The red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) is a semiaquatic turtle belonging to the family Emydidae. It is a subspecies of pond slider. It is the most popular pet turtle in the United States and also popular in the rest of the world. It is native only to the southern United States and northern Mexico, but has become established in other places because of pet releases and has become an invasive species in many introduced areas, such as California, where it outcompetes the native western pond turtle.
Red-eared sliders get their name from the distinctive red patch of skin around their ears. The "slider" part of their name comes from their ability to slide off rocks and logs and into the water quickly. This species was previously known as Troost's turtle in honor of an American herpetologist; Trachemys scripta troostii is now the scientific name for another subspecies, the Cumberland slider.
Red-eared sliders are almost entirely aquatic, but leave the water to bask in the sun and lay eggs. These reptiles are deceptively fast and are also decent swimmers. They hunt for prey and will attempt to capture it when the opportunity presents itself. They are aware of predators and people, and generally shy away from them. The red-eared slider is known to frantically slide off rocks and logs when approached.
The female red-eared slider grows to be 25–33 cm (10–13 in) in length and males 20–25 cm (8–10 in). The red stripe on each side of the head distinguishes the red-eared slider from all other North American species. The carapace (top shell) is oval and flattened (especially in the male), has a weak keel that is more pronounced in the young, and the rear marginal scutes are notched. The carapace usually consists of a dark green background with light and dark, highly variable markings. The plastron (bottom shell) is yellow with dark, paired, irregular markings in the center of most scutes. The plastron is highly variable in pattern. The head, legs, and tail are green with fine, yellow, irregular lines. Some dimorphism occurs between males and females. Male turtles are usually smaller than females, but their tails are much longer and thicker. Claws are elongated in males to allow a better grip on the carapace of females during mating. Typically, the cloacal opening of the female is at or under the rear edge of the carapace, while the male's opening occurs beyond the edge of the carapace. Older males can sometimes have a melanistic coloration, being a dark grayish-olive green, with markings being very subdued. The red stripe on the sides of the head may be difficult to see or be absent.
As an invasive species
Due to their popularity as pets, red-eared sliders have been released or escaped. Feral populations of red-eared sliders are now found in Australia, Great Britain, and elsewhere. In Australia, it is illegal for members of the public to import, keep, trade or release red-eared sliders, as they are regarded as an invasive species.
Red-eared sliders are omnivores and eat a variety of animal and plant materials in the wild including, but not limited to, fish, crayfish, carrion, tadpoles, snails, crickets, mealworms, wax worms, aquatic insects, and numerous aquatic plant species. The captive diet for pet red-eared sliders should be a varied diet consisting of invertebrates such as worms, aquatic and land plants, and other natural foods. They should never be fed commercial dog food or cat food. Calcium can be supplemented by adding pieces of cuttlebone to the diet, or with commercially available vitamin and mineral supplements. A nutritious food readily accepted by young turtles is baby clams soaked in krill oil covered with powdered coral calcium. Younger turtles tend to be more carnivorous (to obtain more animal protein) than adults. As they grow larger and older, they become increasingly herbivorous. Live foods are particularly enjoyed and add to the quality of life of captive turtles. Providing a wide variety of foods is the key to success with captive red-eared sliders. For pet red-eared slider turtles, one can feed them treats occasionally, like small creek fish, store bought turtle food, cucumbers, or tomatoes.
Reptiles do not hibernate, but actually they brumate, becoming less active, but occasionally rising for food or air. Brumation can occur in varying degrees. Red-eared sliders brumate over the winter at the bottom of ponds or shallow lakes; they become inactive, generally, in October, when temperatures fall below 10 °C (50 °F). Individuals usually brumate under water. They have also been found under banks and hollow stumps and rocks. In warmer winter climates, they can become active and come to the surface for basking. When the temperature begins to drop again, however, they will quickly return to a brumation state. Sliders will generally come up for food in early March to as late as the end of April. Red-eared sliders kept captive indoors should not brumate. To prevent attempted brumation in an aquarium, lights should be on for 12–14 hours per day and the water temperature should be maintained between 24 and 27 °C (75 and 81 °F). Water temperatures must be under 13 °C (55 °F) for aquatic turtles to brumate properly. Controlling temperature changes to simulate natural seasonal fluctuations encourages mating behavior.
During brumation, T. s. elegans can survive anaerobically for weeks, producing ATP from glycolysis. The turtle's metabolic rate drops dramatically, with heart rate and cardiac output dropping by 80% to minimise energy requirements. The lactic acid produced is buffered by minerals in the shell, preventing acidosis .
Courtship and mating activities for red-eared sliders usually occur between March and July, and take place under water. The male swims toward the female and flutters or vibrates the back side of his long claws on and around her face and head. The female swims toward the male and, if she is receptive, sinks to the bottom for mating. If the female is not receptive, she may become aggressive towards the male. The courtship can take up to 45 minutes, but the mating itself usually takes only 10 to 15 minutes.
Sometimes a male will appear to be courting another male. This is actually a sign of dominance, and they may begin to fight. Juveniles may display the courtship dance, but until the turtles are five years of age, they are not mature and are unable to mate.
After mating, the female spends extra time basking to keep her eggs warm. She may also have a change of diet, eating only certain foods or not eating as much as she normally would. Mating begins in May and egg-laying occurs in May through early July. A female might lay from two to 30 eggs, with larger females having larger clutches. One female can lay up to five clutches in the same year, and clutches are usually spaced 12 to 36 days apart. The time between mating and egg laying can be days or weeks.
The sex of red-eared sliders is determined by the incubation temperature during critical phases of the embryo’s development. Only males are produced when eggs are incubated at temperatures of 22–27 °C (72–81 °F), whereas females develop at warmer temperatures.
Eggs hatch 60 to 90 days after they have been laid. Late-season hatchlings may spend the winter in the nest and emerge when the weather warms in the spring. Just prior to hatching, the egg contains 50% turtle and 50% egg sac.
A new hatchling breaks open its egg with its egg-tooth, which falls out about an hour after hatching. This egg tooth never grows back. Hatchlings may stay inside their eggshells after hatching for the first day or two. When a hatchling decides to leave the shell, it has a small sac protruding from its plastron. The yolk sac is vital and provides nourishment while visible and several days after it has been absorbed into the turtle's belly.
Damage or motion enough to allow air into the turtle's body results in death. This is the main reason for marking the top of turtle eggs if their relocation for any reason is required. An egg that has been turned upside down will eventually terminate the embryo growth by the sac smothering the embryo. If it manages to reach term, the turtle will try to flip over with the yolk sac, which allows air into the body cavity and death follows. The other fatal danger is water getting into the body cavity before the sac is absorbed completely and the opening has not completely healed yet. It takes 21 days between the egg opening until water entry.
The sac must be absorbed, and does not fall out. The split may be noticeable in the hatchling's plastron on turtles found in the field, indicating the age of the turtle to be about three weeks old. The split must heal on its own before allowing the turtle to swim. However, this does not mean there is no need for moisture throughout the first three weeks of life outside of the egg. A good idea is to place the hatchlings on moist paper towels. The eggs should be kept on the moist towels from the day they are laid (dig them up an hour after being laid) and covered with toweling until they hatch and can swim. The turtle can also suck the water it needs from the toweling. Red-ear slider eggs matriculate in South Florida in 91 days, while in New York City the egg takes 102 days. Turtles which were relocated exhibited this effect with constancy.
The red-eared slider is the most common type of water turtle kept as pets. As with other turtles, tortoises, and box turtles, individuals that survive their first year or two can be expected to live generally around 30 years.
Red-eared sliders can be quite aggressive—especially when food is involved. Behavior is usually noted to become this way when fed live food. If being kept as a pet, care must be taken to prevent injury or even death of its smaller tankmates. Additional care is needed if shrimp are used as food. Smaller red-eared sliders less than a year old have been known to choke on the shells of the shrimp and suffer from lung puncture.
United States federal regulations on commercial distribution
A 1975 U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation bans the sale (for general commercial and public use) of turtle eggs and turtles with a carapace length of less than 4 inches (100 mm). This regulation comes under the Public Health Service Act, and is enforced by the FDA in cooperation with state and local health jurisdictions. The ban was enacted because of the public health impact of turtle-associated Salmonella. Turtles and turtle eggs found to be offered for sale in violation of this provision are subject to destruction in accordance with FDA procedures. A fine of up to $1,000 and/or imprisonment for up to one year is the penalty for those who refuse to comply with a valid final demand for destruction of such turtles or their eggs.
Many stores and flea markets still sell small turtles due to an exception in the FDA regulation which allows turtles under 4 inches (100 mm) to be sold "for bona fide scientific, educational, or exhibitional purposes, other than use as pets."
As with many other animals and inanimate objects, the risk of Salmonella exposure can be reduced by following basic rules of cleanliness. Small children must be taught to wash their hands immediately after they finish "playing" with the turtle, feeding it, or changing the water.
US state law
Some states have other laws and regulations regarding possession of red-eared sliders because they can be an invasive species where they are not native and have been introduced through the pet trade. Now, it is illegal in Florida to sell any wild-type red-eared slider, as they interbreed with the local yellow-bellied slider population – Trachemys scripta scripta is another subspecies of pond sliders, and intergrades typically combine the markings of the two subspecies. However, unusual color varieties such as albino and pastel red-eared sliders, which are derived from captive breeding, are still allowed for sale.
In popular culture
Within the second volume of the Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the popular comic book heroes are revealed as specimens of the red-eared slider. The popularity of the Turtles led to a craze for keeping them as pets in Great Britain.
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