Turtles sit on a log
turtles on a log

Tim Ervin

Once upon a time, reptiles ruled the world. Today, the evolutionary offspring of those reptilian giants are much smaller and less dominant life forms. However, this does not mean they are unimportant. Snakes, turtles, and lizards all play their own roles in the ecosystem, be they carnivore, herbivore, omnivore, or prey. All reptiles are cold-blooded, meaning that their body temperature is dependent on their external environment. They are also scaly, an evolutionary adaptation that allows them to hold on to water and withstand the heat better than their amphibious counterparts. With a few exceptions, reptiles lay multiple clutches of hard-shelled eggs throughout their lifetimes.

eastern painted turtle
eastern painted turtle on a log

Tim Ervin

Eastern Painted Turtle:

The Eastern Painted Turtle is the only turtle in which the large scutes are lined up in even rows across the carapace. The plain, dark scutes of the smooth, unkeeled carapace have yellow, olive or red borders. There may be a faint thin line down the middle of the back. The edge of the carapace often has red or orange marks. The hingeless plastron is plain yellow but often stained red by algae. The head typically has two bright yellow spots or streaks pointing back from the eye, as well as a bright yellow line on the jaw. The upper jaw has a notch. The neck, legs, and tail have red, orange or yellow markings.

common snapping turtle
Common snapping turtle laying eggs in the dirt

Tim Ervin

The Common Snapping Turtle:

The Common snapping turtle is a species of large freshwater turtle. It is noted for its aggressive nature when out of the water with its powerful beak-like jaws, and highly mobile head and neck. They are tan to black in color and have a rough upper shell, a small cross-shaped lower shell, a long tail. Common snapping turtles spend most of their time in the water rather than on land. They are most active at dawn and dusk when doing their hunting. As one of the strategies to ambush the prey, these turtles sometimes bury themselves in the mud with only their nostrils and eyes exposed.

five lined skink
Five-lined skink on a stick

Tim Ervin

Five-Lined Skinks:

Young American five-lined skinks are dark brown to black in color with five distinctive white to yellowish stripes running along the body and a bright blue tail. Skinks are ground-dwelling animals but will also climb trees. They are active during the day and if threatened will run away quickly and hide in the nearest tree or log. Like many other lizards, American five-lined skinks will lose their tails when captured or threatened by a predator; this allows the lizard to distract potential predators and escape. Their diet consists primarily of a variety of arthropods, particularly spiders, crickets, beetles, and other insects. However, they will also eat newborn mice, frogs, and other lizards.

eastern rat snake
Eastern Rat Snake swimming in the ponds

Tim Ervin

Eastern Rat Snakes:

Formerly called Black Rat Snakes, Eastern Rat Snakes are found from Connecticut to the Carolinas. They are effective hunters of small mammals, birds, and amphibians. Rat Snakes are capable of climbing up trees to search for bird nests and bat roosts, or swimming through the water to find amphibious prey. If they feel threatened by their predators, including birds and other snakes, Eastern Rat Snakes will musk – emit a foul-smelling substance that imitates the taste of poison. However, they are not venomous themselves.

pond slider
Baby pond slider on a lily pad

Pond Sliders:

Not native to the Eastern United States, Pond Sliders, including the Red Eared Slider, have been popular in the pet trade for several years. Unfortunately, owners releasing unwanted pets into the wild has resulted in the establishment of Pond Sliders as a common invasive species. Currently, they are on the list of the world’s 100 most invasive species due to their hardiness and ability to outcompete native turtles.

common water snake
Common Water Snake in the ponds

Tim Ervin

Common Water Snakes:

Like their name suggests, Common Water Snakes, or Northern Water Snakes, are best known for foraging in the water. During the nighttime, they will hunt for small fish such as minnows. During the day, they are more likely to hunt for insects, tadpoles, and small animals. The Common Water Snake has a banded appearance, sometimes leading people to misidentify it as a Cottonmouth. However, water snakes are non-venomous and harmless to humans. Like all wildlife, they are best left alone, unless by trained professionals.

common water snake
Garter Snake in leaves

NPS Photo

Common Garter Snake:

Common Garter Snakes reach an average length of 22 inches, slightly less than two feet. They are harmless to humans. Eastern Garter Snakes have yellow or green and brown stripes lengthwise down their bodies. This snake is most active in the morning and late afternoon, when they hunt for meals of small animals. While you are unlikely to ever be bitten by a garter snake, their bodies and mouths are so small that their bites often never even break the skin. They are able to eat poisonous amphibians such as rough-skinned newts.

eastern musk turtle
Eastern Musk Turtle on the path

Tim Ervin

Eastern Musk Turtle:

Because of its ability to release a foul smell from scent glands on its shell, this turtle is also known as the Stinkpot Turtle. They are black, brown, or gray, small, and have a yellow stripe on the side of their face. They are mostly aquatic and nocturnal, surviving summer by scavenging very small animals. In winter, they may hibernate in muskrat dens or bury themselves underneath logs. Despite being solitary, they often share nesting sites.

river cooter
River Cooter

Tim Ervin

River Cooter:

The name River Cooter may have originated with the African word “kuta” which translates to “turtle.” The River Cooter has the ability to breathe underwater, which allows them to stay submerged for extended periods of time. Relatively large turtles, they are commonly found in vegetated lakes, rivers, or tidal marshes. Often, they will eat aquatic plants and algae. The River Cooter can be recognized by the pattern of yellow stripes on its face.

Eastern Box Turtle
eastern box turtle


Eastern Box Turtle:

Eastern Box Turtles are growing increasingly rare due to habitat loss and extraction for the pet trade. In the wild, they can live up to 100 years, partially thanks to their hinged shell, which allows them to completely close themselves off from predators. Though mostly herbivorous, Box Turtles are known to eat fish, small amphibians, and carrion when available. They are mostly terrestrial and rarely travel outside of their home range.

Last updated: January 11, 2024

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