N.J. gets its first state reptile: a tiny, elusive turtle

The bog turtle, one of the smallest turtles in the world and rare in North America, is now New Jersey’s first state reptile.

Gov. Murphy signed legislation Monday making the designation to bring awareness to the elusive creature’s plight.

The bog turtle was listed as endangered by the state in 1974.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed it as threatened in 1997.

The palm-sized reptile was once found in 18 of the state’s 21 counties.  Now, it is found in 12.

Camera icon NJ DEP
A bog turtle. 

Legislators said they wanted the bill to increase the creature’s public profile and encourage conservation of the species and its habitat.

The turtle is notable not only by its small size, but also by an orange patch on either side of its head and a brown or black shell.  It inhabits “shallow, spring-fed fens, bogs, swamps, marshy meadows, and wet pastures, where it spends most of its time submerged in mud,” according to legislation introduced earlier this year.

It eats insects, snails, worms, seeds and carrion.  It hibernates from mid-September through mid-April.  In the spring, it suns itself on matted vegetation.

The New Jersey Sierra Club issued a statement praising Murphy’s action, saying the bog turtle population have been reduced because of development.

“Making the bog turtle the state reptile will hopefully raise awareness of the species’s importance and vulnerability,” the statement said. “This species is an important part of the natural history and ecosystems of New Jersey.”

Camera icon NJ Department of Environmental Protection
The bog turtle is now New Jersey’s state reptile.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection estimates there are fewer than 2,000 of the turtles left in the state, mostly in rural areas such as Sussex, Warren, Hunterdon, and Salem counties.

The DEP said it is working to protect land around high-priority habitats for the species, sometimes by eliminating invasive plant species that threaten its turf.