Classification and Range
The western pond turtle belongs to a family Emydidae, which contains over 85 species of turtles. This is the largest family of turtles, with 30 genera. Actinemys is a genus of small- to medium-size turtles that inhabit aquatic, terrestrial and semiaquatic habitats. Western pond turtles range from the Puget Sound area of Washington through western Oregon and California to Baja California. It was once the only species of turtle found in the Puget Sound area, and was considered common until it was declared endangered in Washington state in 1993. Before conservation efforts helped recover populations, the wild western pond turtle population numbered as low as 150 turtles in 1990.
The western pond turtle is found from sea level to 4,500 feet (1375 m) in elevation. In Washington, they are only found up to 300 feet (100 m). They inhabit slow-moving streams, marshes, ponds, lakes and canals with muddy bottoms. During the heat of summer and in the cold of winter, many can be found on land burrowed under logs and leaf litter. Habitat alteration and destruction have contributed to the demise of the turtle in western Washington.
Adult pond turtles range from 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) in length and weigh 1-2.4 pounds (448-1100 g). Coloration ranges from brown to black on the carapace (the upper shell), with lighter marbling visible on close examination. The plastron (the lower shell) is black and yellow. The head and legs are also dark with possible yellow markings (not stripes). These turtles are very shy and will dive into the water at the least disturbance.
Western pond turtles possibly live to be 50 years old.
In the wild: Western pond turtles are opportunistic feeders. Food items include various insects, frogs and frog eggs, fish and carrion. At the zoo: The turtles are fed mealworms, earthworms, waxworms, crickets, mice and some fish.
Western pond turtles usually reach sexual maturity around 10-15 years of age. Mating in the wild takes place in the spring and possibly also in the fall. Nesting occurs from late May until the middle of July. Females find a suitable site, usually with dry soil, sparse vegetation and a southern exposure. A hole is dug by softening the soil with urine and then scooping out the soil alternately with hind feet. They will deposit a clutch of three to 13 eggs. After laying the eggs, the hole is filled with a mixture of vegetation and dirt to provide an air space, and covered with wet soil as a plug to keep the eggs in a humid environment. This process can take from two to four hours. Incubation takes 90-130 days, depending on summer temperatures.
Hatchling pond turtles average 1-1.2 inch (2.5-3.1 cm) in length and weigh .011-.025 ounces (3-7 g). They may emerge from the nest in the fall or spend winter in the nest and come out in the spring. Hatchlings are independent and rely on their natural instinct for finding food. While spending much time hiding from many predators, most baby pond turtles are not able to survive the first year. Birds, fish and the introduced American bullfrog are among many predators of the small turtles.
In 1991, Woodland Park Zoo and the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife collaborated on a joint project to secure the future of the western pond turtle in Washington, known as the Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project. To enhance the survival of hatchling pond turtles, females are followed to their nests and the nests are then protected with “ex-closures.” These screen cages protect the eggs from predators and keep the hatchlings from wandering away when they emerge. The babies are then collected in the fall, and brought to Woodland Park Zoo for a “head-start.” Young turtles are kept warm all winter and well-fed to help them grow to a size that enables them to better survive in the wild. They are then released the following summer to the wild.
Since the program began in 1991, the last two wild populations have been saved, 2,000 turtles have been head started, and four new populations have been established. Of the turtles released, recent surveys indicate that an estimated 800 have survived and continue to thrive. At some sites, wild hatchlings also are surviving.
How You Can Help!
The effort to save endangered species like the western pond turtle requires cooperation and support at the international, national, regional and individual levels. You can help in this cause.
Reduce pollutants to native turtle habitat by eliminating chemical pesticides from your gardening practices. Pesticides get into water, which runs away from your garden and flows into surrounding water systems, bringing contaminants into wildlife habitat.
Improve the quality of wildlife habitat necessary for native wildlife survival by joining a habitat restoration program in your community. Looking for a program? Try our Backyard Habitat classes.
Reptiles as Pets
We do not recommend reptiles as pets for most people as they require very specialized diets and environments. We also receive hundreds of requests each year to take former pet iguanas, boas and other reptiles but we cannot accept these due to space, health and unknown backgrounds. If you need to find a reptile or amphibian a new home, we suggest you contact a local herpetological group in your area. In the Puget Sound region, contact the Pacific Northwest Herpetological Society as a resource. If you do choose to get a reptile as a pet, please learn as much as possible about their care and the best species before making your decision and never accept wild-caught animals as pets or release non-native reptiles or amphibians into the wild.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Ernst, Carl H., Lovich, Jeffrey E., and Barbour, Roger W. 1994. Turtles of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. 578 p.
Nussbaum, Ronald A., Brodie, Edmund D., and Storm, Robert M. 1983. Amphibians & Reptiles of the Pacific Northwest. University Press of Idaho, Moscow, ID. 332 p.
Stebbins, Robert C. 1985. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA. 336 p.
Storm, Robert M., and Leonard, William P. 1995. Reptiles of Washington and Oregon. Seattle Audubon Society, Seattle, WA. 176 p.