Florida Redbelly Turtle: Found only in Florida and extreme southeast Georgia
Oct 25, 2017 07:54PM
Photo by William R. Cox.
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 yellow-bellied 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 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. They are also eaten by humans in some areas. They spend a large amount of time basking and thus are 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 state-owned 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.
Written by William R. Cox, a professional nature photographer and ecologist of more than 35 years. Visit him online at williamrcoxphotography.com