GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — With the warm weather finally here, humans aren’t the only ones out exploring West Michigan. Turtles are on the move, which means you’re more likely to encounter one along the shoreline or the roadway.
Alexa Warwick, an outreach specialist with the Michigan State University Extension, said Michigan is home to 10 different turtle species. While it’s important not to bother them, most Michigan turtles aren’t dangerous.
“Most of the turtles are really pretty harmless and aren’t going to do anything if someone is respecting their space,” Warwick told News 8. “The turtles are pretty active (right now). It’s the time that the females are laying eggs, so they are going to be leaving watery areas and looking for sandy ground cover to lay eggs into.”
If you come across a turtle, it’s most likely to be a painted turtle. As Michigan’s state reptile, they are the most widespread native American turtle. Adults grow to become 5 to 10 inches long, with a dark-greenish, black skin and red, orange and yellow stripes on their legs.
The second-most common turtle is the one you should try to avoid: the snapping turtle.
“The snapping turtle does look pretty fierce. They have the big, snapping front and their necks are very powerful, and they can get a lot of flexibility out of those necks,” Warwick said. “The bite itself, they’ve got a bit of a beak, so to speak. It’s pointed right at the end. So even if you get clipped just a little bit of it, it’s going to take some skin off. … I would not wiggle your finger in front of a snapping turtle.”
Warwick explained that unlike other turtles, snappers don’t have as much cover from their shells; they can’t completely pull their heads inside to safety. Snapping turtles aren’t inherently aggressive, but they will defend themselves if they feel threatened, particularly on land where they can’t move as fast.
“If someone encounters them in the water, they are more likely just to hide than to try to bite someone. So if you are walking through water, I wouldn’t be concerned about getting bit by a snapping turtle,” she said.
The common snapping turtle has some notable characteristics, including its pointed, beak-like snout, and a jagged row of “spikes” on its shell.
“People often describe them as dinosaur-esque,” Warwick said with a laugh. “They are the largest species that we have here in Michigan. They have these very distinctive, triangular protrusions along their back. None of the other turtles look quite the same in that regard.”
Like any other turtle, if you can, just leave it alone. If you have to try and move a turtle, be especially careful with a snapper.
“I wouldn’t recommend trying (to move a snapping turtle) unless you feel you can move them safely,” she said. “Hold the very back of their shell and try to move them off a road. That’s probably the only situation I would say about needing to go near a snapping turtle. Otherwise, let it be and everybody will be pretty happy.”
Do not grab them by the tail.
“It can actually break the tail or injure them. … The vertebral column goes all the way through their tail,” Warwick said.
Michigan is also home to the Blanding’s turtle, the common map turtle, the common musk turtle, the Eastern box turtle, the red-eared slider, the spiny soft-shell turtle, the spotted turtle and the wood turtle.
Of those 10 creatures, the spotted turtle is a federally threatened and the wood turtle, Eastern box turtle and the Blanding’s turtle are being monitored in Michigan as a special concern. Warwick says the spotted turtle’s basic instincts put it at a major disadvantage in most ecosystems.
“Their biology makes them really easy for people (and predators) to capture because they all congregate in one area,” Warwick explained. “They come back to the same burrows. The way that their biology is, they make it easy to be exploited, essentially. There’s very few of them and they suffer from the same situation that most turtles do. We lose a ton of tiny baby ones and we really need those fully mature adults to continue to keep the population going.”
As far as turtle encounters go, Warwick has a few tips. One, don’t approach a snapping turtle unless it is absolutely necessary. Two, if you do try to help a turtle cross a roadway, take them where they are heading, not back to where they came from. And three, if you come across a threatened or rare species, notify the authorities.
“The spotted turtle, the Eastern box turtle, the Blanding’s turtle or the wood turtle. If those happen to nest in your yard, we would really, really like to know that,” she said. “You can let the (Department of Natural Resources) know, but also the MSU Extension. We have the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, and they have a rare species form. So that is a great way to report a rare species.”