By Clint Calhoun
Turtles are one of my favorite orders of reptiles. They are fascinating creatures and are one of the most long-lived species on the planet. Even though I see it very often, I am always amazed when I see groups of turtles, sometimes as many as ten, big and small, basking on a log or a rock near the lake shore. I chose to write about turtles this time because now is when hatchlings can be found, as they emerge from their nests and either head back to the water or begin to find their place on terra firma (in the case of terrestrial turtles). I have become quite interested in the number of turtle species that are beginning to show up in Lake Lure and thought I would take a little time to write about the more common species we see in and around the lake.
The most common turtles that we have in Lake Lure are river cooters. These turtles can grow quite large, averaging from 9 to 12 inches (head-to-tail). They are most often seen basking on the rocks and logs that are occasionally found around the lake shoreline. Upon close observation the carapace (top shell) of these turtles is heavily decorated with greenish circles and c-shaped markings. Their head, neck, and legs are striped with yellow. Like most turtles, they are omnivores so their diet is basically limited to what is available. These turtles are not aggressive and will quickly slip into the water when they feel disturbed.
Less common, but probably more well-known and somewhat feared are snapping turtles. Snapping turtles are known for their ugly looks and even uglier disposition. General coloration is light brown. Their carapace is rough with three well-defined keels, giving the turtle a somewhat ancient, dinosaur-like look. This is further accentuated by their long saw-toothed tails. In the wild, adult snapping turtles average between 8 and 14 inches (although larger specimens have been found) and can weigh between 10 and 35 lbs. on average. Snappers are typically not baskers, but rather prefer to stay in water, either on the bottom in the mud or just under the surface, waiting for prey. Their diet is varied but they will eat fish, birds, snakes, amphibians, plants, and even carrion. In water, snappers are shy and avoid contact with anything that would not be considered food. On land, snappers are very defensive and will aggressively defend themselves if they feel threatened by hissing and striking. Their defensive posture is to open their mouth and to lunge. Snapping turtles are capable of nasty bites and fingers make great turtle food.
A more recent addition to the lake is the introduction of the red-eared slider. Red-eared sliders are not native to North Carolina but are native to the southeastern United States, particularly the Mississippi Basin. It is considered the most invasive turtle species due to its popularity as an aquarium species. This leads to them being released into waterways that are often far away from their native range after their owners grow tired of them. Male red-eared sliders are the most easy to recognize because of the red-patch in the “ear” area of the head. Red-eared sliders’ shells are generally a dull green or brown but their heads, necks, and legs have multiple yellow stripes. They are smaller than other aquatic turtles, growing between 5 and 8 inches in length. Like river cooters they will also bask on logs, rocks, and floating mats of vegetation. They are omnivores, but prefer aquatic plants as their diet.
Another turtle that I have seen in the lake is the common musk turtle or stinkpot. These small turtles average 2 to 4 ½ inches in length. They are brown to almost black with two stripes on each side of their head. At first glance they look like baby snapping turtles. They are called musk turtles because of their tendency to emit a foul musk when pulled from the hooks of anglers. Musk turtles have a varied diet like most turtles and they can be somewhat ill-tempered when picked up and may attempt to bite. They have been found as high as seven feet above the water, basking on tree branches and sometimes fall into boats passing underneath. Most of their time is spent walking on the bottom of the lake, mostly in shallow water.
Eastern box turtles are probably our most well known turtles and are solely terrestrial. We commonly see them crossing the road, often in the mornings after summer rain events. Box turtles are often captured and raised in captivity and they can live a long time. Some box turtles may be a century old. They are ornately, and variably marked and typically grow from 4 ½ to 6 inches long. Their namesake comes from their high-domed carapace and hinged plastron, allowing them to close themselves up “in a box” when they feel threatened. Males have red, yellow, or orange eyes and a concave plastron (bottom shell). Females have brown eyes, a flatter carapace and flat plastron. Omnivores like most turtles, they feast on earthworms, insects, berries, mushrooms, and carrion. Box turtles have a very strong homing instinct and when found crossing the road, they should be helped across in the same direction they are travelling, otherwise they will just end up back in the road as they continue to get to their destination. Box turtles that are released far outside their home range will wander until they die trying to make it home.
These are the species we have documented and identified up to this point. Are there other turtle species in Lake Lure that we have not documented? It is quite possible. It’s not always possible to know what lies under the surface. We know that just recently, spiny softshell turtles, a species known to occur in the lower Broad River basin, have been found just below the Lake Lure dam, knocking on the door. Have these turtles always been there and were just undocumented, or have they arrived through a release or escape? I’ll have to get back with you on that one. Anyway, the next time you find a turtle as you venture out on the lake, take a picture and send it to me. Maybe you will find something we didn’t previously know about. Until next time!
Clint Calhoun is a naturalist and biologist and has worked in Hickory Nut Gorge for over 20 years. He is currently the Environmental Management Officer for the Town of Lake Lure. Check out Clint’s blog at http://clintcalhounadventures.blogspot.com.