Freshwater Friends

Springtime showcases the secret life of Great Lakes turtles // Photography by Carl Sams
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The Painted Turtle is the state reptile of Michigan.

They outlasted dinosaurs and surely will outlast us. And here’s a surprise: Turtles can talk.

“In the last decade, it was discovered that turtles actually vocalize, just at a decibel that humans can’t hear,” says Chelsea-based herpetologist David Mifsud, an authority on Great Lakes turtles.

In their small secret lives, Michigan’s turtles go about their business with little fuss. They bask in the sun to thermoregulate. When sleeping or distressed, they will use their shells for protection. After 10 to 15 years or so, some species start breeding. Some can be reproductive in three to five years. Some turtles have a longevity of up to and even exceeding 100 years. Other species, Mifsud says, may live 20 to 30 years.

It may be that the turtle you saw in a certain cove last week is the exact same turtle your grandfather saw 25 years ago at the very same spot!

“Great Lakes turtles don’t migrate like sea turtles,” says Julie Champion, from the Lake St. Clair Metropark Nature Center. “They know that what they’ve got right here is what they need.”

Through his company, Herpetological Resource and Management, Mifsud works to protect the state’s declining turtle populations. Julie Champion, Eastern District interpretive supervisor for Huron-Clinton Metroparks, educates visitors on turtle lore and care.

Michigan has no tortoises or sea turtles, but it does have 11 species of freshwater turtles, and some can grow to a foot long. The rarest is the tiny Spotted Turtle. The most common are the Painted, Snapping, Northern Map, and Red-Eared turtles. All have a carapace (hard shell), and most are aquatic.

The Blanding’s Turtle is one of Michigan’s rarest.

To see some turtles, Mifsud and Champion recommend checking out fallen logs in quiet coves, on muddy riverbanks, or around inland ponds on a sunny day, especially in spring. Even better is spotting them from a kayak or canoe, where you can drift closer.

If you don’t have luck out in the open, head to a Michigan nature center. Lake St. Clair Metropark in Harrison Township, for example, has eight of Michigan’s turtle species in large aquariums. There, you can better appreciate the strange variety: the cheerful Painted Turtle; the rubbery, beige Eastern Spiny Softshell; the noble, rare Blanding’s; or the saucy, Red-Eared Slider. You may find turtle displays at other nature centers around the state, as well.

More closely related to dinosaurs and crocodiles than lizards or snakes, turtles have survived 200 million years due to their shell protection and cautious ways. A turtle will look at you, size you up, and decide whether you’re safe or scary. Its motto? Retreat to the shell, and all will be well.

Michigan’s native Anishinaabe people believed Mackinac Island was formed by the shell of a great turtle. Even older native legends say that North America itself rests on a turtle’s back.

For those who live by the water or love the water, that sturdy image is comforting.

“Turtles have been on Earth for a long time,” Champion says, “and they’re
still here.”

Here are more turtle secrets:

  • Turtles live in every corner of Michigan, even on the remote Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior.
  • Some species have great vision and can hear through vibrations.
  • Turtles have no teeth, but they use powerful jaws to eat small snails and crustaceans.
  • The Painted Turtle is Michigan’s official sate reptile.
  • Aquatic species of turtles survive Michigan winters by digging into mud at the bottom of ponds and lakes. Incredibly, they absorb enough oxygen through their skin to stay alive underwater, even under the ice.
  • If you see a turtle on a road, it’s probably a female looking for a spot to lay eggs. Only pick up a turtle on the road if it is safe to do so. When moving one, carefully place it to the side of the road where it was facing.
  • Never take a turtle home. They have enough trouble surviving the loss of habitat, pollution, and the danger posed by raccoons and skunks without having to deal with you.

You can help biologists keep tabs on Michigan’s turtles by reporting sightings to Herp Atlas at miherpatlas.org.

Pandemic restrictions may affect operating hours at the various Huron-Clinton Metropark nature centers, so check ahead at metroparks.com.

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