The spotted turtle is a small black turtle with distinct large yellow spots on its carapace (upper shell) and orange-yellow markings on its head, neck and limbs. Newly hatched young may lack spots on the carapace, which is neither serrated (notched like a saw blade) at the edge nor keeled (ridged down the centre). In older individuals, the spots on the carapace may fade, but they are still quite noticeable. The plastron (lower shell) is creamy yellow with large black markings. Males tend to have brown eyes and a dark chin; females have orange eyes and a yellow chin. This is one of Ontario’s smallest turtle species, the carapace reaching a maximum length of about 12 centimetres.
No other Ontario turtle has bright yellow spots on its shell and body. Blanding’s turtles have tan or yellow markings on the carapace, but these are irregularly shaped and more numerous and less vivid than those on spotted turtles. Blanding’s turtles also have a bright yellow chin and throat and a more highly domed carapace. Stinkpots may have light spots or streaks on the carapace when young but are easily distinguished by their significantly undersized plastron.
Spotted turtles live in small, shallow bodies of water, such as bogs, marshes, fens, coastal wetlands and small ponds. These turtles move short distances overland to lay their eggs or between overwintering and summer habitat. They usually hibernate communally in the mud at the bottom of wetlands, or in underwater burrows or cavities where the water is roughly 50 to 100 centimetres deep.
Female spotted turtles reach maturity at 12 to 20 years of age (sooner at more southerly latitudes). Reaching a certain size, rather than age, may determine maturity. Breeding can occur throughout the active season but is most common in the early spring. Females store sperm until it is needed to fertilize their eggs. They lay from three to seven eggs in June in a nest dug in sand, soft soil or mossy areas, generally in a sunny location; warmth helps the eggs develop faster. The temperature of the nest during incubation determines the sex of the offspring. Eggs hatch in September or October.
Spotted turtles are most active in the early spring when they are mating and nesting. Unlike most turtles, spotted turtles aestivate (spend the summer or dry season in a state of torpor) to avoid hot dry weather. They feed only in the water, searching for snails, aquatic insects and other prey or vegetation at the edge of ponds and wetlands. Spotted turtles can live to be over 50 years of age, and some individuals may get much older than this.
Threats and Trends
The spotted turtle is declining in Ontario because of numerous threats. A significant number of spotted turtle populations in the province have disappeared due to habitat loss (draining or filling of wetlands), habitat degradation (overgrazing, pollution) and illegal collection for the pet industry. Primarily because of the threat of poaching, authorities, researchers and conscientious citizens must not reveal the exact locations of spotted turtle populations. Other threats to this species include road mortality, predators, whose populations are artificially high due to human activity in the area, and the displacement of native vegetation by alien invasive species.
Current Status and Protection
The spotted turtle is currently listed as Endangered under the Ontario Endangered Species Act, 2007 and Endangered under the federal Species at Risk Act. The species has also been designated as a Specially Protected Reptile under the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act. These acts offer protection to individuals and their habitat. The habitat of this species is further protected in Ontario by the Provincial Policy Statement under the Planning Act. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the global status of the spotted turtle as Vulnerable. The species’ status was last confirmed in January 2010. Additional detail about legal protection for species at risk in Ontario is available on our Legal Protection page.
Learn more about reptile and amphibian conservation and what you can do to help these species on our Reptile and Amphibian Stewardship page.