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Turtles in California

Turtles in California

There are 10 types of turtles in California and they are not a rare occurrence. Aside from the eight species native to the state, there is also a handful of alien turtle species that were introduced to the area by humans.

Most turtles that live in California are sea turtles – five different species. Then there are four more native species, including California’s only native freshwater turtle, and lastly, a number of alien species.

Turtle and tortoise species living in the Golden State include the following:

1. Western Pond Turtle

Western Pond Turtle (actinemys marmorata) sitting on rock
Western Pond Turtle

Quick Facts

  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Actinemys marmorata and Actinemys pallida
  • Average Adult Size: 6-8 inches
  • Lifespan: up to 50 years
  • Diet: omnivorous

The western pond turtle is the only freshwater species native to the state. It lives pretty much everywhere along the west coast where there are ponds, lakes, creeks, or other bodies of water. 

More and more experts are starting to divide it into two species – the northwestern (Actinemys marmorata) and the southwestern pond turtle (Actinemys pallida). However, the two are so closely related that this new taxonomy hasn’t fully taken off, and they are still considered by many to be one and the same.

These turtles can live for up to fifty years, but only reach sexual maturity when they’re around ten. They mate in spring (and rarely in fall) when the female picks a well-lit, dry spot for nesting. Between 3 and 13 baby turtles will hatch 90-120 days later.

The western pond turtle has been experiencing a serious decline in population in recent years – some sources say as much as 80% of the population has been lost. The main causes for this include alteration and loss of habitat, low reproduction rates, predators such as birds, and aggressive non-native species (red-eared slider, we’re looking at you!).  

2. Mojave Desert Tortoise

Mojave Desert Tortoise (Gopherus Agassizii)
Gopherus agassizii

Quick Facts

  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Scientific Name: Gopherus agassizii
  • Average Adult Size: 10-14 inches
  • Lifespan: up to 80 years
  • Diet: herbivorous 

Aside from California, the desert tortoise is also native to Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and northern Mexico. Based on its exact location, the desert tortoise will be classified into one of the three groups: Sonoran desert tortoise, Mojave desert tortoise, and Sinaloa desert tortoise.

Desert tortoises breed from spring to fall and they have multiple partners throughout their life. Males fight over females by bobbing their heads, ramming into each other, and even trying to flip the other male over – y’know, the whole Discovery Channel spectacle.

A female can lay anywhere between 1 and 14 eggs (although there are usually 3 to 5). Desert tortoises have so-called TSD, or temperature-dependent sex determination, which basically means that the sex of the baby tortoise depends on the weather. 

7. Texas Spiny Softshell

Spiny Softshell turtle (Apalone Spinifera Emoryi)
Texas Spiny Softshell turtle swimming

Quick Facts

  • Family: Trionychidae
  • Scientific Name: Apalone spinifera emoryi
  • Average Adult Size: 7-19 inches for females, 5-10 inches for males
  • Lifespan: 50
  • Diet: mostly carnivorous

Now we come to the first alien species of turtles in California. The Texas spiny softshell turtle (a subspecies of the spiny softshell turtle) is native to the Rio Grande and Pecos River systems in Texas and New Mexico, but quite a few specimens can be found in the Golden State.

The Texas spiny softshell eats pretty much anything that moves and is small enough to fit in its mouth – fish, snails, frogs, other reptiles, bugs… Whether they have to scavenge, ambush, or hunt, it’s all the same to them. 

If you ever stumble upon one of these in the wild, it’s probably best that you mind your own business and leave it alone. Not only are they very fast, even on land, but they won’t refrain from biting you if they feel threatened.

3. Common Snapping Turtle

Chelydra serpentina (Common Snapping Turtle)
Snapping Turtle

Quick Facts

  • Family: Chelydridae
  • Scientific Name: Chelydra serpentina
  • Average Adult Size: 8-18 inches
  • Lifespan: 30 years
  • Diet: omnivorous

The common snapping turtle is native to the eastern US, where they inhabit pretty much any body of fresh water they can find. It is difficult to estimate how many of them live in California, as a large percentage were released in the state as unwanted pets.

Common snapping turtles aren’t picky eaters and will gladly snack on anything from insects to fish, and even smaller birds if they catch one. As they grow older, they also grow tired of hunting and more commonly resort to ambushing their prey.

The species has a pretty short temper – when they feel cornered, they bite, and they bite hard. This might be the reason why, despite a decline in population, they are still not considered endangered or even vulnerable.

4. Western Painted Turtle

Western-Painted-Turtles-Basking
Western Painted Turtle

Quick Facts

  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Chrysemys picta bellii
  • Average Adult Size: 6 inches for males, 10 inches for females
  • Lifespan: 20
  • Diet: omnivorous

The western painted turtle is a subspecies of the painted turtle – the largest one. They are native to central North America and Canada but so scarce in California that some experts question whether they even exist in this state. 

Young western painted turtles are mainly carnivorous, and their diet consists of insects, smaller fish, snails, worms, and so on. As they grow older, they tend to eat more vegetation. The specimens that live in colder areas tend to accumulate fat during the winter months (don’t we all?).

What makes western painted turtles special is that they actually look like someone painted abstract art all over them. They have bright, colorful patterns, mostly in red, yellow, and green, on their shells, necks, and legs.

5. Red-Eared Slider

red-eared-slider-drinking-water-from-outdoor-pond
Red-Eared Slider

Quick Facts

  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Trachemys scripta elegans
  • Average Adult Size: 4-15 inches
  • Lifespan: 20 years
  • Diet: primarily carnivorous

The red-eared slider is like the western pond turtle’s aggressive big sister. They are native to southern and south-eastern states. So how were they introduced to California?

In the 1980s, when the international red-eared turtle trade was already pretty prolific, a new comic and cartoon series started winning over the hearts of kids all around the US – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

With the popularity of the franchise rose their popularity as pets, which eventually led to many disillusioned families who realized, a little too late, that turtles are more demanding pets than they had previously thought.

This is a problem because red-eared sliders are efficient invaders, they reproduce way more than your average California turtle, and can get pretty large. All of this, combined with their notorious aggression, have caused other species to struggle to coexist with them.

6. Loggerhead Sea Turtle

loggerhead sea turtle on sea floor
Loggerhead Sea Turtle

Quick Facts

  • Family: Cheloniidae
  • Scientific Name: Caretta caretta
  • Average Adult Size: 36 inches
  • Lifespan: 50 or more years
  • Diet: omnivorous, but primarily carnivorous

The loggerhead sea turtle is the largest hard-shelled turtle in the world, with some of its biggest specimens weighing more than 1,000 pounds.

Despite their size, loggerhead sea turtles are classified as vulnerable, as they are currently facing a number of threats. 

Firstly, loggerhead sea turtles aren’t really in a hurry to procreate – a female only lays eggs every 2-4 years. Secondly, coastal development makes it harder for them to find a place to nest and for the young hatchlings to find their way to the water. Lastly, they often get accidentally captured by fishermen, which can prove to be fatal.

All of this matters even more because of the fact that loggerhead sea turtles are so-called keystone species, i.e. a number of other species will suffer or die out if the loggerhead goes extinct.

This not only includes predators that feed on the turtle, but also animals that feed on their excrement or live on their shells.

7. Green Sea Turtle

sea turtle flippers
Green Sea Turtle

Quick Facts

  • Family: Cheloniidae
  • Scientific Name: Chelonia mydas
  • Average Adult Size: 31-47 inches
  • Lifespan: 60-70 years
  • Diet: omnivorous when juvenile, herbivorous as adults

Disappointingly, green sea turtles aren’t too green – greenish at best. They are even sometimes called black sea turtles (they’re not black, either). Actually, the green in the name comes from the color of the fat under their carapace. 

As babies, they feed on insects, worms, and other small animals, but switch to a plant-based diet once they grow over 8-10 inches in length. They love sunbathing on beaches (we can relate), and although mainly aquatic, they also nest on land.

A female lays eggs every other year, but multiple times per season, with an average of over 100 eggs every time. Despite this, the number of green sea turtles around the world is dropping rapidly, as they are being (mostly illegally) hunted for food, eggs, or even as souvenirs. 

8. Hawksbill Sea Turtle

Hawksbill Sea Turtle
Hawksbill Sea Turtle

Quick Facts

  • Family: Cheloniidae
  • Scientific Name: Eretmochelys imbricata
  • Average Adult Size: 30-35 inches
  • Lifespan: 30-50 years
  • Diet: omnivorous, but mostly carnivorous

The hawksbill sea turtle is very easily recognizable – it has a beak-like mouth (hence the name) and beautiful patterns on the shell and legs. Unfortunately, this breathtaking beauty has made them a desirable target for the illegal tortoiseshell market.

This species tends to stick close to the coast because that’s where they can find their favorite snack – sponges. However, they’re not picky eaters – when there are no sponges around, they will also eat algae, jellyfish, fish, squid, and shrimp.

The hawksbill sea turtle nests approximately every 2-4 years, but multiple times a season (usually 3-6). Each nest averages at over 150 eggs, which take two months to hatch. Once hatched, baby turtles have to survive the most dangerous trip of their life, braving seagulls, crabs, and other land predators along the way.

9. Olive Ridley Sea Turtle

Olive-Ridley-Sea-Turtle
Olive Ridley Sea Turtle

Quick Facts

  • Family: Cheloniidae
  • Scientific Name: Lepidochelys olivacea
  • Average Adult Size: 2-2.5 ft
  • Lifespan: 50 years
  • Diet: omnivorous

Unlike green sea turtles, the olive ridley sea turtle got its name from the color of its skin and carapace. They are the smallest sea turtle species and have a heart-shaped shell.

Olive ridley sea turtles might be small, but they are fighters. Despite having a number of predators (humans included) and limited (and diminishing) nesting areas, they are believed to be the most abundant turtle species in the world.

A unique nesting ritual practiced by these turtles might be the key to their survival. Namely, they practice “arribada” nesting, which includes a large number of females nesting at the same time, which, in turn, leads to most babies hatching at the same time, which, finally, reduces the risk of being caught by a predator.

10. Leatherback Sea Turtle

baby Leatherback sea turtles_crawling_to_the_sea
Leatherback Sea Turtle

Quick Facts

  • Family: Dermochelyidae
  • Scientific Name: Dermochelys coriacea
  • Average Adult Size: 7 ft
  • Lifespan: 45 years
  • Diet: carnivorous

And now, ladies and gentlemen, reptile royalty: the leatherback sea turtle, the largest turtle species on the planet. These turtles can grow up to 7 ft long – which is more than the height of the average human.

Not only are they the largest, but they are also the most migratory sea turtle species out there, with thousands of miles between their breeding and feeding spots.

They are great swimmers (understandably, they’re sea turtles after all) and can dive deeper than any other sea turtle – 4,000 feet deep, and even stay there for well over an hour.

Leatherbacks seem to have a thing for breaking records. On top of being the largest and most migratory, they also have the widest north and south habitat range of all turtles in the world.

Conclusion

Turtles are not an uncommon occurrence in the State of California. There are about a dozen different species and subspecies, all with their unique characteristics, habits, diets, and habitats.

But what they all have in common is one threat – humans. Deforestation, pollution, and coastal development all put these reptiles in danger of extinction, and the only way of stopping it is if we, humans, take a more active role in preserving them.

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