The Falls of the Ohio State Park is a place of discovery. So many new lifeforms have been described by science in the Devonian limestone fossil beds alone. And of course, the Lewis and Clark Expedition which both began and ended at the Falls of the Ohio did much to help illuminate the breath of this country. Magic keeps occurring in this amazing place and the following post is about one such recent and personal find…meet the aptly named “Smiling Tortoise”.
The Smiling Tortoise or Clemmys helmeti is a very rare terrestrial turtle now found in just one location in the world which is the Falls of the Ohio State Park. It was once presumed extinct. Since being designated an Indiana state park…this elusive reptile has been seen more often in the last ten years than in the previous hundred years before the park came into existence. Perhaps the added protective status has emboldened it to show itself more? Park visitors have supplied a steady, if still infrequent sightings of it to the staff at the Interpretive Center. Over the years, I have learned the best way to find something is to not look for it. That was certainly true in the case of the Smiling Tortoise. Although I have always wanted to see a living example, it took 14 years of patience before I came across one last November.
We have experienced the warmest and driest Fall season I have ever lived through in the Kentuckiana area. On such a warm November day, I happened upon a specimen that was gorging on bracket fungi growing on a decayed log. In my enthusiasm, I took plenty of images and perhaps got a little too close by picking this one up to examine it. I wanted to check out its shell on its belly or plastron to see if this individual had been tagged by the park naturalists when I carelessly picked one up. Despite its benign appearance, it possesses a strong bite from a large mouth and its neck can move whip-like as it turns to defend itself from a threat. I count myself lucky not to have lost a digit, still it bit me!
I cut myself with my trusty Swiss Army knife or get poked by something else sharp out here every once in a while and so I have a small supply of bandages that I always keep with me. Forewarned, but not undaunted, I carefully held the turtle by the top of its domed carapace and held it so it couldn’t reach me. Above, it is all white, but underneath, there is a little color. I didn’t have my measuring tape with me, but it’s roughly the size of your head. Here’s what the ventral side of the Smiling Tortoise looks like.
This marvelous creature sports a yellow tail which is stained by the turtle’s own urine and by a particularly musky gland found at the tail’s base. The plastron has this unusual design and its concavity told me it was a male. The reason for the slight indentation is to give a bit more of a “foot hold” when attempting to mate with the female of the species which of course, also possesses a domed shell. This specimen exhibited healed wounds on its feet perhaps when a predator decided to try to eat it? The fact that this one was still around testifies to the ability of this turtle to take care of itself. When I showed the park naturalists my images, they were pleasantly surprised to see that this specimen did not have an identification tag on it. So, this turtle was new even to them!
After carefully releasing the turtle, I moved away to a discreet distance to see what would happened next? I followed it as it moved through the woods investigating every groundhog hole and space around the trees and rocks, but what was it searching for?
Since this is still a cold-blooded animal, the unseasonably warm weather perhaps roused it from its winter hibernation or perhaps it was still looking for that perfect den or burrow in which to over winter? Not finding anything suitable, the Smiling Tortoise left the riverbank and headed back into the woods.
Along the way, I was able to observe a few additional behaviors. For the longest time, this tortoise regarded a hunk of river-polished Styrofoam. I saw it poke the waste polystyrene both with its head and front feet. When it didn’t respond, the Smiling Tortoise moved on. This next image is going to be a little harder to explain…take a look.
Well, your guess is as good as mine on this one! Even the park naturalists were at a loss. Something about this discarded large bottle of sports drink that floated into here from who knows where stimulated this behavior. The turtle unable to mate with this bottle left the area in obvious disgust as it hissed its disapproval. This was the only sound I heard it make.
With the day drawing to a close, I decided to say good-bye and good luck to my scaly acquaintance. I picked up my hiking gear and collecting bags and turned around and headed toward the Interpretive Center. I was feeling stoked by the experience! I hope the turtle eventually found an acceptable burrow and is fast asleep as a gentle snow now falls in Louisville. Until next time from the Falls of the Ohio.