Wood turtle © Joe Crowley
The wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) is one of Ontario’s most attractive turtles. Its neck, chin and front legs are a striking orange-yellow colour. The carapace (upper shell) of this species can reach a length of 23 centimetres and is highly sculpted; the scutes (enlarged scales on the shell) are raised and an irregular pyramidal shape. The plastron (lower shell) is yellowish with black or brown blotches around the edges. Hatchlings are three to four centimetres long at birth and lack the sculptured shell and bright coloration of adults.
The plastron of the Blanding’s turtle is similar to that of the wood turtle but is hinged, the undersides are not brightly coloured and the carapace is not sculpted. Spotted turtles are much smaller than wood turtles and have bright yellow spots on the carapace, which lacks the sculpting of the wood turtle carapace.
In Ontario, wood turtles live, mate and hibernate in rivers and streams with a medium rate of flow, typically those with deep pools, undercut muddy banks, log piles and a bed of sand or gravel.
During the summer, wood turtles spend most of their time on floodplains and in woodlands that border their aquatic habitat. These turtles also use other types of habitat, including fields, meadows, swamps and bogs. The females nest in sandy areas (often sand or gravel bars) that receive lots of light.
Wood turtles are omnivores: they eat both plants and animals, including fruit, leaves, mushrooms, slugs, worms and other invertebrates. These turtles are considered to be extremely intelligent, and some individuals have been documented to stamp their feet on the ground to cause earthworms to come to the surface. Wood turtles can travel long distances, covering areas of over 350 hectares, and can be found more than 600 metres away from any water. Some females travel up to five kilometres in a short period of time just to find a good place to lay their eggs, which they do from late May to mid-June in Ontario.
Until recently, this species was considered to be a member of the genus Clemmys, along with the spotted turtle. DNA analyses indicate that these two species are not closely related, and the wood turtle is now considered to be in a different genus, Glyptemys.
Threats and Trends
The wood turtle is declining across much of its range, and many populations are now isolated from each other. Poachers collect these strikingly coloured turtles, and people take them home as pets. Illegal collecting has decimated many wood turtle populations. Removing even one turtle from the wild can eliminate a population in areas where only one or two are taken every year! Loss, degradation and fragmentation of habitat threaten this species throughout its Ontario range, and often result from agriculture, logging, and shoreline development along the rivers that this species inhabits. Road mortality and use of agricultural machinery and off-road vehicles also pose significant threats to this species.
Current Status and Protection
The wood turtle is currently listed as Endangered under the Ontario Endangered Species Act, 2007 and Threatened 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 wood turtle as Vulnerable. The species’ status was last confirmed in 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.