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How to Care for American Wood Turtles (with Notes on Natural History)

I’ve kept nearly 200 turtle species at home and in zoos, and have studied others in the field, but I none-the-less place the North American Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) in a class by itself.  Alert and active, it has the well-deserved reputation as being among the most responsive (some say “dog-like”) and intelligent of all turtles.  Add to this a beautifully-sculpted carapace and brick-red to bright orange/yellow skin, and it becomes easy to understand their popularity among turtle enthusiasts.  The following information will enable you to meet their unique needs…please post any questions you may have, and be sure to share your own experiences with this most captivating of reptile pets.

Note: Wood Turtle populations have declined drastically.  Please purchase only captive-bred animals, and never take turtles from the wild.

Adult wood turtle

Photo uploaded to Wikipedia bt USGS

Natural History

The North American Wood Turtle ranges from Nova Scotia to Minnesota and Virginia.  They spend a good deal of time in swamps, streams and along river margins, but also forage in fields and open woodlands.

Wood Turtles drive earthworms to the surface with vibrations caused by stomping the front feet and plastron against the ground…the only turtle known to do so.  They seem to do this without prior experience, yet it “seems” like a learned behavior.  Uncovering the origins of this unique hunting strategy would be a fascinating project.


Wood Turtles take very well to captivity and quickly learn to “beg’ for food when their owner appears. They seem to exhibit a degree of curiosity and problem-solving abilities not evident in other turtles.  Wood Turtles consistently score higher than others on maze and reward-association tests.

At the Bronx Zoo, I housed a group of adults in a large, tilted cattle trough.  As soon as they saw that I was about to drain the tub’s water section, the turtles would move to the drain, jostling one another to get as close as possible.  As the water flowed by, they would grab bits of leftover food.  Each turtle would also very deliberately peer down into the drain once the tub was empty, apparently to check for missed tidbits.  They checked all angles, and the intensity of their scrutiny seemed quite different from that of most other species. Read More »

Supplies for Red Eared Sliders and Similar Turtles

Slider ReleaseTempted to buy that tiny green turtle being offered for a mere dollar or two?  While Red-Eared Sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) can make an interesting and responsive pets, their care is far more complicated (and expensive!) than most new owners expect.  In perhaps no other animal is the distinction between initial price and long term cost of care so great.  Furthermore, the care guidelines offered by many sellers are often overly-simplified and inaccurate.  Following is a list of everything you’ll need to provide a proper home for Red Eared Sliders and other species with similar lifestyles (i.e. Map, Painted and Side-Necked Turtles, Cooters), along with notes concerning each item.  An in-depth article about Slider care and natural history is posted here.

Do Not Buy Hatchlings!

Although newly-hatched Sliders are still offered for sale, usually at fairs, carnivals and street stalls, it is illegal to sell them (or any turtle less than 4 inches in length) in the USA, and has been since 1975.  The law was enacted by the Food and Drug Administration in response to Salmonella outbreaks linked to hatchlings. For further information on the Salmonella- turtle connection, please see this article.

Because Sliders grow much faster than most owners expect, turtle rescue organizations are swamped with unwanted pets.  Please consider adopting rather than purchasing a turtle; please post below if you need adoption assistance.  Read More »

Snake Conservation in 2013 – The “Year of the Snake” Begins

Eastern Indigo SnakeIn 2010, I highlighted a study that documented steep declines in a number of snake species.  Despite disturbing similarities to the “Disappearing Amphibian Crisis”, the snake situation seems not to have generated widespread concern.  In my own career as a herpetologist, opportunities to become involved in snake conservation were also limited. Although I was fortunate enough to work in programs designed to bolster the populations of several species, including Green Anacondas, Indigo and Hognose Snakes, most such efforts were short-lived.  I was pleased to learn, therefore, that a partnership of several major conservation organizations has made the plight of the world’s snakes a priority for the year 2013.

The Year of the Snake…your input needed

The Year of the Snake effort is spearheaded by Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, and was preceded the Year of the Turtle and the Year of the Lizard.  PARC will be joined by the Center for Conservation Biology, the Orianne Society and other notables (please click here for a complete list).  In addition to field research and captive breeding programs, public education will be a major component of each group’s activities.  I was very glad to see that input from interested non-professionals will be solicited.  This is an all-too-rare step, despite the fact that professionals, being limited in both numbers and financial resources, cannot begin to address the myriad conservation needs of the world’s threatened snakes.  Please see “What Can I Do”?, below, if you wish to participate. Read More »

Monitor Lizard Care, Natural History and Behavior – An Overview

Nile Monitor I’ve had the good fortune of caring for 15-20 monitor species during my zoo career. From the diminutive Storr’s to the massive Water, Lace, Crocodile and Komodo Monitors, all have instilled in me the feeling that they were, somehow, “more complicated” than other reptiles. Indeed, recent studies have confirmed that they are, among lizards, highly advanced.  While some are too large for the average household, several moderately-sized and even dwarf varieties are being bred by hobbyists, and all make fascinating and responsive captives.

The following information can be applied to the care of Savannah, Black Tree, Nile, Merten’s and most other monitors.  However, details vary; please post below for information on individual species, and be sure to add your own thoughts and observations on monitor lizard care.

Natural History

Seventy-three monitor species (Family Varanidae) range across Asia, Africa and Australia. Nile Monitors (Varanus niloticus), introduced to south Florida, are a major environmental concern there.  Lace Monitors (V. varius) and other large speciesare usually the dominant predators in their habitats.  While most dwell in warm regions, Desert Monitor (V. griseus) populations in Kazakhstan are adapted to Vermont-type winters.  Read More »

2012’s New Reptile and Amphibian Species – Snakes, Frogs and Lizards, Which is Your Favorite?

Sibon nebulatus in bromeliadAn amazing array of newly-discovered reptiles and amphibians grabbed our attention this past year.  The unexpected discoveries of an undescribed Leopard Frog in New York City and a Rainbow Skink in an Australian backyard reminded us that wonderful surprises surround us, if only we take the time to look and learn.  Frogs that dye human skin yellow, snakes that specialize in eating only eggs or snails, iridescent skinks sporting tails twice their body length…the list is simply astounding.  Today I’ll highlight a few that have especially captivated me; please post your own favorites (whether covered here or not) below.

Australian Rainbow Skinks

2012 was designated as the Year of the Lizard by several conservation organizations, so I’ll lead off with 3 new skinks that turned up in Queensland, Australia.  The brilliant colors of breeding males lend these tropical lizards their common names (please see article below).

The Elegant Rainbow Skink, Carlia decorata, was well known to folks in Townsville, Queensland, as a common garden resident. Upon taking a closer look, however, herpetologists realized that the colorful creature was an undescribed species. Read More »

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