Among Nebraska’s eight species of native turtles, an especially happy looking one is getting special attention.
The Blanding’s turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) is listed as a tier 1 species in the Natural Legacy Project, Nebraska’s wildlife action plan, making it the only turtle among the state’s animals and plants designated to have the greatest need for conservation efforts.
Amanda Filipi, an outdoor education specialist at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Wildcat Hills Nature Center near Gering, said the turtle’s dark shell with yellow dots, which she likens to a starry night, makes this semiaquatic species attractive. Perhaps most distinctive, though, is its head.
“It always looks like it’s smiling,” she said.
The species’ range is the upper Midwest and parts of Canada, dipping into the Nebraska Sand Hills marshes and distinct locales in the northeastern part of the state.
While most of the Blanding’s turtle population is considered imperiled or vulnerable, Filipi said research shows that the species may be expanding its range in Nebraska.
One specific female Blanding’s turtle made headlines in June 2017, when it was found east of Mitchell in Scotts Bluff County — about three counties west of where the species had been previously documented.
“It was found alongside a highway 100 miles from its normal range,” Filipi said. “Some research was done on it, and it was found that someone was keeping it as a pet, which is not something you are supposed to do with a Blanding’s turtle.”
Blanding’s turtles cannot be possessed, transported or sold in Nebraska because of their conservation status. Filipi said researchers studied the turtle’s toenails to help determine where it had been living.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Dennis Ferraro, one of the state’s leading specialists in amphibians and reptiles, studied toenail clippings for stable hydrogen and oxygen isotopes, which can connect the turtle to the chemistry of water at specific Sand Hills lakes. However, those tests came back inconclusive.
The results, and the fact the turtle readily ate from human hands and was so far from its previously documented range, led specialists to determine it had been a pet that either escaped or was released.
Filipi received special permission to add the turtle to the center’s collection of education animals, and it now serves as a “poster turtle” for the species and its conservation needs.
Conversion of wetlands and uplands for agriculture and other uses has been hard on the species, which can live up to 70 years. Fragmentation of land not only causes loss of habitat, but also makes it easier for predators to locate nests. Studies have shown that Blanding’s and other turtles in their range face more than 80% nest mortality because of predation from mammals such as raccoons and foxes.
Similar to other hard-shelled reptiles, Blanding’s turtles move between habitats depending on the season. That makes them especially vulnerable to vehicles. Thankfully, Sand Hills roads are some of the least traveled in America.
Regardless, drivers should keep an eye out for the Blanding’s and other turtles this spring and summer. Those who decide to stop and help a turtle cross the road should usher the animal toward its destination with as little handling as possible. Those who handle a turtle should grasp it by the middle of its shell and move it to the side of the road it’s facing.
If it’s a Blanding’s turtle, it will surely give a smile in return.