An unmistakable freshwater turtle, it is the largest freshwater turtle in Connecticut. Adults can be 8 to 18 inches (20.3 to 45.7 cm) long and can weigh up to 75 pounds (34 kg) (see Behler and King 1979). Typical coloration is brown with yellowish brown or even pinkish color to the throat and underside of the legs. The carapace is dark with a jagged edge to the posterior margin. Filamentous algae often grows on the carapace. The plastron is small. The tail is long, often nearly half the length of the carapace. The common name refers to the turtle’s open-mouth threat display when cornered on land. In water its primary defenses are to remain motionless and undetected, or to swim away, not to bite. Juveniles resemble the adults, but often have a stronger, more pungent smell when first encountered.
Females are frequently found on land during late spring or early summer as they wander searching for egg-laying sites. Eggs are typically laid on a bank or hillside facing the body of water. In residential areas they occasionally lay eggs in children’s sandboxes, or in flower beds or vegetable gardens where loose soil makes for easy digging. Up to 83 eggs are laid in a single nest (Behler and King 1979). Incubation takes 3 to 4 months and hatching tends to occur in late summer or early fall.
Found in a variety of watery habitats, including swamps, marshes, rivers and ponds. It even can be found in estuaries where it drinks rainwater that, being less dense than sea water, floats on the surface.
Eats a variety of food items, including vegetation, fish, frogs, invertebrates and, rarely, small birds, muskrats, snakes, and other turtles.
Widespread throughout the eastern United States. In fact, it occurs in nearly every state east of the Rockies and along the southern edge of eastern Canadian provinces. In Connecticut, it is known from every county.
Much mythology and lore seems to surround this species. It does not attack humans swimming in ponds, nor does it cause extinction of waterfowl by systematically eating all ducks that land on the water. See Tyning (1990) for more information on the myths and realities of this wonderful species.
Behler, J.L. and F.W. King. 1979. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. New York: Knopf. 719 pp.
Conant, R. and J.T. Collins. 1991. A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians: Eastern/Central North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 450 pp.
Klemens, M.W. 1993. Amphibians and Reptiles of Connecticut and Adjacent Regions. Hartford, CT: State Geological and Natural History Survey of Connecticut Bulletin 112. 318 pp.
Tyning, T.F. 1990. Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 400 pp.
Text by Gregory J. Watkins-Colwell.
Photographs © Twan Leenders. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Animals featured in photographs on this page are from New York and Connecticut.