western pond turtle

Three years ago this June, I was meeting with some restoration volunteers along Sonoma Creek. On our way into the site that afternoon, a biologist noted a large turtle just off the trail some distance up from the creek. We left the creek as it was nearly dusk, and the biologist and I happened to be toward the rear of the small group.

She stopped near to where the turtle had been and she pointed out the turtle again. She then said in that matter of fact way that biologists have, "Wait here, and watch closely. This pond turtle is about to lay her eggs and I'm going to see if some of the others want to see this."

As I stood there in the near darkness, as if on cue the turtle dutifully laid three eggs into the deep hole she had just excavated. Since we had first come by, she had dug a hole into the dry, hard-pan dirt, using only her hind legs, some secreted fluid, and legendary turtle determination. By the time the others returned a few minutes later, the turtle was finished and was carefully burying her eggs. It had taken hours to walk there up from the creek, apparently several more to dig the hole, and just a few minutes to lay her eggs. In another hour, there was little trace that the turtle had ever been there. We thought later to protect the site but couldn't tell where it was. I gained a tremendous amount of respect for nature that evening, not to mention for biologists and turtles.

The Western Pond Turtle, Clemmys marmorata, once occupied ponds, streams and wetland areas throughout the west. As this habitat is shrinking rapidly everywhere, the turtle is also becoming rare. It has vanished entirely in British Columbia, all but vanished in Washington, and is estimated at only at about 10% of its former population in Oregon. In California, it is considered a species of special concern. We are fortunate that many live in our creeks and ponds.

As most turtles in the Emydidae family, the Western pond turtle is omnivorous, though its diet tends toward the many smaller animals that live near ponds. It is also a scavenger. Apparently, it has to be in the water to be able to swallow its food.

While mostly aquatic, the Westerm pond turtle does spend time out of the water, not only to lay eggs, but to sun and to locate water. They are capable of traveling over a mile overland to find water, especially in the drier, Mediterranean climate of California where wetland habitats change seasonally. It typically spends winter months hibernating in the mud, apparently able to absorb oxygen through its skin. It will also "estivate", a summer period of low activity, in the mud in some cases where water dries up.

Western pond turtles can live fifty years or more. In fact, a recent turtle that was rescued by friends in Glen Ellen with a major injury, was estimated by staff at the Kenwood Wildlife Center to be from fifty to seventy years old. That turtle survived a difficult surgical procedure, recovered, and was released two weeks ago by those friends, on the day of the one friend's graduation. The turtle was cared for by for two months by a volunteer, another turtle convert, who claims that she was astounded at the intelligence of the animal. "Don't tell my cat," she said, "but I believe that the Western pond turtle is actually smarter."