Wild Florida: The Florida Red Belly Turtle

The Florida Red Belly Turtle is a large basking river turtle that is found throughout the state. It is a Florida specialty, found almost entirely within our borders, and in most areas it is our most common turtle.

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Florida Red Belly Turtle

The southeastern United States is the center of chelonian diversity, with several dozen species of aquatic turtles which can often be seen basking on rocks or logs along rivers or ponds, dropping into the water when disturbed. These are known as “cooters”, probably derived from an African word for “turtle”. They are also sometimes referred to as “sliders”, from their habit of slipping off into the water.

One of the largest of the cooters, with a shell length of 15 inches, is the Florida Red Belly,Pseudemys nelsoni. The Pseudemys genus ranges across the southeastern US, but the Florida Red Belly is concentrated almost entirely within Florida (with a small additional population in southern Georgia), where it replaces the Northern Red Belly, Pseudemys rubiventris. There is an introduced population in Texas, and another non-native introduced group in the British Virgin Islands. As more and more states ban the import of the invasive Red-Eared Slider, that species is being replaced in the pet trade with other cooters including the Florida Red Belly. There are now a number of “turtle farms” where Red Bellies are being commercially raised, and as the pet trade expands they will likely begin showing up in other areas as escapees. The turtles are also exported to China as food.

The Red Belly is a gregarious and non-territorial species, and is often found in the company of other turtles such as Chicken Turtles, Peninsula Cooters, and non-native Red-Eared Sliders. Its distinguishing characterstic–the bright reddish-orange belly splotches–are hard to see when the turtle is basking, but the Red Belly can usually be recognized by the reddish patches along the outer margins of its shell. It is more tolerant of brackish water than many other species, and can often be found in estuaries and mangrove canals in addition to freshwater rivers, lakes and swamps.

As with most turtles, the females are larger than the males. Mating takes place in early spring, with the males using their elongated front claws to tickle the female’s face during a courtship swim. About a dozen eggs are laid in a clutch, and a female may produce several clutches throughout the summer. In many instances, the female will excavate a cavity inside an Alligator mound, allowing the gator to do all the work of guarding the nest from raccoons and other predators. The turtle eggs hatch after about two months. When young, the Red Bellies eat small fish and insects. As they grow older they become more vegetarian, and adults feed almost entirely on aquatic plants. Females reach maturity at about 7-8 years old; the males mature at around age 3. Captive Red Bellies live for around 25 years.

As long as it can find a permanent body of water with an abundance of aquatic plants, the Red Belly Turtle gets along fine with humans. It can often be found in neighborhood retention ponds or reservoirs. For adult turtles, the primary danger are Alligators. Hatchling and young turtles are also food for egrets and herons. A significant portion of the nests are destroyed by fire ants. Human impact on the population, so far, seems light: the turtles and their eggs are legally protected, and most of the individuals found in the pet trade are captive-bred. Florida lists the Red Belly as a “Species of Least Concern”. In Georgia, however, where the population has always been rather small, the Red Belly is listed as a “Special Concern”.

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Forgotten mysteries, oddities and unknown stories from history, nature and science.