Good Wood

The very last thing on my mind as I headed north to West Branch on an especially dismal day was the meaning of the Latin word “insculpta.” There was not another soul on the road even though it was a mid-week morning. This tends to be a fairly busy stretch of highway on most days but the lack of current “competition” on the road allowed my mind to drift.  I will admit to having some bad thoughts regarding the weather gods (frauds and charlatans all) and about bad little dogs wearing sweaters. In regards to the latter thought, I was further pre-occupied with the fact that people don’t usually put sweaters on cats. Why was that, I wondered? Why was it alright to make little dogs look ridiculous while allowing cats to skip that indignity? Fortunately my mind was quickly pulled off this useless track when I spotted the lone figure of a turtle crossing the road ahead.

I had already seen four Blanding’s Turtles attempting the same maneuver – on the same road – on the previous day.  All were crossing from east to west (and, I discovered the following day, all but one made it). I assumed the upcoming turtle to be my fifth Blanding’s. It too was fleeing the wretched east for the Promised Land found on the western side of the road (There are an inordinate number of small sweatered dogs in the east, so there might be something to this turtle thought process). I slowed to get a glance as I passed and did a double take. This individual was a Wood Turtle – perhaps the rarest turtle in Michigan.

I slammed to a stop (remember there were no humans on the road to my rear), put my car into reverse, and backed up to confirm my initial identification. Yes, this J-walker was indeed a very large and very handsome specimen of a Wood Turtle.  Seeing an approaching car, I plucked the turtle from the pavement, threw it over to the passenger side, and continued on. I wanted to get a better look at this fellow before releasing him and I wasn’t going to achieve that task out there on a gray rainy stretch of country road. It took a side trip to the dumpster at MacDonald’s (West Branch is a cultured place) to come up with a cardboard box in which to place my charge as I completed my in-town tasks.

Finding this living treasure did a whole lot toward brightening the balance of my day.  All negative thoughts were whisked away and I no longer cared about Chihuahuas wearing U of M sweaters. This was a beautiful turtle (see above and detail here) and the very first I had ever encountered.  My dark thoughts were instantly replaced with thoughts of sharing this find with both of my Naturespeak readers.

It was upon researching this reptile that I came upon the Latin word “insculpta” as the species name of the Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta). The word literally means “engraved.” It is a fitting name and one which combines easily with the common name. Like a block of wind-weathered wood, the turtle’s shell is a textural delight covered with a pyramidal scutes and engraved concentric lines. Though they are semi-terrestrial creatures which inhabit northern woods, they are equally well known for wandering through open pastures and berry patches while seeking food.  As a matter of fact, Wood Turtles will spend much of their time in sandy bottom streams and rivers. Thus the name Wood Turtle has, if not a double meaning at least a meaning and a half!

No matter what you call them, Wood Turtles are certain indicators of quality northern habitat. One reference even goes so far as to state “good trout streams are fundamental to Wood turtle presence.” Good trout streams top quality environments and they are hard to come by these days. Thus the reason Wood Turtles are hard to find these days. Development and siltation have taken their severe toll on trout streams and turtles alike.

These expressive tortoises can live to an advanced age. They don’t reach breeding age until around 20 years and have been documented well past the 50 year mark. The multiple ridges on the turtle’s shell serve as an age record of sorts – adding an annular scute ring (see above) every year – but as they grow older the scute rings tend to grow too close together for proper counting. My turtle was at least 20 years old by the ring evidence. He didn’t exhibit a lot of shell wear, however, and was probably just entering into his third decade . At one point it had lost three out of five toes on it’s left front foot, but that injury was long since healed. Cars don’t inflict such gracious injuries, but there is a chance that they were lost in a bar fight or in a tustle with a sweatered doglet.

Before leaving this subject I have to relate one more fascinating bit of Wood Turtle lore. These creatures are omnivores and will eat fruits and berries along with carrion and worms. In their efforts to add worms to their diet, they will engage in “thumping.” By stomping the ground with their feet or shell, they can induce worms to the surface. This is an old and well-known trick among human fishermen, but little known among other turtle species.

This inscribed veteran of the northern woods has probably done his share of worm stomping, wood stomping, and trout stream sloshing over the years. I can only hope he limits his future activities to the east side of the highway.


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