I was working a local youth fishing derby the other weekend and the kids caught several turtles in addition to a pile of rainbow trout. Of course the kids all wanted to know what kind of turtle they had and everything else a kid can think of to ask (which has no limits) about turtles. I have to admit, I was out of my league so my answers were pretty basic. It was embarrassing as a biologist not to know the answers to kids’ turtle questions. So, in good keeping like always if I don’t know something I should or people expect me to know I went and studied up on it. I’ll share what I learned, so if you ever find yourself surrounded by 100 eight year olds and a half dozen turtles you’ll at least be armed with something.
In Texas you can catch and possess 25 turtles with a valid hunting license. Wildlife biologists are becoming concerned by increased harvest pressure on turtles here in Texas, primarily from demand for turtle meat sold to China and other Asian markets. Turtles are allowed to be harvested commercially in Texas, but a nongame permit is needed and animals may be sold only to someone who has a nongame dealer’s permit. In preparation to write this article I found that turtle meat goes for about $17.50 a pound. About 50 dealers in Texas purchase an average of 95,000 turtles per year, mostly for export from the state. Turtles also have other things going against them in addition to harvest, which include vehicle mortality, loss of habitat, and the fact that they are slow to mature and produce relatively few offspring that survive to sexual maturity themselves.
In east Texas and west Louisiana the turtles that you will most likely come across include red-eared sliders, cooters, map turtles, snappers, and box turtles. These five kinds of turtles are certainly not the begin all and end all of what is actually out there. The red- eared slider for example belongs to an order of turtles that includes nearly 250 individual species. Turtles like all reptiles are cold blooded so they become inactive when the weather cools and is the reason they are always basking in the sun. Basking areas such as logs and flat rocks are essential to turtles because lying in the sun helps regulate their body temperature. When temperatures drop below about 50 degrees turtles will go into a decreased metabolic state, they will basically hibernate, except with reptiles hibernation is called brumation. As the weather warms they will reemerge and begin feeding. Most of our turtles here will mate and lay their eggs in the spring almost always in sandy well drained soil.
Red-eared sliders are common in our lakes. They are named after the red stripe that runs down their neck. Often sliders can be seen basking on logs in groups and even on top of each other if space is limited. They stay close to the water and leaves only if a new water source is needed and to lay their eggs. As with most turtles female red eared sliders grow larger than the males. Females usually grow to be about 10-12 inches in length while males grow to 8-10 inches. Red-eared sliders have a varied diet and are opportunistic feeders. They feed on fish, carrion, snails, insects, and numerous plants. TPWD has learned first hand that when trying to establish new aquatic vegetation we have to place fencing around it or else the turtles will eat it all. Red-eared sliders will reach sexual maturity at about 5 years old and females will lay several clutches of eggs over the course of a nesting season. Red-eared sliders take between 60-90 days to hatch.
Cooters are sometimes called red belly turtles. They are pretty large and grow up to about 12 inches in length. They have dark marks along the seams of their shells and several yellow stripes running down their head and neck. Their diet is similar to that of the red-eared sliders.
Map turtles are the prettiest of our local turtles and are also called sawbacks. Their shell is serrated in the back, hence the name sawbacks. They also have a well defined keel running down the middle of their shell. The most noticeable markings they have are the thin markings covering their skin and shell that looks like a contour map, giving them their name - map turtles. There are about a dozen species, but each species are pretty unique to a local area. We have a local species, the Sabine here in our area. They like most of our turtles are opportunistic feeders, but their inclination is to feed on snails and mollusks.
Everyone has heard of snapping turtles. We have both alligator and common snapping turtles in our area. The alligator snapper has three rows of spines along their back while the common snapping turtle has a smoother back. Snapping turtles are hunted for their meat and shells and have been declared as threatened or endangered in several states. Snapping turtles feed on carrion, fish, birds, frogs, snakes, and even other turtles. The largest alligator snapping turtle that has been verified was 236 pounds, but there is an unverified report of a 400 pounder out of Kansas. Interestingly there are reports that snapping turtles do well in captivity and can even learn commands and show some loyalty to their keepers. Snapping turtles live to be about 40 years old in the wild, but are believed to be capable of living to 150 years of age. Note the alligator snapping turtle is protected in Texas and cannot be harvested or collected.
Box turtles are the turtles most often run over by vehicles here in our area. They are also the turtles or at least the shells that you find in the woods. They have a domed shell and are capable of tightly closing it giving them a box like appearance. They commonly live up to 20 years and have been known to even live to 40 years. Studies in Texas found that 7,000 box turtles were captured for the pet trade over a three year period and a similar study in Louisiana found that 30,000 animals were taken in a 41-month span that the study was done. They are opportunistic feeders; however younger turtles require a higher protein diet than older individuals so they tend to have a carnivorous diet. Box turtles remain in the same area that they were born and if moved even a short distance may never find their way back.
Dan Ashe is a fisheries biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He has worked out of the Jasper, Texas field office since 2005 helping to manage east Texas reservoirs including Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend. Dan has also worked as fisheries biologist in Puerto Rico, California, and Alaska but now calls Texas home.
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