Reptiles of Michigan
Michigan's SnakesKirtland's Snake
Coluber constrictor foxii
One of our largest snake species, the blue racer is an active and agile serpent which gets it's name from the blue coloration it often attains. May be a uniform gray, grayish blue, or even olive coloration with a light blue hue along the sides. Has a white chin and dark mask on either side of the head, the nose is often a rusty red color. Some populations seem to feature individuals which are much are more blue than others, particularly in the northwestern lower peninsula.
Open fields and meadows with sparse vegetation like the area in the photo above are ideal for blue racers. They inhabit a wide variety of habits which also include open woodlands, prairie fens, marsh edges, and occasionally agricultural areas. This species is found in the southern and western lower peninsula, though they have declined considerably in southeast Michigan over the years as urban sprawl has claimed much of their former habitat. But there are still pockets of them where the right habitat exists, particularly in preserves and on state land.
Northern Ringneck Snake
Diadophis punctatus edwardsii
Ringnecks snakes are easily distinguishable from other Michigan snake species. They are small in size (13" max TL), have a slate-blue colored dorsum, a bright yellow ventral surface, and a light colored sing around the neck with a cream colored chin. Ringnecks are found in a wide variety of places and are most readily found under surface debris in damp locations. They're usually associated with Redback Salamanders, one of the primary staples of their diet. It is extremely common in states to the south of Michigan, but can be extremely difficult to find in the lower peninsula. Even more mysterious is that it can be found in huge numbers on some of the coastal islands along Michigan's coasts.
Eastern Hognose Snake
One of Michigan's more unique species of herpetofauna, the hognose snake gets it's name from the upturned rostral scale on it's snout which it uses for digging into the sandy soils of the habitats it inhabits. It is a medium sized, stocky snake which is extremely variable in appearance. Some have pattern of irregular dark blotches down back that alternate with dark spots on sides, on mottled background of gray, brown, tan, olive, orange, yellow, or pinkish; others are uniform gray, brown or olive; a few individuals may be melanistic.
Hognose snakes are denizens of the open pine forests and sand prairies of the northern and western lower peninsula, and other habitats such as pastures where sandy soils are prevalent This species spends much of it's time burrowing into these sandy substrates in search of it's favorite food; toads. Female hogs seek out open sandy areas as potential nest sites in early to mid June. Using their upturned snout, they excavate a nest over the course of a few days and lay a clutch of eggs deep in the nest and then leave. The young hatch out in late August or early September. But what this snake is most known for is it's flamboyant defensive behavior.
When first approached, a threatened hognose snake will flatten it's neck like a cobra and hiss loudly. This behavior has garnered it the name of "puff adder" or "blow snake" in rural parts of it's range, though it is not dangerous in any way. If the it is harassed further or touched, it will roll onto it's back and convulse violently before laying still to play dead. If it is flipped right side up, it will immediately flip back onto it's back to continue playing dead. It will lie motionless until the intruder has left before crawling away to safety.
Eastern Milk Snake
Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum
A common, yet secretive snake species, the eastern milk snake is found throughout Michigan's lower peninsula and in scattered locations in the eastern upper peninsula. A medium to large snake, most milk snakes are around two feet in length with the occasional snake reaching over 36". Milk snakes are usually tan or gray in color with brown or reddish blotches down the dorsum with an additional row or two of smaller blotches on the sides. There is often a light colored "V" or "Y" on top of the head and the eyes are usually red in color. The belly is white and black, usually in a checkerboard or indian corn type pattern. Young milk snakes look similar to adults, but are usually white or gray in color with bright red markings which dull as they age.
This species received it's name from and old wives tale that it would sneak into barns and milk cows, though they often turn up often around barns due to the rodents they hunt. Milk snakes can be found in a wide variety of habitats statewide which include meadows, bogs, marshes, open forests, suburban parks, and any abandoned man-made structures in these areas and can often be found under fallen boards, metal, and other cover objects in such areas. Though it is common throughout the lower peninsula, this snake is not often seen due to it's secretive behavior. It's distribution on a county by county level is poorly understood, so any sighting of this species should be reported to the Michigan Herp Atlas.
Copperbelly Water Snake
Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta
Copperbelly Water Snake
Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta
One of Michigan's rarest snakes, the copperbelly water snake is a species that is seldom seen by residents of the Wolverine state. Adults reach 3-5 feet in length and feature a dark head and body with a bright yellow-orange or reddish-orange belly which easily sets it apart from any of our other snake species. Juveniles are brightly colored and banded and eventually darken as they age. Even in Michigan, water snakes may be called "cottonmouths" or "water moccasins" by rural folk and are often killed out of the wrong impression that they are venomous. Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) are a semi-aquatic pitviper which inhabit the eastern United States, but their range does not come within 400-500 miles of Michigan.
This species reaches it's northern range limit in Michigan and inhabit oxbows, shrub swamps, and even floodplain forests in some areas. This midwestern subspecies of the plainbelly water snake (Nerodia e. erythrogaster) is isolated to extreme southern Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois and is found in widely scattered locations. Much of it's former habitat has been lost to development and it is listed as an Endangered species in Michigan and also receives federal protection from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as a Threatened species. It is illegal to pursue, harass, handle, or collect this snake in Michigan. Any sightings should be promptly reported to the Michigan Herp Atlas.
Northern Water Snake
Nerodia sipedon sipedon
Northern Water Snake
Nerodia sipedon sipedon
The much more common of Michigan's two water snake species, the northern water snake can be found anywhere that is close to water. This species is known to inhabit ponds, lakes, creeks, vernal pools, streams, swamps, coastal marshes along the Great lakes shorelines and even specialized wetlands like bogs and fens. They are most often seen basking on objects near the water's edge such as fallen logs or overhanging tree branches. When approached, water snakes will quickly flee into the water to make a hasty getaway. Even in Michigan, water snakes may be called "cottonmouths" or "water moccasins" by rural folk and are often killed out of the wrong impression that they are venomous. Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) are a semi-aquatic pitviper which inhabit the eastern United States, but their range does not come within 400-500 miles of Michigan.
Northern water snakes are fairly large, averaging 2-4 feet in length and are easily one of the most variable snakes in Michigan. Some are dark brown with very faint patterning, other may be gray with bright red or chocolate brown crossbands. Most have a bright and colorful belly which often features a lot of half-moon shaped markings per ventral scale. They are excellent aquatic predators which seek out fish and amphibians as their primary prey. They are sometimes seen on rock piles or banks attempting to swallow down panfish or chubs.
Smooth Green Snake
The true gem of Michigan's snake species, the smooth green snake is an uncommon and secretive snake which inhabits the northern lower peninsula and upper peninsula. It it easily distinguished from other Michigan snakes by it's bright green coloration, the belly may be cream or yellow in color. This species is small, with adults attaining lengths between 12 and 20 inches. Females lay a clutch of 3-12 eggs under rocks or other cover in the early summer, the eggs are elongate and cylindrical. Juveniles are olive or tan in coloration and attain their bright green color as they age, though some adults retain a tan coloration for the entire lifetime. Green snakes are extremely gentle and rarely bite when handled.
This species was once common in much of the lower peninsula, but now appears to be rare or absent from much of it's former range. It remains locally abundant in the northern lower and upper peninsula and on several barrier islands around in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Green snakes inhabit a wide variety of grassy habitats including meadows, bogs, damp woodlands, and alvars along the Great Lakes shorelines. This species is insectivorious, feeding almost exclusively on insects and arachnids. One study done in northern Michigan found that one green snake population fed almost entirely on Harvestmen (Opiliones sp.) or "daddy long legs" for the majority of the year. This diet makes them particularly susceptible to pesticides, which is the likely cause for their decline across the state. Any observations of this species should be reported to the Michigan Herp Atlas.
Eastern Fox Snake
One of our largest snake species, the Eastern Fox Snake is also one of Michigan's most beautiful. Look for a large yellowish or light brown snake with dark brown or black blotches down the back and sides. The head may be reddish or orange, and the belly is yellowish, checkered with black. This is a large snake species, with adults attaining lengths between three and six feet. Females lay a clutch of 7-29 eggs in the early summer under cover or in man made structures. Neonates hatch in the late summer and are much duller in color that adults, but still feature the characteristic blotches and checkerboard belly. They also have a noticeable dark stripe on top of the head between the eyes.
Fox snakes are large, powerful constrictors which are isolated to the remaining coastal marshes,river corridors, and adjacent habitats of southeast Michigan. Here, they spend much of their time hunting frogs, rodents, and birds. Some coastal islands which harbor large gull breeding colonies often attract large fox snakes which go after the eggs of the breeding birds. The boulder piles and rip-rap which border many of these shoreline habitats often serve as refugia and basking sites for this species. Fox snakes are quite arboreal and may be found in trees in these areas or also may be seen crossing levees within the coastal marshes.
Shoreline and riverfront areas are prime real estate not only for this species, but for humans as well. Much of the eastern fox snake's habitat in southeast Michigan has been lost, and they are now only found in a handful of locations. This species has suffered greatly across its range due to road mortality, habitat loss, illegal collection, and intentional killing. In Michigan it's numbers have dropped so greatly that is listed as a Threatened species here. Sightings of this snake are increasingly uncommon, so if you get the opportunity to bump into the field, enjoy it from a distance and report your sighting to the Michigan Herp Atlas.
Black Rat Snake
Black Rat Snake
This snake is the largest species which inhabits Michigan with some adults approaching lengths of 8 feet, though most are between 3-5 feet in length. The black rat snake gets it's name from it's shiny black scales, though some have fain traces of white patterning on the sides, especially younger snakes. Females lay a clutch of 6-24 eggs in the early summer amongst rotting wood or in other cover and the juveniles hatch out by late summer. Juvenile black rat snakes are gray in coloration with dark blotches along the back and sides and eventually darken as they age.
The distribution of the black rat snake in Michigan is poorly understood. It was once known to inhabit the southern and western parts of the lower peninsula, but seems to be rare or absent from much of it's former range in the state. Currently, it is recognized from a few areas in the southwestern part of the state. It is known to live in or near woodlands, often near water. They climb well, and often enter barns and abandoned buildings in search of rodents, a favorite food. They may also be found crossing roads on humid summer nights.
This species has suffered clear declines in Michigan and is listed as a Species of Special Concern, though it may soon be upgraded to a Threatened species here. Little is known about it's current distribution in the state, any sightings of this species should be reported to the Michigan Herp Atlas.
Western Fox Snake
Michigan's second fox snake species, the western fox snake is restricted to the western half of the upper peninsula. Look for a large yellowish or light brown snake with dark brown or black blotches down the back and sides. The head may be reddish or orange, and the belly is yellowish, checkered with black. This is a large snake species, with adults attaining lengths between three and six feet. Females lay a clutch of 7-29 eggs in the early summer under cover or in man made structures. Neonates hatch in the late summer and are much duller in color that adults, but still feature the characteristic blotches and checkerboard belly. They also have a noticeable dark stripe on top of the head between the eyes.
Sometimes called "pine snakes" by rural folk in the upper peninsula, western fox snakes inhabit a wide variety of habitats including the pine forests of the region. They also are known to inhabit grasslands, prairies, dune areas, farm fields, pastures, and woodlots and are typically found fairly close to water. This species may also be found crossing rural highways during the late spring and early fall, keep a watchful eye and try to avoid hitting one. The range of the western fox snake is much larger than than of the eastern subspecies in Michigan, it is not listed in the state.
A member of the crayfish snake family (genus Regina), the queen snake is a secretive snake which is found in scattered locations across Michigan's lower peninsula. Queen snake are olive to gray or dark brown in overall coloration, with several darker lines running down the back, this is especially evident in young snakes as this species tends to darken at it ages. It also has a characteristic cream strip along it's side near the bottom scale rows which runs the entire length of the snake. The etymology of the species name septemvittata, comes from the Latin words septem (seven) and vitta (lines), which refers to the light and dark stripes found on belly of this snake species. Adults range between 15-36" in length and young snakes look like brighter versions of adults.
This species is a dietary specialist, only consuming freshly molted crayfish. Queen snakes are able to smell the subtle chemical cues given off my a freshly molted crayfish underwater and easily swallow down their prey which is soft like a hard boiled egg. Rocky creeks and streams, lakes, impoundments, and rocky shorelines along these habitats are ideal location to find queen snakes, especially if they support healthy crayfish populations. This snake is uncommon statewide, but can be locally abundant. It is known to occur as far north as the Manistee National Forest and on Bois Blanc Island in Lake Huron. Queen snakes are a Species of Special Concern in Michigan and any sightings should be reported to the Michigan Herp Atlas.
Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake
Sistrurus catenatus catenatus
The eastern massasauga is the only species of venomous snake which inhabits Michigan. It gets it's name from the Chippewa word meaning "great river mouth," this is fitting as this species inhabits the floodplains and wetlands of streams and lakes. It is a medium sized, heavy bodied snake which averages about two feet in length. Some individuals reach three feet in length in rare occasions, the record for this species is 39.5" in length. Massasaugas may be gray, tan, or dark brown in coloration with a row of wide saddle-like blotches down the back, an additional 2-3 rows of dark blotches can be found on the sides. Some individuals exhibit melanism and are almost completely jet black with very little traces of patterning like the individual shown above.
Like other North American pitvipers, massasaugas have a wide, arrow-shaped head which is very distinct from other non-venomous snakes in Michigan. It has vertical, cat-like pupils and a heat sensing pit which is located between the eye and the nostril. This allows the massasauga to detect ambient heat and makes it able to strike prey even in darkness. Females give live birth to young in the late summer. Juveniles are a light gray and have only a small button at the end of the tail. The end of the tail is bright yellow which juveniles wiggle to attract unsuspecting prey items. Massasaugas are extremely secretive, and spend much of their time coiled among tall sedges and grasses in the wetlands they inhabit. They are also shy, and would rather avoid confrontations with humans. When approached, most massasaugas will remain motionless and rely on their camouflage while others may try to escape. It is only when they are cornered or harassed that they become defensive, coiling and sounding their rattle which is a high-pitched buzz that is very quite audible. There are usually a couple of bites which occur every few years in Michigan, and almost all of them haveoccured when a person was trying to pick up or kill the snake. If you encounter a massasauga in the field, admire it from a distance and let it be.
Often called the "swamp rattler" by some people, massasaugas are always associated with wetland habitats across their range. In Michigan they are known to inhabit wet meadows, prairie fens, bogs, tamarack swamps, conifer swamps, floodplain forests, and upland habitats which are adjacent to these areas. Massasaugas use wetland habitats as overwintering areas and often select crayfish and rodent burrows as hibernation sites. They are often observed basking near crayfish burrows in these habitats early in the season on a warm morning like the individual below. In the summer months, gravid females often move to adjacent upland sites such as dry woodlands and grassy fields or prairies where they spend much of their time basking to help gestate their young. They also seek out rodents such as meadow voles as a primary prey source in these areas.
This species is currently a candidate species for federal protection by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act. Massasaugas are dwindling in Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Continued conservation efforts are trying to preserve the few remaining populations in the midwest. Michigan and Ontario appear to be the last strongholds for this species, but they still may be declining. In Michigan, the massasauga is listed as a Species of Special concern and it illegal to harass, collect, or kill them. Any sightings of this species should be reported to the Michigan Herp Atlas.
Northern Brown Snake
Storeria dekayi dekayi
Northern Brown Snake
Storeria dekayi dekayi
One of two Michigan Storeria species, the northern brown snake is a small species which is found throughout the lower peninsula and in the southern tip of the upper peninsula. Brown snakes are fairly small, with adults attaining lengths between 9-15 inches. They may tan, gray, or even rusty red in color with a lighter tan or gray stripe down the back which is bordered by two rows of dark dots. These dots sometimes join to form crossbars. The belly can be white, cream, or pink in coloration. Females give live birth to 9-27 neonates in the late summer, juveniles look similar to adults.
Northern brown snakes inhabit a wide variety of habitats. They can be found in old fields, marshes, woodlands, and even vacant lots in large cities. They are rarely seen out in the open and are almost always found under logs, rocks, and other forms of cover. Look for habitats like these that are especially damp, as this species feeds almost primarily on earthworms and slugs. Large numbers can be seen in the woods or crossing roads on cool, sunny fall days when snakes start to migrate back to their hibernation sites, especially those days which follow a night of rain.
Northern Red-bellied Snake
Storeria occipitomaculata occipitomaculata
Northern Red-bellied Snake
Storeria occipitomaculata occipitomaculata
The second of Michigan's Storeria species, the northern red-bellied snake gets it's name from its bright red, orange, or pink belly as shown in the photo above. This is the smallest species of snake which inhabits the state, adults rarely reach lengths over 12". Usually brown or gray in coloration with faint lighter stripes running down the pack, although it sometimes may be a rusty-red color as well. Occasionally the belly may be gray. The head is usually a reddish-brown color with lighter markings on the neck, leading to this snake sometimes being confused with the ringneck snake.
Red-bellied snakes are found throughout both the upper and lower peninsula in scattered locations, but can be locally common. They are found in a wide variety of habitats including woodlands, fields, and some wetlands including bogs and fens. Like the northern brown snake, it is often found under cover such as boards and trash piles where it hunts earthworms, slugs, and other insects. It also may be found in large numbers crossing roads on sunny afternoons in the fall as the snakes being to migrate back to their hibernation sites.
Butler's Garter Snake
One of the three species of the genus Thamnophis which inhabits Michigan, the butler's garter snake is the smallest and least common. It is generally black, dark brown, or chocolate brown in coloration with three distinct lateral stripes which are yellow in color. Some individuals may have noticeable dark spots in between the lateral stripes. Adults range from 12-27" in length and can be particularly difficult to tell apart from the eastern garter snake to the untrained eye. The two outer lateral stripes occur on scale rows 2-4 with the stripe being centered on the third scale row, the eastern garter snake's two lateral stripes occur on scale rows 2-3. A good field character for a Butler's Garter Snake is a small, dark, bullet-shaped head which has little distinction from the neck. The head is pretty indistinct from the neck and and the eye of this species is also noticeably red in coloration.
Butler's garter snakes are known to inhabit a wide variety of habitats but are generally found in meadows, abandoned lots, open woodlands, and some boggy wetlands in the eastern half of the lower peninsula where the feed primarily on earthworms, slugs, and other invertebrates. Their isolation to the eastern side of the state is curious but this species only occurs in northeastern Indiana northwestern Ohio outside of Michigan. According to The Amphibians and Reptiles of Michigan: A Quarternary and Recent Faunal Adventure by J. Alan Holman, this species probably expanded it's range in Michigan as southeast Michigan became fragmented with the cutting of forests which created more open, meadow type habitats which it prefers.
Northern Ribbon Snake
Thamnophis sauritus septentrionalis
The Northern Ribbon Snake is a long, thing snake with a whip-like tail. It is easily distinguished by its white cheeks, large eyes, and white spot right in front of each eye. The northern subspecies has a characteristic rusty-red stripe running along the first and second scale rows and bordered by the two outermost lateral stripes. Adults are much quicker and more agile than Michigan's other two garter snake species and range between 18-38 inches in length. The belly is white or light yellow in color and the head may be dark black or rusty-brown in coloration.
Ribbon snakes are associated with a wide variety of habitats in Michigan but are never found far from a water source. They are most often found in and along the edges of wetlands like bogs, fens, and emergent marshes but also may be found in woodlands, fields, and other habitats in close proximity to wet habitats. Their diet includes frogs, salamanders, tadpoles, and small fish species. In the early spring, they can be found in large numbers around the edges of vernal pools where they hunt breeding amphibians, particularly the spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer). When approached in the field, ribbon snakes will often take to water where they can swim exceptionally well to avoid a predator or a captor.
Eastern Garter Snake
Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis
Our most common snake, the eastern garter snake is also one of the most variable. It is generally characterized as a medium sized snake with three lateral stripes running down the back. The background coloration can be black, brown, or olive in coloration while the lateral stripes may be white, yellow, or orange. Some individuals exhibit lighter markings in between the lateral stripes which may form a checkerboard type pattern. The belly can be pale white, green, yellow, or orange in color. One of the best diagnostic characters for this species is a noticeably red tongue with a black tip. This species has a much broader head which is distinct from the neck in comparison to the butler's garter snake (Thamnophis butleri). Occasionally some individuals are melanistic and sport a jet black coloration with little or no patterning. Adults are usually between 12-24" in length, but sometimes attain lengths over three feet.
This species has been documented in every county in the state and is by far our most common snake. Garter snakes are habitat generalists and may be found in woodlands, fields, wetlands, city parks, and even suburban backyards. They feed on a wide variety of prey items including frogs, tadpoles, fish, earthworms, and some small rodents.
Aspidoscelis sexlineatus viridis
One of only two species of lizard which are known to inhabit Michigan, the prairie racerunner is extremely rare and localized. Racerunners are tan or gray in coloration with six yellow or white lines running down the length of their back and often have black between two of the brighter yellow stripes on either side of the body.. The lateral stripes originate behind the eyes and , but may fade as the animals ages. The tail is long and whip-like. Males sport a bright blue or green chin, head, and belly during the breeding season and are considerably larger females. Adults range between 5-10" in length. Juveniles exhibit a characteristic light blue tail which can be lost and regrown, similar to the Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) and the tail darkens as they age.
The Prairie Racerunner is a diurnal species which prefers scrubby areas and sandy substrate for burrowing. In Michigan, the racerunner inhabits one small sand prairie with sparse vegetative cover including grasses, sedges, and prickly pear cactus. Racerunners prefer hot, dry conditions and are only active during the warmest parts of the year in Michigan, usually between May and August. The Michigan population is disjunct from the racerunners recognized range and it is unclear whether it is a relict native population or if it is introduced. Continuing research is trying to determine this issue and to better understand the racerunner's ecology in Michigan in order to better manage it in the future.
This species often excavates temporary burrows for cover during the night hours and from inclement weather and predators, as the individual pictured above was in the process of doing. Because of its extremely limited distribution in Michigan, the Prairie Racerunner is listed as a Threatened species. Contnuing management and conservation work in Michigan should help ensure that this species remains a part of the state's herpetofauna for years to come.
The five-lined skink is the more common of Michigan's two species of lizard. It is easily characterized by the five light colored lines running from the snout down the back and into the tail. These lines may become obscured or absent in males during the breeding season. During this time, the head of the male swells and becomes a brilliant orange-red and the body becomes a tan or gray coloration. Juveniles skinks are dark black with bright cream stripes and a brilliant blue tail, which can be dropped in the event of an attack by a predator. The tail breaks cleanly and will often writhe and wriggle for a minute or two by design to distract the predator so that the skink can escape. The tail regrows over time but cannot be dropped again during the skink's lifetime. Some females retain some of the blue coloration seen in juveniles as shown in the photo above. If you encounter a skink in the field, be careful not to handle it by or near the tail to ensure that the skink has this line of defense for when it is actually needed.
The five-lined skink has been documented in most of the counties in the lower peninsula and in a few counties of the central upper peninsula. But it seems to be most abundant in the woodlands of the northern half of the lower peninsula. It prefers damp or sandy woodlands with ample basking sites such as rocks, logs, or rock outcrops. Small clear cut areas with brush piles or discarded boards seem to be a favorite habitat, as well as beneath the rotting bark of large fallen trees. Five-lined skinks feed on a wide variety of prey items including crickets, grasshoppers, spiders, and other invertebrates.
Eastern Spiny Softshell
Apalone spinifera spinifera
One of the largest species of turtles which is found in the state, softshells get their name from the smooth, flat, rubbery, skin-covered carapace which lacks scutes and has flexible edges. The neck is long as the nose is pig-like and protrudes from the snout of the turtle, softshells often only stick the tip of the nose out of the water to catch a breath of air. Like some other species of turtle, the eastern spiny softshell is sexually dimorphic. Females are considerably larger than males; carapace length 8-19", and have dark blotches or mottling across the carapace. Males are considerably smaller; carapace length 5-9", and have clean black circles and spots across the carapace. Juveniles exhibit the same markings as adult males.
This species is found in large bodies of water such as rivers, lakes, and impoundments with sandy or muddy bottoms with little vegetation. They are usually seen basking on logs or banks and often bury themselves in sand or mud in shallow water. They are skittish and will usually drop into the water with little provocation. Their flat, smooth carapace makes them a fast and agile swimmer, which helps them to hunt down prey items such as fish, tadpoles, and crayfish. Females seek out exposed sandy banks in the early summer to deposit eggs. This species is found throughout the lower peninsula but is most common in the southern and north central regions of the state. Though common, this species is threatened by nest predation, road mortality, and shoreline development.
Eastern Snapping Turtle
Chelydra serpentina serpentina
Our largest turtle species by weight, the eastern snapping turtle is one of the most recognizable turtles in Michigan. Adults attain carapace lengths between 8-19" and can weigh upwards of forty pounds. The carapace is broad and may be gray, brown, or olive in coloration, though it is often covered in algae or mud. The rear marginal scutes are serrated, while the vertebral and pleural scutes may feature a sharp ridge in younger specimens. The plastron is small and crossed shaped. The tail is long and features a row of sharp triangular scutes which run along the top of it. The head is large and with a short, pointed snout and sharp jaws with a hooked upper beak. The limbs are large with large webbed feet and heavy, curved claws. The skin may be dark, yellow, or olive in coloration and has a very warty texture.
Snapping turtles are found statewide and inhabit a wide variety of aquatic habitats. These include lakes, rivers, ponds, creeks, marshes, fens, vernal pools, and even roadside ditches. They do not bask as often as most other turtles but may occasionally be seen sprawled over a large fallen log. They are often seen on land moving from one pond to another in the summer but are seen in most often looking for a nesting site in the early summer. This often requires them to cross busy roads, usually with fatal consequences. Though quite inoffensive under water, snapping turtles can be potentially dangereous if molested on land. They often hold their ground with their mouth agape and will snap at anything that gets within range of their reach. Bites can inflict serious lacerations which require stitches and in some extreme cases, a bite may remove a finger. Its is best to leave a snapping turtle alone to prevent the possibility of an injury, however unlikely it may be.
Midland Painted Turtle
Chrysemys picta marginata
Probably our most common species of turtle, the midland painted turtle is found throughout the lower peninsula and into the upper peninsula. The western painted turtle (Chrysemys picta belli) is found in the western upper peninsula and hybridizes with the midland painted in the central part of the U.P. This species is medium sized with adults averaging carpace lengths between 4-9", and females getting slightly larger than males. Males are generally smaller, but have noticeably long toe nails which they use to court females.The carapace is black or olive with red markings along and under the marginal scutes. The plastron is orange or yellow and may have some central markings. The head is dark with bright yellow stripes which transition to red stripes on the neck. The limbs have either yellow or red striping.
Painted turtles prefer still or sluggish waters with plenty of aquatic vegetation and a muddy bottom. They may be found in lakes, ponds, marshes, and backwaters of rivers. They are often seen basking in large numbers on warm, sunny days. They feed on aquatic vegetation, snails, tadpoles, aquatic insects, and occasionally small fish. Like other turtle species in the state, females move onto land in the early summer to seek out nesting sites and generally select exposed areas with lots of sun to help gestate their eggs. Though the nests hatch in the late summer, hatchlings overwinter in the nest and do not emerge until the following spring.
Spotted turtles are arguably the prettiest turtle species which inhabits Michigan, but sadly is also the rarest. This small species is easily recognizable by it's dark black carapace and scattered yellow spots. The plastron is yellow or orange with alternating black markings, but it may occasionally be mostly black altogether. The limps are reddish orange on the underside and black with yellow spots on top. Adults are small, with carapace lengths ranging from 3-5". This species is also sexually dimorphic, males have a concave plastron and usually have a dark head and chin while females have a flat plastron and an orange striped chin.
Spotted turtles are almost always associated with wetlands with shallow, clean water and a muddy or silty bottom and ample emergent vegetation. These habitats include boggy ponds, prairie fens, grassy marshes, and sphagnum seepages. In the early spring they can be seen basking on sedges on warm, sunny afternoons like the individual pictured above. Spotted turtles are incredibly cold tolerant and are among the first species of turtle to begin basking in the early spring. As temperatures rise, spotted turtles eventually dig into the mud to estivate during the hottest and driest parts of the summer. Spotted turtles have been known to inhabit vernal pools in the northeast, but may also inhabit them during the spring months in Michigan as shown in the picture below.
Unfortunately the story of this species in Michigan and across it's range is saddening. Spotted turtles have experienced severe declines due to habitat loss by the draining of wetlands for agriculture, road mortality, nest predation, and illegal collection. These declines have been so severe that the species is listed as Threatened in Michigan. Spotted turtles are rare and are found in scattered locations in the southern and western parts of the lower peninsula. Any observations of this species are important and should be reported to the Michigan Herp Atlas.
One of our larger and most recognizable turtle species, the Blanding's turtle features a smooth, dome shaped carapace with is black and usually has bright or faint yellow speckles across it. The plastron is yellow in color with black outer blotches and a crosswise hinge which is allows it pull it's limbs and head into the shell and close slightly, but not completely like the eastern box turtle. When basking, it's long snake neck and bright yellow chin and throat are easily visible. Adults are quite large, with carapace lengths ranging between 6-11". Males are usually slightly large then females, they feature a deeply concave plastron and a noticeably thick, long tail.
Blanding's turtles are somewhat semi-aquatic and may occasionally be found in terrestrial evironments, but this is only when they are moving from one area to another or during nesting season. Blanding's prefer clear, shallow waters with abundant emergent vegetation. They inhabit emergent marshes, vernal pools, river backwaters, ponds, fens, and oxbows. In the northern part of the northern peninsula, they also are known to inhabit rivers with clear water and sandy or gravel bottoms. In the spring, they are among the first species to bask and are often seen basking alongside large numbers of midland painted turtles in permanent and semi-permanent waters. They are are veracious predators of tadpoles, crayfish, small fish, and other aquatic organisms. Females move to upland sites in the early summer to seek out nesting sites, unfortunately they seem to have a bad habit of nesting on road sides of rural roads.
Many people often fail to pay attention and run nesting turtles down by accident, and unfortunately sometimes intentionally. Not only are these roadways for human traffic, but also for causeways for wildlife species including raccoons. Raccoons and other mammals like the red fox have becomes efficient predators of turtle eggs and are able to follow scent trails left by nesting female turtles to nest sites, where they predate entire turtle nests within 24-48 hours of being laid. This had lead to a dangerous shift in turtle populations. Turtles are long-lived, and species like the Blanding's turtle may live for 80 years or more. Though adult Blanding's turtles seem to be fairly common throughout Michigan, we must understand that most of these turtles are likely 20-25 years of age at minimum. Blandings may take 14-15 years to reach sexual maturity and the fact they we don't see many young Blanding's turtles is alarming. If there is no recuitment of juveniles, then once the old adults die off, we will have little or no members of this species left. This problem and the decline of this species has led to it being listed as a Species of Special Concern. Any sightings of this species should be reported to the Michigan Herp Atlas.
The name Glyptemys insculpta literally translates into "sculptured turtle" and there's no better way to describe the carapace of the wood turtle. Each scute has ornate, concentric growth rings that have been likened to the inside of a tree, another place where this species gets it's common name. The carapace coloration is usually brown in color and Michigan specimens usually feature many radiating yellow lines. The plastron is yellow in color with black outer blotches. The head is partially black in coloration, while the neck and limbs are yellow or yellowish orange in color with some black coloration as well. Adults are large, attaining carapace lengths between 6.5-9.5". Males are usually slightly larger then females and feature a concave plastron, an enlarged and widened head, and a long thick tail.
In Michigan, wood turtles inhabit medium sized rivers with sandy or gravel substrates with ample surrounding forest. They occasionally wander into smaller streams and tributaries of larger streams. This species is semi-aquatic and spends much of it's time form September through May in and around the rivers themselves, but often move upland into adjacent habitats in the summer months. These terrestrial habitats include woodlands, meadows, pastures, and wetlands where they spend much of their time foraging on earthworms, slugs, mushrooms, and berries. Females tend to wander greater distances from the river corridor than males, which can be quite territorial and appear to spend much of their time patrolling their river corridor for mates and potential intruding males.
Wood turtles are found throughout the upper peninsula and in the northern half of the lower peninsula where suitable river corridor habitat is available. A Species of Special Concern here in Michigan, wood turtles have suffered significant declines across its range due to illegal collection, habitat loss, nest predation, and road mortality. Their striking appearance, charismatic personality, and rarity make them highly sought after in the herp community. Like other rare and declining turtle species, nest predation and low recruitment of juveniles continues to be the single greatest threat to future of the wood turtle. Any observations of this species should be reported to the Michigan Herp Atlas.
Northern Map Turtle
Graptemys geographica geographica
The common river turtle often seen basking in large numbers on large fallen timber. Northern map turtles are a variable species which features an olive or brown carapace with irregular map-like markings and a low central keel. This central keel is much more pronounced in in adult males and juveniles. The head and neck feature thin yellow stripes and there is a distinct yellow spot behind the eye on either side of the head. Females are considerably larger than males; 6-11" total carapace length, and have large heads with a wide, pronounced jaw. Females use their strong jaws to crush the shells of snails, crafish, freshwater muscles, and other invertebrates. Males are much smaller; 4-6" total carapace length, and usually feature the characteristic central keel and a long, thick tail.
Northern map turtles are denizens of large inland lakes, rivers, impoundments, and oxbow sloughs with sufficient basking places. They are most often seen basking in large numbers on banks, logs, and rocks in these habitats are incredibly skittish, usually dropping into the water in unison when approached even from a long distance away. This species is found in throughout much of the lower peninsula, but is absent from the north central and northeastern counties.
Eastern Musk Turtle
This small species is fairly common throughout the state, but is fairly secretive in it's habits. Musk turtles are one of the smallest turtles in Michigan, with adult carapace lengths of 3-5". The carapace is brown or black in coloration and is narrow with a high arch. More often than not, the carapace is covered in algae. The plastron is noticeably small and has skin between the scutes. The snout is pointed and usually features two yellow stripes on either side of the head. The tail is short, but is much stouter in males. Adult males also have a slightly larger head than females.
Musk turtles are inhabitants of clear water lakes with ample aquatic vegetation and sandy or marl bottoms, but they may also be found in clear, weedy ponds and backwaters of rivers. They rarely bask, but can be reliably seen foraging in shallow water. Can be seen foraging at night in shallow water in the summer months as well. Musk turtles feed on snails, crayfish, tadpoles, and insects. The musk turtles has earned another common name; the stinkpot. This is due to the scent glands on the underside of the shell which produce a foul smelling musk if the turtle is handled. The musk turtle is found throughout the lower peninsula but seems to be particularly common in the southern part of the state. Though common, this species is threatened due to shoreline development on inland lakes, the primary nesting habitat for the musk turtle.
Eastern Box Turtle
Terrapene carolina carolina
The only true terrestrial turtle which is found in Michigan, the eastern box turtle is also one of the state's prettiest. The high domed carapace features yellow or orange radiating lines and features a hinge across the plastron which allows the turtle to close up into it's shell completely. The head and limbs also feature yellow or orange markings. This species is highly variable, with some individuals being incredibly colorful and others being fairly dull. Males tend to be more colorful than females on average and have bright red eyes and a concave plastron.
Farther south in their range, Box Turtles are traditionally known as a woodland species. But in Michigan, they prefer a mosaic of community types. Michigan Turtles often are found along woodland edges in grasslands but they occasionally wander into wetlands such as fens. They are often found in some sort of cover and are rarely out in the open except after summer rainstorms. Box Turtles have a wide diet which includes worms, insects, plants, berries, and fungi. In the late summer when wildberries fruit out and drop to the ground, Box Turtles can often be found concentrated under or around large berry patches.
A Species of Special Concern in Michigan, this species has declined drastically from its former distribution in the state. Even today, nest predation and road mortality are the most significant threats to the longterm survival of this species in Michigan. Raccoons are estimated to occupy 700-800% of their original population numbers at the turn of the century. This explosion in population is due to the species ability to adapt the modern urban landscape and capitalize on being an opportunist when it comes to feeding. One behavior that the raccoon has learned is raiding turtle nests which have been freshly laid. This has gotten to the point that usually the only turtle nests one can find is a predated nest by racoons. Roads are also an issue. Box Turtle habitat is often fragmented due to development and roads and in areas where populations exist, this species is extremely vulnerable to being killed moving from one patch of habitat to another. Any observations of this species should be reported to the Michigan Herp Atlas.