On sunny days turtles basking on logs is a common sight along all Florida spring runs and rivers. Being cold-blooded, turtles love to lie in the sun to warm up plus the sun and air serve to dry up the algae that grows on their shells and weighs them down. BTW, a group of turtles is called a “bale”. There are many different types of turtles (water) and tortoises (land) in Florida but we want to introduce you to the three types you are almost guaranteed to see on a kayak trip on almost any body of fresh water in Florida.
The most common turtles you will see while kayaking are the Cooters and Sliders. How can you tell which type of turtle you are looking at? Sliders have a definite keel on the top of their domed shell while Cooters have no keel – their domes are lower and more flared at the outside edges.
After deciding whether it is a Cooter or a Slider, look at the markings on their plastron (the hard plate beneath the body) and the distinguishing pattern of stripes on the side of their head.
There are two Sliders in Florida – the Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) and the Yellow-bellied Slider ( YBS – Treachemys scripta scripta). The Red-eared Slider is a non-native turtle brought in by the pet trade. It can be identified by the broad red stripe running from behind the ear to the neck. The Yellow-bellied Slider has a broad C-shaped yellow stripe behind the eye which then extends back down the neck (kind of a modified S-curve) and it has at least two black spots on the front of the plastron, under the neck. There may or may not also be other black spots on the plastron.
Red-eared and Yellow-bellied Sliders, being of the same species, can interbreed. Sliders are omnivorous, though juveniles tend to be more carnivorous than adults. Aquatic insects form a part of their diet along with crayfish and snails. The larger females grow up to about 12 inches in shell-length and can live 20-50 years in the wild. You can also tell females from males by the length of the nails on their front feet. Nails on males can be almost twice as long as females.
Cooters (Pseudemys sp.) have narrower length-wise stripes on the side and top of the head and the plastrons are a solid color – cream, yellow, orange or red – with no spots, although they may have a little shading between the scutes.
Distinguishing among the different species of Cooters can be difficult and even the experts apparently argue over the exact classification of the species and sub-species in the genus Pseudemys. According to the Florida Museum of Natural History (University of Florida), here in Florida you can find the Florida Red-bellied Cooter (FRB, Pseudemys nelsoni), the River Cooter (P. concinna), the Suwannee Cooter (P. suwanniensis) and the Peninsular Cooter (P. peninsularis) – sometimes all on the same river.
Of course you can guess that the Red-bellied have a reddish plastron, but some individuals among the other Cooters can be quite orangish in color and some of the Red-bellied can be fairly yellow, so color alone is not always the best way to distinguish the FRB although if it is a deep red-orange there can be little doubt. The Florida Red-bellied will also have broad reddish crosswise stripes on the shell (if it’s not covered with algae or dark with age) and if you can get close enough to see their beak, the FRB has a deep notch in the middle of it’s upper jaw with a cusp on either side while the other Cooters have a beak.
The Peninsular Cooter, Suwannee Cooter and River Cooter are particularly difficult to distinguish one from another unless you can pick one up to examine. They all have beautifully patterned shells which darken with age, particularly in the males. River Cooters prefer large rivers with clear flowing water and beds of rooted aquatic plants like eelgrass. The Suwannee Cooter is unique in that they are known to enter brackish waters. Some have been found with barnacles on their shells meaning long periods in salt water. While marked similarly to the River Cooter, the Suwannee Cooter does not have a stripe on the hind feet. Peninsular Cooters are often found in slower-moving water than River Cooters and also like cypress swamps and other floodplain habitats. Peninsular Cooters also have a higher dome in the front that tapers down towards the back. This is thought to be an adaptation to help prevent them from being crushed by alligators, which they are more likely to encounter than River Cooters. River Cooters will eat anything – plant or animal, dead or alive. Diet seems to be determined by whatever is available. Peninsular Cooters, on the other hand, are predominantly vegetarian.
The Florida softshell turtle has a long neck and an elongated head with a long snorkel-like nose. It is a large, flat turtle with skin covering its shell. They are an olive-gray in color with the juvenile sporting light gray spots that fade with age. They are the largest softshell turtle in North America and one of the largest freshwater turtles, reaching up to 30 inches in length.
Softshell turtles are almost entirely aquatic, only emerging from the water occasionally to bask or to lay eggs. These turtles are carnivorous, eating fish, insects, snails, crustaceans, amphibians and sometimes even birds and small mammals.
Softshells can move at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour. Their jaws are quite powerful making larger softshell turtles somewhat dangerous, as they are capable of amputating a person’s finger, and possibly a hand.