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Help! I've FOUND a turtle!

Nadine Highfield


It is early May as I write this, and we have already received many help requests this spring from people who have found hatchling turtles on roads, in puddles, and swimming in backyards pools. Hatchlings emerge from the nest at this time and attempt to find the body of water its population inhabits. The habitat is normally close to where the turtle was found, and given that it is healthy, it is best returned to the wild as soon as possible.

If you’ve found a turtle or tortoise that you are unfamiliar with, we offer the following guidelines:

Is it aquatic, semi-aquatic or terrestrial?

To avoid the dehydration of aquatic turtles, or prevent the drowning of terrestrial species, this needs to be determined quickly. The best advice is to send us pictures. I have too often been given a verbal description of a tortoise or turtle that sounded consistent with a species, and upon receiving an actual photo of the animal was quite surprised at how misleading the description had been! Sometimes the individual has even looked at some pictures on the internet and assures me that they have identified the species. Often they are wrong. This is the reason why we will not give specific care advice until we see photos of the animal they have found. Aquatic species can dehydrate in the time it takes for pictures to be received, so if they are very sure it is an aquatic species, (or have found it swimming in their pool) I will recommend they keep it isolated in very shallow water until it can be identified. If you cannot quickly send pictures, identifications of an indigenous species may also be made by a wildlife rehabilitator, local nature center or a Tortoise Trust member in your area.

Is it wild?

If it is a native species to the area, you may already have encountered it, and even know the specific habitat where it is found in the wild. If you have knowledge of the specific area, you may know the local chelonian habitats. If it is a native aquatic species, others would likely be found in a nearby river, marsh or pond, and might be seen basking on rocks and branches, or in shallow water with the carapace exposed. Native populations of terrestrial tortoises may be found in open areas, particularly in the morning when the sun encourages basking. Burrows or scrapes provide evidence of tortoises.

Could it be a pet?

The turtle’s species, appearance or behavior may provide clues. Non-native species are almost certainly released or lost pets, and every effort should be made to find the owner. Pets may or may not have any markings, and the carapaces of both pets or wild turtles under scientific study may have been drilled, so such markings may not offer a conclusive answer to its origin. Wild populations involved in field study may also be marked with chips in the marginal scutes. If the carapace growth is abnormal or the animal seems unusually tame for a wild specimen, however, it could likely be a pet that has wandered off. Pet turtles and tortoises are sometimes micro-chipped for identification purposes (particularly within Europe and the UK), and having it scanned may help to quickly locate its owner. 

What species is it?

Unless you’re knowledgeable of the various species of turtles and tortoises in your area you may want to contact a local wildlife rehabilitator in order to identify the turtle and provide assistance in how and where to release it back into the wild. Hatchlings may look considerably different from adults of the same species, possibly having different or more colorful markings.

Is it ill or injured?

If the turtle has been injured or shows signs of illness, take it to a specialist reptile vet or a wildlife rehabilitate in your area. Do not assume that an injured animal cannot be saved. Broken shells can be repaired and even serious trauma injuries successfully treated, so do get the animal to an experienced vet or rehabilitator for professional help. Not all will have expertise in treating animals with broken shells, so in the event of a shell injury it is advisable to bring the article on this subject listed in the resources below.

If you are not able to release the turtle until you seek professional advice, do not keep it with any other turtles or tortoises that you may have. Turtles and tortoises purchased as pets may have originated from another region or country. Even if they are healthy animals they may nevertheless be carriers of pathogens which another tortoise or turtle has no natural immunity. Therefore – only turtles that have been kept in isolation can be safely returned to the wild. If a turtle that has been exposed to a dangerous pathogen from another turtle it was housed with in captivity, its release into a native population may result in the death of all the turtles it comes in contact with.

If you need help identifying a turtle or tortoise that you have found, please email us at with the following information:

  • Your country, region or state, and town. (from this we can ascertain native species or refer you to local sources of information)
  • Precisely where you found the animal. Describe the location. (ie. Crossing a road, in a puddle in your yard, in some leaf litter in the woods, etc.)
  • Clear close-up pictures of the animal that will enable us to accurately identification the species – a side view of the body, top and bottom of the shell, and a close-up of the head and leg.  We cannot provide an accurate identification without photos of the animal.

If you do not own a digital camera yourself, ask a friend or neighbor with a camera if they could take the pictures for you. If you are not on the internet, you can have someone else send them to us.