When the sun beats down and ponds and streams dry up, western pond turtles breathe mud to survive. They dig deep into muddy burrows and suck oxygen from the muck through their skin. By making temporary homes in mud, western pond turtles are able to survive the hot summers in Northern and Central California. They have not become as rare as they have in the cooler climate of Washington state where pond turtles once lived in prairie-lined ponds. A project is underway there to restore the population.
Since the body temperature of turtles resembles the temperature of their environment, their main activity, besides looking for food, is to find places throughout the day to keep their bodies between 75 and 90 degrees. After chilly nights in darkened water, turtles settle on to logs or rocks in the morning hours to warm up. However, when the sun beats down and temperatures rise above 90 degrees, they jump into the water to cool off.
The turtle's shell helps to protect it from predators. You can tell how much time a turtle spends in the water by the shape of its shell. Turtles that live mostly on land have rounded shells. Turtles that spend more time in water have flatter shells so that they are able to swim quickly. Western pond turtles have fairly flat shells, although not as flat as those of the fast-swimming sea turtles of the open ocean. There is one land turtle though that has a flat shell. The amazing pancake turtle of Africa is able to smush its shell so flat that it can hide in the crack between two rocks.
The scientific name of the western pond turtle, Clemmys marmorata, refers to the shell. Marmorata means marble, and the shell of the pond turtle has a swirling pattern like hot fudge mixed into ice cream.
Whenever I have seen western pond turtles, besides noticing the swirling pattern on the shell, I usually have heard many pond noises around them, such as the loud quacking of nearby ducks or croaks of frogs. These sounds made me wonder, do turtles make noise? Do they add to the croaks and burbles of the sound of ponds and streams? I have learned that they have no vocal cords, but they do make a hissing noise if frightened. So if you hear a hiss when you see a turtle, please back away as you have likely scared it.
Western pond turtles belong to the pond and marsh group of turtles. There are six other types of turtles: mud and muck, sea (my page on sea turtles), side-necked, snapping, soft-shelled, and tortoise (my page on desert tortoises).
In Northern and Central California, I have observed pond turtles in different habitats. I saw a pond turtle living in a narrow stream that ran into the ocean. I also saw two turtles in a freshwater spring in a marshy area just steps from a bay.
Despite their name, pond turtles do not always live in ponds. In the Western United States, there are not many ponds, so the turtles have adapted to living in the slow-moving twists and turns of rivers or streams. They also live in estuaries, areas where a river runs into sea mixing the salt and fresh water, and sloughs, narrow waterways with mud or marsh borders.
There are certain features that pond turtles look for in a home. If you are able to find these features, you will likely find the turtles. Turtle attractors are: logs above water for basking in the sun, rocks, a pooled area within the water (without a fast current), river banks shaped like a "C," underwater plants, and at least 2 meters of water depth.
I have most often seen turtles early in the day on hot days. In the mornings, they sun themselves to warm up before swimming in the cool water as the day heats up.
Western pond turtles are a reason to visit ponds in the early morning. They seem like sculptures decorating the logs and rocks of ponds and streams.
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