Wonders Beneath the Ice

By Alyssa Nyberg

Thanks to Valentine’s Day, February is known as the month of love.  But what’s to love about this long, cold, icy winter?  Turtles of course!

Recently, my coworker Stuart took his daughter Midori to see the ice on the big pond at Kankakee Sands.  Despite the sunshine, it was a cold afternoon with the wind blowing the snow across the frozen pond.  They walked on the 2-inch thick, crystal clear ice, peering down into the waters below.  Before their very eyes, turtles were moving about!  Stuart and Midori saw roughly 30 painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) going about their business in the cold water beneath the ice that afternoon.

It seems nearly inconceivable that turtles, which breathe oxygen but lack gills, could survive underwater during cold and icy winter.  However, it turns out that in a laboratory experiment, painted turtles were exposed to an oxygen-deprived environment and were able to survive for four months without oxygen!  How in the world is this possible?

The best researchers can figure is that the turtles breathe through their skin.  If you watch turtles at rest under water, you’ll see that they are stretched out, exposing much skin as possible to the oxygenated water.  Interestingly enough, researchers also found that it was possible for turtles to breathe through their cloaca, which is an opening from which they defecate.  If you ask me, that is utterly amazing.

Painted turtles are one of the most common and widespread turtles of the United States, found in ponds, lakes, deep wetlands, and slow moving streams.  Although primarily aquatic, the small 5- to 6-inch painted turtle is frequently found on land, sometimes far from water.  At Kankakee Sands, we see them regularly in wetlands, wet prairies, along roadsides, and in the road!  Most often we see painted turtles sunning themselves with several others on a log or rock in a pond or ditch.

If you were ever to fall in the love with a turtle, the painted turtle would certainly be the one.  It lives up to its name of being painted with a slate-colored shell, edged with vibrant red stripes.  The dark head and face have bright yellow stripes which fade to red stripes along the neck.  All four legs and tail also are decorated with the striking red stripes.

Painted turtles, like all turtles in Indiana and Illinois, nest on land near water.  The nests are a simple hole dug out of the soil by the female and filled with 6-12 leathery eggs laid in June.  Most eggs hatch in late August or early September, but some eggs overwinter and hatch the following May.  We often come across painted turtle nests in the Kankakee Sands prairies after the turtles have hatched or after a nest has been plundered, possibly by a possum, skunk or coyote.  It is the remains of the bleached white eggshells among the greens and golds of the prairie vegetation that catches our attention.  The hatchlings are a cute as a button, their decorated shells the size of a quarter.  Painted turtles feed on many things, including insects, mollusks, vegetation, and living and dead fish.

If you want to see flowers, frogs, dragonflies or butterflies, you’ll have to wait until this long, cold, white, icy winter subsides and spring arrives.  But if you are in the mood for turtles, you’ll love what you will find at Kankakee Sands.  No matter what time of year, they seem to always be on the move, even in the chilly month of February.    ____________________________________________________________________________

The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands of Indiana and Illinois is 10,000 acres of prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois, open every day of the year for public enjoyment.  For more information visit their website or call the office at 219-285-2184.

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