It wasn’t the first Blanding’s Turtle I’ve seen nor, I trust, will it be the last but it certainly was one of the finest. With its bright yellow throat and chin (see detail here), dark blue-black carapace adorned with yellow sprinkles, and a two-part plastron this beast was all Blanding’s. Its shell length was around 10 inches – making it about as large as the species can be. We, the creature and I, crossed passed a few days ago. Though our meeting was short, it was long enough to render a photo op and a chance to delve into a little bit of the animal name game.
If you are not familiar with these critters, please allow me to point out a few significant traits. First and foremost the Blanding’s is considered to be a “semi-box turtle.” Not as fully closable as the Eastern Box Turtle – a woodland reptile that can famously close up as tight as a drum when frightened – this species can close its front door if necessary. A flexible hinge (see below) allows the turtle to pull the front third of the plastron up once the head and feet are drawn in. The back end doesn’t close and so leaves the turtle somewhat exposed in the rear quarter department. The front door thing, however, is sufficient to keep Jehovah Witnesses and vacuum cleaner salesmen at bay (as well as persistent predators).
The Blanding’s is also considered a “semi-aquatic” reptile which means that it spends a considerable time on both land and water. They can swim with dignity but can also traverse on terra firma using stout feet. As partial land dwellers they also have the ability to eat and swallow berries and terrestrial food without being underwater. Most turtles, with the exception of box & wood turtles, cannot swallow unless they are submerged. This critter can also chop down crayfish, and other aquatic fauna, with the best of the water dwelling turtles. Being pegged with two “semi” designations, you might think that this turtle is only partially real, but it is wholly unique among shelled reptiles. It is one of a kind.
The Blanding’s Turtle is so unique that it is placed in its own genus – no sharing with the likes of those commoners such as the Painted and Red-eared Sliders. The scientific name Cistudo blandingii was given this beast by John Holbrook in 1838. Holbrook , a nineteenth century naturalist, considered by many to be the father of North American Herpetology (in other words, the daddy of reptilemania) published a text in that year in which he provided the formal description of a turtle “first observed by Dr. William Blanding of Philadelphia, an accurate naturalist, whose name I have given this species.” Thus in the early texts the animal was referred to as “Blanding’s Box Tortoise.” That name eventually morphed into Blanding’s Turtle and the scientific name evolved into Emydoidea blandingii .
William Blanding himself was born in 1773 in Rehoboth, Massachusetts. He was physician by training and a naturalist by choice. He collected the original specimen from the Fox River in Illinois in 1830 and that pickled creature became specimen 26123 in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
Today the Blanding’s Turtle has fallen upon hard times. It is protected in Michigan as it is throughout its restricted upper Midwestern range (there are a few in Massachusetts as well, although no one is sure how they got there). It is for the sake of the turtle and out of respect to the likes of Holbrook and William B. that we need to preserve this species. When gazing upon the wry grin of the Blanding’s Turtle (see below) one can almost sense this rich scientific heritage. “I am,” sayeth the turtle to the observer,” not just a turtle. I am Doc Blanding’s turtle.”