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8 Species of Turtles in California (Photos)

Turtles are an important part of California’s diverse wildlife. Some species live in freshwater habitats such as ponds, lakes, and streams throughout the state, while others live in the ocean. California is home to several species of turtles, including the western pond turtle, the desert tortoise, the red-eared slider, and several species of sea turtles, each with their unique characteristics and adaptations. This article discusses the various freshwater and sea turtles found in California.

Photo collage turtles in California

8 Turtles in California

Common Name Scientific Name Description
Western Pond Turtle Actinemys marmorata California’s only native freshwater turtle, found in central and northern parts of the state.
Desert Tortoise Gopherus agassizii The state reptile of California, native to the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.
Red-eared Slider Trachemys scripta elegans Introduced species, medium-sized freshwater turtle with a red stripe behind each eye.
Western Painted Turtle Chrysemys picta bellii Introduced species, small to medium-sized freshwater turtle with colorful markings.
Green Sea Turtle Chelonia mydas Found in tropical and subtropical waters, occasionally sighted in California’s coastal waters.
Leatherback Sea Turtle Dermochelys coriacea Largest species of sea turtle, occasionally visits California’s coast during long migrations.
Loggerhead Sea Turtle Caretta caretta Large-headed sea turtle, infrequently found in California’s coastal waters during migrations.
Olive Ridley Sea Turtle Lepidochelys olivacea Smallest and most abundant sea turtle, with a heart-shaped shell and olive-colored skin.

1. Western Pond Turtle 

Western pond turtles
Western pond turtles | image by Jerry Kirkhart via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Actinemys marmorata

The Western pond turtle is actually California’s only native freshwater turtle. In California, western pond turtles are typically found in the central and northern parts of the state, including the San Francisco Bay Area and the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

Despite its name, this turtle is more commonly found in rivers rather than ponds and spends a lot of its time on land. They are medium-sized turtles, with males reaching about 8 inches in length and females growing up to 10 inches. They have a dark brown or olive-green shell with yellow stripes or spots on their neck, legs, and tail.

Western pond turtles are considered a species of special concern in California because of habitat loss, predation, and disease. In particular, the introduction of non-native species, such as bullfrogs and red-eared sliders, has had a significant impact on the population of western pond turtles.

These invasive species compete with the turtles for food and habitat and can also prey on their eggs and young. Conservation efforts are being made to help protect this species and restore their habitats. 

2. Desert Tortoise

Desert tortoise in sandy desert
Desert tortoise in sandy desert | image by Joshua Tree National Park via Flickr

Scientific Name: Gopherus agassizii

The desert tortoise is a land turtle that happens to be the state reptile of California. This species is native to the Mojave and Sonoran deserts in California. These large, slow-moving creatures can live up to 80 years in the wild.

They are well adapted to their desert habitats with thick scaly skin and the ability to store water in their bladders, which allows them to go long periods without water. Unfortunately, habitat loss, disease, and human activity, such as off-road vehicle use, have put the desert tortoise at risk.

Because of this, the desert tortoise is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and conservation efforts are underway to help protect this large, fascinating species. 

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3. Red-eared Slider

Red-eared slider turtle
Red-eared slider turtle | Image by Abdullah Al Mamun from Pixabay

Scientific Name: Trachemys scripta elegans

While red-eared sliders are native to the southern US, they have been introduced to California, likely through people releasing their pet turtles into the wild. This medium-sized turtle is a freshwater species with dark brown or olive shells and skin.

Their skin has yellow stripes, and they can be recognized by the thick red stripe behind each eye. The females grow up to 12 inches in length, and the smaller males grow to around 8 inches. Red-eared sliders are omnivorous and can live up to 20 years in the wild.

In California, red-eared sliders have been known to breed and establish populations in many freshwater habitats, including ponds, lakes, and streams. They are considered a threat to native species due to their ability to outcompete for food and habitat and can also transmit diseases to other turtles.

4. Western Painted Turtle

western painted turtle in wetlands
Western Painted Turtle in wetlands | image by Colin Durfee via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Chrysemys picta bellii

The Western painted turtles are another introduced species of freshwater turtle in California. Western-painted turtles are recognized by their distinctive colorful markings, with bright red, orange, and yellow stripes or spots on their neck, legs, and shell.

While they look similar to the red-eared slider, if you look at their bellies, the Western-painted turtle is red while the red-eared slider is not. They are small to medium-sized turtles, with males reaching up to 6 inches in length and females growing up to 10 inches.

You can also tell the males and females apart by looking at their feet. The males have much longer claws on their front feet. This turtle’s diet consists of insects, worms, snails, crayfish, frogs, tadpoles, and vegetation. 

Sea Turtles in California

Though not commonly seen, there are four species of sea turtles that have been recorded off the coast of California. They appear irregularly, and their appearance is more common during years when the waters are warmer. Below you will find more information about the four sea turtle species that can be found in California’s oceans. 

5. Green Sea Turtle

Green sea turtle underwater
Green sea turtle underwater

Scientific Name: Chelonia mydas

The Green sea turtles are found in tropical and subtropical waters around the world, including the waters off the coast of California. While they do not have an established breeding population in California, green sea turtles are occasionally sighted in the state’s waters during warmer periods.

They have a distinctive heart-shaped shells and greenish-colored skin. They are primarily herbivorous, feeding on seagrasses and algae, and can grow up to 4 feet in length and weigh up to 500 pounds.

Green sea turtles are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and their appearance off the coast of California helps give conservationists insight into their migration patterns. Studying them can help reduce human impacts on their populations and hopefully help their populations flourish again. 

6. Leatherback Sea Turtle

Leatherback sea turtle
Leatherback sea turtle | image by Bernard DUPONT via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific Name: Dermochelys coriacea

The Leatherback sea turtles are the largest species of sea turtle. While they are not as commonly sighted as other sea turtle species, leatherbacks occasionally visit California’s coast during their long-distance migrations, which can add up to over 10,000 miles per year.

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They have unique leathery shells instead of the hard bony shells of other sea turtles. These massive turtles can grow up to 6 feet in length and weigh up to 1,000 pounds.

It is estimated that they can live up to 50 years in the wild. They feed on jellyfish and other soft-bodied marine organisms. They are listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.

Conservation efforts are underway to protect leatherback sea turtles in California’s waters, including the establishment of marine protected areas and the implementation of regulations to reduce accidental capture in fishing gear.

7. Loggerhead Sea Turtle

Loggerhead sea turtle
Loggerhead sea turtle | image by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region via Flickr

Scientific Name: Caretta caretta

The Loggerhead sea turtles are another turtle species that doesn’t appear often in California waters but can be found while they are making their migration journeys. It gets its name from its large head, which has powerful jaws. They use these jaws to eat prey with hard shells like conchs.

Adult loggerheads can grow to between 200 and 350 pounds and between 2.5 and 3.5 feet in length. Like many other sea turtles, loggerhead sea turtles are listed as a threatened species. 

8. Olive Ridley Sea Turtle

Olive ridley sea turtle
Olive ridley sea turtle | image by Mr. Theklan via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific Name: Lepidochelys olivacea

The Olive Ridley sea turtle is the smallest sea turtle in the world, weighing up to 100 pounds and measuring up to 29 inches in length. They also happen to be the most abundant sea turtle species in the world. This species has a heart-shaped shell, and as the name suggests, they have olive-colored skin.

Their diet consists of crustaceans, fish, and jellyfish. These sea turtles are endangered, and it is vital to take steps to protect these remarkable creatures and their habitats to ensure their survival for generations to come.

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