Turtles have been around since before the dinosaurs, appearing about 200 million years ago in the Triassic Period. There are about 250 species of turtles and they belong to the order Testudines. They live inside hard shells called the plastron (below) and carapace (above) and some withdraw into this for protection. Their exposed skin is dry and scaly. Turtles do not have teeth, but some have a pronounced beak with sharp edges for biting. Most turtles spend hours basking in the sun, as their internal body temperature is behaviorally controlled. This means that to maintain a somewhat constant body temperature, turtles must move to where there is a source of heat.
All turtles lay eggs, after which there is no other parental involvement. Once the eggs hatch, the young have to fend for themselves. Some medium to large-sized turtles eat bullfrogs, but the smaller turtles we have in the park eat mostly snails, crayfish, tadpoles, aquatic vegetation, slugs, earthworms, wild berries, and mushrooms. Turtles are food for foxes, raptors, and raccoons. It is against park regulations to take turtles or any animals from the park for private use or distribution and sale. Turtles are widely collected for human use in the pet trade, for personal pets, and for recreational uses such as turtle races. Since turtles live so long (20 - 100 years) and take several years to reach sexual maturity, taking any turtle out of its home territory threatens the survival of that population.
There are about 2,700 species of snakes that occur on every continent except Antarctica. Fossil evidence dates to the Cretaceous Period about 130 million years ago but no definite link to these primitive ancestors exists yet. Snakes are distinct because they have no limbs, external ear appendages, or eyelids. Their muscular body is covered in smooth protective scales, with a specialized single row of scales along the underside of the body that allow them to move over the roughest terrain or through water.
Snakes shed their skins in one piece about 2 to 5 times per year. Some live in the tree canopy, some in the water, some live at sea level and others can live above 3,050 m (10,000'). All snakes eat their prey whole and are carnivorous. In this region, snakes mate before their winter hibernation in the fall. Males find females by scent. The female is internally fertilized and may birth live young or eggs. Young are born or hatch in September.
Snakes help control rodent and insect populations. Snakes are food for raptors, egrets, owls, and foxes. The best defense against snake bite, whether non-venomous or venomous, is to avoid poking at, handling or aggravating any wild snake.
Skinks are lizards and belong to the suborder Sauria, order Squamata. There are about 1,280 species and occupy every continent except Antarctica. We have 15 species in the United States. The long tails of some species have a fracture plane that serves as a defense against predators. When grabbed by a predator, the tail breaks off. This makes the predator focus on the wiggling tail and not the soft and vulnerable skink body. A new tail does grow, but it lacks the color and pattern of the first tail. They have clawed feet, external ear openings, and dry, scaly skin. The skin is very shiny and sleek, making it appear wet. These critters are very secretive, but if caught will nip at the hands.