Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

July 12, 2010

Doc Blanding’s Turtle

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:40 am

It wasn’t the first Blanding’s Turtle I’ve seen nor, I trust, will it be the last but it certainly was one of the finest.  With its bright yellow throat and chin (see detail here), dark blue-black carapace adorned with yellow sprinkles, and a two-part plastron this beast was all Blanding’s. Its shell length was around 10 inches – making it about as large as the species can be.  We, the creature and I, crossed passed a few days ago. Though our meeting was short, it was long enough to render a photo op and a chance to delve into a little bit of the animal name game.

If you are not familiar with these critters, please allow me to point out a few significant traits. First and foremost the Blanding’s is considered to be a “semi-box turtle.” Not as fully closable as the Eastern Box Turtle – a woodland reptile that can famously close up as tight as a drum when frightened – this species can close its front door if necessary. A flexible hinge (see below) allows the turtle to pull the front third of the plastron up once the head and feet are drawn in. The back end doesn’t close and so leaves the turtle somewhat exposed in the rear quarter department.  The front door thing, however, is sufficient to keep Jehovah Witnesses and vacuum cleaner salesmen at bay (as well as persistent predators).

The Blanding’s is also considered a “semi-aquatic” reptile which means that it spends a considerable time on both land and water. They can swim with dignity but can also traverse on terra firma using stout feet. As partial land dwellers they also have the ability to eat and swallow berries and terrestrial food without being underwater. Most turtles, with the exception of box & wood turtles, cannot swallow unless they are submerged. This critter can also chop down crayfish, and other aquatic fauna, with the best of the water dwelling turtles. Being pegged with two “semi” designations, you might think that this turtle is only partially real, but it is wholly unique among shelled reptiles. It is one of a kind.

The Blanding’s Turtle is so unique that it is placed in its own genus – no sharing with the likes of those commoners such as the Painted and Red-eared Sliders. The scientific name Cistudo blandingii was given this beast by John Holbrook in 1838. Holbrook , a nineteenth century naturalist, considered by many to be the father of North American Herpetology (in other words, the daddy of reptilemania) published a text in that year in which he provided the formal description of a turtle “first observed by Dr. William Blanding of Philadelphia, an accurate naturalist, whose name I have given this species.”  Thus in the early texts the animal was referred to as “Blanding’s Box Tortoise.” That name eventually morphed into Blanding’s Turtle and the scientific name evolved into Emydoidea  blandingii .

William Blanding himself was born in 1773 in Rehoboth, Massachusetts. He was physician by training and a naturalist by choice. He collected the original specimen from the Fox River in Illinois in 1830 and that pickled creature became specimen 26123 in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

Today the Blanding’s Turtle has fallen upon hard times. It is protected in Michigan as it is throughout its restricted upper Midwestern range (there are a few in Massachusetts as well, although no one is sure how they got there). It is for the sake of the turtle and out of respect to the likes of Holbrook and William B. that we need to preserve this species. When gazing upon the wry grin of the Blanding’s Turtle (see below) one can almost sense this rich scientific heritage. “I am,” sayeth the turtle to the observer,” not just a turtle. I am Doc Blanding’s turtle.”


  1. Man, that is a cutie! I had no idea most turtles can only swallow underwater. I’ve had both a box and a snapper check out my garden as possible egg-drop locations. They are awesome and ancient-looking. I was wondering about turtle shells–the part that looks like dried mud or scuffed up. Is that mud? Is it scratches?

    Comment by Monica the Garden Faerie — July 12, 2010 @ 11:25 am

  2. Another great post. I have a Blanding’s Turtle in my pond here in central NH, right along its Northwest range in the state. First saw it this April, and occasionally since then. If I can measure it, I will, “mine” looks less worse for the wear than yours. Also, less detail on the head, it’s a more monochrome color right now, and hardly noticeable yellow dots on the carapace. So I’m assuming the one here is younger, unless there’s a way to sex them by head color and/or shape? I’ve only seen one, what’s the story with mating– Will it roam to find a mate, or wait for one to come to it, or what? These things can get to 80 years old from what I hear, I’m sure mine is getting lonely, especially since the pond is somewhat up a hill and removed from the valley watershed.

    Comment by callsign222 — July 12, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

  3. Monica:
    Those dirty looking spots in this case are dried mud. On “clean” turtles the dried areas are de-laminating scutes – the outer layer which flakes off as the shell grows. This layer is something like a fingernail.

    Comment by Gerry Wykes — July 13, 2010 @ 7:47 am

  4. Callsign:
    Blanding’s turtles do have a reputation for roaming, which is why they are adapted for extended overland travel. Of the turtles I’ve seen, about half were well away from water when found. I suspect your turtle will leave if it wants to – assuming it got there on it’s own. As to the age of your turtle, the younger ones are actually brighter in color and pattern than the older ones, so I’m not sure what to make of yours. No doubt it is a bit lonely way out there on the fringe of the species range.

    Comment by Gerry Wykes — July 13, 2010 @ 8:16 am

  5. A slight correction. William Blanding did not name the Blanding’s Turtle in 1830, but rather in 1838 at my great-great-grandfather’s farm in what is now Millbrook, Kendall County, IL, when a sample was brought to him by a neighbor. I have his journal which confirms site, time and conditions. He said he’d seen the turtle from a steamboat, but had not previously been able to examine one.

    Comment by Kit Vernon — September 17, 2014 @ 5:41 pm

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