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Bog Turtle - November 2003 Species of the Month

The Bog Turtle (Clemmys muhlenbergii) is an inhabitant of wet meadows and bogs that are mucky with organic soil kept saturated by groundwater discharge. These palm-sized, elusive turtles spend much of their lives hidden in the cool, soft muck, which provides them with cover and comfort when its hot and a safe, protected place to hibernate during the colder months.


Once abundant throughout New Jersey, bog turtles are now primarily found in the remaining rural areas of New Jersey, such as Sussex, Warren, Hunterdon and Salem counties. Intense land uses such as large-scale agriculture, urbanization, wetland alterations and stormwater outputs are incompatible with bog turtles and have depleted bog turtle populations from much of the state.


Bog turtle
Since the 1970s biologists have studied the life history, habitats and distribution of the bog turtle in New Jersey. Current conservation efforts are productive and include habitat management, population monitoring, land acquisition and landowner education. The bog turtle was listed as an endangered species in New Jersey in 1974 and as a “threatened” species throughout the United States in 1997. It was the November Species of the Month. The designation is part of a yearlong program to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the New Jersey Endangered Species Conservation Act and the formation of DEP's Endangered and Nongame Species Program (ENSP).

Bog Turtle

Nesting Bog Turtle
Bog Turtle Nesting

Bog Turtle

Bog Turtle Habitat Preservation Efforts are not Bogged Down

As of 2003 there are 238 individual wetlands known to support bog turtles in New Jersey, making this state one of the largest strongholds in the range of the bog turtle in the eastern United States. The DEP Endangered and Nongame Species Program is implementing a comprehensive management plan to provide long-term conservation of the important bog turtle populations, with the plan’s four strategies described below.

  • Landowner Contacts – Since many of the priority bog turtle sites are located on private land, landowners are being educated about the species and the ecological value of their habitats. State biologists walk properties with landowners and address their questions and concerns regarding wildlife and conservation topics.

  • Acquisition – Several bog turtle sites are located on properties slated for development. The DEP has forged partnerships between government and private land conservation organizations to help preserve priority bog turtle sites. To date, six sites have been acquired and several additional acquisitions are being negotiated.

  • Computer Mapping – The DEP’s GIS-based Landscape Project generates electronic maps that identify critical bog turtle habitats and their equally important connecting land corridors. These maps are guiding the DEP’s regulatory reviews for land development, open space preservation, and water resource protection.

  • Habitat Management – Most bog turtle sites are in need of management or restoration efforts. One significant threat is the encroachment of invasive vegetation, such as natural, introduced or exotic plants, bushes and trees that naturally colonize open meadows and fill in bog turtle habitat. One effective restoration technique used by DEP is the use of domestic livestock to browse and graze invasive vegetation. Goats, sheep and cows are leased annually from local farmers and are currently being used at 15 sites in the state’s more rural counties.

In an effort initiated 1998, the DEP has introduced a particular beetle species, a natural grazer of the invasive European wetland plant the purple loosestrife, at 26 bog turtle sites. Working cooperatively with the New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s Beneficial Insect Lab, which raises and releases the beetles, these populations are being monitored to see if they will have significant impact on the reduction of the purple loosestrife population at these sites.

Since 1987, when the New Jersey Freshwater Wetlands Protection Act was enacted, many large wetland areas have been protected from development. In addition, large wetland tracts have been acquired as public open space, which all collectively help to support a substantial number of priority bog turtle populations.

Bog Turtles– Facts of Interest

  • Bog turtles are best known for the orange patch behind the ear membrane on either side of the head. The scale-like layers of the upper shell are dark and may have yellow or reddish centers. The shell underneath is also dark with a yellow or reddish center. The limbs are brown and may be mottled with yellow, orange or red patches.

  • They are tiny creatures with a shell length of about 3” – 4” at adulthood. They can live for as long as 20 – 30 years and weigh about four ounces. Male bog turtles have a larger head, thicker tail, longer front claws and a wider shell than females.

  • The preferred habitat of bog turtles is usually a well-drained bog or wet pasture with a water depth that rarely exceeds four inches in depth. This type of habitat can be impacted negatively by vegetative succession, or positively, by beavers or by controlled grazing.

  • Bog turtles are active from spring through fall and hibernate during winter. Throughout summer they remain concealed in dense wetland vegetation and bask occasionally in the sun. To escape high summer heat, avoid danger or to hibernate, they burrow into the mucky bottom of the surrounding bog. As a result, bog turtles can spend up to half of their lives buried in mud.

  • These turtles eat plants (seeds, berries, young cattail shoots, duckweed), animals (insect larvae, snails, millipedes and beetles) and even carrion (dead animals), and will dine while in or out of the water. Their favorite and most abundant food resource found in their habitat is the common slug.
Ways You Can Help

  • If you find a bog turtle outdoors do not keep it as a pet – leave it be. Because of their small size, coloration and rarity, bog turtles are prized by collectors. However, it is a violation of state and federal laws to catch, possess, sell, trade or import bog turtles.

  • Bog turtleWhen driving you may happen upon a bog turtle crossing the road. Assist the turtle by picking it up and carrying it across the road in the direction that it was heading, placing it at a safe distance from the roadside. Road systems have fragmented the waterways and wetlands areas that are key habitat requirements for these turtles. Also be sure to report any sightings of these turtles to DEP’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program.

  • Persons interested in reptiles and amphibians who also enjoy being outdoors can become a volunteer with the Herp Atlas Project. Volunteers assist with conducting a quantitative survey of all reptile and amphibian species throughout the state. To learn more, visit for details.

  • Do you enjoy learning about New Jersey wildlife? Being outdoors? Interacting with the public? Assisting with meaningful volunteer initiatives? If so, join the Wildlife Conservation Corps, the state's largest natural resource management volunteer group. Volunteer opportunities are diverse and include lending assistance with trout stocking; operating check stations; maintaining shooting ranges; and instructing the public. Adults interested in public speaking are also invited to join the Corp's Endangered and Nongame Species Program's Speakers Bureau. The bureau provides speakers to organizations interested in learning more about New Jersey's threatened and endangered species.
Conserve Wildlife license plate
Order a Conserve Wildlife special interest license plate for your vehicle. It's tax-deductible, with 80% of the payment benefiting New Jersey's Endangered and Nongame Species Program.

Want to learn new information quickly about New Jersey wildlife? The Division of Fish and Wildlife offers eight E-mail "mailing list" choices to the public. Visit the E-mail List Subscription Page to learn more about this free service and how to sign up.

Additional Sources of Information

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Department of Environmental Protection
P. O. Box 402
Trenton, NJ 08625-0402

Last Updated: October 7, 2004