Hatchling Turtle’s
Nest-to-Water Journey

by David M. Carroll

 < Wildlife Studies

The Hatchling Sets Out on Her Nest-To-Water Journey

“The first hatchling to dig out heads away from the nest. Two of her sisters quickly scramble out behind her; the last to leave the chamber pauses at the exit hole. Each turtle is on her own. They may take the same path at times as they follow the cues that will lead them to the spotted-turtle swamp, but each one travels alone. Any one of them may live for a matter of minutes before being taken by a predator, or live for a hundred years or more. If they see each other again they will not recognize each other as being sisters in the same family, but as belonging to the same larger family of their kind: spotted turtles.

If she lives fifteen or twenty years, the time it would take her to become an adult in the northern part of her speciesʻ range, perhaps she will come back to this same sparsely grassed sandy edge of the field to nest for her first time.”

Hatchling Sets Out on Her Nest-To-Water Journey

This series is also taken from my as-yet unpublished childrenʼs story, TURTLEʼS JOURNEY. This selection of images and text show some of the journey that the hatchling spotted turtle makes after leaving her nest, when she must find her way to the specific wetland habitat necessary for her species, an orienteering – always set against the danger of being taken by a predator – that might take days or weeks for many kinds of freshwater turtles. My story concludes with the spotted turtle going into hibernation.

Note: I have used “she” and “sisters” in my story, as in many turtle species, such as the spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata), the sex of the hatchlings in a clutch is determined by the temperature in the nest over the long incubation period. Lower temperatures tend to produce males, higher temperatures females; hence, all hatchlings in a clutch are likely to be of the same sex.

Hatchling turtles often leave the nest all at once, leaving behind an oval exit hole that is that is just their size, a little over an inch in width for spotted turtles; but sometimes hatching out over a period of two or more days. Although some may follow in one anotherʼs footsteps for a time (I have observed this in snapping and wood turtles), there is a strong tendency to disperse at once.

The first part of this critical – and dangerous – journey may last only a matter of minutes (I have seen this be the case with a majority of spotted and painted turtles, for example), as they quickly dig into the base of tufts of little bluestem grass or other vegetation, or find other hiding places. Some may wander for hours. All go into hiding before nightfall. The journey may take one day, or more often go on for several days, even weeks.

In 1993 my friend and colleague Sheila Tuttle and I did a study of the movements of hatchling wood turtles upon leaving the nest. We screened nests as they were completed in nesting season, in order to protect them from predators. We then monitored them daily at hatching time (usually mid-August into early September). As hatchlings emerged we dusted them with florescent powders of different colors and released them at their nest sites. We went out at night with black lights to track their travels, following glowing specks of color. We would try to track them to where they had gone into hiding, dug into “forms” (little hollows in the substrate or thatch) for the night, and mark the site with a tiny flag.

In the morning we would continually circle their hiding places, until they came out to begin the next dayʼs leg of their journey, dusting them with a fresh coating of powder, so we could again track them in darkness. Some trails were inevitably lost in dense cover, or to rainfall, but we followed many for a number of days and succeeded in tracking twelve out of fifty four hatchlings all the way to the brooks in which they would hibernate. This is the goal for every hatchling: to find their way to to the overwintering habitat requisite for their species, stillwater wetlands for spotted turtles and most others; streams and rivers for wood turtles.

In our study only one hatchling entered a stream on the day he left the nest. The longest journey we were able to document went on for twenty six days. A paper on our study was published in 2005 in the journal NORTHEASTERN NATURALIST [12 (3): 331-348]. I have also written about my observations of these hatchling journeys in my book YEAR OF THE TURTLE (“Hatching” chapter, pp.127, ff.); SWAMPWALKERʼS JOURNAL (“Nest-to-Water Journey”, pp. 96 ff.); and FOLLOWING THE WATER (“A Drink Along the WAY”, pp. 149, ff.)

The Hatchling Hides in a Deerʼs Footprint

“The hatchling continues on her way, struggling through cranberry vines and swirls of sedge. Suddenly she tumbles into the deep footprint of a whitetail deer. She settles snuggly into the impression that the bounding deer made in the moist, mossy earth. She feels secure and hidden here. The turtle has traveled enough for the day and stays in her accidentally discovered hiding place. Later, as a chill night comes on, she pulls into her shell and closes her eyes.”

Hatchling Hides in a Deerʼs Footprint

Intervals of time spent in hiding by day are are a survival-enhancing feature of the overland migrations hatchling turtles must make as they seek that underwater habitat niche in which they can hibernate. Even the most aquatic species begin their lives on land, emerging from the earth and undertaking an often sustained period of terrestrial navigation.

I once followed four hatchling painted turtles (who had actually spent their first hibernation in their nest, a remarkable adaptation that is the prevalent pattern for their kind) as they left their nest. I could not conceal myself very well in the open sandy terrain in which their mother had nested, but they were entirely focused on the first leg of the journey to the destination they had never seen but had to find; they did not appear to take any heed of me.

The ground they traversed was only sparsely vegetated with tufts of little bluestem grass, haircap moss, and pink earth tongue lichen. It would seem that every sign they would be guided by would beckon them to the great marsh only fifty yards or so away. But one scrambled immediately to a tussock of bluestem only three feet from the nest, and tunneled out of sight. Two others set off in the direction opposite from the marsh, and to my surprise headed for a dense line of white pines at the edge of the field, seventy yards or so away.

It was difficult to keep track of these and the fourth, who marched in a straight line parallel to the marsh without ever turning toward it. But I managed to see where the two entered the pine stand, and went to see their next movements. A short distance in, separate from each other, both dug under fallen leaf and pine needle cover, vanishing completely.

I fingered into the site of disappearance of one of them, and found him three inches deep in the forest litter. The fourth meanwhile kept traveling on in a straight line. After two hours of passing parallel to the marsh he suddenly made an abrupt turn and tunneled out of sight in a clump of little bluestem.

As surprising as these observations were, they were eclipsed by my once following a hatchling spotted turtle who wandered about for two hours before walking directly over the nest he had dug out of. A short time after this the tiny turtle turned down a slope that led directly to a shrub swamp in which all ages of spotted turtles hibernate.

Here I thought I would see one go from nest to water in an afternoon. But this one made a sudden turn also, and headed for a small fallen log. I sensed that he was going to go into hiding beneath it – and he did. As I patrolled the field to check on other nests I was monitoring at the time I lifted the log each day, setting it back in place at once upon seeing that the hatchling was still there. The newborn turtle kept to the hollow he had formed in the sandy earth beneath the log for twelve days. Then, following a thunderstorm in the morning, I lifted the cover of his hideout and saw that he had finally moved on.

The Hatchling Comes to the Swamp

“The hatchling spotted turtle walks in darkness almost like night as she moves through the deep shadows of a shrub thicket densely grown with sedges and ferns. She sees a glowing light ahead. In a wet place filled with the scent of water she pushes her way through weavings of tussock sedge and breaks forth into a space of dazzling brightness and welcome warmth.

Just below the last mound she has crossed lies a new light. She holds still, and looks down into it. The glassy surface reflects silvery skylight in some places. In others it is shadowy and dark, like her shell. And here and there it is perfectly transparent, like air. She has never seen it before, but she recognizes the water of her swamp the instant she finds it.”

Turtles Nest-to-Water Journey 2

As hatchlings continue their journeys they frequently stop abruptly, hold still, and look all about them. Scanning their surroundings, they begin making a map of their worlds. They look at the mosses and lichens low to the ground; the dense grasses and sedges, vines of cranberry and running swamp blackberry tangled about them; the shrubs and trees silhouetted against the sky.

They smell the earth, the wind, and the plants of their native landscape. They feel heat and cold, sense dryness and dampness on the earth and in the air. There are signs in everything that makes up their habitats, the wild and natural ecosystems to which their species are adapted; and these direct their nest-to- water journeys. Senses and instincts, inborn messages, capacities that are hard to imagine, guide hatchling turtles as they make an initial journey that turtles have made for many millions of years.

The Hatchling Enters the Water

“The turtle drops into the water from her perch on the sedge mound, sending little ripples into the reflections on the surface as she enters it. The first great journey of her life has ended. Her swimming, like that of adult spotted turtles, is not so different from her walking on land as she tunnels through mazes of underwater sedges and grasses.

But she is weightless now as she slips over and under sunken branches. And she moves through different light, a light that gleams in pure water and seems even more transparent than the air above it. For most of the rest of her life she will be in water. But she will travel and hide on land again at times, in future journeys, when she is older, and bigger.”

Hatchling Turtle Enters the Water

On many occasions I have observed hatchling spotted, painted, snapping, and wood turtles to immediately bite onto submersed stems, strands of sedge, and the like, and hold on for a time. They often let go to take hold of another sunken plant or twig.

The senses of taste and smell are closely related in turtles, and it has seemed to me that these hatchlings are literally getting a taste of this new realm, the underwater habitat that will be their essential home. And here a second critical orienteering takes place. They must find the aquatic niche their species requires in order to survive the winters of their lives, which last as long as half a year in northern latitudes, avoiding predators and keeping from freezing.

< Turtle Nest Hatching Sequence Turtle Study Sketches >