Chicken turtles, made up of three subspecies, are found in suitable habitat throughout the southeastern United States. Deirochelys reticularia is found in coastal areas from Virginia to Texas and northward into Oklahoma and Arkansas. The Florida subspecies, D. r. chrysea, is limited to peninsular Florida. The eastern, D. r. reticularia, and western, D. r. miaria, subspecies of chicken turtles are separated by the Mississippi River.
Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native )
endemic to a single nation
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Year-round
Global Range: (200,000-2,500,000 square km (about 80,000-1,000,000 square miles)) Coastal Plain from North Carolina (and disjunctly in southeastern Virginia) south to southern Florida, west to eastern Texas and southeastern Oklahoma, and north in the Mississippi Valley to southeastern Missouri (Buhlmann and Johnson 1995, Herpetol. Rev. 26:209). See Mitchell (1991) and Buhlmann (1995) for information on the status of the disjunct population in Virginia.
Distribution: USA (SE Virginia, along the Atlantic coastal Plain in S North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, along the Gulf Coastal Plain in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, E Texas; Oklahoma, Arkansas, SE Missouri) chrysea: SE USA (Florida);
Type locality: 5,8 miles east of Monroe Station, Collier County, Florida. miaria: SE USA (SE Oklahoma, S/E Arkansas, E New Mexico, E Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Texas);
Type locality: College Station, Brazos County,Texas. reticularia: USA (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia);
Type locality: vicinity of Charleston, South Carolina (restricted by K.P. SCHMIDT 1953).
Chicken turtles are readily identified by their long, striped necks. Head and neck length is approximately equal to their plastron length, or up to 80% of the length of their carapace. They are sometimes called “American snake necks” because of this. They are small to medium-sized turtles with a pear-shaped, olive to dark brown carapace marked with a reticulate pattern of yellow to orange lines. They grow up to 25.4 cm long. The plastron is solid yellow and they have yellow stripes on their legs. Females are typically 1.5 times larger than males. Males have thicker tails, longer front claws, and more compressed shells than do females.
Gibbons and Greene (1978) described patterns of growth in chicken turtles. Younger chicken turtles grow proportionally faster than adults but age at maximum size is not known. Young are 2.5 cm in diameter at hatching. Males mature at 10.2 cm, while females are mature at 17.8 cm. Chicken turtles may grow to a maximum size of 25.4 cm, though the typical adult ranges from 15.3 to 17.8 cm.
Range length: 15.3 to 25.4 cm.
Other Physical Features: ectothermic ; heterothermic ; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: female larger; sexes shaped differently
Length: 25 cm
Catalog Number: USNM 85145
Collection: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Division of Amphibians & Reptiles
Year Collected: 1932
Locality: Dallas, 4 mi NE of, White Rock Creek, near White Rock Lake, Dallas, Texas, United States, North America
Chicken turtles are semi-aquatic basking turtles, found on both water and land. They prefer quiet bodies of water: ponds, lakes, ditches, marshes, cypress swamps and Carolina bays. They bask on logs, rocks, and other emergent structures. They prefer water with plenty of aquatic vegetation and a soft substrate. Chicken turtles are tolerant of ephemeral aquatic habitats and readily travel onto land to burrow into the soil and escape dry conditions. They have been found at water depths of a few centimeters to more than 2 m.
Range depth: .01 to > 2 m.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; terrestrial ; freshwater
Terrestrial Biomes: forest
Aquatic Biomes: lakes and ponds; rivers and streams; temporary pools
Wetlands: marsh ; swamp ; bog
Other Habitat Features: riparian
Comments: Shallow ponds and lakes with thick vegetation, cypress swamps, ditches, temporary pools; usually not in flowing water. Wanders overland, especially in spring. In Virginia, inhabits interdunal swales that have seasonal water fluctuations; some leave drying wetlands and estivate on land in summer (Buhlmann 1995). Hibernates in mud and aquatic vegetation along lake margins or in terrestrial situations (Buhlmann 1995), up to at least 165 m from wetlands (Buhlmann and Gibbons 2001). Eggs are laid in soil in an open area near water.
Non-Migrant: No. All populations of this species make significant seasonal migrations.
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.
In South Carolina from late summer through winter, individuals were found in upland refugia up to 165 m from the delineated wetland boundary (Buhlmann and Gibbons 2001). Individuals exhibited site fidelity to refugia in successive years.
Chicken turtles are omnivorous, though they are somewhat more carnivorous than other turtle species. During their first year of life they may be almost completely carnivorous. Chicken turtles in South Carolina were found to be completely carnivorous during June and July (Buhlmann and Demuth, 1997). They eat primarily crustaceans, aquatic insects, tadpoles, fish, and plants. Chicken turtles use their well-developed hyoid apparatus to create suction that pulls food items into their throats.
Animal Foods: amphibians; fish; insects; aquatic crustaceans
Plant Foods: leaves
Primary Diet: omnivore
Comments: Specializes on live, slow-moving arthropods; occasionally ingests plant matter and may sometimes eat carrion (Jackson 1996).
Chicken turtles are both predators and prey. They impact populations of aquatic insects, crustaceans, tadpoles, and aquatic vegetation.
Eastern moles (Scalopus aquaticus) are a significant predator of chicken turtle nests (Allen et al., 2005). Raccoons (Procyon lotor) and snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) are potential predators (Buhlmann, 1995).
- eastern moles (Scalopus aquaticus)
- raccoons (Procyon lotor)
- snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina)
Number of Occurrences
Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.
Estimated Number of Occurrences: 81 to >300
100,000 - 1,000,000 individuals
Comments: Population size is unknown but likely exceeds 100,000 adults.
Life History and Behavior
Males use tactile communication to make females receptive to copulation. As in most turtles, chicken turtles use vision, touch, and chemical cues to perceive their environment. They are wary when basking.
Communication Channels: tactile
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; vibrations ; chemical
Comments: Hibernates in winter in the north, active all year in the south. In South Carolina, individuals were relatively inactive in upland refugia for an average of 185 days from late summer through winter (Buhlmann and Gibbons 2001).
Chicken turtle embryos go through a period of diapause in the late gastrula stage. They must experience a period of cool temperatures before development proceeds. Eggs hatch in 152 days at 29 degrees Celsius in South Carolina and in 78 to 89 days at 25 to 29 degrees Celsius in Florida. Some eggs may overwinter in the nest before hatching. Incubation temperature influences the sex of the embryos, with a 25 degrees Celsius incubation temperature resulting in all males. Warmer temperatures result in an increase in female embryos, with only 11% becoming males at incubation temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius.
Although size and age are directly related in chicken turtles, some individuals may experience several years of little or no growth, depending on environmental conditions.
Development - Life Cycle: temperature sex determination
Wild chicken turtles in South Carolina have been recaptured up to 15 years after their first capture. Some reached maximum ages of 20 to 24 years.
Status: wild: 24 (high) years.
Status: wild: 15 to 24 hours.
Status: captivity: 6.1 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Males court female chicken turtles by vibrating their foreclaws against the female's face. Once the female is receptive, copulation occurs.
Mating System: polygynandrous (promiscuous)
Chicken turtles are different from most other North American turtles because they nest in either the fall and winter. In South Carolina there are two egg-laying seasons; from winter to early spring (February to May) and fall to early winter (August to November). The highest percentages of nesting females in South Carolina were during the months of March and September. Florida chicken turtles nest nearly continuously from mid-September to early March. Females excavate cylindrical nests on land in a variety of soil types, from sandy to heavy soils. Females lay 2 clutches each year in South Carolina, with 5 to 15 elliptical eggs per clutch (average of 8); in Florida clutch size is 2 to 19 (average 9). The eggs are flexible and oblong, measuring 28 to 40 mm long and weighing 8.7 to 13.3 g. Eggs laid in the fall are usually larger than those laid in spring.
Male chicken turtles reach sexual maturity at 7.5 to 8.5 cm in carapace length, usually during their second or third year. Females mature at carapace lengths of 14.1 to 16 cm, after about 5 years of growth.
Breeding interval: Chicken turtles lay up to two clutches each year.
Breeding season: Breeding occurs two times a year in the northern part of their range and throughout the year in the southern part of their range.
Range number of offspring: 2 to 19.
Average number of offspring: 8-9.
Range gestation period: 78 to 152 days.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 5 years.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 2 to 3 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; year-round breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
Sex: female: 1825 days.
Like most turtles, chicken turtles do not care for the hatchlings. Parents do not help the young once the eggs are laid.
Parental Investment: pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female)
Lays up to several clutches of 2-15 eggs each year, In South Carolina, individuals lay up to 2 clutches/year; nesting is bimodal, typically August-September and February-March; female may retain eggs from late summer/fall to late winter/spring, possibly occurring when nesting conditions are not initially suitable (see Buhlmann et al. 1995, Herpetologica 51:457-462); mean clutch size is 7.3 (Gibbons and Semlitsch 1991). Egg laying probably occurs in March in Virginia (Mitchell 1991). In northern peninsular Florida, lays 2-4 clutches from mid-September through mid-March (Jackson 1988). Hatchlings, especially those from clutches laid in late summer or fall, may overwinter in the nest and emerge in spring. Males attain sexual maturity in 2-4 years, females in 6-8 (Behler and King 1979).
Chicken turtle populations are currently considered stable throughout their range, although they do face potential threats. Habitat destruction reduces suitable habitat for foraging, migration, and hibernation. Chicken turtles are sometimes killed on roads as they migrate between habitats. Hunting for food also impacts populations of chicken turtles.
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: no special status
State of Michigan List: no special status
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure
Global Short Term Trend: Relatively stable to decline of 30%
Global Long Term Trend: Increase of 10-25% to decline of 30%
Comments: Isolated populations in Virginia declined as a result of loss of habitat (residential development and highway construction) and traffic-related mortality (Buhlmann 1995).
Global Protection: Many to very many (13 to >40) occurrences appropriately protected and managed
Needs: In Virginia, habitat protection and protection from highway mortality is needed (Buhlmann 1995).
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
There are no negative impacts of chicken turtles on humans.
Chicken turtles were once found in the food markets of the southern United States for their meat. Their common name, "chicken" turtle, refers to their taste.
Positive Impacts: food
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The name "chicken" turtle refers to the taste of their meat, which used to be popular in southern markets.
The chicken turtle is similar in appearance to the eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys picta picta), but has an unusually long, striped neck that is close to the length of its shell, with a yellow stripe on both the forelegs and rear legs. It has a distinguishable net-like pattern on its carapace. The carapace is pear-shaped, and is an olive to dark brown. Females are usually larger than the males, and males have a longer, thicker tail. Males also have longer front claws. At birth, chicken turtles are one inch in diameter, and adults reach from 10.2-25.4 cm. The chicken turtle is medium in size compared to other turtles.
Chicken turtles are regularly encountered on land, migrating between aquatic habitats or seeking areas to burrow into the soil and escape dry conditions. Males generally travel around farther than females. They are social, spending much of their time basking on logs and rocks and swim in small groups. Chicken turtles hibernate in the soft mud, but only in the northern part of their range, and vegetation of bodies of water. They are known to be timid and if caught they generally will bite very easily.
Wild chicken turtles have been recaptured up to 15 years old after their first capture. Some reached the maximum ages of 20 to 24 years.
Chicken turtles are semi-aquatic turtles, found both in water and on land. They prefer quiet still bodies of water: Shallow ponds and lakes, ditches, marshes, cypress swamps, and Carolina Bays. They prefer water with dense vegetation and soft substrate. Chicken turtles are tolerant of ephemeral aquatic habitats and readily travel onto land to burrow into the soil and escape dry conditions. They've been found at depths of a few centimeters to more than 2 m.
Males reproduce with female chicken turtles by vibrating the fore-claws against the female's face. Once the female is receptive, copulation occurs. Chicken turtles are different from most other North American turtles because they nest in either fall or winter. In South Carolina, there are two-egg laying seasons; from winter to early spring (February to may) and fall to early winter (August to November). Females excavate cylindrical nest on land in a variety of soil types, from sandy to heavy soils. Females lay 2 to 19 clutches of eggs. Chicken turtle embryos go through a period of dispause in the late gastrula stage. They must experience a period of cool temperatures before development proceeds. Eggs hatch in 152 days at 29 Celsius, some eggs may overwinter in the nest before hatching. Incubation temperature influences the sex of the embryos, with a 25 degrees Celsius incubation temperature resulting in all males. Warmer temperatures result in an increase in female embryos, with only 11 percent becoming males at incubation temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius.
Chicken turtles are omnivorous, eating crayfish, fish, fruits, insects, invertebrates, frogs, tadpoles and plants. During the first year of their life they are almost completely carnivorous. Although they are mostly carnivorous at birth they will still eat plants. Chicken turtles use their well-developed hyoid apparatus to create suction that pulls food items into their throat, which is very unusual.
Chicken turtle populations are currently considered stable throughout their range, although they do face potential threats. The eastern chicken turtle species is listed as state threatened in Virginia. Habitat destruction reduces suitable habitat for foraging, migration, and hibernation. Chicken turtles are sometimes killed on roads as they migrate between habitats. Hunting for food impacts populations of chicken turtles as well.
There are three distinct sub-species of Chicken turtle:
- Eastern chicken turtle (Deirochelys reticularia reticularia)
- Florida chicken turtle (Deirochelys reticularia chrysea)
- Western chicken turtle (Deirochelys reticularia miaria)
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Names and Taxonomy
Comments: MtDNA data indicate three distinctive units in the southeastern United States: southeastern Missouri; Atlantic coast, peninsular Florida, and Gulf coast west to Florida panhandle; and Gulf coast from southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle west to at least southern Mississippi (Walker and Avise 1998). These groups do not correspond with conventionally recognized subspecies.
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