Red-Eared Slider Turtle

Trachemys scripta elegans

Introduction

This is the turtle whose hatchlings were once sold by the millions in every dime store and pet shop in the country. The law now requires turtles to be at least 4 inches in length before they can be sold in this country although recent "scientific" permits have largely blunted the effect of this law.

One unintended consequence of the 4 inch law is the world wide spread of the red eared turtle. When the US market was closed to them, turtle farms began to agressively export their animals around the world. Chen and Lue (1998) report that red-eared sliders are the second most common turtle in Taiwan. Many hatchlings are still produced commercially for export to Europe, Mexico, and Japan where they remain extremely popular as pets.

The redeared turtle has been known to live over 40 years in captivity.

Distribution

Red ears occur throughout most of Texas (except the extreme western portion), Oklahoma, the eastern half of Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, into the western portion of Kentucky and Tennessee, and throughout Alabama. There are also several disjointed populations around the world due to the release of captives.

The Red ear is similar to the yellowbelly sliders, T. scripta scripta, which occur further to the east in the southern united States.

Description

The adult red eared turtle's carapace averages 5-8 inches, with a record length of 11 inches. The turtle is named for a broad reddish (occasionally yellow) stripe or blotch behind each eye along the neck. The red stripe distinquishes the red eared turtle from all other North American species. Note that the red stripe may be difficult to see in older, melanistic, males.

The carapace is oval and flattened (especially in the male), has a weak keel that is more pronounced in the young, and the rear marginal scutes are notched. The first marginal scute extends beyond the suture between the first costal and the first vertebral scutes. The carapace usually consists of a dark green background with light and dark highly variable markings. The plastron is yellow with dark paired irregular markings in the center of most scutes. The plastron is highly variable, with some older individual's essentially dark with only a little remaining yellow. The head, legs, and tail are green with fine yellow irregular lines. Older males are sometimes so melanistic that the markings are lost. The lower jaw, when viewed from the front, is rounded, not flattened as with other similar turtles.

The young of red eared turtles, like many turtle species, have a very high mortality rate. Red eared turtles are believed to live as long as 50-75 years (Dundee and Rossman, 1989).

Habitat

Red ears prefer quiet bodies of water with a soft bottom and heavy vegetation. They are found in slow moving rivers, streams, swamps, ponds, creeks, and stock tanks. Currents are avoided.

Behavior

This turtle loves to bask. They are seen in droves on logs or other available spots out of the water, but seldom on the bank. They will quickly retreat to the water if they feel threatened. It is not unusual to see them basking in piles three and four deep if basking spots are at a premium. They can sense danger through their excellent ability to sense vibration. A turtle has a fully developed inner ear structure, but no external opening. This species is primarily aquatic and tends to stay in one area if it likes its surroundings, but the males move around in the spring and are frequent victims when crossing roads. Red eared turtles spend a considerable amount of time just floating, using their inflated throat as a flotation device.

Reproduction

Male red ears mature in 2 to 5 years at a plastron length of 3.5" to 4". The females are larger than the males. Females mature at a plaston length of 6" to 7.5".

Mature males have long front toenails that are used in courtship when the male will swim in front of his chosen partner, stretch out his forelimbs with palms turned out so as to just touch the sides of the lady's face, and vibrate his nails against her face. This courtship dance is often seen during the warmer months.

The mature male's tail is much longer and thicker than that of the female, with the anal opening beyond the rear edge of the carapace. The female's tail is smaller, with the anal opening usually at or under the rear edge of the carapace.

During mating, the male will hold the female, using his long nails to grasp her carapace, and curl his tail under the female's for copulation. Breeding takes place from March to July, with nesting in June and July.

The female will leave the pond and find a sunny area with sandy soil in which to construct her nest. If required, the female will travel some distance to find soil that suits her. In order to be able to dig her nest, the female may need to soften the soil. She accomplishes this with a seemingly endless supply of water from her bladder. The nest is dug with the hind legs, and is usually a jug shaped hole 2 - 4 inches deep. Four to 23 eggs are deposited, after which the nest is carefully sealed with the soil previously removed.

The eggs are oval and approximately 1-3/8 long. A female may produce from 1 to 3 clutches in a single season. If not dug up and eaten by raccoons or other predators, the eggs hatch some 2 to 2-1/2 months after nesting and if cold weather has already arrived the hatchlings may over winter in the nest.

Foods

The young are more carnivorous than the adults, but will also eat a fair amount of plant matter. They take water insects, snails, tadpoles, crayfish, fish, crustaceans, and mollusks. As they age red ears begin to eat more plants, with arrowhead, water lilies, hyacinths, and duck weed taken. A fair amount of carrion is also consumed.

Conclusion

The red eared turtle has survived being eaten by many of us, having its eggs used as bait, being decimated by automobiles, and exploited in the pet trade. Like all reptiles and amphibians, populations are declining due to the all too common reasons of habitat destruction and pollution. These are hardy creatures who basically need to be left alone in suitable habitat to prosper. We can all help turtles by working to maintain enough wetland areas for them and reducing the pollution that threatens them.

Contributors

References

  1. Alderton, David, A Petkeeper's Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians, London:Salamander Books Ltd., 1986, 3-923880-5-2.

  2. Andrews, Chris (ed.), Turtles, Tortoises, Terrapins, Melle, West Germany:Tetra Press.

  3. Angell, Madeline, Snakes and Frogs and Turtles and Such, New York:Bobbs-Merrill, 1979, QL652.A53, 598.1'0973, 0-672-52528-3.

  4. Behler, John L. and F. Wayne King, The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians, New York:Alfred A. Knopf, 1979, QL651.K56, 598.1'097 0-394-50824-6.

  5. Carroll, David M., The Year of the Turtle, Charlotte, Vermont:Camden House, 1991, QL666.C5C37, 597.92, 0-944475-12-4.

  6. Chen, T., and K. Lue, Ecological notes on feral populations of Trachemys scripta elegans in northern Taiwan, Chelonian Conservation and Biology, 1998, 3(1):87-90.

  7. Dundee, H.A., and D.A. Rossman, 1989. The Amphibians and Reptiles of Louisiana., Baton Rouge:Louisiana State University Press, 1989, 300 pp.

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