European Pond Turtle

The European pond turtle ( Emys orbicularis) is a very rare, disappearing, and strictly protected species in Lithuania and many EU countries.

Most people are surprised to hear that European pond turtles are native to our country. In their subdialect, the Lithuanian Highlanders, or “dzūkai” in Lithuanian, named these nice creatures “iron frogs” because their populations in southern Lithuania had weathered the destructive effects of Soviet drainage less harmed. In these areas, turtles can find shallow warm ponds suitable for their habitation and sandy slopes for egg-laying. Most turtle habitats have been made part of the network of areas protected by the EU “Natura 2000” the conservation of these areas receives much attention.

Systematic Classification. The European pond turtle, or Emys orbicularis L. 1758, belongs to the reptilian class (Reptilia) of the turtle order (Testudinaes) in the freshwater turtle family (Emydidae) of the European pond turtle genus (Emys).

How to recognize a European pond turtle? The European pond turtle that lives in Lithuania is speckled with yellow splotches all over its head and legs. Quite often the speckles on the front legs turn into wide stripes. A bony shield encases its body. The shield consists of two shells: the carapace (upper shell) and the plastron (lower shell). The shell of a female turtle can grow up to 20 centimeters long while that of males can be up to 18 centimeters long. The plastron can tell a turtle’s sex: the lower shell of a male is a little dented while that of a female is flat. Also, a male turtle’s iris is reddish while a female has a yellow or brownish iris.

Geographic Range. The European pond turtle is native to Southern and Central Europe, Western Asia, and Northwestern Africa. In the North, its living area encompasses Lithuania, Northern Belarus, the upper Don region, the middle Volga region, and the left shore of the Ural River all the way up to the Kustanai District in the south (i.e. Asia Minor, Northern Iraq, and Central Iran). As Lithuania makes the northernmost end of the geographic range of these shield-carriers, any larger negative change in the change of its environment can lead to an extinction of their populations. Sporadically, these animals are found all over Lithuania, although more abundant populations live in the Lazdijai District. They also live in eastern Poland. In the older developed EU countries, such as Germany and Denmark, they are found only in reservations.

Biology. The so-called “iron frogs” live in ponds, shallow lakes, and peat bogs. It is important that water bodies and surrounding sedges have open spots where turtles can bathe in the sun. Undisturbed and in safe places, the turtles can bathe in the sun for hours. The European pond turtles feed on various water invertebrates and their larvae, and tadpoles. Sometimes they catch sick frogs and eat them. Contrary to popular opinion, they do not catch fish; they only eat it if it is dead. Therefore, a turtle could be called a cleaner of water bodies. When facing a threat, turtles plunge into water where they can remain for fairly long, coming up for air to the surface every 15 20 minutes.

Reproduction. When the weather becomes warmer in mid-May, turtles begin their mating season. In late May-early June turtle females start laying eggs. They leave water bodies and often travel several kilometers before they reach areas suitable for egg-laying. In most cases, these are sandy slopes in the south. There, females dig out holes 10 centimeters in length where they lay 12 to 12 elongated eggs. The clutch is sealed with a special “plaster” that females make out of the dug-up sand and their saliva. The incubation period depends on weather conditions, but usually the young begin to hatch after 3 months. Most of the hatchlings spend their first winter in nests and leave them only in the spring. If summers are cold, the incubation period is longer, and in especially cold winters the young can die of cold. Often the nests are attacked by such predators as foxes, raccoons, and Canadian mink.
After the hatchlings fly the nest, they travel to water bodies. During the first weeks the hatchlings need to stop at shallow water bodies with lush vegetation where young turtles, still bad swimmers, can find food and hide from predators. A good number of hatchlings die during the first days of their life as they fall victim to birds of prey and predators. In our lands, the survival of turtles depends a lot more on the survival of their hatchlings.

Why are turtles disappearing? It is because their habitats are disappearing, that is the major reason.

Juvenile of a European pond turtle

Female pond turtles can lay about 12 13 eggs.