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Basking turtles (Family Emydidae)

   Peninsula cooters, Pseudemys floridana peninsularis, are probably the
 most commonly seen aquatic turtles, and can be found along the edges  of most of the canals and impoundments when the conditions are right for basking.  At other times, they can  be found by looking in dense mats of floating vegetation, where you can see their heads poking out, and can sometimes observe them grazing on the foliage.
   Cooters will nest in most months of the year, but probably do so most frequently in late winter-early summer.   To nest, females leave the water and find a higher, dryer site to dig their nest, sometimes hundreds of meters from water.  This female was finishing up her nest along the main road into the refuge, only a couple hundred meters from the refuge entrance.   Like many aquatic turtles that are normally quite shy out of the water, once these females begin laying, they are oblivious to disturbance until they are done burying the eggs, and can be approached closely.
     The nesting habits of cooters are quite unique, and evidence of failed nests can be easily found along the edges of the dikes most times of year.  Females dig three nest holes, and deposit most of the eggs in the center nest, but lay one or two in each of the side (satellite) nests, perhaps for insurance.  It doesn't seem to work - nests dug up by predators, probably most frequently raccoons, nearly always have all three chambers exposed.  The eggs from this nest were hatched in the lab and the young turtles were released back to the refuge.
  Closely related to the cooter is the Florida red-bellied turtle, Pseudemys nelsoni.  Unless you can see one well enough to notice the patterning or coloration of the carapace, they can be difficult to distinguish from cooters.  They are found in the same areas as cooters, but have a different, but also unique, nesting strategy. Females sneak into the territory of nesting alligators and bury their eggs in the mound of vegetation created by the mother alligator to protect and incubate her own eggs.  In so doing, the turtles gain protection from nest predators due to the presence of the female alligator, and reap the benefits of the warmth generated by the decomposing vegetation of the gator nest.
  Chicken turtles, Deirochelys reticulata, bask extensively on vegetation and structure.  I rarely see them at Woodruff, suggesting they are the least common of the aquatic basking turtles.  It is often difficult to see identifying characteristics on adult turtles, however, as their carapaces are sometimes covered with algae.  The net-like pattern on the carapace of this individual, from which they derive their specific epithet reticulata, is nearly obscured by the plant growth.

Box Turtles (Family Emydidae)

  Although they are in the same family as the aquatic basking turtles, Florida box turtles (Terrapene carolina bauri) are more terrestrial, and can be found in any of the hammock habitats on the refuge.   They are most easily found in spring-fall after heavy rains, when they come out from under cover to feed or sometimes just to sit in pools of water and soak.   Although they are typically thought of as woodland turtles, our studies of movement patterns of radiotelemetered individuals at Woodruff show that some individuals spend weeks at a time in the middle of marsh habitat.
  Its not uncommon to find mating pairs of box turtles, as mating can occur in most months of the year.  This is a pair that has just finished mating, and the male has been tipped over backwards by the movement of the female.  He has a concavity on his plastron to allow him to balance on top of the female's carapace while mating (not completely on top - his hind legs are on the ground or clamped into the back of the female's shell). 

Snapping turtles (Family Chelydridae)

Although reputed to be common in most of Florida, I've seen snapping turtles, Chelydra serpentina, at Woodruff on only a couple of occasions.  There's no mistaking the big powerful head, as well as the serrated rear margin of the shell. 

Musk turtles (Family Kinosternidae)

  Kinosternids are primarily aquatic turtles, but striped mud turtle, (Kinosternon bauri) spends considerable amounts of time out of water wandering around on the dikes or in nearby hammocks.  The three yellow stripes that run down the back of the carapace are often indistinct in older individuals.  A big adult is no more than 4-5" long.
  Quite similar to mud turtles superficially are the stinkpots (Sternotherus odoratus).  They lack the stripes down the back, and have a smaller plastron, if you are lucky enough to have one in hand.  Though they will wander around on land as well, I don't find them as frequently as mud turtles.  Both species will bite if you give them a chance. 

Softshells (Family Trionychidae)

  This alien-looking beast is a Florida soft-shell turtle, Apalone ferox. Females  grow quite large (up to 2' in length), while males are usually no more than 10".  They are also primarily aquatic.  They are voracious predators, and will bite hard if handled carelessly.
  Like female cooters, female softshells are sometimes seen out on the dikes laying eggs in spring and summer.   They lay their eggs in a single hole, and nests that have been dug up by predators are easily identified by the brittle, spherical egg shells.  When intact, they look like miniature ping-pong balls.  Like female cooters, softshells are quite wary unless you are lucky enough to catch them in the act of laying.  Once they've begun the process, they complete it regardless of who's watching.  While I photographed this female, 3 fish crows stood about 20' away watching her as well. I suspect they dined well after she and I left.

Gopher tortoises (Family Testudinidae)

  The gopher tortoise, Gopherus polyphemus, is a truly terrestrial turtle, and is restricted to higher upland habitats where the soil and water table allow them to dig their extensive burrows.  On the refuge, dozens of burrows can be found by simply looking along the railroad track embankment south of the refuge entrance.  Burrows are also common in the xeric hammock adjoining this area.   Not all burrows are active.   The highest densities of active burrows seem to be near recently burned areas, where new herbaceous growth provides better forage for these herbivorous turtles.
  Gopher tortoises are considered by ecologists as a "keystone species", because they provide an "ecosystem service" that is critical to the survival of many other species in the community.   Dozens of species of animal use the burrows of gopher tortoises for shelter; some, such as gopher frogs and gopher mice, are dependent on these burrows for their existence.  This cute little guy, who might be mistaken for a small box turtle, is a recently hatched gopher tortoies.

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