegany County rarity

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By Bob Confer

A few years ago, while driving on County Route 38, I saw a turtle crossing the road. Like any nature lover worth his salt, I got out of the truck and picked him up to put him in a safe spot.

I expected the slow-moving pedestrian to be a painted turtle which is, without a doubt, the most common turtle in Western New York. So, I was startled – and incredibly happy — when I discovered it was a wood turtle!

My family and excitedly admired the turtle as we safely put it into Alma Pond.

It was especially rewarding to have our initial good deed magnified by protecting such a rare specimen.

Yes, rare.

I count myself as a good herpetologist. For years, I traipsed around Allegany in an effort to help the state with its amphibian and reptile atlas. I found many an interesting creature but never expected to ever see a wood turtle. They are incredibly uncommon in Western New York and the Department of Environmental Conservation counts them as a species of special concern. The atlas itself shows the turtles having been discovered in only 3 survey blocks in Allegany County during the decade-long study.

Their numbers are down in most every state and Canadian province because of predation (mostly by the overpopulated raccoons), habitat loss, illegal collection (they allegedly make great pets) and vehicular turtleslaughter.

That’s sad, because the wood turtle is one of the more interesting reptiles out there.

It got its name for two reasons: One, it’s deeply grooved shell looks like hardwood and, two, it can be found in the woods.

For a good portion of the year, the wood turtle will venture a considerable distance from water (up to a half mile). In the late-spring and summer they can be found in wet meadows, fields, and forests, foraging on insects, slugs and fungi. While hunting, it even does something one might consider a magical power: It stomps its front feet which mimics the sound of rain; those vibrations bring earthworms to the surface, making a good meal for the turtle.

They are excellent walkers and relative speedsters for the notoriously-slow turtle clan. In one study of wood turtles, it was found they averaged 354 feet of travel a day, pretty darn good for a small reptile no longer than 8 inches in length. When we released our friend to Alma Pond, my family and I were in stitches because he seemed to be in a full run and was actually moving quickly.

That ability to cover territory in a hurry aligns well with the turtle’s unique homing abilities. It was discovered in scientific experiments using mazes that the wood turtles had homing abilities comparable to those of rats, which is pretty extraordinary for a reptile. A follow-up to that had a biologist move specimens a mile and a half from home — they made it back in less than 5 weeks!

Wood turtles are also attractive little buggers, which might account for their popularity with reptile collectors. Besides the woody shell, they have a bright orange neck and legs and their underbelly is yellow with black blotches. They are active, too; the one we played with kept his head out most of the time, was inquisitive, and even roared at us in his own way (it sounded like a whisper).

When not gallivanting in the wild during the warm months, wood turtles can be found underwater in the winter. They will go to the bottom of a river, stream or pond and bury themselves in brush or mud and stay there all season. Sometimes, that can account for their demise as it makes them susceptible to being really buried during flooding, a regular occurrence of springtime thaws in Allegany County.

 That’s yet another thing makes them a marked animal – they are rare for a reason (actually, quite a few reasons), and they are creatures better left in the wild and not put in an aquarium.

If you see one in the wild appreciate it and take some pictures; never take it home.

And, if you see a turtle crossing the road, help it out — you never know just what you might be saving.

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