Western Pond Turtles: They’re Back

A late winter walk along some of Lake County’s creeks, ponds wetlands, and lakes may reward you with sightings of the only native freshwater turtle along the west coast region of the United States on down to Baja California. This once-prolific reptile is a slow-mo treat to watch as it s-l-o-w-l-y emerges from Cache Creek to sun itself upon a long, warm log. There it will sit, striking a pose until- kerplunk! It takes a turtle leap into the water until the perceived threat has passed. Habitat destruction and predators such as osprey, otters, coyotes, and raccoons who love hatchlings are all to blame for the threats to this species. In the 1800s it was en vogue to hunt turtles for food when they were nearly hunted to extinction.

A different threat to this species is another turtle-the introduced and non-native Red-eared slider which is native to mid and southern United States regions and is often purchased as a pet before being released to the Western pond turtle habitat. Then, the Red-eared sliders can take over the native’s food and its nesting areas. Additionally, sliders reproduce more readily and are aggressive, as compared to the native breed.

Western pond turtles’ requirements include a wet habitat that is not a fast-running river. Herpetologists, those who study reptiles, tell us that in the cold months of winter Western pond turtles hibernate, or, in drought conditions and our Mediterranean climate, they estivate, which is similar in that they spend time in a state of torpor or dormancy. During this time they plow down into the mud or soil to live below for months at a time. Since these turtles are poikilotherms, or cold-blooded, their metabolic rate slows down. They are able to survive these immersions by breathing through their cloaca. Cloacal respiration allows for both oxygen extraction and carbon dioxide removal via a function similar to those of gills in other animals. During a drought, turtles may live outside of their aquatic environment for two-thirds of a year, and take over ground squirrels’ dens.

Western pond turtles have been studied in depth at Lake County’s Boggs Lake Ecological Reserve by Sonoma State University’s biology professor Nick Geist. In 2008 Geist collaborated with San Francisco and Oakland Zoos to rear and relocate turtles to their native habitat. Geist worked with grad students to attach transmitters to the backs of some turtles in order to obtain data for 1-2 years on the turtles’ development in their habitat. The Western pond turtles were tracked via radio telemetry along with visual surveys.

The turtle’s hard shell, a dull brown to olive in color, helps them hide from predators. The soft eggs and tiny hatchlings are easy prey, though. Western pond turtles have been known to live 50 years or more in nature. When determining the sex of the western turtle look at its throat. Males have a yellow throat. The diet of the Western pond turtle is broad in scope and includes crayfish, bugs, frogs, and fish. As they are omnivorous, they may choose to feast on tule, algae, or cattail roots.

Before European settlers hunted out most of the turtles, California Indians practiced substance harvesting of the reptiles. The Pomo people of Clear Lake set nets below the tule reeds to catch turtles. Then they wrapped both turtles and eggs in the grass to bake in ashes. Turtles played a part in the Pomo Indians’ mythology as well. Anthropologist and linguist S.A. Barrett studied Native American peoples in the 1800s. He stated that the Pomo Indians depicted turtles as the subject of a number of their myths. In  “Coyote Steals the Morning Sack, Containing the Sun, Moon and Pleiades” the turtle, black lizard, and coyote were in search of light. Coyote could morph himself into a variety of forms, so to trick the boys who were using the village sweathouse, Coyote changed into an old man to gain the boys’ confidence to enable him access. After some dancing- and with a turtle as the protector of the doorway, Coyote was able to gain admission to the bag which contained the morning light. When the People learned of the trick, they launched Fog and Dove after them. While the turtle continued guarding the doorway, the villagers took shots at him with their rapid arrows, and that is how the turtle received the markings on his shell.

Take the time to visit the turtle’s wonderful water world, when you can mimic the turtle’s unhurried and deliberate demeanor-one that has spanned time since at least the late Pliocene Epoch millions of years ago.

Kathleen Scavone

Kathleen Scavone, MA., is a retired educator who has resided in beautiful Lake County for over 45 years. She freelances fiction, poetry, nature writing, curriculum ideas, and local history. She writes for The Press Democrat, Napa Valley Register, News From Native California, Green Prints, etc. She has published three books, a play and a poetry chapbook. The second edition of her locally set historical novella, People of the Water- a novella of the events leading to the Bloody Island Massacre of 1850 is available in local museums and stores, as well as on Amazon.com and IngramSpark in both paperback and e-book formats. She has written Anderson Marsh State Historic Park- A Walking History, Prehistory, Flora and Fauna tour of a California State Park, and Native Americans of Lake County. Kathleen is a photographer and potter. Her other interests include hiking, assisting on archaeology digs, travel, gardening and reading.

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