All wildlife fascinates me. It’s always a delight when some animal exhibits behavior in my presence that I haven’t seen before. Turtles have not been the most likely candidates in this regard for me, however. That changed this year in two cases (see further below). Mostly I see them basking on logs in bogs, ponds and lakes, like these yellow-bellied sliders (Trachemys scripta), either alone or in the company of other creatures.
Painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) also like to sun and can be seen in the same environments.
Seeing turtles cross a walking path as they search for a place to dig a nest for their eggs is not unusual.
I’ve come across a red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) also on the march, apparently having just completed a nesting site.
There are seven species of cooters (Pseudemys) in the southeastern USA and it can be difficult even for experienced naturalists to distinguish them. They are all large turtles at full growth, with a carapace measuring some 13 inches or more.
The turtle that many more people see, including in their yards, is the lovely Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina). During nesting season they are often on the move and several people I know will stop and “rescue” them as they cross busy roads.
The other day, I stopped traffic on a busy neighborhood road when I spotted a box turtle crossing. Drivers of cars going both ways kindly came to a halt as I carried the turtle to the side of the road where it was headed. It was about the 5th time this summer and fall that I had stopped for a box turtle and I always hope that the reptile will go on to have a long and healthy life.
This summer I also rescued a box turtle that I found resting on water weeds in my pond. I had always thought that these terrestrial turtles would drown, so I got the reptile out. There is a small log sticking up out of the pond, which is how I think the turtle got in, but I wasn’t sure it could climb up again.
I did find out later from my friend Lucretia that box turtles are able to swim, despite not having webbed toes like aquatic species.
The box turtles vary a lot in coloring, but the turtle below has to be the most strikingly colorful one I have come across so far. It made me think of a young person who went a bit wild with the make-up.
The slider turtles can also have some beautiful coloring.
One bit of behavior that I don’t expect from snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) is the basking behavior exhibited by many other species. Nevertheless, in June I found one apparently enjoying a sojourn in the sun in a pond kept filled by the local beavers.
Usually, I see snappers with their heads tucked in, but they certainly do earn their scientific name of serpentina (snake-like) as their necks are very long!
And that brings me to the really unexpected behavior that I recently saw while watching turtles. One day, about 20 turtles were swimming and gliding around a pond, close to the surface. Two in particular were not only swimming, however, but also seemed to be playing. After asking for help in identifying them in a reptile-oriented Facebook group, it was suggested they were either sliders or cooters. Both were very large.
They were not near one another but in their own space, showing similar behavior. They would surface, swim along with their bodies stretched out to the limit and then bring up their hind or front legs and slap the surface of the water repeatedly. Then after doing this several times, they would suddenly rise up a bit and splash their whole bodies down into the water, making an even larger spray of water.
A fellow photographer suggested they might be mating or defending territory, but I think they were actually playing.
Some readers might think that makes me very anthropomorphic, but scientists are studying the concept of play in reptiles and one researcher, Gordon Burkhardt, has said that rejection of the idea of reptiles playing has to do with how play is defined.
He has proposed a definition that would make it entirely possible to think of reptiles playing:
“play is repeated, seemingly nonfunctional behavior differing from more adaptive versions structurally, contextually, or developmentally, and initiated when the animal is in a relaxed, unstimulating, or low stress setting.”
It should be noted, too, that websites dedicated to people who own reptiles as pets include articles on how they can stimulate play – and thereby well-being and health – among their animal companions.
I’ll be keeping a more watchful eye on turtles from now on; who knows what other interesting behaviors might be observed? And it would be just nice to think that a turtle whose remains we find in the woods could have had an enjoyable and not just “mechanical” (pre-programmed) life.
As Brian Doyle wrote in Martin Marten:
“The fact is that the more stories we share about living beings, the more attentive we are to living beings, and perhaps the less willing we are to slaughter them and allow them to be slaughtered. That could be.”