THROUGH THE WOODS: The power of the sun

Painted turtle. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

THERE IS A LARGE MARSH not far from my house and I often go there throughout the seasons to see what is happening. The nights have started the fall temperature cycles, with a few nights already down into the 40-degree Fahrenheit range. The sun raises it up into the 60’s, which entices the painted turtles out of the water and up onto their favorite places to sun. One turtle caught my eye because of the bright shine of its black shell. He was almost standing upright, and the position reminded me of the angle of solar panels in fields.

Turtles pick positions for maximum heat absorption and I wondered if thousands of years of their ancestors had this figured out long before we thought about it. Fifteen-million-year-old fossils of painted turtles have been found. Turtles are reptiles and must rely on the heat of their environment to regulate their body temperature. Sunning gives them the energy to swim and obtain food. Painted turtles grow to about 10” and a weight of 1.5 lbs. and can live more than 55 years.

Their diet consists of vegetation, insects, small fish, and crustaceans. These turtles mate in the spring and also in the fall, and females can store the sperm in their bodies for up to 3 years, letting them determine when to use it to fertilize their eggs. It also takes the pressure off of them to find a mate at the right time of year.

When weather is about 80-85 degrees, the females find a sunny spot, dig a hole called a nest, and lay their eggs. The clutch of eggs can have several different fathers. Eggs hatch in about 72-80 days, usually in August and September. The hatchlings in our area may remain together in their nest hole and overwinter there until spring.

Our adult turtles will soon be going down into the mud to wait for the warmer waters of spring to activate them again. When water warms in spring the painted turtles will be ready to start the cycle again, and we will be happy to welcome them back and watch them absorb those sunny rays.

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