California Nature

Learn about California's beautiful and unique nature.

California's Turtles
Turtles are distinct from all other reptiles (and amphibians) in California, due to their large, rounded shell. Turtles are almost always found in or near water, often basking on branches or logs in the water. The Desert Tortoise, however, is found on land in the desert, usually far from water. Sea turtles will be found in the open ocean, or on a beach, but they are rarely seen in California. Most turtles are active during daylight during warm weather, including sunny winter days. Besides sea turtles, there are only three species of native California turtles, and four non-natives which have established themselves with breeding populations in the state, mostly around populated areas.

Californias only native freshwater turtle is the western pond turtleA turtle found in the wild in California may not be a native turtle or even one of the established non-natives seen here. In populated areas, especially in ponds and lakes in city parks, you will often find exotic turtles which have been released by irresponsible pet owners. These turtles may be similar in appearance to the turtles shown here. In order to identify them you will need a comprehensive guide to turtles of the world, since these pet turtles can originate from just about anywhere.

California's only native freshwater turtle, the Western Pond Turtle is a freshwater reptile that likes to spend his fair weather days basking in the sun on a river bank or on a snag in the water. If the weather heats up, you may see him floating around to cool his body temperature down. The Western Pond Turtle has black spots on a light-colored head and their nose is blunt. The spiny soft-shelled turtle’s nose is pointed. Painted turtles, as well as sliders have the same shaped head, but it’s dark-toned. They also have light stripes or whorls on them.

Unfortunately, the Western Pond Turtle is now classified in California as a species of special concern. Because these reptiles can live into their 40s, their presence is not a true indication of their numbers and they are being closely monitored. Their numbers have dwindled in the wild due to the majority of streams, marshes, and ponds that the turtles have called home having been drained, developed or diverted.

The Sonoran mud turtle is medium sized (up to 6 inches) with a smooth, high-domed upper part of the shell. The Sonoran mud turtle can be distinguished from the yellow mud turtle by noting its non-enlarged ninth marginal scute The same scute on a yellow mud turtle is usually taller than it is wide. Scutes are the large, hornified plates that cover the shell.

This turtle generally has a uniform light brown or yellowish-brown shell. The shell is often partially covered with algae. The head and neck have light and dark marks. Males have tails with a hooked tip and 2 groups of thickened scales on the inner surfaces of the hind legs. A stream dweller, the Sonoran mud turtle is usually found in springs, creeks, ponds, and intermittent streams. Though occasionally found in desert and grassland areas, this turtle usually inhabits oak to pinyon-juniper woodlands or pine-fir forest.

The California desert tortoise is a member of the gopher turtle familyThe California desert tortoise is a member of the gopher turtle family The Desert Tortoise can be found in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts of southern California. They inhabit semi-arid grasslands, gravelly desert washes and sandy canyon bottoms below 3,500 feet. To escape the heat of the summer and the cold of winter the desert tortoises live in burrows which they dig. Some of them can be three to six feet deep. They will spend November through February in a torpid state in their underground burrows. Some burrows have been used for over a hundred years. 95% of a tortoise's life is spent underground. Their most active time is in the spring when they will forage for herbs, grasses, new growth of cactus and annual flowers.

Its front legs are muscular and flattened with long claws, and are very well adapted for digging deep burrows. Desert Tortoises can make hissing, popping, and poinking sounds, usually out of fear or distress. Its domed, brown shell (carapace) can grow to be 9-15 inches in length, 4-6 inches high, and the tortoise can weigh from 8 to 15 lbs. They usually live to be about 80 years, but some have been known to be a 100 years old.

There is no mistaking a Spiny Soft-shelled Turtle, it is often described as being 'pancake like' and having a 'pig snout'! Spiny softshells are found in rivers, streams, and large lakes with sandy or muddy bottoms. Sandbars are important for basking and egg laying sites. This is a large aquatic turtle that may reach an adult length of eight to 20 inches (adult females are much larger than males). Most of their diet is comprised of insects, snails, crustaceans and small fish. The softshell turtle is often found in shallow water where it may sit on the bottom, or partially buried in the substrate, with its neck out-stretched and its nostrils extending just above the surface of the water for air. The Spiny Softshell has a light greenish-brown skin color with small dark markings on the legs. There is a black-edged, yellowish stripe on each side of the head and neck that runs through each eye. The shell is flat and covered with a leathery olive to brown skin and is marked with large, dark circular spots.

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