2020 Year of the Turtle – the Florida Cooters

2020 Year of the Turtle – the Florida Cooters

Cooters are one of the more commonly seen turtles when visiting a freshwater system.  They are relatively large for a freshwater turtle (with a carapace about 13 inches long) and are often seen basking on logs, rocks, aerator pumps, you name it – and often in high numbers while doing so.  They spook easy and usually leap into the water long before you reach them.  But because of their beautiful smooth shells and large size, they can be seen from a distance – looking like wet rocks on a tree limb.

A “River Cooter” seen basking on a log in Blackwater River.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

They are in the genus Pseudemys (same as the Florida red-bellied turtles) and this genus is found throughout the southeastern United States.  However, from there the breakdown of species becomes a bit challenging.  There has been much debate how many species there really area, and how many are subspecies of those species.  There are two distinct species for sure – the “River Cooter” (Pseudemys concinna) and the “Pond Cooter” (Pseudemys floridana).  From here is gets a bit weird.

 

The “River Cooters” are just that – friends of rivers.  They like those with a bit of a current, sand/gravel bottoms, basking spots, and grasses to eat.  They have been found in estuaries, even with barnacles growing on them, so they have some tolerance for saltwater.  River cooters can be distinguished from their “Pond Cooter” cousins in having a more aerodynamic shell (presumably for their habit of living in faster flowing rivers) with yellow-orange markings that form concentric rings on each scute (scale) of the carapace.  Some of these seem to form a backwards “C”.  Their plastron is yellow-orange but will have black markings along the margins of each scute.

This river cooter is basking on a log on the heads waters of the Choctawhatchee River in Alabama.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

The “Suwannee Cooter” is believed to be a subspecies (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis) found in tannic rivers from the Ochlockonee just west of Tallahassee south to the Tampa Bay region.  It has only been found in rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico.  A couple of records have been found in rivers flowing towards the Atlantic, but it is believed these were relocated by humans.

 

The “Eastern River Cooter” is found from the Ochlockonee River west to Mobile Bay – possibly as far as Louisiana.  There has been a suggestion that the one west of Mobile Bay is the “Mobile Cooter” (Pseudemys concinna mobilensis) but the naming of this group, again, has been a bit crazy.

 

As mentioned, “Pond Cooters” are fans of slow-moving waters with muddy bottoms.  Unlike river cooters, pond cooters will travel over land other than to lay eggs.  Many of their “pond” selections dry up and they must find new habitat.  Like river cooters, pond cooters feed on vegetation so aquatic plants are must and they also like to bask in the sun on logs with many cooters basking at once.

A pond cooter in a canal within the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

Physically they differ from river cooters in having a slightly domed shell near the head end.  The yellow markings are not concentric, but rather are in straight lines and their plastrons are an immaculate beautiful yellow – with no markings on the margins.  They do however have black circles on the bottom margins of their carapace.  These are usually round with a small yellow spot in the center – resembling an “o”.

 

There is believed to be two subspecies of this group.  Pseudemys floridana floridiana (the “Florida Cooter”) and Pseudemys floridana peninuslaris (the “Peninsula Cooter”).  Told you it was all weird.  The Florida cooter is found in the Florida panhandle and the Peninsula Cooter has been found all the way to the Florida Keys – though it does not seem to be common in the Everglades.

 

Add to the quagmire of species identification – there is hybridization between not only the types of pond and river cooters – but BETWEEN the pond and river cooters.  So, if you live in the eastern panhandle where all of these seem to converge – just call them “cooters”!

 

They have an interesting nesting habit.  When the females approach an open sunny sandy spot, she will dig a hole to lay about 20 eggs, but she will also dig two “satellite” nests on either side – and maybe place an egg or two in there.  It is quite understood why they do this, but they do.  They also may come to the beach up to five times in one year to lay eggs.

A pond cooter digging a nest on someone’s property.
Photo: Deb Mozert

Because of their high numbers and large size, this has been a favorite food item for humans for quite some time.  Due to this, and the practice of shooting them off their basking spots, and alterations of river systems lower the habitat quality for the river cooters, their numbers have declined.  The Suwannee Cooter in particular has been hard hit and is a species of concern.  Due to this it no longer allowed to harvest them (or their eggs) from the wild.  Because it is so hard to tell the Suwannee from other species/subspecies of cooters – ALL cooters are now protected by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

 

Another note – they do not eat fish.  The young will eat worms and insects, but the adults are strictly herbivores.  Many pond owners want to shoot them thinking they are eating the stocked fish by the landowner.  They will not eat the fish – you are fine.

 

I think these are amazingly beautiful animals to see glimmering in the sunny on their basking logs as you explore our local rivers and wetlands.  I hope you find them just as cool and appreciate them.

 

Resources:

 

Buhlman, K., T. Tuberville, W. Gibbons. 2008. Turtles of the Southeast. University of Georgia Press, Athens GA.  252 pp.

 

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.  Freshwater Turtles https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/wildlife/freshwater-turtles/.

 

Meylan, P.A. (Ed.). 2006. Biology and Conservation of Florida Turtles. Chelonian Research Monographs No.3, 376 pp.

2020 Year of the Turtle – Florida Red-bellied Turtle

2020 Year of the Turtle – Florida Red-bellied Turtle

Cooters are common freshwater turtles throughout the state of Florida.  There are currently three species listed: Pseudemys concinna – commonly known as the “river cooter”, Pseudemys floridana – referred to as the “Florida cooter”, and Pseudemys nelsoni – the “Florida red-bellied turtle”.  It is this third species we will focus on in this article.

The wide red markings contrasting with the yellow striping on the body makes this a beautiful turtle.
Photo: Wikipedia

When you pick up a Florida red-bellied turtle you will see why it gets that name.  The belly, or plastron, is a reddish-orange color.  You will also see red coloration of the large broad stripes on the carapace and small red spots on the marginal scutes of the carapace.  Contrasting this with the brilliant yellow stripes of the head and legs – this a beautiful turtle.

 

Like other cooters, they are big pond turtles as well – reaching carapace lengths up to 15 inches.  They have high domed shells, compared to the other two cooters, and the shell is much thicker.  This is probably due to the fact that the Florida red-bellied lives with the American alligator.  They are known to even lay their eggs in an alligator nest!  Other features that separate them from their cousins is the presence of yellow striping between the eyes resembling an “arrow”, and a deep notch in the upper lip.

 

The distribution of this turtle is interesting.  They are definitely found, and are common, in the peninsular part of the state – ranging from the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia to the Florida Everglades.  Here they most frequently found in slow moving backwaters of rivers and springs, lakes, ponds, marshes, sinkholes, and even canals along highways.  However, there have been verified reports of this animal in the Apalachicola River basin.  Several have been found on St. Vincent island between Apalachicola and Port St. Joe.  One was photographed within the city limits of Apalachicola and a few in the Dead Lake region of the Chipola River feeding into the Apalachicola.  There is about 100 miles between the Suwannee and Apalachicola River systems – how did they make this trip?

The red coloration of the common Florida Red-bellied turtle.
Photo: Flickr

One idea is that someone brought them there a long time ago – and they have survived.  A long time meaning prior to the 1950s.  Another thought is that the historic range may have included much of the Florida panhandle before sea level changed.  There is an Alabama Red-bellied turtle (Pseudemys alabamensis) that inhabits the marshes of the Mobile Bay delta.  The habitat here is very similar to the marshes of the Everglades, and the Apalachicola region.  The Alabama red-bellied has very similar characteristics to the Florida red-bellied (arrow stripes and notch in upper lip).  There are no records of the Alabama Red-bellied in the delta of the Escambia River, and no record of either species in the Choctawhatchee delta.  So, who knows???  To add to the story – one Florida Red-bellied was verified in the Wacissa River – which lies about halfway between the Suwannee and the Apalachicola rivers.  Yep… interesting mystery.

 

Like other cooters, the females are larger than the males and the males have elongated fingernails on their forelimbs to entice the female’s interest in mating.  These long fingernails are also found on the sliders (Trachemys).  In Florida, the red-bellied appears to breed year-round.  Even though nesting is typical of other turtles (spring and summer) they may lay eggs year-round as well.

 

The females will approach the beach multiple times during the nesting season and lay anywhere from 6-30 eggs in the nest.  Sex determination of the young is determined by the temperature within the nest, warmer eggs become females.  The Florida red-bellied has an unusual habit of laying some of their eggs in alligator nests.  Though alligators can be considered a predator of this turtle, sneaking in and laying eggs will provide protection – for unlike turtles, alligators guard their nests from predators.  It is believed the thicker shell of the Florida red-bellied is to protect it from this possible adversary.

 

That said, they do have their predators.  Like all young turtles there are a variety of birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles that feed on them.  Red-bellies are plant eaters – feeding on a variety of aquatic plants including the invasive water hyacinth and hydrilla.

 

These are common basking turtles throughout much of peninsular Florida and visitors should easily get a glimpse of them while they are here.  How far into the Florida panhandle they range is still a mystery – but an interesting one.  I hope one day you get to see this beautiful turtle.

 

References

 

Buhlmann, K., T. Tuberville, W. Gibbons. 2008. Turtles of the Southeast. University of Georgia press, Athens GA. 251 pp.

 

Meylan, P.A. (Ed.) 2006. Biology and Conservation of Florida Turtles. Chelonian Research Monographs No.3. 376pp.

Heavy Rains Spark Explosive Breeding Events for Amphibians

Heavy Rains Spark Explosive Breeding Events for Amphibians

WOW… is all I can say, when I step outside at night of late and become immersed in the spectacular chorus of calls from breeding frogs and toads near my Wakulla County residence. The sound reverberates to the level where it sometimes feels like it is echoing inside one’s head. Recent heavy rains have awakened local species to the notion that there is no time like the present for pro-creation; given the fact that many of the shallow, depressional wetlands in our region will only contain water for a short window of time.

This may seem like a drawback to the life style of frogs and toads that depend on these wetlands but nature has a way of surprising us with incredible adaptations for survival. For instance, the eastern spadefoot toad (Scaphiopus holbrookii) can actually survive through several years with no water available for raising their young. They do this by remaining buried in the ground, only emerging after heavy rains that collect in depressions. Tadpoles metamorphose into small toads within 28 days so by the time the pool goes dry they are likely long-gone. Female spadefoots will lay over 2,000 eggs at a time so the number of progeny that can emerge from a small depressional wetland is phenomenal. I recall seeing black stains across roadways all over the County about a month after one of our tropical storms. Baby spadefoot toads were dispersing by the millions from hundreds of shallow pools across the region and local roadways were one of the hazards they faced on their journey.

Another advantage to amphibians breeding in ephemeral (temporary) wetlands has to do with the fact that there are no fish to prey on the tadpoles. This is not a requirement for all species, as some have chemical defenses (bad taste) that limit predation, but others could not successfully breed in permanent bodies of water.

Some of the species I have heard calling lately include squirrel treefrogs, green treefrogs, Cope’s gray treefrogs, southern toads, cricket frogs, and a few others I have not identified yet. If you have never made an effort to identify the night calls of frogs and toads, you don’t know what you are missing in your local environment. Some are quite difficult to separate but many of very distinct and once you put the call with a name you won’t ever forget it. Take a moment to listen to one of my favorites, the southern toad; the origin of a beautiful, high-pitched trill that you most likely have never paid much attention to. This website (The Frog Blog) is a great resource to learn more calls. Be sure to listen also to the southern cricket frog call that sounds like two marbles clacked together, and Copes’ gray treefrog, which many might mistake for a bird as they call from high in the tree canopy.

cricket frog on hand

Cricket frogs are one of the smallest vertebrates on the planet.

The cacophony of sounds on a warm summer’s night can seem chaotic and random but if you spend a little time sorting out the musicians, you are sure to develop a deeper appreciation of the symphony, along with a better understanding of the well-orchestrated cycles of nature in your Panhandle backyard.

Outdoor Ethics

Outdoor Ethics

Baby terns on Pensacola Beach are camouflaged in plain sight on the sand. This coloration protects them from predators but can also make them vulnerable to people walking through nesting areas. Photo credit: UF IFAS Extension

The controversial incident recently in New York between a birdwatcher and a dog owner got me thinking about outdoor ethics. Most of us are familiar with the “leave no trace” principles of “taking only photographs and leaving only footprints.” This concept is vital to keeping our natural places beautiful, clean, and safe. However, there are several other matters of ethics and courtesy one should consider when spending time outdoors.

  1. On our Gulf beaches in the summer, sea turtles and shorebirds are nesting. The presence of this type of wildlife is an integral part of why people want to visit our shores—to see animals they can’t see at home, and to know there’s a place in the world where this natural beauty exists. Bird and turtle eggs are fragile, and the newly hatched young are extremely vulnerable. Signage is up all over, so please observe speed limits, avoid marked nesting areas, and don’t feed or chase birds. Flying away from a perceived predator expends unnecessary energy that birds need to care for young, find food, and avoid other threats.

    When on a multi-use trail, it is important to use common courtesy to prevent accidents. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

  2. On a trail, the rules of thumb are these: hikers yield to equestrians, cyclists yield to all other users, and anyone on a trail should announce themselves when passing another person from behind.
  3. Obey leash laws, and keep your leash short when approaching someone else to prevent unwanted encounters between pets, wildlife, or other people. Keep in mind that some dogs frighten easily and respond aggressively regardless of how well-trained your dog is. In addition, young children or adults with physical limitations can be knocked down by an overly friendly pet.
  4. Keep plenty of space between your group and others when visiting parks and beaches. This not only abides by current health recommendations, but also allows for privacy, quiet, and avoidance of physically disturbing others with a stray ball or Frisbee.

Summer is beautiful in northwest Florida, and we welcome visitors from all over the world. Common courtesy will help make everyone’s experience enjoyable.

How to Become an Expert Naturalist

How to Become an Expert Naturalist

Have you ever been on a walk, passed a beautiful flowering bush, and wondered what it was?  Well, wonder no more!  You can become an expert naturalist by using an easy smartphone app, iNaturalist.  With one easy download, you can connect with others to identify species and document their occurrence.

iNaturalist is a community of naturalists, citizen scientists and biologists working together to share observations of biodiversity and map the occurrence.  Parents need to know that iNaturalist is an online community that allows users age 13 and older to share pictures and locations of the living things they see around them. While considered very safe, like any online network, teens should be cautious with sharing.

Getting started is easy.  All you need to do is create an account at iNaturalist.org and download their free iNaturalist app to your smartphone (Android or iOS). You can then start making your own nature observations, upload them to iNaturalist where you can share your discoveries with others, and also let other iNaturalist users help identify what you have seen.

iNaturalist is a great way to connect with nature and generate scientifically valuable biodiversity data.  You can use it for your own personal fulfillment, or as part of a group.  You can even use the project feature which allows you to have a central page that displays all the observations made within a location, or all observations made by a group. Why not organize your neighbors, club, or friends and challenge them to post their observations?

Dog vomit fungus (Fuligo septica)

Mystery blob in the garden. Can you figure out what it is? Photo: Laura Tiu

I recently used iNaturalist to identify a bright yellow blob that sprung up in my garden overnight. I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you what it is.  Why don’t you head on over to iNaturalist.org and see if you can figure it out?  It will be your first step to becoming an expert naturalist.

Gopher Tortoises

Gopher Tortoises

In ecology, a “keystone” species is as crucial to an ecosystem as the central stone in this arch.

In architecture, a “keystone” is the top, central block in an arch structure, the one that holds the entire building up. Without it, the bricks around it collapse. With it, there is nothing stronger.

So, when you hear an animal referred to as a “keystone” species, it should get your attention—especially when that species is listed as threatened by state and federal wildlife agencies. In northwest Florida, one of the species upon which the entire longleaf ecosystem is built is the humble gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus).

Gopher tortoises are long-lived, protected by their thick shells and deep burrows. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Once hunted for food and currently in competition with humans for buildable land, this long-lived reptile is an architect in its own right. The tortoises are called “gophers” because of their tunnel building and burrow construction expertise. The tortoises spend about 80% of their time near their burrows, of which they have multiple over their lifetimes. Being a cold-blooded reptile, the burrows allow the tortoises a place to live in the temperature-regulated soil.

The average adult gopher tortoise is about 9-11 inches long, although they can be larger. They have thick feet resembling those of an elephant, and scaly front legs used for digging and burrowing. They are tan, brown, or gray, and live in dry, sandy, upland habitats. Their propensity for dry forestland is typically why their populations are in peril, as this is also the best land for building and development.

The average gopher tortoise’s burrow is 6.5 feet deep and 15-40 feet long, and provides habitat for 350 other species! Those commensal species that share its burrow are mostly invertebrates, but at least 50 are larger backboned species like frogs, snakes, rabbits, and burrowing owls. During forest fires, there are stories of multiple species—from deer and snakes and turtles—calling a truce and hiding in the burrows together until the flames blow over.

Gopher tortoises are nesting right now–be sure to observe from a distance!

Right now—from May to July—is nesting season for gopher tortoises. They lay eggs in the soft sand of their burrow apron, which is the triangular spread of loose sand at the opening of the burrow. Eggs incubate all summer and emerge between August and November. The newly hatched tortoises can expect to live 40 to 60 years in the wild. They live on a variety of grasses and low-growing plants native to longleaf pine, oak forests, and coastal dunes, including wiregrass and gopher apple. They are adapted to routine fires, as they are safe in their burrows and the new growth after a burn provides an abundance of their grassy food sources.