Meet The Turtles of Will County

Nature has a way of balancing itself out, and turtles are an example of that. These reptiles are among the slowest creatures roaming the Earth. However, their shells offer them the protection they need because of their lack of speed.

(Photo by Chad Merda)

More than 200 species of turtles live across the world, but only 17 live in Illinois. Of those 17 species, 11 live in Will County. Two Illinois turtle species — the Blanding’s turtle and spotted turtle — are state endangered. Another, the ornate box turtle, is state threatened.


Endangered and threatened species have populations that have reached critically low levels, but many turtles are affected by habitat loss and alteration of habitats. In addition, some turtle species are captured for the pet trade and some are overused for food.


There are a few things you can do to protect turtle populations wherever you live. First, don’t collect turtles or their eggs from the wild. And don’t release pet turtles into the wild.


Taking it a step further, don’t let other pets, like cats and dogs, roam freely outdoors. Pets can spread parasites and disease in natural areas, and they prey on native wildlife. Around your house, don’t feed wildlife of any kind, and avoid using mesh netting for erosion control because animals can become trapped or injured.


If you spot a turtle crossing the road, remove it from harm’s way if possible by placing it safely off the roadway in the direction it was traveling. (And make sure to wash or sanitize your hands afterward.) If the turtle is heading away from water, trust that it knows what it is doing. Turtles often travel away from waterways to nest. If you move it opposite of the direction it was traveling, it will likely start its journey over again.


Let’s take a closer look at the turtles that populate our local waterways. But first, some turtle basics. For example, a turtle’s shell actually has a few technical terms. The top of the shell is called the carapace, and the bottom is the plastron. Scutes are the bony plates that make up the carapace. The scutes are made of keratin, just like our hair and fingernails.


Here are more details about the 11 turtles that live in Will County.


Common snapping turtle

A common snapping turtle. (Photo courtesy of Paul Dacko)

Common snapping turtles are the largest turtle in northern Illinois. Another kind of snapping turtle, the alligator snapping turtle, also lives in Illinois, but only in the southern part of the state. The two turtles are the only two snapping turtle species in the world.


These large turtles can have shells ranging from 8 inches to 18 inches long, and they can weigh between 8 pounds and 35 pounds. They have long tails, and in some cases a snapping turtle’s tail can be longer than its shell. Like many turtles, they eat a combination of plant and animal matter.


Snapping turtles live in all kinds of waterways, but they prefer shallow waters with muddy bottoms that are surrounded by vegetation. They are known for being aggressive on land, but they are more gentle in the water. They don’t pose threats to swimmers because they will try to escape rather than confront the threat.


Painted turtle

A painted turtle. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Painted turtles are the most common turtles in North America, and they live across the entire United States. These turtles are easy to identify from their bright red and yellow markings and stripes, giving them their painted appearance.


They are medium-sized turtles, with shells ranging between 4 inches and 10 inches long. Their upper shell ranges from green to black in color, and their bottom shells are mostly yellow.


Painted turtles typically live in shallow waters full of plants. They spend most of their time in water, but often sun themselves on rocks and logs along the water. These turtles eat both plants and animals. Younger painted turtles typically more aquatic animals, and older turtles feed more on plants.


Spotted turtle

A spotted turtle. (Photo via Shutterstock)

If you spot a spotted turtle, consider yourself very lucky. These turtles are endangered in Illinois, and they are mostly known to live in the northeastern part of Illinois. Most recently, these turtles are reported to live in only two places in Will County and nowhere else in the state.


The population of spotted turtles is threatened by loss of habitat due to the development of urban areas in northeastern Illinois. The turtles are also affected by natural succession of wetlands, which is the normal process of how vegetation changes in a habitat area.


Spotted turtles are small, about 3½ inches to 4½ inches long. They have black shells with yellow spots, and they also have yellow spots on the tops of their heads. They typically live in shallow wetlands, and they eat aquatic plants and animals. Spotted turtles are aquatic, but they do spend time sunning and basking on land.


Blanding’s turtle

A Blanding's turtle. (Photo by Chad Merda)

Blanding’s turtles are the only other turtle, in addition to the spotted turtle, that is endangered in Illinois. Many factors negatively affect their population, including habitat destruction and habitat fragmentation.


These turtles mostly live in the shallow, quiet waters of marshes and lakes as well as in the wetlands of prairies and meadows. They are medium-sized turtles, with shells between 7 inches and 9 inches long.


Blanding’s turtles have dark-colored shells covered in lighter-colored spots and markings. They are most easily recognizable because of their yellow chins that give them the appearance of smiling. They mostly eat other animals, including insects, crayfish and snails.


Northern map turtle

A northern map turtle. (Photo courtesy of Joel Craig)

Northern map turtles got their name because the markings on their top shells are said to look like what waterways or roads look like on a map. In older map turtles, the lines may not be as visible because of darker pigment in their shells.


Northern map turtles, also known as common map turtles, typically live in slow-moving bodies of water, like large lakes and the backwater areas of rivers and streams. It’s not uncommon to see them sunning themselves on rocks and logs, but they jump back into the water whenever disturbed.


These are medium-sized turtles, with males between 3½ inches and 6½ inches long and females between 7 inches and 10 inches long. They are omnivores, and they eat a lot of aquatic insects and small crustaceans. Females are larger than males, so they also eat mussels, clams and crayfish because they can crack the shells.


False map turtle

A false map turtle. (Photo via Shutterstock)

False map turtles are similar in appearance to northern map turtles and other map turtles, but they can be distinguished by a vertical bar behind their eyes. They also don’t have an eye spot that is usually visible on northern map turtles.


False map turtles usually live in rivers and the backwaters of rivers that have muddy bottoms. In Illinois, they are most common in the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. They prefer areas with plenty of places for basking, but like northern map turtles they quickly slip back into the water if there are any disturbances.


These turtles are similar in size to northern map turtles, with females about 1.5 times larger than males. They eat plant and animal matter in about equal quantities.


Eastern box turtle

An eastern box turtle. (Photo by Chad Merda)

We typically think of turtles as aquatic animals, but box turtles like the eastern box turtle are an exception to this. They predominantly live on land, usually in wooded or forested areas or along the edges of wooded areas. Often they are seen near water sources such as ponds or streams or in areas that are wet from heavy rainfall.


Eastern box turtles can be distinguished from other box turtle species by the bright yellow and orange markings on their dark shells. They are small- to medium-sized turtles, with shells ranging from 4½ inches to 6 inches long.


Because they don’t live in water, their diet is different than most of our local turtles. Like many other turtles, they are omnivores. They typically eat fruit, fungi, insects, eggs and some small fish and amphibians.


Wonder why they are called box turtles? It’s because of their shells close up entirely like a box, with their heads and legs safely inside. Their shells close up so tightly that even small insects can’t get inside.


Ornate box turtle

An ornate box turtle. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Like eastern box turtles, ornate box turtles mostly live on land, preferring sand prairies in northern and central Illinois. These turtles are threatened in Illinois and are not nearly as common as the eastern box turtle.


Ornate box turtles are similar in size to eastern box turtles. They have dark brown shells with a yellow stripe and yellow lines coming out from the center of each scute. Some ornate box turtles have spots on their heads.


Ornate box turtles are omnivores, but they eat more animal matter than many other turtles. Their primary food sources are insects, worms, snails, tadpoles, bird eggs and carrion, which is dead animals.


Red-eared slider

A red-eared slider. (Photo courtesy of Paul Dacko)

The red-eared slider is the most common turtle in Illinois. It is one of three subspecies of the pond slider, and it is the only one that lives in the state. They are named for the red or reddish-orange patches on the sides of their heads, although only female and juvenile red-eared sliders have these patches.


Red-eared sliders are medium-sized turtles, ranging from about 5 inches to 8 inches long. Like many turtles, young red-eared sliders eat mostly small aquatic animals, and the older turtles eat mostly plants.


They live in permanent bodies of water, including rivers, lakes and ponds. They prefer waterways with muddy bottoms. They are often seen basking on rocks and logs near the water’s edge. The term “slider” in their name refers to their ability to quickly slide into the water while basking.


Eastern musk turtle

An eastern musk turtle. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Eastern musk turtles are one of the smallest turtles not only locally but in the world, typically measuring just 2 inches to 5 inches long when fully grown. These turtles are also called stinkpots because they release a smelly substance when they are threatened.


These tiny turtles typically have grayish-brown dome-shaped shells and yellow stripes on their necks. The hatchlings mostly eat aquatic invertebrates and dead fish. As they get older, they begin to eat more plant matter than animal matter.


Eastern musk turtles live across Illinois and most of the eastern United States. They are not very strong swimmers, so they prefer still or slow-moving waters. Because they prefer shallow wetlands, they are considered an indicator of clean water and healthy wetland habitats.


Spiny softshell turtle

Think all turtles have hard, protective shells? Think again. Three softshell turtle species live in North America, including the spiny softshell turtle, which lives right here in northeastern Illinois.


Spiny softshell turtles are one of the largest turtles that populate Illinois waterways, although they are not a large as snapping turtles. Females’ shells can be 7 inches to 19 inches long, and males’ shells are between 5 inches and 10 inches long.


Spiny softshell turtles usually live in slow-moving waterways with muddy or sandy bottoms. They eat aquatic animals, mostly insects but also crayfish and small fish. They camouflage themselves from their prey by burying themselves in the mud or sand at the bottom of the water, leaving their heads exposed to catch prey swimming by.

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