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Looking for an Intelligent Reptile Pet? – Consider the Wood Turtle

Most turtles become quite responsive to their owners (especially near feeding time!), and a great many show impressive abilities to learn and adjust to new situations. In my experience, however, few approach the wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta, formerly Clemmys,) in these areas.

Testing Turtles

Herpetologists and experienced turtle enthusiasts consider the wood turtle to be among the most intelligent of the turtles – in lab tests, they consistently scoring higher than other species on maze and reward-association tests. In my experience, captives exhibit a degree of curiosity and problem-solving abilities not evident in other turtles.

“Thinking” before Acting?

While all turtles soon come to associate their owners with food, wood turtles rarely rush about “begging” each time one approaches their enclosure, as do other species. Instead, they most often look intently at their benefactor – deciding, it seems, if it would be “worthwhile to beg”. A group I worked with would always regard me carefully as I passed, but only scrambled for position if I carried their food trays.

These turtles were housed in a 6-foot-long cattle trough, tilted on one end to form a pool. When I drained the enclosure, they invariably gathered near the drain to snatch leftover food carried there. Turtles that missed a morsel of food would peer down the drain for some time, often changing angles to get a better view. Again, they seemed to “consider” the situation – not wasting effort trying to retrieve a food item that was unreachable.

Turtles Tricking Earthworms

Earthworms, a favorite food, are lured to the surface by stomping the front feet and the plastron against the ground. It is believed that earthworms interpret the vibrations as rain, or that the vibrations stress the worms and force them upward – hammering a piece of wood into the ground often has the same result. This is the only turtle known to employ such a technique.

While this behavior may be instinctive and does not necessarily indicate intelligence, one has to wonder why other turtles do not do so. It would be interesting to discover if all wood turtles do this, or if a degree of learning is indeed involved.

I’ll cover wood turtle care in the future. Please write in with your questions and comments. Thanks, until next time, Frank Indiviglio.

Further Reading

An interesting field report on how habitat development affect wood turtles is posted at http://www.woodturtle.com/Saumure%20and%20Bider%201998.pdf.

To read more about reptile intelligence, please see my article Learning: Observations of Zoo Animals (Lizards).


  1. avatar

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  2. avatar

    Umm where to begin. My husband was given a large wood turtle by some people that were moving out of their house. Now we have this turtle (Henry). I’ve been letting him roam the vegetable garden because he’s so large (guessing about a foot and a half to two feet). But with it getting colder out (we’re in PA), we don’t know if he’d be okay out there or what to do. We can’t possibly get a tank big enough for him. Please help! What should I do?!

    • avatar

      Hello Angela, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog. The turtle would not likely survive the winter in your garden, as wood turtles need hibernation sites with very specific characteristics. If you’d like to keep the animal indoors over the winter, he will most likely remain fairly inactive, and eat very little, at room temperatures…semi-dormancy as opposed to true hibernation. A small animal cage would be a better alternative than a tank for a full grown wood turtle – easier to clean and move about, larger than a 55-75 gallon tank, and less expensive.

      If you would like to find another home for the turtle, I suggest contacting Forgotten Friend Reptile Sanctuary in Lancaster, PA. The folks there are very dedicated and may be able to help you out or provide a reference to a closer adoption center. Please be back in touch if they are unable to help you, and I’ll make some inquiries.

      Good luck and please let me know how it turns out.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    Thank you so much for responding so quickly. So perhaps a puppy cage with the metal tray? What would I put in there? Wood shavings and a food and water bowl? A tv for entertainment and turtle wax for grooming? (Just kidding about the last two). I want him to feel comfortable. At this time I don’t want to send him to a rescue. The family loves Henry. As turtles go, he seems to have a lot of personality so it makes it hard to just give him away now.

    • avatar

      Hello Angela, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for the feedback. “Turtle wax” – in all my years in the field, I’ve not heard that one!

      If you are in touch with the prior owner, please check on the turtle’s behavior during the winter, as this will effect how it should be housed. Wild-hatched turtles usually remain rather inactive when kept indoors in the winter, while captive-hatched ones often stay active and feed. I’m assuming yours was wild-caught, given that it is an adult…it’s only recently that this species has been bred in any numbers in the trade.

      A puppy cage may work, especially if the turtle is calm in general or remains semi-dormant. However, if active it may rub against the bars and injure itself, or climb and fall – this is especially common with turtles that have been kept outdoors. Small animal cages with plastic bottoms are safer…large turtles may still reach past the plastic to the bars, but usually difficult to climb. Unfortunately, much of this must be determined by trial and error, unless you can reach the former owner.

      Cypress mulch is an ideal substrate for large turtles. If the cage cannot accommodate a bowl large enough for soaking, remove the turtle and allow to soak elsewhere 1-2x weekly. A shelter should be provided…despite having a shell, turtles also hide themselves. Most of the he commercially available ones may be too small – the Giant Turtle Hut may work. You can alsa improvise by wiring a large plastic plant a few inches above the cage floor…the turtle will push under this to hide.

      A UVB source is advisable, but not absolutely necessary as the turtle is an adult and I’m assuming will have access to natural sunlight in the spring.

      If the turtle remains active and feeding, please be back in touch as you may need to raise the temperature a bit.

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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