Creating a Wild Backyard - Turtles in Maryland

Turtles are delightful reptiles which may find their way into your backyard if the conditions are right. Because turtles are often found in suburban wooded lots and creeks, many children get their first intimate wildlife experience with turtles. Most species of Maryland turtles require large, wet areas for their habitat. So, one of the best ways to attract them to your backyard is to have a pond or another area with water. Many times, the insects which live in and around ponds are a staple food source for turtles, so supplemental feeding isn’t necessary.

Turtle Types

Over 244 species of turtles can be found worldwide, 19 species make their home in Maryland. These turtles can be found in small ponds, non-tidal and tidal wetlands, woodlands, streams, rivers and bogs. Maryland turtles can be placed into five different groups:

Outline of turtle

  1. Box and Water Turtles
  2. Musk and Mud Turtles
  3. Snapping Turtles
  4. Softshell Turtles
  5. Sea Turtles

For a complete list of reptiles and amphibians in Maryland, then check out the checklist. If you happen to see a turtle or other reptile in your backyard, then consider reporting your findings to the Maryland Reptile and Amphibian Atlas.

Eastern Box Turtle photo by Kerry Wixted

Box and Water Turtles

Box and Water Turtles can be found in the Family Emydidae. This is the largest family of turtles worldwide, and these turtles can be found on almost every continent other than Australia and Antarctica. Maryland has 11 species of Box and Water Turtles. The most common species found in backyards include the Eastern box turtle and painted turtles.

Box turtles are one of the most common turtles found in suburban areas. They are the only type of turtle which can fully withdraw into their shells. They live in open woodlands near ponds and streams. They may sometimes visit a cool mud puddle or pond to cool off in the hot summer. Box turtles are dark brown with black, orange or yellow markings.

Box turtles enjoy a mixed diet of insects, seeds, berries and occasional road kill. They prefer areas which provide cover as well as open, sunny areas and places with a water source. If you find a Box turtle, you should never move it to another location unless it is in danger (aka crossing a road). Box turtles have a strong homing sense and will return to their original homes. Box turtles also can be territorial, so introducing a foreign box turtle in your yard will likely result in its death. It is best to sit back and wait for box turtles to find your yard. If and when they do, and if you provide the right accommodations, then they will return year after year.

Photo of Eastern Painted Turtle courtesy of Corey Wickliffe

Painted turtles can be found basking in and around ponds and lakes. They prefer shallow, freshwater ponds with muddy bottoms and lush aquatic vegetation. Painted turtles eat aquatic vegetation along with insects, crayfish and mollusks. Backyards with ponds will most likely be visited by these turtles. There are two species of painted turtles in Maryland - midland painted turtles which live in western Maryland and eastern painted turtles which occupy the rest of the state.

Other species of Box and Water Turtles include the Federally Threatened bog turtle, the State Endangered northern map turtle, wood turtle, red-eared slider, eastern river cooter, northern red-bellied cooter, spotted turtle and the northern diamond-backed terrapin. The diamond-back terrapin is Maryland's state reptile and is found in salty and brackish water of the Chesapeake Bay.

Photo of mud turtle courtesy of Kerry Wixted

Musk and Mud Turtles

Musk turtles have two yellow stripes along the sides of their head and are found in lakes, streams and ditches. Musk turtles are also known as ‘stinkpots’ due to the fact that they secrete a foul-smelling, musky odor to deter hungry predators.

Males often bite, so if you see a musk turtle in your backyard, then leave it is best to leave it alone. Musk turtles are attracted to water, so having a small pond, lake or stream on your property will likely attract them to your area. Musk turtles can be found throughout Maryland, but they are most common on the coastal plain.

Mud turtles have a dull brown shell and a plain head. Their name says it all, as they prefer wet, muddy areas to live in and can even be found in tidal, brackish marshes. If you have marshes on your property with thick, muddy soils then you likely have mud turtles. Mud turtles can be found in the piedmont and throughout the coastal plain of Maryland.

Photo of snapping turtle courtesy of Kerry Wixted

Snapping Turtles

Snapping turtles will live in either fresh or brackish bodies of water. These turtles will eat almost anything. If a backyard pond is large enough, then they will inhabit it. Snapping turtles can be very large, measuring two to three feet in diameter. To eat, they hide until a bird, fish or small animal goes by.

Powerful jaws make snapping turtles very efficient predators. They are bad tempered and can deliver a serious bite, so it is best to keep your distance from any snapping turtles that may make their way into your backyard.

Snapping turtles have extremely flexible, long necks that can reach most parts of their bodies, so don’t pick one up. Snapping turtles can be found throughout Maryland.

Softshell Turtles

Maryland has one species of softshell turtle: the Eastern spiny softshell which is considered to be highly rare in the state. Unlike most turtles, softshells have smooth, rubbery-like skin with flexible edges in place of the traditional hard shell. These turtles spend most of their days buried in sand or mud and rarely spend time on land. They eat crayfish, insects, tadpoles, and occasionally small fish. The spiny soft-shell turtle can be found throughout most of the USA and northern Mexico with the exception of the northwestern US. In Maryland, they can only be found in the western portion of the state.

Photo of  loggerhead sea turtle courtesy of John White

Sea Turtles

Sea turtles are fully aquatic and emerge from the water only to breed and lay eggs. Sea turtles have huge lungs and many can stay submerged for up to 30 minutes! While most sea turtles have hard shells, the leatherback has ridged and leathery skin instead.

Maryland species of sea turtles include the: loggerhead sea turtle, Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, green sea turtle, leatherback sea turtle and Atlantic hawksbill sea turtle.

All species of sea turtles in Maryland are listed as Federally Threatened or Endangered.

Turtles As Pets

Many reptiles are sold as pets, which in combination with destruction of habitat, has caused a serious decline in many species around the world. In Maryland, it is illegal to sell turtles as pets if they are caught from the wild. You can help save reptile populations by being very knowledgeable about any reptile you purchase and only purchase from reputable dealers. Under no circumstances should you ever release captive turtles into the wild as they can spread diseases like ranavirus to wild turtles. 

You can help save reptile populations by being very knowledgeable about any reptile under your care. Only purchase turtles from reputable dealers or consider adoption of rescued or surrendered turtles from the Mid-Atlantic Turtle and Tortoise Society (MATTS) (hyperlink name to: Turtles are a lifelong commitment as many live a long time. MATTS also has a fostering program where people can care for turtles either awaiting new homes (surrendered pets), or turtles who need short-term indoor care because they're recovering from accidents (MATTs works with area reptile vets to provide care while animals heal). Therefore, you may want to consider fostering before adopting or purchasing a turtle.

Become familiar, as well, with Maryland's Captive Reptile and Amphibian Permit requirements.

Invite Wildlife to Your Backyard!

For Additional Information, Contact:

Kerry Wixted
Wildlife and Heritage Service
580 Taylor Ave, E-1
Annapolis, MD 21401
Phone: 410-260-8566
Fax: 410-260-8596


  • Photo of Eastern Painted Turtle courtesy of Corey Wickliffe
  • Photo of Loggerhead Sea Turtle courtesy of John White
  • All other photos by Kerry Wixted