Discover Maryland's Herps

Maryland's Turtles and Tortoises (Order Testudines)

244 species worldwide, 19 species in Maryland

Overview of Maryland’s Turtles

As every school kid knows, turtles are the reptiles that carry their house around on their backs. In softshelled turtles, the shell is made of cartilage.  In hardshelled turtles, it is a bony extension from the ribs.  We use the shape of the carapace (top shell) and the plastron (bottom shell) as one characteristic to distinguish species.  The carapace can be flattened or domed, keeled or unkeeled, flared or rounded.  The scales, or scutes, may smooth or inscribed and rough.  The margins may be notched, serrated, or entire (smooth).  The plastron may have one hinge, or two, which allows the turtle to close up.  Or it may have no hinges.  Of course, colors on the shell as well as on the head, neck and legs are important.  We can sometimes use the color of the eyes to distinguish males from females.

Turtle and Tortoise Anatomy

There are six families and nineteen species of turtles (including sea turtles) that can be found in Maryland.

Turtle Family

Number of Species & Subspecies in Maryland

Box and Water Turtles  (Emydidae)

11

Musk and Mud Turtles (Kinosternidae)

2

Snapping Turtles (Chelydridae)

1

Softshell Turtles (Trionychidae)

1

Sea Turtles

4

Box and Water Turtles  (Emydidae)

The largest family of turtles worldwide (they are found on every continent except Australia and Antartica), this family is represented in Maryland by eleven species of turtle.   With such diversity comes a variety of body types and habitat choices. Usually, the carapace is no highly domed, but there are a few species with high arches to their shells.  Many species have a plastron that hinges, allowing for complete or partial closure.  Several are almost completely aquatic while others are primarily terrestrial. The name Emydidae comes from the Greek "emys", meaning "freshwater terrapin" some of our turtles will also use brackish water.

Eleven of the nineteen species of turtles in Maryland are from this family. These include: bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii), spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata), wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta), eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina), red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), midland painted turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata), eastern painted turtle ((Chrysemys picta picta), eastern river cooter (Pseudemys concinna concinna), northern red-bellied turtle (Pseudemys rubriventris), northern map turtle (Graptemys geographica), and the northern diamond-backed terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin terrapin).

Click on a picture or species name for profiles
of each of the 11 species and subspecies of Maryland’s box and water turtles.

  Common Name Scientific Name State Status

Bog Turtle, photo courtesy of Scott A. Smith

Bog Turtle Glyptemys muhlenbergii Threatened

Spotted Turtle, photo courtesy of Tony Prochaska

Spotted Turtle Clemmys guttata  

Wood Turtle, photo courtesy of Linh Phu

Wood Turtle Glyptemys insculpta  
Eastern Box Turtle, photo courtesy of Scott A. Smith Eastern Box Turtle Terrapine c. carolina  
Red-eared Slider, photo courtesy of John White Red-eared Slider Trachemys scripta elegans  
Eastern Painted Turtle, photo courtesy of Corey Wickliffe Eastern Painted Turtle Chrysemys p. picta  
Midland Painted Turtle, photo courtesy of Linh Phu Midland Painted Turtle Chrysemys picta marginata  
Eastern River Cooter, photo courtesy of John White Eastern River Cooter Pseudemys c. concinna  
Northern Red-bellied Cooter, photo courtesy of John White Northern Red-bellied Cooter Pseudemys rubriventris  
Northern Map Turtle, photo courtesy of Jim Harding Northern Map Turtle Graptemys geographica Endangered
Northern Diamond-backed Terrapin, photo courtesy of Lori Erb Northern Diamond-backed Terrapin Malaclemys t. terrapin  

 

Musk and Mud Turtles (Kinosternidae)

Musk and Mud Turtles (Kinosternidae)

As the name implies, some of these turtles will release a strong scent when disturbed. They have paired glands on either side of the body, just inside where the bridge connects the carapace and plastron.  Although they may bask, our two Kinosternids are primarily aquatic.  A good way to tell the difference between mud and musk turtles is by looking at the plastron.  In eastern mud turtles (Kinosternon subrubrum subrubrum), the plastron is relatively large with 2 hinges. Our eastern musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus), formerly called the stinkpot, has a much reduced plastron with only 1 hinge.

Click on a picture or species name for profiles
of each of the 2 species of Maryland’s musk and mud turtles.

  Common Name Scientific Name State Status

Stinkpot Turtle, photo courtesy of Linh Phu

Eastern Musk Turtle  Stenothernus odoratus  

Eastern Mud Turtle, photo courtesy of Mark Tegges

Eastern Mud Turtle Kinosternon s. subrubrum  

 

Snapping Turtles (Chelydridae)

Currently, in the world there are only two living members, or genera, of the Chelydridae family, our own eastern snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina serpentine) and the alligator snapping turtle, which is not found in Maryland.  There are also seven extinct genera of this family.

As the name suggests, this turtle is known for its surly disposition when threatened.  Their very long necks allow them to reach farther than other turtles to snap at predators coming from behind.  Never pick up a turtle by its tail; this can damage the animal's spine.

Click on a picture or species name for a profile
of Maryland’s only species of snapping turtle.

  Common Name Scientific Name State Status

Eastern Snapping Turtle, photo courtesy of Linh Phu

Eastern Snapping Turtle Chelydra s. serpentina  

 

Softshell Turtles (Trionychidae)

The bony scutes found in hardshell turtles are missing in these softshelled cousins.  The carapace is leathery while the plastron is much reduced.  Our one species, the eastern spiny softshell is primarily aquatic.  Their long tubular snouts act like snorkels, allowing the animals to remain submerged.

Click on a picture or species name for a profile
of Maryland’s only species of softshell turtle.

  Common Name Scientific Name State Status

Eastern Spiny Softshell, photo courtesy of Linh Phu

Eastern Spiny Softshell Apalone s. spinifera In Need of Conservation

Sea Turtles (Cheloniidae and Dermochelyidae)

These animals are fully aquatic, emerging from the waters only to breed and lay eggs.  In addition to huge lungs, they can also do without oxygen from the air as they submerge for up to 30 minutes.  Most have hard shells; the leatherback (our only member of the Dermochelyidae Family) lacks a bony carapace and instead has skin embedded with little bony deposits over it back.

Maryland species include: Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta), Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle (Lepidochelys kempii), Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas), Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), and Atlantic Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata imbricate).

All species of sea turtles are listed as Threatened or Endangered.

Click on a picture or species name for a profile
of Maryland’s Sea Turtles

  Common Name Scientific Name State Status

Photo of Loggerhead Seaturtle courtesy of John White, links to Loggerhead Seaturtle web content

Loggerhead Seaturtle Caretta caretta Threatened

Kemp's Ridley Hatchlings, photo coutesy of National Park Service

Kemp’s Ridley Seaturtle Lepidochelys kempii Endangered

Photo of Green Seaturtle (istock) links to Gresden Seaturtle web content

Green Seaturtle Chelonia mydas Threatened

Photo of Leatherback Seaturtle courtesy of Close-up Photo of Leatherback Seaturtle, courtesy of Scott R. Benson, NMFS Southwest Fisheries Science Center

Leatherback Seaturtle Dermochelys coriacea Endangered

Close-up photo of Hawksbill Seaturtle, i-Stock

Atlantic Hawksbilll Seaturtle Eretmochelys i. imbricata Endangered

 

FaceBook Icon

Maryland Amphibian
and Reptile Atlas Project

"A Joint Project of the Natural History Society of Maryland, Inc. and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources"

For monthly newsletters of the Maryland Amphibian & Reptile Atlas Project click on Recent Newsletters and scroll down to the MARA Newsletters.

The Maryland Herpetology Field Guide is a cooperative effort of the MD Natural Heritage Program and the MD Biological Stream Survey within the Department of Natural Resources and their partners. We wish to thank all who contributed field records, text, and photographs, as well as support throughout its development.