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.
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?
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.
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.
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