Florida Red­belly Tur­tle

Found only in Florida and ex­treme southeast Ge­or­gia

Times of the Islands - - Nature's Notebook - BY WIL­LIAM R. C OX Wil­liam R. Cox has been a pro­fes­sional na­ture pho­tog­ra­pher and ecol­o­gist for more than 35 years. Visit him on­line at williamr­cox­pho­tog­ra­phy.com.

Florida is home to 27 aquatic tur­tle species, not count­ing sea tur­tles. The Florida red­belly tur­tle (Pseudymys nel­soni) is found in Florida from the Pan­han­dle south to Florida Bay. It is also found in ex­treme south­east­ern Ge­or­gia. On Sanibel Is­land, this large fresh­wa­ter tur­tle can often be ob­served bask­ing on logs or on the banks of fresh­wa­ter wet­lands, in­clud­ing canals and ditches.

Fe­males are larger with cara­pace (up­per shell) lengths av­er­ag­ing 11 to 13 inches up to a max­i­mum of 14.5 inches. Male cara­pace lengths av­er­age 6 to 11 inches. Hatch­ling cara­pace lengths av­er­age one inch. The Florida red­belly tur­tle is as­so­ci­ated with the penin­sula cooter (P. penin­su­laris), Florida chicken tur­tle (Deirochelys retic­u­laria chry­sea) and yel­low­bel­lied slider (Trache­mys scripta scripta). The yel­low-bel­lied slider is not na­tive to Florida but is found through­out the state be­cause peo­ple keep them as pets and then re­lease them into the wild. Two sub­species, T.s. scripta and T.s. el­e­gans, live in fresh­wa­ter wet­lands on Sanibel but are not found on Cap­tiva.

To the ca­sual ob­server it is dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish among th­ese aquatic tur­tles, as they are sim­i­lar in ap­pear­ance as adults and hatch­lings. This is es­pe­cially true if the cara­pace is cov­ered with muck, duck­weed or al­gae. The penin­sula cooter is the most com­mon aquatic tur­tle ob­served in South Florida, but the Florida red­belly tur­tle is eas­ier to iden­tify. Its brown or black cara­pace has three red or yel­low stripes. The plas­tron (lower shell) is red or yel­low. The penin­sula cooter also has a brown or black cara­pace with thin yel­low stripes. Its plas­tron is solid yel­low. The Florida chicken tur­tle has a green, brown or black cara­pace with a yel­low web­like pat­tern. Its plas­tron is or­ange or yel­low with black mark­ings on the area (bridge) con­nect­ing the cara­pace and the plas­tron. The yel­low-bel­lied slider has a black or green cara­pace with thin yel­low streaks. It has a yel­low, red or or­ange blotch be­hind its eye. With prac­tice, and us­ing binoc­u­lars or a cam­era, ob­servers can learn to iden­tify the Florida red­belly tur­tle and sim­i­lar species.

Tur­tles have a well-de­vel­oped sense of smell. They use smell to lo­cate food and other tur­tles, es­pe­cially dur­ing breed­ing sea­son. Florida red­belly tur­tles nest from May through Au­gust. They lay three to six clutches of seven to 30 or more el­lip­ti­cal eggs in an un­der­ground cav­ity ex­ca­vated by the fe­male. They will also lay eggs in Amer­i­can al­li­ga­tor nest mounds while fe­male al­li­ga­tors are away from their nests, the hy­poth­e­sis be­ing that the tur­tle eggs are pro­tected from rac­coons and other preda­tors by nest­ing fe­male al­li­ga­tors.

Adult Florida red­belly tur­tles are her­bi­vores. They se­lect per­ma­nent fresh­wa­ter habi­tats that have an abun­dance of aquatic veg­e­ta­tion to feed on. They will also feed on car­rion. Ju­ve­niles are mostly car­ni­vores, as they eat in­sects and other small an­i­mals, but they will also eat plants. The penin­sula

The pet trade also has an im­pact on tur­tles, as they are cap­tured to be sold in pet stores.

cooter is also an her­bi­vore. The chicken tur­tle is dif­fer­ent in that it is a car­ni­vore that feeds on the adults and lar­vae of am­phib­ians, in­sects and cray­fish. The yel­low-bel­lied slider is an om­ni­vore, feed­ing on am­phib­ians, fish, aquatic in­ver­te­brates, car­rion and plants.

The Florida red­belly tur­tle is eaten by al­li­ga­tors, large snakes, fish, birds and mam­mals. It is also eaten by hu­mans in some ar­eas. It spends a large amount of time bask­ing and thus is sub­ject to be­ing shot in tar­get prac­tice in un­pro­tected ar­eas. Tur­tle road­kill is be­com­ing more com­mon as more roads are built di­vid­ing wet­lands and up­land habi­tats. Tur­tles cross th­ese roads as they move be­tween wet­lands search­ing for food, other tur­tles and to lay eggs. The pet trade also has an im­pact on tur­tles, as they are cap­tured to be sold in pet stores.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists have long ad­vo­cated pur­chas­ing and man­ag­ing large tracts of land that would be pro­tected in per­pe­tu­ity. Th­ese ar­eas sus­tain en­tire plant and wildlife com­mu­ni­ties, in­clud­ing species of tur­tles and other rep­tiles. A great ex­am­ple is the Fred C. Bab­cock/Ce­cil M. Webb Wildlife Man­age­ment Area 15 miles north­west of Fort My­ers. This sta­te­owned prop­erty is 80,700 acres in size and is open to the pub­lic for mul­ti­ple uses. It is a must-see area if you want to ob­serve his­toric habi­tats and abun­dant and di­verse wildlife, in­clud­ing tur­tles and other rep­tiles. It is also a Great Florida Bird­ing and Wildlife Trail site that is very im­por­tant in wildlife con­ser­va­tion. You can help the cause by sup­port­ing and vis­it­ing this site, as well as many other lo­cal, state and fed­eral parks.

The Florida red­belly tur­tle is often seen bask­ing on logs in fresh­wa­ter wet­lands.

The Florida chicken tur­tle (top), yel­low-bel­lied slider (mid­dle) and red­belly tur­tle (above and bot­tom) have sub­tle dif­fer­ences in col­or­ing that help dis­tin­guish them from each other.

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