In recent months, Mark Lotterhand has been haunting the Squannacook River in northern Massachusetts.
“I’ve been running around chasing snakes. On my bucket list was to find a population—called a colony—of wood turtles,” the Pepperell, Massachusetts, resident and author of the 2016 book “In Search of New England’s Pit Vipers” tells me. “Year after year after year, they’ll go to the same section of the river to breed, to hibernate.”
A couple times, a few years back, he spotted wood turtles crossing a road not far from a tributary of the Squannacook. Scanning maps, he plotted a likely spot they might be eventually heading. That October, he went looking and there they were.
“It’s a nice pristine spot,” Lotterhand says. “If there are wood turtles that usually indicates it’s a very clean river, it’s a very healthy ecosystem.”
He’s been taking nature photos for years. Not long ago, an old friend gave him money to buy cameras and editing software so he could create wildlife documentary videos. “I started taking some video in November, when they had just entered the river,” Lotterhand says.
On Jan. 19, he was back at the river and plunged a GoPro camera attached to a hiking pole into the 35-degree waters. “Just a foot or two under water, they stay there the whole winter,” he says. “Their hearts are probably only beating a couple times a minute.”
Just beneath the icy river edge, among sticks and leaves, the camera recorded hibernating turtles. (“I wanted to go right from the ice to the wood turtle. I had to do it a dozen times to get it just right,” Lotterhand confides.) In the brief, poetic video that he posted to YouTube the following day, the camera reemerges from the water then it cuts to drone footage gliding above the river and surrounding snowy trees and fields.
“All winter, I’m jumping in the river, getting the footage,” Lotterhand says. “These slumbering turtles have no idea that they’re being presented on Facebook, YouTube.”
Wood turtles—which can be found throughout New England, north to Nova Scotia, west to Minnesota, and south to Virginia—are a species of “special concern” here in Massachusetts.
They grow to be about 5 to 8 inches long and can “easily” live as long as “46 years and may reach as much as 100 years,” according to a state report.
They can be identified by their sculpted, gray-brown shell with its bark-like texture and their orange legs and neck. In spring and summer, they roam forests, fields, bogs and ponds. In fall, they like to return to a slow moving, mid-sized stream to breed and then hibernate below the waters for the winter. “There could be 50 wood turtles in a 50- to 100-foot stretch of river,” Lotterhand says. “That’s a unique thing. That’s why they’re vulnerable too.”
“They have this incredible evolutionary trait. They’re getting dissolved oxygen through their anuses,” Lotterhand says. “They’re breathing through their butt.”
“Not many animals are on the planet can do that,” Lotterhand says, “can live an aquatic life like that, not breathing air, and are just as comfortable in your backyard eating worms.”
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