How to identify Ontario’s 8 species of turtles

Painted turtle basking on wood in water Michael Schober/Shutterstock

Ontario boasts eight turtle species, which is more than any other province in Canada. But that’s in danger of changing—of the eight species, seven are at risk.

“What humans have done through contributing to habitat loss, hunting, and poaching, is target adult turtles. That increased adult mortality is actually what’s driving the population down,” explains John Urquhart, conservation science manager for Ontario Nature. This, combined with the fact that few young turtles live to adulthood—only seven of every 10,000 snapping turtle eggs—means that species are being driven toward endangerment.

You’re most likely to spot turtles in marshy areas where there is native aquatic plant life. But during nesting season, which runs from late May to early July, you’ll also spot them crossing roads and in sandy or gravel areas.

“[Spring is] an important time to watch for turtles,” says Urquhart. “If you can save one turtle by moving it off the road, that makes a big difference to the overall conservation of the species.”

He also recommends taking a picture of the turtle with your phone and uploading it to Ontario Nature’s Reptiles and Amphibians Atlas, which features the most up-to-date maps of turtle species across Ontario. By snapping a shot, you add to the map’s accuracy and ultimately to conservation efforts. “The more information we get, the better we can protect our turtles,” explains Urquhart.

The Atlas is also available in app format, which makes identifying turtles a breeze. In the meantime, here’s a list of common differences among Ontario’s to help you get started:

1. Blanding’s Turtle

  • Unlike snapping turtles, which have yellow spots, look for a bright yellow chin and throat.
  • If you spot a turtle eating on land, it might be a Blanding—most aquatic turtles feed exclusively in the water.
  • They’re also likely to be seen on the move; Blanding’s make the largest overland movement of any Ontario turtle to move from their summer nesting spots to overwintering habitat.
Blanding's turtle with head tucked into shell
Natmac Stock/Shutterstock

Fun fact: These turtles can live to be 75.

2. Eastern Musk Turtle

  • With an upper shell that is brown with black flecking and a yellowish lower shell, these guys are easily confused with painted turtles, snapping turtles, and Blanding’s turtles. However, this small turtle only reaches a maximum length of 13 cm.
  • Keep an eye out for a light stripe above and below the eye on each side of the head in adult turtles.
  • Generally nocturnal creatures, Eastern musk turtles also rarely swim.
Musk turtle looking up at camera

Fun fact: This turtle is named for the odor it emits when it’s threatened, which—you guessed it—is strong and musky. It’s also called “stinkpot.”

3. Midland Painted Turtle & Western Painted Turtle 

  • Painted turtles feature distinctive black shells with dark red or orange markings. No other species native to Ontario claims these colours.
  • Easily spotted on the move, painted turtles will move over large areas overland in search of nesting sites.
  • These are the only non-threatened turtle species in Ontario, but they are still susceptible to the threats that face other turtles.
Painted turtle basking on wood in water
Michael Schober/Shutterstock

Fun fact: With a natural “antifreeze” that prevents them from freezing, these turtles can survive temperatures as low as -9º C.

4. Northern Map Turtle

  • Named for its markings, this turtle has contour lines on its upper shell that look like a topographical map.
  • They also feature a yellow spot behind their eyes. Don’t confuse them with snapping turtles though; snapping turtles are larger and lack the distinctive shell markings of the map turtle.
Map turtle basking on rock in the sun
Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock

Fun fact: One of the largest threats to this turtle’s pollution is water pollution. It can cause mass die-offs of mollusks, one of their primary food sources.

5. Snapping Turtle

  • The most prehistoric-looking of all of Ontario’s native species, the snapping turtle has triangular spikes along its tail.
  • Most likely to be confused with musk turtles, snapping turtles are significantly larger and grow up to 47 cm long.
  • Not the strongest of swimmers, these aquatic turtles are usually observed walking on the bottom of small ponds and rivers or crossing roads.
Snapping turtle walking on road
Brian E Kushner/Shutterstock

Fun fact: Most Ontario turtles only lay somewhere between three and 15 eggs. The snapping turtle lays around 50.

6. Spiny Softshell 

  • As the name implies, the softshell turtle has a soft, leathery shell.
  • A long snout makes this peculiar-looking creature unmistakable from its counterparts.
Spiny softshell turtle walking on sandy bottom of creek
Natalia Kuzmina/Shutterstock

Fun fact: With the ability to get nearly half the oxygen they require by breathing through their skin in the water, they’re able to stay submerged for up to five hours.

7. Spotted Turtle

  • The spotted turtle features orange-yellow markings on its limbs, neck, and legs. However, it’s most clearly identifiable from the yellow spots marking its shell.
  • While males have dark eyes and a dark chin, females of this species have orange eyes and a yellow chin.
Spotted turtle walking on grass
Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock

Fun fact: Unlike most other turtles, spotted turtles spend the summer or dry season in a state of inactivity to avoid hot dry weather.

8. Wood Turtle

  • With a highly sculpted upper shell, Ontario Nature calls this species “one of Ontario’s most attractive turtles.”
  • The neck, chin and and front legs are a vivid orange-yellow colour.
  • Like their name implies, these turtles are likely to be found in woodlands or floodplains during the summer months.
Wood turtle walking on grass
Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock

Fun fact: This turtle is no dunce. They’re considered extremely intelligent and have been documented using creative methods to get their food, including stamping their feet to cause earthworms to come to the surface.

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