The Turtle with the Sun under its Chin
Story and Photographs by Ryan Wagner
An old Chippewa legend tells the story of a trickster spirit named Nanabush, who in his hubris, stole the sun from the sky. Without the sun, the world was plunged into an icy winter where no food could grow. The largest and fastest animals feared the unpredictable Nanabush, and none dared attempt to steal the sun back. Despite being small and slow, it was the turtle that eventually decided to try, much to the amusement of the other animals. While Nanabush slept, the little, unassuming turtle slipped the sun into his mouth and scuttled away. Once in the open, he released the sun back into the sky, returning warmth and life to the world. As a reminder of his bravery, the turtle’s throat was forever stained a brilliant, sunshine yellow, earning him the name “the turtle with the sun under its chin.”
In line with our own European hubris, this turtle was renamed in 1838 after the American Naturalist William Blanding. Today, one might still assume that the radiant, yellow throat of the Blanding’s turtle is responsible for melting the snow and ushering in the spring warmth and productivity as these turtles emerge from hibernation in late winter.
Blanding’s turtles are limited to the Great Lakes Region in the United States and Canada, with a small disjunct population in New York, Massachusetts, and Maine. They are considered threatened and declining across their irregular distribution due to a myriad of human impacts on the landscape. Habitat fragmentation, road mortality, increased predation, drainage of wetlands, pollution, illegal collection for the pet trade, and impacts from climate change have all taken their toll. In Ohio, Blanding's turtles were once found in at least thirteen counties along the shores of Lake Erie, but today, they can be found in only four.
I’ve spent many long hours searching for these state threatened turtles, but have always come up empty. Most of the year, Blanding’s turtles bask just below the water’s surface, and are only inclined to clamber out onto exposed logs in April and May. Once summer temperatures begin to rise, these turtles spend more time in upland woods, making them even more challenging to find.
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that my favorite “bird” from my Magee Marsh trip this spring was in fact a turtle. The sun was just beginning to break through the thick wall of gray clouds that had shrouded the boardwalk under the muted green of the canopy all morning. I lowered my camera as the Cape May warbler I had been photographing disappeared into the foliage. As dappled sunlight shimmered down through the treetops, I felt my pace quicken as the herper in me began to stir. I was at Magee to birdwatch, I told myself. This was the one and only time of year to admire wood warblers at such a close range. I tried to ignore my primal, scaly urges and focus on the feathered transients I was here to see. Eventually, the herper in me won out. A moment later I was ducking under dozens of telephoto lenses (no pun intended) all trained on the little streaks of color hopping between branches.
Blanding’s turtles inhabit the still, shallow marshes along the Lake Erie shoreline. Some might call these large wetlands lakes themselves, but compared to the deep, churning expanse of Lake Erie, these are just ponds. The wetland I was headed to is separated from this Great Lake by nothing more than a human-constructed embankment, making the stark divide between these two habitats even more pronounced. Great Blue Herons and pure white Great Egrets patrolled the pond margins, harpooning fish and macroinvertebrates as they stalked along on their stilt legs. Soras darted through the woody debris and aquatic vegetation near the shore, uttering their descending whinnying call. The sunshine was beginning to warm the water’s surface, turning the network of dead snags and logs that clogged the shallows into prime turtle basking sites.
As I began to scan the inundated tree-line, the very first thing that caught my eye was that classic, yellow chin. A Blanding’s turtle was sitting on a half-submerged log just a few feet from shore. Its oblong head was held high on a fully distended, wrinkly neck. Its lower body was obscured from view by another log, hiding what was sure to be an impressively domed grayish-black shell, streaked with pale yellow. I knelt, briefly losing sight of the turtle as I tried to inch closer without spooking the animal into the murky water.
The turtle’s round, dark pupils eyed me suspiciously as I clumsily shimmed down the bank, but amazingly, it stayed put. Laying on my belly in nearly the same pose as my reptilian quarry, I could now fully appreciate the uniqueness of this turtle. Even at such a large body size, the Blanding’s throat looked as if the turtle had tipped itself into a bucket of yellow paint just moments ago. Many reptiles, such as milk snakes, start their life patterned with brilliant colors that subsequently fade with age. Not so for this turtle. I could easily understand why the First Nation's people had marveled at this turtle's beauty. It really did look as if a piece of the sun itself might be tucked within the folds of its neck.
The overcast sky made for excellent shooting conditions—any brighter and the animal’s reflective shell would have been overpowering. As I snapped off a few photographs, another yellow chin appeared in my periphery. There, sitting a short distance away, was another, slightly smaller, Blanding’s turtle. I couldn’t believe my luck. I could have turned around and gone home right then and there, none the wiser that an even more incredible sight was just a few feet away.
I left the two turtles as I’d found them. Unlike the nearby painted turtles that had plopped off into the water as I approached, neither of the Blanding’s turtles paid me much mind. I continued down the path, contemplating how trusting these turtles had been. That’s when I saw two more. This time, the turtles were not sitting side-by-side, but instead, one was stacked on top of the other. The larger of the two, clearly the male, had his four legs firmly anchored to the shell of the female below. Neck extended, he peered down into the slit between the two halves of her shell as if coaxing her out.
Understanding behavior is so integral to the understanding of wildlife, and yet, observing wild behavior in reptiles is one of the most challenging aspects of herpetology. Stumbling upon a moment like this is like discovering a fossil that has never seen the light of day. It is exhilarating. For just that one moment, nature has let you in on a little secret—something special and intimate very few have ever had the chance to see.
I watched the pair for several minutes as the male seemed to whisper silently to the timid female. The biological purpose of that yellow throat and chin is poorly understood, but it is thought to play some role in their courtship. Blanding’s turtles have a unique ritual when mating, quite unlike any of their closely related allies. Once mounted in the typical turtle fashion, like two spoons fitted together, the male will begin to stimulate the female by rubbing his chin on her snout. As she recoils into her shell, the male switches to a behavior known as “gulping.” Mouth agape, he pulsates water in and out of his mouth, sampling for pheromones. He then begins swaying his long, arched neck back and forth in front of the female, flashing her with his yellow markings. If she presents her tail, the two will mate; if she is still not convinced, the male will increase the intensity of his swaying, often dislodging himself in the process.
Courtship in Blanding’s turtles has only been formally described to take place in water. Finding a courting pair on land is, as far as I can tell, unheard of. As I watched, the male must have grown impatient or wary of my presence and, as if in slow motion, rocked the female and himself sideways into the water with a small splash. The moment was over.
If these two turtles mate successfully, the female will likely travel to lay her eggs in June. She may have to traverse miles, crossing busy roads and development to find a suitable nesting site. If she survives the journey, she could deposit up to 30 eggs in a single nest cavity that she dug with her hind legs. With luck, she will have avoided nesting on a gravel parking lot or busy hiking trail. Raccoons and opossums will soon be on the hunt, sniffing out poorly concealed turtle nests. If her eggs go unmolested, they will develop at the mercy of the weather. Warm incubation temperatures will result in more female hatchlings, cooler will result in more males. The newborns must then decide whether to emerge in late summer or fall, or stay within the nest cavity all winter, emerging the following spring. For the first few years of their life, these baby turtles will be the smallest kids on the block. If they survive the gauntlet of fish, skunks, snakes, hawks, and herons, they will face few natural threats.
Today, the main threat to the Blanding's turtle is us. Our impacts on the landscape are driving its range-wide decline. Native Americans have seen the value in small and unassuming creatures for generations. You don't have to be the largest or fastest to contribute to the world around you in big and important ways. That should be reason enough to care about the future of the turtle with the sun under its chin.
About the Author and Photographer
Herping, birding, blogging. The life of an ecology field tech is never boring. From turtle telemetry to amphibian road mortality, there is always something new and unusual to learn. This blog is a record of my encounters and experiences with nature, science, and the people who make it all possible. If you’re trying to find me, check the nearest patch of greenbriar or look waist deep in a wetland. I’m living the field life.