North American Wood Turtle

Clemmys insculpta

The North American Wood turtle is a rare and unique turtle that exploits an incredible personality. It is by far one of the more personable turtles that exist on earth. It roams the north eastern part of the United States from southern Nova Scotia south to northern Virginia then northwest to eastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa all the way up to southern Quebec. Wood Turtles are still quite abundant in their range but with collectors and hobbyists getting more and more into them, they will soon start to disappear. Earth conservation is plays a large role for the wood turtle’s survival. We must conserve as much of their habitat as we can. If we can’t do that to specific locations, then we should relocate the turtles to an area that we can conserve. There should also be state land that is restricted so there is no public access at all. Wood turtle populations that have no public access are known to have a slight increase in population. Those that are available to the public have a strong decrease in population. The bottom line is that Wood turtles need our help and anything you can do to help them would be greatly appreciated, whether it be running a captive breeding and release program, removing one off the road and placing it on the other side or reporting people you know collecting them to make a quick buck.

The wood turtle is a completely grayish to brownish color with dark blotches in the marginals of the bridge and on each scute of the plastron. The shell is slightly widened and is partially but not always indented at the bridge. Wood turtles range in size from 7 inches to about 9 inches. Sometimes individuals may even approach one foot in length. They have a blackish head which is very large. Males have the largest. The outer skin is dark brown with red, orange or yellowish pigment on the neck, legs and feet. When the shell is dry, the scutes take on a spider web-like pattern. They are extraordinary creatures if you pay close attention to them.

The difference between a male and female wood turtle can easily be distinguished. Males are usually larger with a concave plastron and a much longer and thicker tail, whereas the female will have a flat plastron and shorter and thinner tail. There is usually no difference in coloration between the two with exception to some slight discolorations in their eyes. Males are usually 7.5 to 9 inches in length and females are usually 7 to 8.25 inches.

These turtles are found in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana Wisconsin and many parts of Canada.

These turtles are usually found in cold slow moving waters that rarely reach above 70 degrees, however sometimes they find themselves stuck in strong currents where they have to battle to get air. The streams they are found in are usually unpolluted and fairly shaded with a few patches of sun breaking through the tree tops. They are often found roaming fields surrounding the streams where food is often available as well as great egg-laying sites for females. Wood turtles are more likely seen in the water in early morning hours as they usually retreat to the stream at nightfall. Late morning around ten or eleven, they will usually climb up on shore in search for food. Their favorite place to go is by far corn fields where food is abundant, however once they get away from the streams they become much more difficult to find. In late May and early June the plants and vegetation get out of control surrounding their favorite stream allowing them to hide very well under brush. Wood turtles not only enter dry land for food and egg laying but to dry their skin off as well either in the sun or the shade. Drying of the skin prevents fungus from covering their body from head to toe, which can be fatal. The trees that are located near healthy wood turtle populations are oaks and maples. In certain areas, mainly northern populations there are pine trees surrounding their mountain streams.

Filtration for your wood turtle’s enclosure is very important as most bodies of water contain small pools of heavy concentrated ammonia which may lead to a severe respiratory infection. In order to prevent respiratory infections, I would advise you to put a very strongly powered pump to create a heavy spill way to push larger amounts of oxygen in the water. The more oxygen placed in the water, the more bacteria in the water, but not the bad bacteria, the good bacteria. This bacteria is known to fight the ammonia reducing your turtle’s chances of getting sick.

Wood turtles are mainly omnivores meaning they feed on both plants and animals. They usually stay away from fish, however in some cases one might nibble on it. Their favorite food tends to be an earthworm / night crawler. In captivity, these turtles are known to thrive very well when offered chicken, beef, bacon, insect larvae, corn, watermelon, banana, romaine lettuce, hotdogs, apple, strawberries, blueberries, ghost shrimp, cantaloupe, canned dog food, friskies cat food (wet or dry) and aquamax or Reptomin. In the wild, most of their diet seems to be insects and corn. In captivity, I have witnessed wood turtles eating pinkies, small frogs, small birds and small snakes; however I am sure you would rather not feed them those types of foods. Wood turtles will feed throughout the day unless it is in the middle of summer when it is extremely hot. Those days, wood turtles will most likely feed in early morning or late afternoon when it is shady.

Hatchlings are mainly carnivores, however whatever type of food you choose to offer, make sure that it is a variety, with an exception to some brand name foods, which tend to have all the nutrients needed.

Wood turtles are amongst the most aggressive breeding turtles found in North America. They are found breeding in the spring, summer and fall, just like box turtles. Breeding is something that takes place naturally; there is nothing you really need to do to encourage it with exception to a cool down period / hibernation and providing plenty of food and clean water. Males are so aggressive that they sometimes drown females in the process. This can be prevented in your wood turtle’s enclosure if you provide shallow waters or at least a ramp going from the deep end to the shallow end where she is able to stand and reach oxygen. During breeding the male tends to bite at the female’s head forcing her to retract in to her shell to a point where she would rather drown than get her head bitten. Breeding usually only occurs in the water unless the male chases the female on to land. The male’s main objective is to keep the female retracted in to her shell and in the water allowing him to take care of his business. I have witnessed plenty of full-sized male wood turtles breeding with extremely small females. Females that are 5 inches in length and no where near full maturity. This tells you that they have no preference in age of the female they are breeding with. What it comes down to is that males in heavily populated areas will most likely only come across a female once per day, if they are lucky twice. Sometimes in a single day, they might not even see another wood turtle. So they take advantage of any opportunity to track down any other wood turtle that comes across their path with intentions of mounting and breeding. Males are such aggressive breeders that they are sometimes seen breeding with other males. This does not necessarily mean the turtle is a gay turtle, of course there is no proof that turtles can actually be gay or not. The turtle most likely has no idea whether it’s male or female because it can’t see its head or tail as they both are retracted into the shell. The turtle refuses to pass up the opportunity to the possibility that it is a female and pursues to continue breeding. Wood turtles in the wild tend to take much longer to reach the nesting age. They may mature in 10-12 years of age in the wild but sometimes will not nest until around 20 years of age, especially turtles found in the northernest geographical locations, where the warmer season is shorter, thus the growing season is shorter. In captivity, wood turtles will lay eggs much earlier. It varies pending on how you house your turtle and what you feed it.

The best lighting is obviously natural sunlight but some people are unable to keep their wood turtles outdoors either because they don’t have the land for an enclosure or they would just rather keep a closer eye on them indoors. Lighting for your wood turtles indoors should require full spectrum lighting, just like for all turtles otherwise there can be some sever outer shell curling. A full spectrum lighting system provides all the UVB needed for your turtles to process their dietary calcium. The lighting can also encourage breeding for your wood turtles. If it’s at all possible, keep your indoor enclosure near a window just for additional lighting even though most of the UV is blocked by the glass. However do not rely on the sun coming through the window to provide all the lighting. In fact if that is all you provide, there is a chance your turtle will die, especially if it is a young wood turtle. You should pick up a full spectrum UV lighting tube at your local pet store along with a heat bulb on a clamped fixture. Make sure it doesn’t get too hot as your turtle can get dehydrated and die. It’s always important to provide a water source for your turtle with a strong lighting system. Just like humans, you should turn out the light at night allowing the turtle to be in the dark, just as it would in the wild.

After about 60-65 days of incubation, baby wood turtles will emerge from the egg. They emerge at about 1.5 inches in length and are very aggressive little guys. Almost immediately they will begin searching for small insects to feed on. Hatchlings are brown, pretty much a replica of the adult with exception to the coloration on the limbs. The babies tend to lack the bright colors as they develop as the turtle ages. One neat thing about baby wood turtles is that their tail is about the same exact size as their shell. Occasionally, in captivity you will have hatchlings emerge with bent tails, which occurs in the egg if the turtle backs up with force pushing its tail against the rear wall of the egg.

Hatchling wood turtles are amongst some of the hardest North American babies to raise. The best overall set up is for a half land half water enclosure. Depth of the water should be around one inch deep. Try and feed your hatchling only reptomin or aquamax. If you can’t get your hatchling feeding on reptomin and trout chow and you must feed it live, then I would advise you to feed a large variety of live insects and not strictly one type of insect. Some hatchlings when offered worms will only strictly eat worms and not get the proper nutrition needed to grow into a healthy adult. I prefer dusted crickets and or dusted earthworms, but only if it neglects the brand named foods.

Hatchlings are known to grow quite quickly if you offer them a strong variety of healthy foods. Baby wood turtles are not the best swimmers due to lacking the webbed feet, so I would strongly advise you to set them up in tubs with a depth of about 2 inches so it can stand along the bottom and still reach up and catch a breath of air. You probably see large adult wood turtles in their natural habitat in streams with a depth of up to five feet and wonder how the hatchlings survive. Hatchlings don’t always make it; in fact some are known to drown due to strong currents in the streams when it rains. They try and stay in shallower waters until they are at least four to five inches in length. During this time they spend most of their life clinged to debris in the water knowing that the debris will most likely reach the surface. A hatchling will generally spend most of its young life in the water and as it gets older, it will tend to wander on land a lot more.

This caresheet written by Al Roach at