2017-07-20 / Nature

Aquidneck Island Haven for Turtles

By Charles Avenengo

A group of painted turtles leisurely sunning at the Norman Bird Sanctuary. (Photo by Carmen Rugel) A group of painted turtles leisurely sunning at the Norman Bird Sanctuary. (Photo by Carmen Rugel) Beyond the myth of the tortoise and the hare, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Dr. Seuss' Yertle the Turtle, there are actually wild turtles on Aquidneck Island.

Turtles are reptiles of the order Chelonia. In Rhode Island, there are seven native species of terrestrial turtles. On Aquidneck Island, however, only four types are present.

The most dramatic of the island land turtles is the snapping turtle. Everybody has a snapping turtle story. Observers tend to marvel at their large size and prehistoric looks, and this is because they are indeed ancient. Snapping turtles have been around for 90 million years, well before the dinosaurs. They are widespread, found from Boyd’s Marsh in Portsmouth, south to Easton’s, Lily, and Almy ponds in Newport, and on virtually all the larger wetlands and bodies in between. Tolerant of polluted and brackish water, a snapping turtle can grow to 20 inches and weigh up to 35 pounds.

This snapping turtle was photographed on Coggeshall Avenue in June. 
(Photo by John Palmer) This snapping turtle was photographed on Coggeshall Avenue in June. (Photo by John Palmer) After the snapping turtles, the most common species on the island is the familiar painted turtle. They are also widespread and found in most of the island’s waterways. Currently, they can frequently be seen sunning, often in groups, on emergent rocks or logs. However, an observer’s rapid movement will send them plunging into the safety of the water.

Two other native species are present on the island, although compared to the above species, their numbers are considerably fewer. They are the spotted and the box turtle. Both types are listed as “state protected,” so possession of these animals without a permit is prohibited.

The spotted turtle, which is small with a black back and yellow spots, is a striking-looking species. With box turtles, the line becomes blurred between those that are native and those that have been released into the wild. Popular as pets, they are frequently released into the wild after outliving their desirability at home.

Painted turtle. 
(Photo by Carmen Rugel) Painted turtle. (Photo by Carmen Rugel) A fifth turtle species on the island is the red-eared slider, which is nonnative. It is also popular in the pet trade, and similar to the box turtle, sliders are illegally released into the wild. Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s State Herpetologist Chris Raithal believes that as a result of these illegal releases, red-eared sliders have become established on the island. “They can handle our winter climate and are here to stay,” he said.

Then there are the marine turtles. Arguably one of the most mysterious creatures on earth, four species can be found during the summer months; Kemp’s Ridley, leatherback, loggerhead and green turtle.

Unless one is on a boat offshore in Rhode Island Sound, there is little chance of seeing a sea turtle. Much of what is known about them comes from data gathered from stranded turtles.

“Newport is a pretty busy place for turtle strandings,” said Janelle Schuh, stranding coordinator for Mystic Aquarium’s Animal Rescue Center.

Mystic Aquarium is responsible for all marine mammals and turtle strandings in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Fisher’s Island, New York. According to statistics provided by Schuh, there have been 102 marine turtle strandings in Newport County since the stranding database began in 1987, with the vast majority being expired animals. By species, 64 were leatherbacks, 33 loggerheads, and two were Kemp Ridleys. The other three were unidentifiable. During this period, an additional three green turtle strandings were recorded in Washington County.

Marine turtles are large. Even the smallest, the Kemp’s Ridley, grows to nearly 100 pounds. Loggerhead and green turtles grow to about 350 pounds, but the prize for size goes to the leatherback. Adult leatherbacks average 600 to 800 pounds, while the record specimen, recorded from Pakistan, was a monster of nearly seven feet in length and 1,433 pounds.

Leatherbacks are also remarkable for other reasons. With an estimated average lifespan of over 40 years, a male will never go ashore after birth, spending his entire life in the ocean. Only the females come ashore to lay eggs.

Perhaps most remarkable is their primary food source, which is jellyfish! What makes this remarkable is that the jellyfish are simple animals without a specialized digestive, central nervous, respiratory or circulatory system. They are composed of 95 percent water. Therefore, the mystery is how are these gelatinous animals able to fuel the gigantic leatherback?

The other three marine turtle species dine on a more conventional diet. Kemp’s Ridleys and loggerheads dine primarily on crustaceans and mollusks, respectively, while adult green turtles are herbivores, feasting on seagrasses and algae.

Turtle Thoughts:

In Rhode Island, the possession and sale of native turtles is illegal. Only snapping turtles may be taken, and then only special harvesting techniques may be employed.

Turtles crossing roads, especially in spring, are often encountered. These are generally females moving to lay their eggs. While helping them to cross the road might save them, taking them to where you think might be a better home is, in reality, most likely a death sentence. Turtles have a great sense of direction. Moving them to a new site will only result in an attempt by the turtle to return to where they were originally taken from. The additional distance will add to their ordeal. Unwanted turtles seen in gardens are generally just passing through.

A stranded marine turtle should be reported to local authorities or the 24-hour Mystic Aquarium Stranding Hotline at 860-572-5955 ext. 107.

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife for more than 40 years.

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