Friday, September 23, 2011

Turtle Quest

A warm autumn afternoon is a gift not to be squandered

If you were to design a tree-climbing animal, it would probably only have one characteristic in common with a painted turtle; claws. But those claws would not be short, or attached to stubby feet splayed to the sides. You certainly wouldn’t throw a shell on its back.

And yet the painted turtle does climb, climbs out of the quiet streams and perches high above them. I’ve seen these small adventurers as much as three feet above the water. Painted turtles are most obvious in spring and fall when they leave the cool streams to bask in the sunshine and raise their core temperature to 60 degrees(F) or above so they can digest any food they’ve eaten.
Painted turtles don’t care for the lower Penobscot, the water moves too quickly, and there are no lily pads. I find the best place to look for painted turtles is along quiet streams filled with branches. We often head to the Souadabscook Stream because it is close by; though I was quite impressed by turtle counts along the Narramissic River, and no doubt there are many other streams filled with turtles.

The painted turtle is one of ten turtles finding residence in Maine. It’s not found throughout Maine, but only within a fifty mile stretch in from the coast.

Climbing is not the painted turtle’s only success. It is the most widespread turtle in North America, and in much of its range, the most numerous. Fossils show the painted turtle has existed for fifteen million years. Like many turtles, the painted turtle can obtain some oxygen below water, using special filters in their mouths and cloaca (yes, they breathe through their butts) But painted turtles go beyond that and, while hibernating, can survive in an area depleted of oxygen for well over a hundred days. It is a mastery of internal chemistry which allows them to use their bones to prevent lactic acid from building to fatal levels Adult painted turtles have a very high survival rate; the turtle you see basking on a log this year has a 95% chance of being there again next year.

And painted turtles may live to be over 40 years old. One study implied that painted turtles never grow old, and would live forever if not for such accidents as being devoured by a predator or crushed by a car.
Another thing about painted turtles is that they are maddening difficult to photograph from a kayak. If I get close they leap from tree trunks and scramble from lily pads. At a distance they magically avoid coming into focus. But still I try.

Maine’s painted turtles hibernate through the winter, burrowing up to three feet into mud located below shallow water. They ignore winter altogether, preferring a life of endless summer, and that alone is a reason to envy them.

Sources used:
The Wild Woods Guide From Minnesota to Maine, the Nature and Lore of the Great North Woods, by Doug Bennet and Tim Tiner
Wikipedia, Painted Turtles
Maine Herpetological Society
The Straight Dope
Curious Nature by Tom Pelletier


  1. Awesome post! Thanks for this. I'm enjoying a beautiful fall Sunday morning catching up on what my favourite paddle bloggers are up to!

    Also, thanks for this reminder about turtles. I saw baby snapping turtles poking out of the nest (50 of them!) and heading to water on my last trip to the Adirondacks, NY, and got pics and a little story of that coming soon.

    Happy fall paddles! It's the best time of the year.

  2. Glad you enjoyed the post. The snapping turtle hatching sounds awesome! What an amazing event to witness!

  3. Fabulous Cloud Photo! What a beauty of a day!

  4. Thank you; I thought of you yesterday as I watched them capture and release a hummingbird at Bangor Public Library. Alas, no cellphone/camera.