Ohio’s 12 species of turtles at a glance

In the following post, I note the distinguishing characteristics of Ohio’s turtle species, plus the counties in which they’ve been sighted.

Family Emydidae

Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata)

If you’ve seen a turtle basking in the sun in Ohio, and you’re wondering what kind of turtle it is, the odds are that it’s a Midland Painted Turtle.

Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata)

Note the red markings on the side edges of the turtle’s shell. Also note the red markings on the turtles neck and legs near the shell. While we’re at it, let’s note how cute that little baby painted turtle is. :)

Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata)

If you look at a Midland Painted Turtle from above, you’ll just see little red dots around the side edges of the shell. You might also see reddish markings on the turtle’s neck, legs or tail.

This is one of the most common turtles in Ohio, plus it’s easy to spot because it enjoys basking on logs or other objects near the water’s surface. To make it even more noticeable, it often basks in groups.

The carapace (upper shell) of the Midland Painted Turtle reaches between 4.5 and 5.5 inches in length, and it’s very dark green (nearly black). The turtle gets it’s “painted” characteristic from the bright red markings along the outer edge of its shell. The head typically has yellow stripes which may become red near the shell. The legs may also have red stripes.

Since 1976 Midland Painted Turtles have been sighted in the following Ohio counties: Adams, Ashtabula, Athens, Belmont, Brown, Butler, Champaign, Clark, Darke, Delaware, Geaugua, Guernsey, Hamilton, Knox, Lake, Licking, Lorain, Lucas, Marion, Medina, Miami, Morrow, Ottawa, Pickaway, Pike, Portage, Preble, Summit, Trumbull, Vinton, Wayne, Williams. Prior to 1976 the turtle was sighted in additional counties.

For more information, check out this Wikipedia page on Painted Turtles. Although this Wikipedia articles discusses several varieties of painted turtle, only the Midland Painted Turtle lives in Ohio.

Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)

Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)
Red-eared Slider with peeling shell (for more information about turtles shedding the outer layer of their shells, click here). Note that this turtle does not have red markings along the side edges of its shell. There’s also no red on the underside of its throat or on its legs.
Read-eared slider with peeling shell
Same red-eared slider, viewed from the front.

The carapace (upper shell) of the Red-eared Slider reaches 5 to 8 inches in length. Although the yellowish lines found on our Midland Painted Turtle may turn reddish near the shell and be mistaken for a “red ear”, here are a couple of things to keep in mind to distinguish the two. The carapace of a Midland Painted Turtle is an almost uniform, dark color with red spots around the edge (when seen from above). But the carapace of the Red-eared slider is lighter, and more variable in color with lighter brownish green areas and no red spots around its edge. If you look at the limbs of a Midland Painted Turtle, you’ll note that there is typically some red on the turtles legs. This is not true of the Red-eared Slider. And finally if you note the counties where the two species have been seen, you’ll see that the distribution of the Midland Painted Turtle is much more wide in Ohio.

The Red-eared Slider is a native to the Southern United States. It is believed that the ones found in Ohio are the offspring of pets that were released into the wild. Doing this is a really bad idea. In California where the Red-eared Slider was released, it is in the process of out-competing the native western pond turtle.

Since 1976 Red-eared Slider Turtles have been sighted in the following Ohio counties: Butler, Greene, Hamilton, Licking, Mahoning, Pickaway, Summit.

For more information, check out the Wikipedia page on Red-eared Slider Turtle.

Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata)

Clemmys_guttata_-_Buffalo_Zoo

This Spotted Turtle was published by Dave Pape under a Creative Commons license at Flickr.

The carapace (upper shell) of these turtles is usually between 3 and 4.7 inches. The background color of the shell varies from black to a bluish-black. The shell is sprinkled with yellow dots. It prefers to live in shallow wetlands and small streams, but may also be found in wet prairies and woods.

Since 1976 Spotted Turtles have been sighted in the following Ohio counties: Ashtabula, Clark, Cuyahoga, Greene, Hardin, Lucas, Ross, Trumbull, Warren. Their historic range included additional counties.

For more information, check out its Wikipedia page.

Wood Turtle (Clemmys insculpta)

Female Wood Turtle

This Wood Turtle (with a radio monitor on the rear of her shell) was published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region under a Creative Commons attribution license at Flickr.

If you see a wild turtle in Ohio, it’s probably not this species. Apparently a few specimens have been seen in northeastern Ohio, but we’re on the fringe of its range.

The carapace (upper shell) ranges from 6.3 to 9.8 inches long and is brown to grayish-brown in color. The head is black (it may or may not have spots on it). The throat may have a yellow, orange or red tint. They may be found in diverse habitats, but they prefer moving water with sand or gravel bottoms.

For more information, check out its entry in the University of Michigan’s Critter Catalog.

Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina)

He thinks he's hiding.
This Eastern Box Turtle thinks he’s hiding under these sticks. :-)

The carapace (upper shell) has a very high dome and reaches between 4.5 and 6 inches in length. The color of the upper shell varies; the background color it typically brown to black with yellow markings. The plastron (lower shell) has hinges in the front and back which allows the turtle to completely withdraw into its shell and shut the doors behind it. The ability to close itself within its “box” is how it got its name.

This is Ohio’s most terrestrial turtle which puts it at risk of being hit by cars as it tries to make its way slowing across a road. If it manages to avoid this fate, it is a very slow-maturing, but long-lived turtle. In the wild it can reach 100 years of age.

During the summer it keeps cool during the day by hiding in the shade or burrowing into leaf litter. It’s most active early in the morning and in the evening. If we’ve been having a dry spell, a rainy day will bring it out.

Since 1976 Spotted Turtles have been sighted in the following Ohio counties: Adams, Athens, Belmont, Butler, Clermont, Clinton, Cuyahoga, Erie, Franklin, Gallia, Greene, Guernsey, Jackson, Hamilton, Hocking, Knox, Meigs, Monroe, Montgomery, Morgan, Pickaway, Pike, Preble, Ross, Scioto, Vinton, Warren, Washington. Their historic range included additional counties.

For more information, check out its Wikipedia page.

Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii)

Blanding's Turtle

This Blanding’s Turtle was published by Zach Kilgore under a Creative Commons License at Flickr.

According to Wikipedia, the carapace (upper shell) ranges from 7.1 to 9.1 inches, but the Ohio Division of Wildlife says it ranges from 5 to 7 inches. Like the Eastern Box Turtle described above, the plastron (lower shell) has hinges in front and back, but the front hinge doesn’t work as well, so the Blanding’s Turtle can’t close up the front of its shell completely. The carapace has a dark background color with yellow specks. One of its most notable features is its yellow chin and throat.

In Ohio, Blanding’s Turtle is found in wetlands near Lake Erie. Occasionally it is seen walking overland from one wetland to another. Since 1976 it has been found in these Ohio counties: Cuyahoga, Erie, Lucas, Ottawa. In historic times it has been found in additional counties in Ohio’s northernmost regions.

For more information, check out its Wikipedia page.

Common Map Turtle (Graptemys geographica)

Common map turtle (Graptemys geographica)

Note the ridge going down the length of the shell from neck to tail. I took this photo of a Common Map Turtle in Delaware County which is outside of the region of recent sightings.

The female attains a length that’s about twice as big as the male. The carapace (upper shell) of the female gets to be about 10 inches long, while the male only makes it to about 5 inches. One very notable feature of the carapace is that there is a ridge running along the back from neck to tail. They are called “map” turtles because there are yellow lines on its back that are similar to those found on topographical maps. These lines are pronounced when the turtle is young, but they tend to fade away as the turtle grows older. The heads and limbs have yellow stripes.

These turtles like deep water, so they are typically found in lakes and large rivers. They are very wary about people and will quickly slip away into deeper water if a person draws close. They are the least likely turtle to be hibernating in the winter and have been spotted walking around under the ice.

Since 1976 Spotted Turtles have been sighted in the following Ohio counties: Adams, Columbiana, Marion, Ottawa, Pickaway, Williams. Their historic range included additional counties, such as Delaware where I photographed the turtle with algae on its back seen above.

For more information, check out its Wikipedia page.

Ouachita Map Turtle (Graptemys ouachitensis)

Juvenile Ouchita Map Turtle

Note the spines on the ridge of the back of this juvenile Ouachita Map Turtle. Also not the yellow dot under each eye and on each side of the jaw. This photograph was taken by Corey Raimond and is included here with his permission.

Like the Common Map Turtle, the female Ouachita Map Turtle grows much larger than the male. The carapace (upper shell) of the female can reach a length of 10.75 inches while the male’s carapace reaches a length of 5.75 inches. Also like the Common Map Turtle there is a yellow blob behind each eye. Unlike the Common Map Turtle, the Ouachita Map Turtle also has a yellow blob under each eye and on each side of its jaw. The two species of map turtle are also similar in that both species have a ridge on their carapaces that runs from neck to tail. However this ridge is somewhat different in the Ouachita Map turtle because its ridge has spines.

Since 1976 Ouachita Map Turtles have been sighted in the following Ohio counties: Pickaway and Ross.

For more information, check out its Wikipedia page.

Family Chelydridae

Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

Basking Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

Basking snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Note the sharp ridges on the long tail.

Snapping turtle

I photographed this Snapping Turtle swimming along the water’s surface. They often bury themselves in the muck at the bottom of wetlands, and this one’s back is still slathered in mud.

This is Ohio’s largest turtle. The carapace (upper shell) typically ranges in size between 10 and 19 inches, and these turtles usually weigh between 10 and 35 pounds. They are very aggressive if approached when they are outside of the water, and they have very powerful jaws. Unlike many turtles, about the only time they bask is at the very beginning of spring.

Since 1976 Snapping Turtles have been sighted in the following Ohio counties: Adams, Ashtabula, Athens, Belmont, Butler, Clermont, Clinton, Delaware, Erie, Fairfield, Franklin, Hamilton, Knox, Lake, Logan, Madison, Marion, Medina, Ottawa, Pickaway, Pike, Portage, Preble, Vinton, Warren, Wayne, Williams, Wood. Its historic range includes additional counties.

For more information, check out its Wikipedia page.

Family Kinosternidae

Common Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus)

Sternotherus odoratus

This Musk Turtle was published by Laurent Lebois at Flickr under a Creative Commons attribution license.

The carapace (upper shell) of this turtle ranges in length between 2 and 5.5 inches; it has an average weight of 1.33 pounds. It’s most distinctive mark is the yellow stripe near each eye. The “odoratus” in the scientific name is there because these turtles secrete a stinky, yellowish musk when alarmed. They will bite if they feel a need to protect themselves.

Since 1976 Common Musk Turtles have been spotted in the following Ohio counties: Clark, Hamilton, Jackson, Licking, Perry, Pickaway, Pike, Portage, and Scioto. Note that their historic range includes additional counties, so you may see one outside of the counties that I just listed.

These turtles are rarely seen outside of the water unless they are laying eggs. Surprisingly the female may not bother burying her eggs. All that matters to her is that the egg-laying site to be near the water.

For more information, check out its Wikipedia page.

Family Trionychidae

Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera spinifera)

Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle

The little bumps along the front, top shell are the “spines”. This photo of an Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle was originally published under a Creative Common License by rockymountainhigh at Flickr.

This is another turtle species where the females grow to be much larger than the males. The carapace (upper shell) of the female can attain a length of 7 to 17 inches making it one of the largest freshwater turtles in North America. In contrast the male’s carapace only grows to between 5 and 9 inches. On the leading edge of this turtle’s carapace, there are a series of conical projections under its rubbery shell which is why this turtle is said to be “spiny”. Unlike the Midland Smooth Softshell Turtles, the Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle has circular spots all over their backs, often with a noticeable ring around the spot.

There’s something about the rubbery shell and the long rubbery-looking snout that makes the turtle seem kind of peaceable. However this turtle is just as aggressive as a snapping turtle.

It is an excellent swimmer; its preferred habitat is the shallow portions of rivers where it will bury its body in sand or mud with just its head sticking out. Surprisingly it can “breathe” underwater. It can pump water in and out of its highly vascular pharynx and extract oxygen directly from the water.

Since 1976 Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtles have been sighted in the following Ohio counties: Ashtabula, Butler, Clark, Clermont, Clinton, Coshocton, Fairfield, Gallia, Hamilton, Licking, Logan, Lorain, Muskingum, Pickaway, Preble, Montgomery. Prior to 1976 it was seen in additional counties not listed here.

For more information, check out the Wikipedia page on Spiny Softshell Turtles. Although this page discusses several varieties of spiny softshell turtles, only the Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle lives in Ohio.

Midland Smooth Softshell Turtle (Apalone mutica mutica)

Midland Smooth Softshell Turtle (Apalone mutica mutica)
Midland Smooth Softshell Turtle photographed by me at the Lake Hope State Park Nature Center.
Midland Smooth Softshell Turtle (Apalone mutica mutica)
Underside of the Midland Smooth Softshell Turtle

In this species the female is also larger than the male. Her carapace (upper shell) reaches a length of 6 to 14 inches, while the male’s carapace only reaches 4 to 7 inches. Unlike the Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtles described above, the Midland Smooth Softshell Turtles does not have regular, circular spots on its back. What markings it does have on its shell are small, blotchy-looking little things. It likes to live near or on sandbars in large rivers.

Since 1976 Midland Smooth Softshell Turtles have been sighted in the following Ohio counties: Clermont, Hamilton, Muskingum. Prior to 1976 it was sighted in a few other counties not listed here.

References

I obtained the county sighting information from a PDF document published in 2008 by the Ohio Division of Wildlife, Reptiles of Ohio Field Guide. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) also publishes a nice overview of our turtle species here. For an interesting, yet easy-to-understand presentation on the anatomy of a turtle’s shell, check out this Wikipedia article.

© Deborah Platt, Robert Platt and TrekOhio.com 2012
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16 Responses to Ohio’s 12 species of turtles at a glance

  1. Carol Welsh says:

    That’s quite a story about turtles! I think turtles are such cool creatures. We had a box turtle as a pet when my daughter was young, named Sally. Thanks for all the information and the great photos… :-)

  2. SallyK says:

    Great quick reference for turtles! We recently saw someone pull a 35 lb snapping turtle out of a local boat lagoon. Don’t often get to such a big one up close. It was not happy and the fisherman was planning to release it once he figured out how to free it from his hook :)

  3. That Eastern Spiny looks so unusual! Very interesting feature!

  4. FeyGirl says:

    GREAT post! I’ve always wanted to do something similar on our FLA turtles, but I can never get decent close-ups. Fantastic information though, and I love how it’s all in one place…. This really should go into your area’s news resources, nature journals, etc. Have you thought about submitting?

  5. Timothy Turtle says:

    I have seen snapping turtles in Cuyahoga National Park (Cuyahoga & Summit counties).

    • Deb Platt says:

      I’ve also seen turtles in Ohio counties that are outside of their official range. At one point I found a page on the website for the Department of Natural Resources where you could report species sightings (sorry, I don’t remember where). However, when I filled out the form, that was that. I don’t know if it was of any use or not. There was no feedback.

    • craig says:

      ive ben catching eastern spinys and snappers in summit county also caught a quachita map turtle last year it was a baby no more than 1 month old

      • Deb Platt says:

        Craig, those are great examples of turtle species living outside of their expected counties in Ohio.

        I’d love to see a baby Quachita Map Turtle. The spines along the ridge on their top shell are supposed to be really pronounced.

  6. Jon says:

    We just had a snapping turtle cross our road from one wetland area to another in Richland county. I have a picture if interested.

  7. Elaine says:

    We live in Huron County and have numerous snapping turtles and box turtles. Today saw a smooth turtle. Looks like a eastern spiny but not sure Took a photo and a little video. Any ideas where we can send it for ID

    • Deb Platt says:

      I would love to see smooth turtle, so I’m a little bit envious.

      If you have a Facebook account, there is a group called “Herping Ohio” (https://www.facebook.com/groups/herpingohio/). You would have to request to join the group, but after getting in, you could post a photo to the group’s page and ask for help identifying it.

      Alternatively if you have a Flickr account, there is a group called, “Flickr: Ohio Wildlife ID and Appreciation” that might be able to help.

      If you do upload it to some site on the web, I’d be interested in its URL so I could see it, too (if it’s not too much trouble).

      Best wishes in your search for its identity!

  8. I have a great picture of a midland smooth soft shell turtle which is in my yard right now in Washington County Ohio. Its shell is 6 inches, so I take it that it could be either male or female?

    • Deb Platt says:

      The carapace length does seem to be in the range for either gender. If you have uploaded the photo to a site where you could share the URL with me, I’d be interested in seeing it.

  9. Susan says:

    just found a Midland Painted Turtle in my back yard (Wood County, Ohio) while mowing. Relocated him to the ditch.

  10. Jessica says:

    Very informative! I came to this site just to see if the turtle I found on my front lawn yesterday was native to Ohio or someone’s escaped pet, lol. Luckily, what I found was a Midland Painted turtle. I took him to the nearest park and let him go near the river. I didn’t want him to get injured or attacked by a dog in our residential area.

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