Turtles all the way down

An all turtle post!!

Since I’ve gotten better at shooting them and can’t just carpet every paddling post in turtle pics, I decided to give them one of their own.

Who doesn’t love a turtle? Or three?

Willow flowage trio

All these shots (until the end) are of eastern painted turtles (Chrysemys picta). They’re highly adaptable and found all over the North American continent. The Western species is yellow instead of red, but all are brightly colored. They like slower waters, preferably with muddy bottoms and plenty of plants and logs or rocks to bask on.

Spirit river

They use their feet to regulate heat absorption and I love the crazy ‘yoga poses’ they get into. Especially late in the season when the days are shorter, colder and the sun less intense. I paddle very quietly and carefully so I don’t disturb them and make them go back into the cold water. It will be time enough for that.

Somo river back-channel
Somo river

When I looked at this in next one in Lightroom I realized she has a damaged back foot. No claws. I wonder what happened to her? She was very patient with me though and I appreciated her posing.

Wisconsin River (near the house)

Here’s another (a male this time) with front foot damage. Must be rough to be a young turtle when you’re a tasty snack for so many!

Somo river

They are omnivorous as adults, eating various plants and algae along with small crustaceans, fish and insects. When they’re babies they eat more like carnivores – sometimes doubling in size in just a single season. Super important when you can be eaten by an otter or raccoon. Typically a clutch has fewer than ten eggs, and sometimes only two! The little ones are the size of a quarter when they hatch and can live to thirty years, reaching sizes from only 4-5 inches in most males, and as big as 10 inches in females.

Spirit river

Most of the turtles in these shots are females. I learned that you can tell the difference by the size of the claws. Males have longer ones (on front and back feet) so they can hold onto the females during mating. Given their shape and the rigidity and slickness of their whole outer bodies, I can see why these would be necessary accouterments. Another gender difference, more subtle, is the wavy edge that some females get in their carapaces as they age. Scroll around and see how many grand dames you can spot.

Somo river

I seldom see the really little ones quick enough to get a shot (one smaller than this one escaped me earlier in the day), but this wee one let me drift quite close. So cute!!! It’s maybe 3 inches long.

Spirit river

When turtles go through a growth spurt they shed layers of their carapaces in big flakes. I caught this one doing just that. I love the swirl of red in them. Those sections are called scutes. There are vertebral scutes and costal scutes. The vertebral type are, as you might deduce, connected to vertebra in the turtle’s spinal column – they’re in the middle, running down from neck to tail. The costal scutes are further out and finally, on the rim we have the peripherals. The scutes are made of keratin like hair, horn and fingernails.

Somo river

Other bones are also part of the framework that shores up the turtle shell – ribs come into it and are highly modified to support the carapace. In mammals they evolved to protect vital organs, but with these guys, the shell takes on that duty and ribs become flattened and ossified to the shell. It varies from species to species, but clavicles and pelvic bones are also transformed, fused and sometimes incomplete. Occasionally bones are found in strange places. Like the shoulder blades – they’re inside the ribcage! Think of how pulled out of proportion it would be for them to work in that position!

Somo river

This one gave me a flash of plastron. Speaking of plastrons, did you know that structure developed first in the evolution of the modern turtle? It seems counter-intuitive, but the discovery of Odontochelys semitestacea in 2008 showed a complete plastron, but an incomplete carapace – the first ever found. It is estimated to be 220 million years old which is about 5 million years older than other turtle specimens found with complete top and bottom shells. Turtles don’t have a sternum and a few sets of ribs are also absent; the bony material transformed into the plastron.

Somo river

The plastron and the carapace are connected by what’s called the bridge. Like the thing you drive over, there are struts to hold things firm; in this case two of them, one in front and one in the back. Depending on the species the pelvic girdle may be transformed for this duty and insert into sutures on the underside of the carapace. Some turtles have a floating pelvis. Crazy.

This next one has some damage to the shell – probably from a boat or a car. They can be tough and this one seems to be doing fine. When the turtles’ shells first evolved I’m sure none envisioned having to take on something made of steel moving at speeds unimagined. Please boaters – start your engines after making plenty of noise and vibration and then pull away slowly. And just slow down drivers…turtles aren’t fast and can’t get out of your way!!

Somo river

And just so you don’t think I keep all my turtle photos in color –

Somo river back-channel

I’m a road turtle rescuer and will always stop for one that needs a hand. I hope you do, too. This next turtle needs special equipment if you’re going to move one off a roadway. I don’t encourage handling a snapping turtle if it’s bigger than your hand. They have VERY long necks (about half as long as their shells) and I don’t need to tell you about their bite! I use an entrenching shovel to move them when they get this size (about 10 inches). They never seem very happy to have my assistance. Grumpy things.

Spirit river back-channel

I nearly ran over this one in the kayak one day. Not the first time that’s happened. They like to sit in reeds or grass and feed or just regulate temperature. Zen turtles. This one let me maneuver to a better angle and take its picture. It was finishing a meal. Maybe some poor little frog. But that’s nature. Notice the algae on the shell. Now I know why they’re covered in it so much (and are so smelly!!) – they spend a lot of time barely covered in water in strong sunlight – algae heaven. Also check out what I think are leeches behind the neck at the edge of the carapace. Oh ick.

So there you have it. My first all turtle post. It might not be my last. I really need to park and observe for a while until I see a soft shelled turtle that I can photograph. Earlier this year I saw one slip into the water and under my kayak, so I know where they are. Just have to have patience. And sit still. Like a turtle.

6 thoughts on “Turtles all the way down

Add yours

  1. Turtles, like frogs, are creatures that just make me happy. Perfect post as a result! I enjoy the nature lesson and photos, so I await more. Eagerly!

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