The wood turtle, a semi-aquatic turtle that is found from Canada to Northern Virginia, is considered uncommon in Virginia and is state-listed as "threatened." As a result, it is protected by state endangered species laws, and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) must consider potential impacts to this species before issuing permits to impact wetlands and other jurisdictional waters.
Northern Virginia encompasses the southern limit of the range of the wood turtle. According to the Biota of Virginia (BOVA) database managed by the Virginia Fish and Wildlife Information Service (VaFWIS) of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF), Virginia counties with known records or likely occurrence of wood turtles include Fairfax, Loudoun, Clarke, Frederick, Page, Rockingham, Shenandoah, Warren, and the City of Alexandria.
During wetlands permit coordination with the DEQ, the DGIF generally recommends surveys be conducted on any site within a county of known or likely wood turtle occurrence if suitable habitat is present.
Preliminary site evaluations to determine whether potentially suitable habitat is present can be conducted any time of year; and for some sites, a habitat evaluation may be all that is necessary to confirm absence of habitat for the species. However, because the wood turtle is primarily terrestrial during the warmer months, for best results, a species survey should be conducted when the wood turtle enters the aquatic phase from approximately late October to early April (depending on water temperatures).
Due to this limited survey "window," proper planning by project managers on sites having suitable habitat is critical. Failure to have a wood turtle survey conducted during the appropriate time period could potentially result in significant out of season survey costs or wetlands permitting delays of up to a year! Therefore, project managers of Virginia sites within the species' range that will require wetlands permitting should also consider having a wood turtle habitat evaluation (or survey) conducted as early in the development process as possible, preferably in the October to April time frame, to ensure development schedule remains on track.
Wood Turtle Habitat and Characteristics
Wood turtles are medium-sized turtles that range in size from 140 to 230 mm (5-9 inches). The top of the shell (carapace) of the wood turtle appears sculpted, with scutes forming concentric shapes that resemble carved pyramids. The bottom of the shell (plastron) is yellow with black blotches and lacks a hinge (so it does not seal the turtle's body within). Wood turtles have a bright orange neck, a black head, and dark brown legs with orange in the leg sockets.
Wood turtles are intimately associated with the presence of a relatively undisturbed floodplain and a free-flowing perennial stream system with adequate nesting and basking areas. The wood turtle is known to occupy forested wetlands and marshy fields along the stream systems it inhabits, and some individuals may spend considerable time in upland areas, which can include successional fields, pastures, and agricultural areas. From fall into spring, the wood turtle generally occurs along clear, moderate to fast-moving streams (often within deciduous forests) where it hibernates in undercut stream banks, in burrows, under root masses, in thick leaf packs, or occasionally in debris piles near water, or just lying on the bottom. Aquatic habitat with pockets of deeper, but flowing water with overhanging banks and snags suitable for overwintering sites are a life history requirement for wood turtles. Wood turtles do not generally occur in lentic water bodies (standing-water), and in winter, are almost exclusively found in and around clear streams with both high oxygen tensions and short or no freeze-over periods.
WSSI has prepared an informational brochure, which briefly describes the wood turtle, similar species, and what to do if a wood turtle is encountered. Any observation of a wood turtle should be coordinated with the DGIF immediately.
Conducting an ETS Survey
WSSI has conducted a number of habitat evaluations and surveys for the wood turtle throughout Northern Virginia. WSSI staff are experienced in wood turtle surveys and hold a Threatened and Endangered Species (TEND) permit from the DGIF to allow them to conduct surveys for the state-threatened wood turtle.
For further information about this topic, or to have WSSI conduct a wood turtle habitat evaluation or survey on your site, please contact Ben Rosner, Jennifer Van Houten, Jennifer Feese or Mark Headly. Or you may reach any of our staff at 703.679.5600.
¹ The floodplain habitat of the wood turtle is generally forested with bottomland hardwood tree species. The floodplain area may also be interspersed with sunlit gaps, open utility easements, scrub-shrub fields, or wet meadows that are not often disturbed by human intrusion.