© Joe Stukey
© Joe Stukey
Who doesn’t like turtles? They are the slow, lumbering, shelled reptile that is totally harmless and worthy of rescue when in trouble. Unlike some other creatures with shells, turtles are vertebrates. The spine running down the middle of their shell is the backbone, and the support bones running from the backbone to the side of the shell are in fact their ribs. Reptiles are covered in scales, much like fish but have lungs instead of gills. Some of the scales are fused into what are called scutes and make up the exterior of the shell. Scutes are periodically shed, as snakes and lizards shed their scales.
There are at least three species of pond turtles living on the island. These are the local species who can survive quiet back waters and ponds. They do need freshwater and some tree cover, and there are spots on the island where these needs are met.
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Yellow-bellied Slider © UF/IFAS – Tyler Jones
The Cooter and Slider families are very similar to one another. Cooters are a little larger (10-13 inches), darker in color, and have a more oval carapace. Their skin is dark and has thin yellow stripes. They are often seen basking on tree stumps, or with their heads just poking above the water. Sliders are a little smaller (6-12 inches), more of a gray-green color with a more circular carapace, and a large yellow patch on their cheek. Both groups begin life as carnivores. The hatchlings feed on a variety of small insects and fish but become vegetarians as adults. Another common characteristic shared by both is that the males have elongated claws (fingernails) on their forearms used to tickle females during breeding season. The island species are the Florida Cooter and the Yellow-bellied Slider.
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Yellow-bellied Sliders © UF/IFAS – Tyler Jones
Terrapin is a native American word for “edible turtle”. Most turtles are edible. The Diamondback Terrapin lives in brackish water in the bay and sound. They are very secretive, hanging out in local salt marshes where few people go. They spend their day basking in the sun and feeding on shellfish. Snails are their favorite. During breeding season, they will venture out of water in search of a sandy beach to lay their eggs. In some parts of their range they have a habit of swimming into crab traps. It’s believed that they are after the bait. Unfortunately, they can drown in the trap because all reptiles need to breath.
Like sea turtles, terrapins have lacrimel glands in their eyes to remove salt from seawater. Sea turtles are equipped for much saltier water. Terrapins can only survive for about a month in seawater, but are fine in brackish water.
Diamondback Terrapins are very similar to pond turtles in shape and design. Females are larger reaching 6 to 8 inches in length and weighing around 18 ounces. Males are 4 to 5 inches long and weigh about 11 ounces, but they do not have the elongated “tickler” claws that male pond turtles have. Another distinct difference is that their skin is light and the markings dark. The skin is a light blue – whiteish color, and the small spots black in color. They are really pretty. There are two subspecies found in the area. One has a very white colored head and orange spots on each scute – the Ornate Terrapin. The other is darker in color, has a mustache, and lacks the orange spots – the Mississippi Terrapin. See the Citizen Science page if you would like to help document terrapin population status.
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Diamondback Terrapin © Molly O’Connor
Snapping turtles do not fit into the harmless characterization of other turtles. The Common Snapper can live almost anywhere there is water. They can get quite large, with a carapace length of about 17 inches and weight of 12 pounds. These are turtles of legend, large carnivorous creatures that are rumored to bite off hands and such. Though this not a real threat, snappers can be dangerous and inflict serious damage to your hand. These very muscular and powerful animals can leap up and forward to “snap” when threatened. They can be identified by their ridged square shaped carapace and long dragon-like tail. Their plastron (the shell covering their chest area) is almost absent. They can lift themselves off the ground more than other turtles and walk on land much better. They prefer to hang around the bottom and ambush fish, amphibians, invertebrates, and even eat some plants.