A 'word' from the Old & Wise Turtles

Photos by Helen Heizyk, Museum Volunteer

All turtles have a “turtle shelled” common ancestor that goes as far back as the Triassic period, over 220 MYA. This makes the turtle “shell” older than most dinosaurs. Turtle like animals have seen most dinosaurs evolve, live, and go extinct during their own evolutionary journey on earth. Turtles have literally “ridden” the continents as they parted from Pangaea until now. Today we see some of these distant cousins as they bask on a stumps or rocks along shorelines, or as they lumber across the road on our way home from work.

In the northeast we have a somewhat unique species of turtle that has developed a soft carapace, and refined tastes. In the past few decades, the Eastern Spiny Softshell turtle has become more rare to see. They were once very common in the waterways of the Great Lakes and Finger Lakes, easily spotted as they hunted for small fish and invertebrates, or foraged for algae and some water plants. As a result of increased human activity, pollution, and loss of habitat and breeding areas, soft shelled turtles have reduced in number. They are not considered endangered as a species, but In the Finger Lakes area their numbers have dropped quite a bit over the last few decades. Locally, they are a species of concern.

Over the next few years, conservation organizations will be taking a closer look at why these numbers have begun to decline. Region 8 DEC is proposing a study to take place in 2019 to observe two active nesting habitats in the Finger Lakes. One is Sugar Creek (along FLM&A wetland) and the other on Lake Ontario. There are 7 historically active sites throughout the Finger Lakes but only the above two have had noted activity over the last few years. Their study will include placing trail cams at Sugar Creek along FLM&A property to observe these turtles throughout the season. Madeline Alfieri, NYSDEC Wildlife Technician, is leading this study and is encouraging citizens around Keuka Lake, Lake Ontario and the entire region to watch out for these turtles and please send pictures/locations of their sightings to her throughout 2018-2019. Her contact information is or 607-662-8273.

You can identify these turtles by their flat “water pancake” appearance, pointy snouts, and very long necks. They can be further verified by the appearance of spines that run along the edge of the carapace (top shell). They’re quite fast in the water, because the flat shell gives them a very good hydrodynamic shape. They are primarily an aquatic species, able to resperate underwater via structures in their mouths and cloaca, as well as using lungs to breathe air. If you see them in the area please take a photo, note its location and report to Madeline. Please don't try to pick them up unless they need to be moved from a dangerous place. As a result of these observations we hope to give the Spiny Softshell turtles a reason to come back, by catering to their needs a little more carefully. Turtles as a species are old and wise, and they are complaining about our poor stewardship of the surrounding areas. We at the FLM&A hope to offer some suitable habitat that will encourage them to stick around and grow in numbers. Oh and be careful, they bite!!

(Click on photos to enlarge)

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Sailor - Hank Osborne
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 Branchport, NY 14418

Tel: 315-595-2200

A Cultural and Natural History Museum