Posts Tagged ‘turtles’


The Falls of the Ohio State Park is a place of discovery.  So many new lifeforms have been described by science in the Devonian limestone fossil beds alone.  And of course, the Lewis and Clark Expedition which both began and ended at the Falls of the Ohio did much to help illuminate the breath of this country.  Magic keeps occurring in this amazing place and the following post is about one such recent and personal find…meet the aptly named “Smiling Tortoise”.



The Smiling Tortoise or Clemmys helmeti  is a very rare terrestrial turtle now found in just one location in the world which is the Falls of the Ohio State Park.  It was once presumed extinct.  Since being designated an Indiana state park…this elusive reptile has been seen more often in the last ten years than in the previous hundred years before the park came into existence.  Perhaps the added protective status has emboldened it to show itself more?  Park visitors have supplied a steady, if still infrequent sightings of it to the staff at the Interpretive Center.  Over the years, I have learned the best way to find something is to not look for it.  That was certainly true in the case of the Smiling Tortoise.  Although I have always wanted to see a living example, it took 14 years of patience before I came across one last November.


We have experienced the warmest and driest Fall season I have ever lived through in the Kentuckiana area.  On such a warm November day, I happened upon a specimen that was gorging on bracket fungi growing on a decayed log.  In my enthusiasm, I took plenty of images and perhaps got a little too close by picking this one up to examine it.  I wanted to check out its shell on its belly or plastron to see if this individual had been tagged by the park naturalists when I carelessly picked one up.  Despite its benign appearance, it possesses a strong bite from a large mouth and its neck can move whip-like as it turns to defend itself from a threat.  I count myself lucky not to have lost a digit, still it bit me!


I cut myself with my trusty Swiss Army knife or get poked by something else sharp out here every once in a while and so I have a small supply of bandages that I always keep with me.  Forewarned, but not undaunted, I carefully held the turtle by the top of its domed carapace and held it so it couldn’t reach me.  Above, it is all white, but underneath, there is a little color.  I didn’t have my measuring tape with me, but it’s roughly the size of your head.  Here’s what the ventral side of the Smiling Tortoise looks like.


This marvelous creature sports a yellow tail which is stained by the turtle’s own urine and by a particularly musky gland found at the tail’s base.  The plastron has this unusual design and its concavity told me it was a male.  The reason for the slight indentation is to give a bit more of a “foot hold” when attempting to mate with the female of the species which of course, also possesses a domed shell.  This specimen exhibited healed wounds on its feet perhaps when a predator decided to try to eat it?  The fact that this one was still around testifies to the ability of this turtle to take care of itself.  When I showed the park naturalists my images, they were pleasantly surprised to see that this specimen did not have an identification tag on it.  So, this turtle was new even to them!



After carefully releasing the turtle, I moved away to a discreet distance to see what would happened next?  I followed it as it moved through the woods investigating every groundhog hole and space around the trees and rocks, but what was it searching for?



Since this is still a cold-blooded animal, the unseasonably warm weather perhaps roused it from its winter hibernation or perhaps it was still looking for that perfect den or burrow in which to over winter?  Not finding anything suitable, the Smiling Tortoise left the riverbank and headed back into the woods.


Along the way, I was able to observe a few additional behaviors.  For the longest time, this tortoise regarded a hunk of river-polished Styrofoam.  I saw it poke the waste polystyrene both with its head and front feet.  When it didn’t respond, the Smiling Tortoise moved on.  This next image is going to be a little harder to explain…take a look.


Well, your guess is as good as mine on this one!  Even the park naturalists were at a loss.  Something about this discarded large bottle of sports drink that floated into here from who knows where stimulated this behavior.  The turtle unable to mate with this bottle left the area in obvious disgust as it hissed its disapproval.  This was the only sound I heard it make.



With the day drawing to a close, I decided to say good-bye and good luck to my scaly acquaintance.  I picked up my hiking gear and collecting bags and turned around and headed toward the Interpretive Center.  I was feeling stoked by the experience!  I hope the turtle eventually found an acceptable burrow and is fast asleep as a gentle snow now falls in Louisville.  Until next time from the Falls of the Ohio.


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First, I would like to thank all the people who checked out my last post on the box turtles.  The response has been pretty overwhelming and I’ve enjoyed everybody’s comments.  The Eastern Box Turtle isn’t the only turtle to be found at the Falls of the Ohio State Park and this post is about that other mysterious and rare reptile. It’s called the Cottonwood Turtle (Terrapene populus) and its habitat overlaps that of the box turtle.  On a warm and humid morning I was exploring the eastern section of the park around the debris line formed by a retreating Ohio River.  Plastic bottles and containers and the ever-present polystyrene chunks helped define the high-water mark.  We have had so much rain here and it’s officially Kentuckiana’s wettest spring on record!  I was mesmerized watching and listening to the Cedar Waxwings pursuing each other from mulberry tree to mulberry tree and whose fruits are just now beginning to ripen to a glossy black.  The air was filled with the fine downy fluff produced by the catkins of our giant cottonwood trees and seemed like so much snow falling in ultra slow motion.  The chances of inhaling this fluff are real and white airy drifts were forming on the ground where the air currents pushed this gossamer material with its tiny secret of seeds within.  With so much going on, I was surprised to catch a slight bit of movement inside a nearby hollow log.  I remained still and this is what I saw.

Emerging into the light of a new day was this very ancient looking turtle.  Of course I recognized what it is and determined to follow it and make a record of my observations.  I kept a discreet distance away and tried not to make any sudden movements or loud noises so the turtle would act as naturally as possible.  I kept up with it for a several hours and then I had to pull myself away for home.

The Cottonwood Turtle is characterized by a high-domed carapace that the original inhabitants of the Ohio Valley used for war and ceremonial helmets.  Unlike the box turtles which it shares some affinities with…the Cottonwood Turtle cannot retract its head and limbs fully into its shell.  This makes it vulnerable to predators.  I watched my turtle crawling over the plastic and Styrofoam debris left by the last flood.  It seemed to be going somewhere with a purpose and I followed discreetly behind it.

The previous night we had another tremendous rain storm with high winds.  Mud, broken branches and leaf litter evidence can be found everywhere.  I followed my turtle to a large cottonwood branch and saw it engaging in the activity that gives this remarkable reptile its name.

Over the course of about an hour, I watched the turtle carrying mouthfuls of the Cottonwood fluff to a hole that it had previously prepared.  It made about a half a dozen trips back and forth from the downed branch to what looked to my eye to be an abandoned groundhog hole that the turtle retrofitted for its own purpose.  The fluff was carried  into the hole where a special chamber was being prepared for this turtle’s eggs!

Here is the Cottonwood Turtle about to finish laying her eggs.  I observed about five ping pong ball-sized eggs being deposited upon their bed of cottonwood fiber.  I suppose the fluff cushions the eggs and perhaps as this material decays provides some modicum of warmth to assist in the incubation?  From what I have read, new turtles should be emerging from their subterranean nursery after sixty days.  After the turtle covered her nest with her back legs she moved on.  From this moment, the eggs and baby turtles to be are on their own.  I gently uncovered some of the soil and photographed this single egg.  Afterwards, I placed the egg back into the nest, re-covered it and went on my way happy to have witnessed this ancient rite of life.

It occurred to me on my walk back through the tangle of bottomland, that this turtle might be benefitting the tree as well?  I haven’t heard or read anything concerning a link, but what if?  The fluff contains minute seeds and the act of burying them might aid in propagating this tree.  The turtle places these seeds a little deeper than usual which might encourage stronger and deeper root growth.  Since this area is frequently altered by the river, it would make sense for the tree to have a deeper hold on the soil?  I came across another downed cottonwood branch and admired all the fluff it was producing.  It all looked so beautiful and magical in broad daylight.

Overhead the orioles were collecting their own materials to build their amazing hanging basket nests.  And the Cedar Waxwings were fueling up on the mulberries in preparation for their long migration up into the north country.  One last image of one of these waxwings.  Such an interesting and beautiful bird so uniquely marked.

Although I may have fooled some people out there (wink, wink)…the Cottonwood Turtle doesn’t actually exist!  I made it from junk I found here in this very real environment at the Falls of the Ohio.  The shell or carapace is the cushioning from inside an old bicycle or motorcycle helmet and I have found several of these helmets after the last flood.

I used three pieces of Styrofoam…the shell, head, and one piece under a chunk of fiberglass-like material to fill the space inside the helmet.  Limbs are pieces of found wood attached to the lightweight fiberglass.  Everything is joined and pegged together with wood skewers.  I did use some found plastic for the actual neck and mouth of the turtle.  The eyes are round lead fishing weights and the nostrils are pieces of coal.  Thanks for tagging along!

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With the record rains and high water at the Falls of the Ohio State Park, 2011 has already become a memorable year.  Of all the wildlife I have observed this Spring, the sightings of so many Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina) has added to the mystique of this year.  My history with this engaging turtle in this park is slim.  During the eight previous years I’ve come across live specimens only twice.  On two other occasions I’ve found the intact carapaces of deceased turtles, one of which had a pellet-sized hole in its shell.  Their relative scarcity reinforced the idea that although this is a widespread turtle in our country, it was becoming less common for many reasons including habitat loss, road kills, and wild animals collected for the pet trade.  What I’m about to present is a portfolio of eight individual box turtles that I have seen and photographed over the last two months.  No doubt the flooding helped concentrate them in ever shrinking territories and this is why I came to find them.  I tried to be careful in handling and left them where they were found.  The first turtle I came across was in the western section of the park and here are two images of it.

This one was found after the first flood.  It has really interesting and colorful beading on its neck.

The Box Turtle #2 was found swimming to higher ground during the height of the second flood in May and in the eastern section of the park.

Box Turtle #3, I found twice in the same day in the eastern section of the park.  Here is what it looked like. Note that the second scute bears what looks like a lower case letter “a” on its shell.

And now for the opposite side of turtle #3…

Here’s the same turtle the second time around and this time he has found a friend!

At first I thought this was a male and female turtle, but I didn’t check anything but eye color which in this case was on the red side indicating the chance they were both male.  When I came across them, they were certainly aware of each other.  The larger of the two box turtles may have been the older specimen based on how worn its shell was.  I’ve heard that counting the growth rings on these turtles is not a reliable way to determine their ages.  My field guides indicated that this is a long-lived turtle with individuals easily living to 40 to 50 years and in rare cases possibly a 100 years old.  Here are three images with Box Turtle #4.

Box Turtle #5 …I only have one image of it mostly retracted in its shell.  This one is also from the eastern section of the park. 

Box Turtle #6 is very colorful and was found near the Interpretive Center during the height of the flood.  Although it’s hard to tell…it’s standing on the remains of a refrigerator that floated in with the Ohio River.

The next two turtles are the smallest ones I’ve found thus far and each was found in the eastern section of the Falls of the Ohio State Park.  This is Box Turtle #7.

Here’s the underside of the same turtle showing the plastron and the hinge that allows the box turtle to completely hide inside its shell.

To close, I have three images of Box Turtle #8 and its the smallest yet.  One other thing I noticed about this little guy was that it was missing part of its left front foot which had healed from whatever injured it.

Another image to help provide scale using a quarter for a guide.

Of all the info I learned about box turtles, the fact that most surprised me is that if left alone they can live their entire lives in a relatively restricted area the size of a football field. They become so habituated to this territory that if they are moved from their familiar surroundings they can become dislocated and fail to thrive.  This is a good reason not to take these turtles out of the wild. I placed #8 on the ground wishing it well.  It pleased me knowing that there were at least this many box turtles in this small park.  I wonder how many others I will come across before year’s end?

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Red-eared Turtle, 6/08

This is a very lucky Red-eared Turtle.  I first came across this old guy more than a week before this picture was taken.  Far from the river I found it stranded among the driftwood.  I thought that was unusual at the time, but dismissed it by saying to myself that the turtle got there without my help and could get away whenever it wanted to.  I turned and left it alone.

Red-eared Turtle, dorsal view, 6/08

Red-eared Turtle, ventral view, 6/08

When I returned to the site much later, I saw the turtle was still there.  It was then I realized that the last bit of flooding had in fact stranded it.  Looking to be in good shape, I picked it up and made these photos.

Russel Athletic Turtle, 6/08

Every now and then I come across some truly one of a kind turtles.  This is the Russell Athletic Turtle.  It’s carapace (the name of the top shell) in this case mimics the padding found in protective pads of football gear.  It’s usually found nearer the trees than the water, although it’s reputed to be a good swimmer when pressed.Russell Athletic Turtle, 6/08


The Russell Athletic Turtle is fond of grazing on the newest tufts of river grass found at the Falls.  It’s geographically limited and so is considered a threatened species worth conserving.

Black Softshell Turtle, 6/08

Black Softshell Turtle, 6/08

No where else on the planet can you find the spectacular Black Softshell Turtle, except for this park.  The above images are groundbreaking because this exceedingly rare turtle hasn’t been recorded in many years.  These are also in all probability the only known color images.  At the Interpretive Center a few, old grainy images of this softshell turtle are preserved in the library and the museum boasts a partial skeleton in its collection.

Black Softshell Turtle, 6/08

Like other members of the genus Trionyx, the Black Softshell Turtle lays it’s eggs in a sandy nest excavated by the female in a suitable riverbank.  I watched this specimen for several minutes before it returned to the river and hoped that I wasn’t watching the last of its kind slipping beneath the waters.  At least these images will help keep its memory alive. 

Wondering what happened with the Red-eared Turtle I started this post with?  I carefully picked up the turtle by the edges of its shell, being sure not to get my fingers in harm’s way, and placed it at the river’s edge.  At first, the water washed over the top of his shell and the turtle’s head and legs remained tight within.  Slowly, the water revived this turtle and I watched it disappear into the Ohio River.

Red-eared Turtle, 6/08

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