By Eileen Berger, Texas Master Naturalist
Master Naturalists are always interested in learning more about the flora and fauna of Texas, as well as helping to conserve and protect the plants and animals and their habitats. Recently we participated in a training session at the Ft. Worth Zoo to learn to spot and count three species of turtles present in Texas. The mission of Texas Turtle Watch is to provide an outdoor experience for citizens of all ages and interest levels while learning and gathering data that will contribute to the knowledge about turtle populations in Texas.
Turtles are reptiles, and are important in the ecology as consumers of snails, insects, crawfish, small amphibians and fish. Also,turtle eggs and small turtles are a food source for many species. Some eat algae that might otherwise deplete oxygen from the water, while others serve as cleaners by consuming carrion.
There are many threats to wild turtles. Contrary to popular belief, they do not make good pets. They may be carriers of salmonella and may not do well in captivity. They can live for many years, perhaps outliving their owners. If the pet turtle is not a native species, its release into the wild may endanger its life, or it could become a threat to native turtles. Many thousands of our Texas turtles are exported each year to the Asian food and folk medicine markets. Our only laws pertaining to the capture of turtles apply to public land. Since 97.4% of Texas land is privately owned, turtles are not covered on those private lands. During the warmer months, females travel to nesting sites which may be across roadways, leaving them at risk from vehicle traffic . Perhaps you have stopped to watch or even assisted a turtle to the other side of the road.
Some confusion may exist regarding the names turtle, terrapin, and tortoise. Terrapin refers to a species of turtle living in salty coastal marshes. Tortoises live only on land, and the name refers to one large group of related genera and species. Turtle Watch concentrates on observing 3 of the 28 species of native turtles in Texas. Red-eared Sliders(Trachemys) are easily identified by a red stripe on either side of the head beginning at the eye. They have yellow stripes on the head and neck, and the carapace, or top, of the shell is olive to brown with yellow stripes or reticulated patterns. The adult female is larger than the male and the shell will measure from 5 to 12 inches. The Big Bend slider has an orange stripe on its head. Sliders are known for basking in the sun and may even be seen stacked on a log to maximize their exposure.
Cooters, both river and Texas, (Pseudemys) are also known for basking behavior. They are larger than sliders, with adult males growing 8-12 inches, and females 12-16 inches. They have yellow lines on the skin with 2 large stripes on the top of the head and legs. There is also a Rio Grande river cooter.
The third type of turtle on the Turtle Watch list is softshell(Apalone). Two species live in Texas, a smooth and a spiny softshell. The carapace will blend in when the turtle is in the water, and will appear shiny when dry. The head is on a longer neck than the two previous species, and the nose is snorkel-like. Adult turtles range from 5-21 inches with the females being much larger than the males. Like cooters and sliders, softshell turtles bask, but they are easily startled and require a quiet wait by the would-be observer for a reappearence.
Elllis County has many creeks, ponds, and lakes in which these three species live. Of course, other species of turtles, including snapping turtles and box turtles live in the rural and sometimes suburban areas. For more information about Texas Turtle Watch, you may visit the website www.fortworthzoo.org/conserve/txturtlewatch.htm. Some guides about turtles include Turtles Wild Guide by Charles Fergus, Peterson First Guides Reptiles and Amphibians by Conant, Stebbins, and Collins, and Reptiles and Amphibians Golden Guide from St. Martin’s Press. For information about the Texas Master Naturalist program, contact Agri-life Extension Office at 972-825-5175 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.