Across every biome, there is a wide assortment of three types of reptiles in Pennsylvania; turtles, snakes, and lizards. There are around 10,000 species of reptiles, considerably fewer than there are of mammals, birds, and even fish. Reptiles depend on specific environments to thrive, and preservation of their biodiversity is paramount for maintaining healthy, balanced ecosystems.
Reptiles and amphibians are often grouped together, but they diverged about 300 million years ago. There are two major differences between reptiles and amphibians. First, reptiles are covered in scales, or scutes such as the plates that make up a turtle’s shell. Amphibians on the other hand have smooth skin that is essential for them to “breathe” through. The way reptiles and amphibians produce young is a second major difference. Most reptiles lay self-contained eggs on land, while amphibians lay eggs in the water. After the eggs hatch, the young go through an aquatic stage (think tadpoles) and breathe through gills before becoming adults.
Reptiles can be found most places, but they are excellent hiders. Not every species chooses to announce its presence like a rattlesnake or is as large as the truly gargantuan snapping turtle. The vast majority prefer to remain unnoticed by predators and people, turtles obviously taking this to the extreme with their ability to tuck into their shell.
Reptiles can be divvied into whether they prefer to be on land—terrestrial—or prefer to swim around—aquatic. However, this is not necessarily exclusive (some aquatic species can be found on land, and also the opposite is true) as we have no true obligate (meaning they are forced into a role or function by specific adaptations) aquatic species of reptiles. Their primary habitats tend to determine their food sources, followed by their size. Turtles exhibit the broadest palate and will eat pretty much anything they grab ahold of from earthworms to fungi, true connoisseurs. Some turtle species even have specially developed adaptations to crush mollusks more effectively for a slightly more French cuisine. All of Pennsylvania’s lizards are quite diminutive, no Komodo dragons, making them keen for tracking down insects and other bugs, and unlikely to be found going after anything furry.
The third and slitheriest of the group, snakes, feed on a wide range of living things, though even the largest of ratsnakes would struggle with anything bigger than your fist. Smaller snakes stalk worms, crickets, and generally prefer to eat their prey whole in one gulp. As they get longer their hunting strategies change somewhat with some preferring to go after birds, or their nests, and other choosing to track down the more aloof mice and voles. These larger snakes subdue their targets through constriction to prevent any damage eating these larger prey items might cause. The three species of venomous snakes adopt a quick strike to immobilize their targets before consuming them.
No reptiles would ever consider prey even remotely close to the size of a human, and as such would prefer to get away from us than attack us. That does not make them docile, though. Water snakes are notoriously vicious when cornered and will strike at anyone trying to pick them up or handle them, and while not venomous their saliva has anti-coagulant in it making any bite bleed profusely. Snapping turtles, too, can strike out defensively from a full body-length away. All that is to say, don’t accost reptiles and they won’t tussle with you.
As mentioned earlier, there is surprisingly little diversity among reptiles in Pennsylvania and a large percentage of them are Species of Special Concern. While there are no formal protections in place for this designation, their conservation is achieved via policy and not regulation. The primary threat to these reptiles is loss of habitat due to human uses and climate change. Specific habitat or areas that are found to contain these special folks are often designated as important reptile habitats and selected for land and water conservation efforts to stabilize populations.
Another concern is the introduction of species not native to Pennsylvania through the pet trade. While Pennsylvania doesn’t have the same level of issues as some of the more tropical states do with invasive reptiles, we do see this problem with the red eared slider. Commonly sold in pet stores as a low-maintenance pet, they can live well beyond 20 years. When owners are no long willing or able to take care of them, they unfortunately sometimes choose to release them into the wild. These non-natives compete for the same resources as several native species and can often out-muscle them from sunning areas and taking over communities. Currently, tropical or sub-tropical species (like pythons) are not able to survive winters so are unable to form problematic populations. However, climate change could allow for more of these species to move further north
Species of Special Concern
Encounters between people and reptiles are rare outside of the realm of the slow-moving and often territorially bound turtles. Owing to both the reclusive nature of most reptiles and their inherent rarity, most interactions occur along roadways, where turtles and snakes are sometimes found trying to cross. You’re most likely to see a reptile in the wild on hot and sunny days when the more mobile varieties can move easily from sunning spot to sunning spot. Still though, reptiles are rarely seen in places where people are regularly moving about.
For adventurers looking to spy a reptile in action, the lakes in our region offer the best opportunity. Here you might find aquatic species of turtles sunbathing on platforms constructed specifically for this very purpose.
Black Moshannon State Park has several turtle viewing areas along its boardwalk and lake-side trails. Those explorers with boats and valid permits can take to the water to explore further into the lilies and other plant matter.
Colyer Lake also offers a loop trail that gives several vantages over structures designed to provide habitat for turtles.