Alabama map turtles inhabit both terrestrial and freshwater environments, naturally in areas with freshwater rivers, and reservoirs. These turtles are most common in shallow waterways with muddy substrates as well as those with rocky bottom and swift currents. Fast currents are ideal, due to the constant change in depth, for a quick escape. Both sexes can be found near water systems with large sandbars, with brush located on the banks, with plenty of basking sites, like logs or brush. Males and juveniles typically bask near brush and the females bask on larger trees that have fallen near the bank. Males and juveniles are predominantly found in shallow streams, while the females were only found in deep reservoirs. During the day, the majority of individuals are located in various areas of the water, while at night only venturing up to a few centimeters below water level. Map turtles spend the majority of their time in or near the freshwater systems and only leave for egg-laying on the sandy banks. (Cagle, 1952; Lovich, et al., 2014; van Dijk, 2011)
Alabama map turtles are sexually dimorphic with females being larger than males. Adult females range from 273 to 292mm in carapace length and range from 1170-1940g in body mass. Males range from 113 to 127mm in carapace length and range from 84 to 208g in body mass. Hatchling and juvenile carapace lengths are from 25 to 29mm and vary in weight from 10 to 1160g. Adult females have larger heads, broader jaws, and elongated front claws. Males have longer and thicker tails. Lindeman (2016) estimated that this sexual dimorphism could be quantified: adult males exhibit half the carapace length of adult females and weigh just 10% of females' weight.
Alabama map turtle head pattern has a “Y” shaped yellow mark, starting postorbitally and extending dorsally, and is followed by alternating black, olive, and yellow streaks. The varying streaks lead down the body to the neck, legs, and webbed feet. Bilateral symmetry is pronounced in a rough domed carapace, colored with varying shades of olive to brown. This carapace is separated by a black median keel or raised spine and a pale yellow outline that frames the shell. The keel is where the plates of the vertebral shell meet and create this vertical black ridge. The flat plastron is patterned in pale yellow with seam-like black lines, and isolated blotches of different pigments.
Alabama map turtles hatch from eggs that are typically buried in the sand. Females average 29 eggs per season, laid across multiple nests. The unhatched turtle eggs are deposited into the sand as soft pink eggs. During incubation, the pink coloration on the top of the egg changes to white. This creates a pink to white gradient from bottom to top. This ensures that the hatchling will be in an upright position when hatching from its egg. Alabama map turtles exhibit temperature-sex determination. Eggs incubated below 27˚C will be all males, while those incubated above 31˚C are all females. From 27°C to 31°C, there is a mix of male and female turtles.
The process of hatching begins when the shell is penetrated by a caruncle, a temporary sharp tooth. The caruncle will eventually fall off the beak of the turtle. Typically, the shell is broken in about fifteen to twenty minutes, and the hatchling will stay inside the egg until the amniotic fluid is absorbed, which can vary from one to four days. After the fluid is absorbed, the hatchling will attempt to make its journey to the water. Hatchlings reach the juvenile stage at about one year. Their rate for growth is rapid until sexual maturity. Males mature around three to four years, while females mature around fourteen years old. This maturity coincides with carapace lengths: adult male carapace lengths range from 113 to 127mm, while females range from 273 to 292mm. Male growth rate is steady, but female rate tends to vary from individual to individual. Once Alabama map turtles reach sexual maturity, growth rates slow significantly. However, like all turtles, these map turtles exhibit indeterminate growth. Growth rates past maturity have not been measured, and are thought to be minuscule. (Lovich, et al., 2014; Shealy, 1976)
Alabama map turtles recognize the opposite sex through olfactory and visual cues. Mating typically occurs from September to November but could happen any time of the year. This is due to sperm being present year-round in males. In the water, males will approach the females and begin the courting process by swimming in front of them, grazing their eyes with their claws, and vibrating their heads on opposite sides of the females. If received positively, males elongate their necks and then approach the female's genital ducts. Males will vibrate their snouts against the females' snouts and then alternate to the side of the head. Next, males and females loop their tails together. Males continue to do this until successful mating occurs. Mating can occur as quickly as fifteen seconds.
After mating, the females will store the sperm in their reproductive tract and extra-uterine migration of the ova takes place. This is when the egg is moved out of the uterus for development. In April, the females will ovulate and lay their eggs after a gestation period of almost 4 months to 6 months. Map turtles are polygynandrous; individuals have a different mating partner each breeding season. (Lindeman, 2020; Shealy, 1976)
Female Alabama map turtles can mate at any time throughout the year, with sperm being present in males year-round. However, mating is only witnessed from September to November because females store the sperm until the next nesting season, the following waking year. Gestation lasts during their hibernation, from 4 to 6 months, and then the mothers would lay the eggs in the nests. Once in the nest, incubation ranges from seventy-four to seventy-nine days at average temperatures of 29˚C. Total eggs per season range from 7 to 71 eggs, with an average of 29 eggs per season. In each clutch, females typically lay one to six eggs, and they create an average of four nests per season.
During incubation, the eggs are a translucent pink and begin to turn white as incubation ends. The mean dimensions of the eggs are 45mm by 27mm. If the nest remains undisturbed, the hatchlings will hatch upright, using a caruncle that falls off in two weeks. After hatching, the young lay in the egg to absorb the amniotic fluid. Hatchling lengths are 36mm, with a mean mass of 11g. Hatchlings are immediately independent.
Sexual maturity for males is when they begin to develop sperm and is typically at three or four years old. Females mature when their ovarian follicles are over 15mm in diameter, which is around or after 14 years. (Berry and Shine, 1980; Lindeman, 2020; Lovich, et al., 2014; Shealy, 1976)
Female parental investment is tied to careful nest site selection. Shealy (1976) reported that female map turtles are more likely to lay eggs in coarse sand over a fine one, and with the majority of nests located at most fifteen meters from a source of water. Some accounts have recorded egg-bearing females traveling over twenty meters to find a coarse sand to lay the eggs. Shealy suggested sand texture is more important in nest selection than the distance from the water. Some other important factors include elevation and cover quality. The elevation is important due to high and low tides, ensuring a nest site in which the eggs aren’t waterlogged. Cover quality pertains to how well the eggs will be hidden from predators, and is dependent on the microhabitat conditions.
Another common feature is the use of “false nests" or “test nests” where female turtles will dig a nest and fill it with rocks, leaves, and tree branches. Some studies have deduced that it could be used to mislead predators that frequently raid nests.
The recorded lifespan of Alabama map turtles varies in captivity from 15 to 20 years. In the wild, they are estimated to live beyond 20 years, especially in the case of females, as they don’t reach sexual maturity until age 14. However, maximum ages in captivity and in the wild have not been reported. (Lovich, et al., 2014; Roberts, et al., 2018; Shealy, 1976)
Typically, map turtles are diurnal and are active from March to November. Activities of Alabama map turtles vary by time of year and water temperature. From May to October, Alabama map turtles feed or bask on logs. The stance they assume when basking in all of the limbs stretched out and elongating their necks and heads. In September and October, most of the food eaten is for storage for brumation (hibernation for ectotherms). Once the water temperature gets below 19˚C, the turtles go into a daily torpor leading up to hibernation and they avoid any water contact. Typically, map turtles will burrow themselves in the ground to prevent being found by predators. Brumation (hibernation in ectotherms) is typically 4, but can be up to 6 months, from late October to late February or early April.
Before brumation, mating will take place; the male will court the female through a series of tactile and olfactory cues. After being fertilized, the female map turtles will store the egg. In the spring, female map turtles will lay their eggs in a series of riparian nests in sandy environs.
These map turtles are social and can be seen basking with other species on large logs. If one turtle moves into the water, the whole group will follow. This action may be a method to avoid predators. Around non-turtle species, Alabama map turtles flee at the slightest disturbances. Males are more territorial of basking sites possible because of their smaller size and therefore better predator avoidance. (Lovich, 1985; Lovich, et al., 2014; Shealy, 1976)
Male Alabama map turtles have more stable home ranges than females. This is due to their smaller size and they are less visible to predators than female turtles. Female map turtles tend to exhibit homing behaviors, due to their size, usually confined to a certain area. Map turtles are not likely to defend a territory. (Shealy, 1976)
Alabama map turtles are not well-studied in terms of communication and perception, but others in the genus Graptemys have. After breaking from the egg as hatchlings, members of the genus are compelled towards the light of the sun reflecting off water, also known as phototaxis.
Map turtles use a mix of tactile and chemical cues for mating. In particular, they use pheromones to distinguish the opposite sexes and conspecifics. In mating rituals, Alabama map turtle males stroke and quiver and head-bob females to encourage mating. These turtles use vibrations from the male to the female's snout, with alternating touches every few seconds. Biting occurs in other species in the genus.
They also use sound as a way to communicate underwater, at a high frequency. Turtles use vibrations and chemical cues to find anything approaching them.
Map turtles use vision to recognize threats and flee them. Nearby turtles also follow those cues, presumably using vision and vibrations of the water to perceive threats and warnings thereof. (Anderson, 1958; Buhlmann, et al., 2008; Guyer, et al., 2015; Jenkins, 1979)
Alabama map turtles are mainly molluscivores. Feeding studies suggest that females feed on native clams, snails and larger mollusks. Males and juveniles consume smaller bivalves, aquatic insects and minimal vegetation due to their smaller jaws.
Lindeman (2016) studied the diet of what Alabama map turtles ate by percent, through collected stool samples. He recorded information for several groupings: unsexed and female juveniles, adult males, and adult females as a mean percent volume. According to the study, the unsexed juvenile diet was comprised of insects (75%), Asian clams (Corbicula fluminea) (21%), and caddisfly larvae (4%). Juvenile female diets were comprised of Asian clams (51%), native bivalves (39%), insects (8%), with snails, sponges and leaves constituting less than 2% of the diet. Adult males' diet consisted of Asian clams (51%), insects (24%), native bivalves (14%), and filamentous algae (4%), with leaf fragments, sphaeriid clams, and caddisfly larvae, and water mites consisting less than 3% of the diet. Adult females consumed largely Asian clams (77%) and native bivalves (22%), with insect fragments, caddisfly larvae, water mites, sponges, leaf fragments and filamentous algae are all comprising less than one percent. (Lindeman, 2016; Lovich, et al., 2014; van Dijk, 2011)
Alabama map have a wide variety of predators vary based on the turtles’ life stages: eggs, hatchlings, juveniles, and adults. As eggs, they face forest scavengers like raccoons Procyon lotor, Virginia opossums Didelphis virginiana , grey foxes Urocyon cinereoargenteus, and domestic dogs Canis lupus familiarus. These animals find the nests on the sandy banks close to water, then proceed to dig out the nests and consume the eggs whole. As hatchlings, when the turtles are attempting to make it to the water, some are attacked and eaten by raccoons, grey foxes, and fish crows Corvus ossifragus. These animals lie in wait or opportunistically find the young attempting to make it to the water and pick them off.
As adults and juveniles, only humans Homo sapiens are typical predators. Humans use them for target practice, hunt them for their shells, or hit them with cars. (Lovich, et al., 2014; Roberts, et al., 2018; Shealy, 1976)
Alabama map turtles feed on invasive Asian clams, Corbicula fluminea, that produce material that increases the amount of algae in the river. By feeding on the Asian clams, the algae is kept at a minimum, without the need of expensive water testing and treatment. They also consume other native bivalves, as well as other aquatic insects. These turtles are consumed as a resource by humans, Homo sapiens, and native predators like raccoons, Procyon lotor.
Roberts et al. (2018) reported that blood flukes have been affecting Alabama map turtles. The blood flukes were Spirorchis elegans, Sprirorchis scripta, and Spirorchis paraminutus. While these flukes will rarely kill the turtle, they do increase the susceptibility of parasitic infections by other species. Roberts et al. also mention common parasites that affect the survivorship of these turtles: nematodes, tapeworms, and flagellate organisms like acanthocephalans Neoechinorhynchus emydis. (Roberts, et al., 2018)
Alabama map turtles are sold for a high price on the black market. These turtles are captured, bought and sold for various reasons that improve the lives of humans but are detrimental to the turtles’ populations. Investigations have shown the turtles captured are being used for clothing accessories like belts, pendants and earrings, cigarette cases and as a food delicacy. Alabama map turtles are recognized as a form of pest control, as they primarily feed on invasive Asian clams, Corbicula fluminea, in the Alabama river systems. Asian clams produce large amounts of inorganic material, like nitrogen, that creates an increased amount of algae growth which can harm the river. By having the Alabama map turtles feed on the clams, they limit the algae growth and can extend the river systems’ life. This allows humans to continue to fish and grow crops from the systems without expensive water treatments. (Coleman, 2020; Selman and Lindeman, 2020; Shealy, 1976; )
Alabama map turtles are listed as “Near Threatened” by the IUCN Red List. They have no special status on the US Federal list and Michigan Natural Features Inventory. Alabama map turtles are listed under Appendix III of CITES, which affords them regulation in international trade as long as it is sustainable to the turtles.
The main threats to their populations are from predators, pollution, river development, vandalism and sales on the black market. The main threat from predators is raccoons, Procyon lotor, whose populations have increased due to human settlement, where the map turtles reside. The raccoons and other nest-raiding animals can reduce success in reproduction and survival of the young turtles. River pollution can alter the growth of the food source of native mussels, as well as their main food source, invasive Asian clams, Corbicula fluminea, affecting the ecosystem. River development is reflected by increased human interaction, deforestation, and other recreational activities. This decreases basking, nesting, and feeding sites for the turtles and can reduce populations of map turtles. Vandalism is due to human recreational activities, that include using the turtles as targets, hitting them off the side of the road, and painting the shells of the turtles. The demand for Alabama map turtles on the black market is high. They are also sold as a food source and as pets. All of these factors threaten the populations of Alabama map turtles.
Alabama map turtles are protected in Alabama under a protected nongame species regulation by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. While in Georgia, they are considered rare, but they are not regulated or a protected species. In Mississippi they are considered a species of special concern. Conservation efforts include limiting public access to the river. In Alabama and Georgia, there is public education and advocacy for a more critical listing and other legislative efforts. Some continue to advocate and successfully manage to receive grants to afford, in-place species management, land and water protection, and policies that protect the species. (Coleman, 2020; Lovich, et al., 2014; ; van Dijk, 2011)
Maya Banks (author), Radford University, Logan Platt (editor), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
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.
uses sound to communicate
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.
an animal that mainly eats meat
uses smells or other chemicals to communicate
animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature
A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.
mainly lives in water that is not salty.
An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.
having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.
the state that some animals enter during winter in which normal physiological processes are significantly reduced, thus lowering the animal's energy requirements. The act or condition of passing winter in a torpid or resting state, typically involving the abandonment of homoiothermy in mammals.
Animals with indeterminate growth continue to grow throughout their lives.
An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.
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).
eats mollusks, members of Phylum Mollusca
having the capacity to move from one place to another.
specialized for swimming
the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.
an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals
reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.
the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.
chemicals released into air or water that are detected by and responded to by other animals of the same species
the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.
Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).
breeding is confined to a particular season
remains in the same area
reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female
associates with others of its species; forms social groups.
mature spermatozoa are stored by females following copulation. Male sperm storage also occurs, as sperm are retained in the male epididymes (in mammals) for a period that can, in some cases, extend over several weeks or more, but here we use the term to refer only to sperm storage by females.
uses touch to communicate
that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).
movements of a hard surface that are produced by animals as signals to others
uses sight to communicate
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