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 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 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.
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.
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.
Male red ears mature in 2 to 5 years. 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.
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.
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.