Pseudemys nelsoniFlorida Redbelly Turtle

Geographic Range

Florida red-bellied cooters (Pseudemys nelsoni) are found primarily in freshwater lakes in the southeastern United States. Their range includes nearly all of Florida, including parts of the Florida panhandle, and extends to far southeastern Georgia. They have been introduced in central Texas and in the British Virgin Islands. (Enge, et al., 2000; Kramer, 1995; Van Dijk, 2011)

Habitat

Florida red-bellied turtles inhabit freshwater areas and brackish waters. In the southeastern parts of Florida, they inhabit lakes, ponds, and rivers with high densities of aquatic plants. They avoid lakes with sandy substrates. They leave the water to bask in the heat of the day. Their nests are typically found away from the water and at times in American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) nests. They inhabit humid areas with temperatures that drop to 18 C in the winter and rise to 32 C in the summertime. (Enge, et al., 2000; Hunt and Ogden, 1991; Jackson, 2010; Meylan and Huestis, 2004; Van Dijk, 2011)

  • Average depth
    0.6 m
    1.97 ft

Physical Description

Florida red-bellied cooter male adults weigh, on average, 1656g and female adults weigh 4000g. They are known for the red color on their ventral shell of juveniles. As they age, the tint of red tends to fade and become less distinct in the adult stage. They also have bright yellow stripes on their heads as well as on their exposed arms, legs, and tails. Their carapace has a deep dome shape, and is described as 1.5-1.7 times as wide as is high. Carapaces are a dark brown color with a single red swipe or "Y" shape on the first 3 costal scutes. The carapaces is yellow on the edges.

The plastron is black and sometimes mottled. The heads and necks of these turtles contain seven yellow stripes on them. Their legs are also black with striping that is yellow.

Males, being about 250mm in carapace length tend to be significantly smaller than females that are approximately 305mm in carapace length. Males also have relatively longer front claws and thicker tails than females.

Their hatchlings are laid in groups of 12-30 eggs and their carapace lengths range from 28-38 mm. The weight of each hatchling ranges from 10.1 to 14.5 g. (Hutchison, et al., 1966; Jackson, 2010; Kramer and Burghardt, 1998; Kramer and Fritz, 1989; Kramer, 1995; Meylan and Huestis, 2004)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • sexes shaped differently
  • Range mass
    1656 to 4000 g
    58.36 to 140.97 oz
  • Average mass
    1235 g
    43.52 oz
  • Range length
    250 to 350 mm
    9.84 to 13.78 in
  • Average length
    303 mm
    11.93 in

Development

Florida red-bellied turtles are oviparous and lay their eggs in American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) nests. After, the female lays her eggs, she departs and the female alligator protects the eggs from predators. The gestation period of the eggs lasts approximately 45-80 days (45-60 if temperatures remain 25-30 C). Clutch sizes are 7 to 26 hatchlings with carapace lengths of 28-38 mm. The weight of each hatchling ranges from 10.1 to 14.5 g and the average adult mass ranges from 1656 to 4000 g.

Florida red-bellied turtles exhibit indeterminate growth and continue to grow throughout their lives. These turtles grow rapidly as juveniles; in Florida, a population of juveniles averages 19.3 mm growth per year. As adults, growth is just 4 mm/year.

Males and females differ in age of sexual maturity. Females don't mature until 6-8 years old and males mature at 3 years.

These turtles are temperature-sex dependent. Above 28.5 C, females are more common; below this temperature, males are more common. (Jackson, 2010; Kramer and Burghardt, 1998; Kramer and Fritz, 1989; Kramer, 1995)

Reproduction

Florida red-bellied turtles are polygynandrous, having multiple mates. Courtship is typically precocious and begins before they reach sexual maturity. Mating begins with the males approaching the females. The males will swim above the females and draws near to her head. Smaller males use their claws to vibrate them near females' heads, while larger males are more aggressive, grabbing and dragging females by their heads. Males may complete for females by opening their mouths at one another and biting one another. The females brings her head out to respond to the males actions. The males will draw his claws out and his tail elongate while approaching the females. Reproduction lasts about four minutes. (Jackson, 2010; Kramer and Burghardt, 1998; Kramer and Fritz, 1989)

Florida red-bellied cooters reach sexual maturity when they reach their full size about six to eight years in females and three years in males. Their breeding season is primarily from April to July when the water temperature is warmer. Their gestation period lasts 45-60 days on average (maximum of 80 days with temperatures below 25 C) from mating to time of egg-laying. Florida red-bellied cooters are oviparous and lay eggs on land away from the water's edge. Yearly, females produce 3 to 6 clutches with 7-26 eggs. (Kramer and Burghardt, 1998; Kramer and Fritz, 1989; Lovich, et al., 1990)

  • Breeding interval
    Three to six times in the spring and summer
  • Breeding season
    April-July
  • Range number of offspring
    7 to 26
  • Average number of offspring
    14
  • Range gestation period
    45 to 80 days
  • Average time to independence
    0 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    6 (low) years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    6 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    3 years

There is little to no parental involvement after their eggs hatch. Before hatching, the parents will watch over their nests until hatching. Female American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) are also protective over the nests before hatching. Adults, who may not be the parents, will help juveniles learn to be more social and get them to bask in large groups even outside of their own species. (Lovich, et al., 1990)

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

Florida red-bellied turtles have a maximum lifespan of approximately 33 years in captivity. In one case, a researcher housed a wild-caught specimen for 26 years in captivity. Lifespan in the wild is unknown. (Jackson, 2010)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    33 (high) years

Behavior

Florida red-bellied turtles are a social species. During the day they bask on logs with conspecifics as well as other turtle species such as coastal plain cooters (Pseudemys concinna floridana). Males and females will forage for food independently. Most nesting sites are located in abandoned American alligator Alligator mississippiensis nests and are not built. Many are social as juveniles and others become more social as they age. They are commonly found basking on logs during the day and sleeping in the evening. They spend time moving around within the same water body. They begin their mating season when the water starts to warm up in the spring and summer seasons. Males may complete for females by opening their mouths at one another and biting one another; from this action, Jackson (2010) suggested these turtles exhibit dominance hierarchies. Males court females either by vibrating their claws near females' heads or aggressively biting the females. (Jackson, 2010; Kramer and Burghardt, 1998; Kramer and Fritz, 1989; Kramer, 1995; Nebeker and Bury, 2000)

Home Range

Both females and males stay in a home range that centers around their basking sites. Males and females cover areas within radii from 40 to 125 m from the basking sites. During nesting season, females expand their home range in order to find suitable nesting spots. It is common for this species to remain sedentary in groups in a smaller area. They do not actively defend a territory. (Jackson, 2010; Kramer, 1995)

Communication and Perception

Florida red-bellied cooters are a very sociable turtles. As young, few avoid social interaction but as they age they become more social and bask in groups with other species. They often bask on logs with coastal plain cooters (Pseudemys concinna floridana). Their main modes of communication are through sight and touch. Another way they communicate is through chemical pheromones. When one turtle releases the pheromones, others are there to receive the chemical messages. They do not often communicate through sound; when they do, they make a hissing noise. Visual cues are a learned mode of communication within the species. Males may complete for females by opening their mouths (visual cues) at one another and biting one another (tactile cues). Small males may use their vibrating front claws to encourage females to mate, while larger males simply bite the females to mate with them. (Hunt and Ogden, 1991; Jackson, 2010; Kramer, 1995)

Food Habits

Adult Florida red-bellied turtles are primarily herbivores, as aquatic vegetation comprises the majority of their diets. Jackson (2010) reports that genera of plants commonly consumed include waterweed (Vallisneria and Elodea), duckweed (Lemna and Wolffia), and arrowhead (Saggitaria). They have been documented consuming algae, as well.

Juveniles tend to primarily consume small insects. As juveniles age, they transition to a plant-dominated diet. (Allen, et al., 2001; Allen, 1938; Burghardt and Davis, 2007; Burghardt and Davis, 2011; Dunson and Mazzotti, 1989; Dunson and Seidel, 1986; Jackson, 2010)

  • Primary Diet
  • herbivore
    • eats sap or other plant foods
  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • algae

Predation

Adult Florida red-bellied cooters are primarily preyed on by American alligators (Allligator mississippiensis), lizards, and occasionally humans (Homo sapiens). Their main location for nesting is in alligator nests which increases predation on the cooters. Argentine black and white tegu lizard (Tupinambis merianae) prey on their hatchlings in abandoned alligator nests. Fishermen primarily prey on fish, but believe that the Florida red-bellied cooters consume fish eggs and therefore then purposely remove Florida red-bellied turtles from the population. Tropical fire ants (Solenopsis germinata) are a predator on egg nests and harm the young as they are hatching. Jackson (2010) also reports predation by raccoons (Procyon lotor), river otters (Lontra canadensis), and birds of prey. (Allen, et al., 2001; Hunt and Ogden, 1991; Jackson, 2010; Mazzotti, et al., 2014)

Ecosystem Roles

Fire ants prey on the eggs of Florida red-bellied turtles. Though adults are not typically prey for other native animals, they can be taken into the pet trade and consumed by humans. (Nickol and Ernst, 1987; Van Dijk, 2011)

Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • Parasitic worm Neoechinorhynchus lingulatus

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Florida red-bellied turtles benefit humans from the pet trade and human consumption. However, collection of these turtles in Florida is now illegal. (Jackson, 2010; Van Dijk, 2011)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse effects of Florida red-bellied turtles on humans. (Van Dijk, 2011)

Conservation Status

Florida red-bellied turtles are a species of "Least Concern" according to the IUCN Red list. All other references, such as the US federal list, CITES, and the Michigan list do not specify the conservation status of the species. Florida red-bellied turtles' threats include being take into the pet trade and being consumed by humans. Florida has banned the harvest of these turtles form the wild (including eggs), and adults can only be collected via a species state permit. Many waterways (lakes and wetlands) they inhabit are now protected. It's been suggested that conservation efforts efforts focus on obtaining baseline data for these species. Limiting turtles' access to areas with increased risk, such as high traffic roads and waterways, is another effort that is being put into place. (Jackson, 2010; Van Dijk, 2011)

Contributors

RaeAnn Orlando (author), Radford University, Alex Atwood (editor), Radford University, Layne DiBuono (editor), Radford University, Lindsey Lee (editor), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Joshua Turner (editor), Radford University, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

brackish water

areas with salty water, usually in coastal marshes and estuaries.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates

ectothermic

animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

estuarine

an area where a freshwater river meets the ocean and tidal influences result in fluctuations in salinity.

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

food

A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.

freshwater

mainly lives in water that is not salty.

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

indeterminate growth

Animals with indeterminate growth continue to grow throughout their lives.

introduced

referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

natatorial

specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.

pheromones

chemicals released into air or water that are detected by and responded to by other animals of the same species

polygynandrous

the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

vibrations

movements of a hard surface that are produced by animals as signals to others

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

Allen, C., E. Forys, D. Wojcik, K. Rice. 2001. Effects of fire ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) on hatching turtles and prevalence of fire ants on sea turtle nesting beaches in Florida. The Florida Entomologist, 84/2: 250-253.

Allen, R. 1938. Notes on feeding and egg-laying habits of the Pseudemys. Proceedings of the Florida Academy of Sciences, 3: 105-108.

Bjorndal, K., A. Bolten. 1992. Body size and digestive efficiency in a herbivorous freshwater turtle: Advantages of small bite size. Physiological Zoology, 65/5: 1028-1039.

Burghardt, G., K. Davis. 2007. Training and long-term memory of a novel food acquisition task in a turtle (Pseudemys nelsoni). Behavioural Processes, 75/2: 225-230.

Burghardt, G., K. Davis. 2011. Turtles (Pseudemys nelsoni) learn about visual cues indicating food from experienced turtles. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 125/4: 404-410.

Dunson, W., F. Mazzotti. 1989. Salinity as a limiting factor in the distribution of reptiles in Florida Bay: A theory for the estuarine origin of marine snakes and turtles. Bulletin of Marine Science, 44/1: 229-244.

Dunson, W., M. Seidel. 1986. Salinity tolerance of estuarine and insular emydid turtles (Pseudemys nelsoni and Trachemys decussata). Journal of Herpetology, 20/2: 237-245.

Enge, K., F. Percival, K. Rice, M. Jennings, G. Masson, A. Woodward. 2000. Summer nesting of turtles in alligator nests in Florida. Journal of Herpetology, 34/4: 497-503.

Gál, J., Z. Demeter, E. Palade, M. Rusvai, C. Géczy. 2009. Harderian gland adenocarcinoma in a Florida red-bellied turtle (Pseudemys nelsoni). Akademiai Kiado, 57/2: 276-281.

Hunt, H., J. Ogden. 1991. Selected aspects of the nesting ecology of American alligators in the Okefenokee Swamp. Journal of Herpetology, 25/4: 448-453.

Hutchison, V., A. Vinegar, R. Kosh. 1966. Critical thermal maxima in turtles. Herpetologica, 22/1: 32-41.

Jackson, D. 2010. Pseudemys nelsoni Carr 1938 - Florida red-bellied turtle. Pp. 041.1-041.8 in A Rhodin, P Pritchard, P van Dijk, R Saumure, K Buhlmann, J Iverson, R Mittermeier, eds. Conservation Biology of Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises: A Compilation Project of the IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, Vol. 5. Lunenburg, Massachusetts: Chelonian Research Foundation.

Jensen, J., C. Camp, W. Gibbons, M. Elliott. 2008. Amphibians and Reptiles of Georgia. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press.

Katsu, Y., R. Ichikawa, T. Ikeuchi, S. Kohno, L. Guillette, T. Iguchi. 2008. Molecular cloning and characterization of estrogen, androgen, and progesterone nuclear receptors from a freshwater turtle (Pseudemys nelsoni). Endocrinology, 149/1: 161–173.

Kramer, M. 1995. Home range of the Florida red-bellied turtle (Pseudemys nelsoni) in a Florida spring run. Copeia, 1995/4: 883-890.

Kramer, M., G. Burghardt. 1998. Precocious courtship and play in emydid turtles. International Journal of Behavioral Biology, 104/1: 38-56.

Kramer, M., U. Fritz. 1989. Courtship of the turtle, Pseudemys nelsoni. Journal of Herpetology, 23/1: 84-86.

Lovich, J., W. Garstka, W. Cooper. 1990. Female participation in courtship behavior of the turtle Trachemys s. scripta. Journal of Herpetology, 24/4: 422-424.

Mazzotti, F., M. McEachern, M. Rochford, R. Reed, J. Eckles, J. Vinci, J. Edwards, J. Wasilewski. 2014. Tupinambis merianae as nest predators of crocodilians and turtles in Florida, USA. Biological Invasions, 17/1: 47-50.

Meylan, P., D. Huestis. 2004. The turtles of Rainbow Run (Marion County, Florida). Southeastern Naturalist, 16/4: 595-612.

Nebeker, A., R. Bury. 2000. Temperature selection by hatchling and yearling Florida red-bellied turtles (Pseudemys nelsoni) in thermal gradients. Journal of Herpetology, 34/3: 465-469.

Nickol, B., C. Ernst. 1987. Neoechinorhynchus lingulatus sp. n. (Acanthocephala: Neoechinorhynchidae) from Pseudemys nelsoni (Reptilia: Emydidae) of Florida. Proceedings of the Helminthological Society of Washington, 54/1: 146-149.

Pope, C. 1939. Turtles of the United States and Canada. The American Midland Naturalist, 22/2: 475-478.

Van Dijk, P. 2011. "Pseudemys nelsoni (errata version published in 2016)" (On-line). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2011: e.T170495A97426506. Accessed January 30, 2018 at http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2011-1.RLTS.T170495A6782280.en.