Takeout for Turtles

posted in: Local Conservation, Turtles | 1

When we’re out doing turtle fieldwork, one of the most common questions our scientists get from schoolkids and interested community members is, “What do the turtles eat?” Our young headstart turtles are raised on a special blend of highly nutritious pellet food made from fish, vegetables, and starch, but once they’re out in the wild, no one is going to be offering them perfectly balanced meals on a silver platter. So, what do they eat when it’s time to forage for themselves? 

The head and face of a young wood turtle with globs of brownish slime on its mouth and chin.
A young wood turtle with the slime characteristic of having recently eaten a slug or snail for breakfast

Most turtles (and all turtles found natively in Massachusetts) are omnivores – almost all species of turtles eat some combination of both plant and animal matter. Young turtles are often more carnivorous than adults, since their protein needs are greater while they are still growing, and they often eat lots of invertebrates such as aquatic insects, worms, slugs, or snails.  

This young wood turtle (left), a headstart now living in the wild, had a serious case of “slug mouth” when we found it! This slime is a defense mechanism that the slugs secrete to protect themselves when threatened, but it’s no match for a determined young turtle. 

A top-down photograph of a wood turtle with a radio on her shell, both front legs extended to grasp a half-eaten peach on a clump of yard grass.
This adult female wood turtle is happily enjoying a fallen peach in a suburban front yard

As the turtles get older, their diet naturally shifts to include more plants and fungi. Turtles that spend more time foraging on land, like wood and box turtles, can often be found eating mushrooms, ripe berries, and other easy-to-reach food items. These older animals will still eagerly hunt fish, tadpoles, frogs, and invertebrates of all kinds, but they won’t pass up an easy meal when they see one. 

In this photo (right), an adult female wood turtle has settled down in a suburban front yard to snack on some peaches that have fallen from a nearby tree! 

Occasionally, though, we’ll come across a turtle eating something just plain odd. Here’s a photo and recent account from Free, our box turtle field technician, about a wild find he made during his fieldwork: “As the nesting season came to a close, I decided to track some of our headstarts and happened upon Talula by pure luck. It was great to know the turtles were out and about, living their lives. Little did I know that it included eating poop! As I took data, I realized Talula’s mouth was covered with something brown, and noticed some coyote scat in front of her face. Needless to say, it was pretty interesting. I would have chosen the ripe blueberries down the trail instead.”

A young box turtle crawling through leaf litter is staring at a large brownish-gray clump of coyote scat a few inches in front her face.
Talula the box turtle considers the nutritional benefits of coyote scat

It turns out that eating poop, or “coprophagy,” isn’t all that rare especially amongst landbound turtles and tortoises. It can be a good source of minerals and nutrients when times are lean. There can be a lot of calcium from ground up bones in coyote scat!  

Have you ever seen a turtle chowing down on something unexpected? Leave us a note in the comments!