Natural History

Turtles are part the order of Testudines, which are characterized by their bony shells. Their shells are skin-covered bones covered by horny scales and serve as their primary protection against predators. All turtles lack teeth but still have a sharp bite from the hard edges of their jaws. Like other reptiles, turtles are cold-blooded. This means that their body temperatures are regulated by the environment around them. In order to warm themselves, turtles will bask in the sun on rocks or logs sticking out of the water. These water dwelling creatures are native to the James River Watershed and the Chesapeake Bay area in Virginia.

The Nature Center is home to eight turtle species including the snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina serpentina), eastern mud turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum subrubrum), stinkpot (Sternotherus odoratus), eastern river cooter (Chrysemys concinna concinna), eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys picta picta), red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata), diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin terrapin), and eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina).

The snapping turtle is the biggest turtle we have at the Nature Center, capable of reaching up to 75 pounds and 1.5 feet long! This turtle can be found throughout Virginia and most of the United States. Today’s snapping turtles have hardly changed from 215 million years ago when Proganochelys, the most primitive turtle known, lived. Proganochelys already had most of the features of today’s turtles but lacked the ability to pull its head and legs into its shell. In comparison, the age of the dinosaurs was approximately 150 million years ago, 100 million years more recent than the first turtle. Turtles were one of the few reptile groups, which survived the impact of a six mile wide meteorite on earth and the following nuclear winter about 65 million years ago, which is known as the K-T boundary. To put things into perspective: early humans evolved a mere short 3.5 million years ago.

Fun Facts

  • When agitated, snapping turtles have a tendency to use their strong beaks and snap at the annoyance. Once a snapping turtle bites something, its jaws lock, and it does not let go. They are very difficult to handle because their head and tail can stretch to two thirds the length of its shell, which allows it to easily move its head to bite.
  • Box turtle males usually have bright red eyes while females have brownish/orange eyes. This is not always 100% accurate.
  • The Northern diamondback terrapin is the only species of turtle in North America that spends its life in brackish water (water that is less salty than seawater).
  • Stinkpots have glands that produce a foul smelling fluid that is used for defense.
  • The eastern chicken turtle is endangered in the state of Virginia and is primarily found in southeastern parts of the state.