You have seen them around in ponds and lakes, propped up on rocks, logs basking in the summer sun with arms and legs stretched right out. Sometimes they are just peeking their little heads out of the water to watch you and what you are doing or maybe you caught him on land and didn't know it till you heard the splash – Its the Red Eared Slider, or RES for short, a medium-sized, greenish bodied turtle with a brown shell and a slash of red at the side of each eye. They are smooth and sleek-looking with bright watchful eyes.
The red-eared slider is also known as a red-eared terrapin and its Latin name is trachemys scripta elegans. It is a semi-aquatic turtle that is the most popular turtle to have as a pet in Canada and USA, and maybe some places in Europe.
Native to southern United States of America and northern Mexico the red-eared slider can be a pest in some areas and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has listed it as one of the worlds most invasive species, which is due to people releasing their unwanted, all grown up turtle into the wild.
Red eared sliders are hardy animals and make great additions to a home or backyard pond. They tolerate a range of conditions in their water temperature and quality (within reason), readily accept natural and commercial food, and once they get comfortable around you ... they will always be peeking their heads up at you. While they make good pets for teens or adults, they are not good pets for children.
NOTE: The article is geared to the red-eared slider turtle, but the care portions are applicable to most semi-aquatic turtle.
Red eared sliders are one of four turtles that make up the species we call the Slider. The other three are Cumberland, Big Bend and Yellow-bellied sliders.
The RES is a medium to large-sized turtle whose females are capable of reaching ten to twelve inches in carapace length and the males average seven to nine inches of carapace length. And in some cases even larger ones were discovered.
They have what I call a classic turtle style, but really what I am referring to is the sleeker oval body that has a slight dome to the top of the shell and is flatter on the bottom. Their head is blunt and their nose is a little like a pigs nose to me. They don't have flippers like sea turtles do, but rather webbed feet with nailed or clawed toes and of course the tail which acts like a rudder of sorts.
Their shells have three parts that all work together to create a single outer shell – the carapace, the plastron and the scutes.
The carapace is the upper part of the shell and the plastron is the lower portion, the scutes are on both carapace and plastron and are the rounded squares 'design'. The carapace is domed upwards a bit and the plastron is either flat or might look a little dented on the bottom near the back (its okay, indicates male turtle).
The scutes are broken down into categories for easy description as shown in the diagram below.
When they are young they are a vibrant bright green skin with stripes and the shell top is bright green as well. The bottom shell is a little more of a bland yellow or light beige with dark marks or smudges on it.
As they age the green skins turns a more dark green and the shell moves towards first dark green then brown with black in it. A few will retain their juvenile looks for a longer time and others will progress to a condition known as melanism where excess pigments (dark) turn the turtle an abnormally dark shade and a few have gone solid black.
They can tuck into their shell, but they can't close it off and they are not completely hidden in their shell either, if you look at them sideways, you can see the legs and head all neatly tucked under the ridge of the carapace.
And with every red-eared slider, there will be a slash of red near the eyes and no the red is not ears. The red patch can fade a little with age, but we are talking thirty and forty years of age. Yes they live that long and longer if properly cared for.
Range and Habitat
The red-eared slider has a decent sized range in the United States and in Mexico. According to Peterson's Field Book range map, red-eared sliders are naturally found in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Illinois, Alabama, Georgia and Indiana. There is no presence of red-eared sliders for the most part in the east coast states.
The reason the red-eared slider is considered an invasive pest is because it is pretty versatile, hardy and adaptable to changing conditions. The turtle has no natural range in Canada, yet our streams, lakes and even ravines have them year after year. It's hard to say it is different ones every year, but it looks to me like the red-eared slider is learning when to hibernate or go into a state of torpor when winter comes to awaken come spring. That is adaptable.
And the areas declaring them as an invasive species or pests are the warmer climes. A red-eared slider would thrive in warmer climates and be quite likely aggressive, it won't thrive in Canada with her winters, but it will survive.
They are adaptable and because of that you will find them in a variety of diverse habitats. Ideally red-eared sliders like softer bottomed quieter waters with plentiful basking sites and an abundance of vegetation. You can also find them in mud hole type environments such as drainage ditches and farmers ponds, in small urban creeks and streams. Anywhere where there is water, a red-eared slider can survive, usually. In Canada they are seen on lakes quite often in the summer times, they love deep water and inland lakes tend to not have swells or large waves.
In the wild these variation occur due to mutations in the genes or interbreeding with other slider species that are in the area. In the pet trade though, red-eared sliders have more colour morphs than any other turtle. I am not a fan of colour morphing red-eared sliders, we have enough problems finding homes for the thousands of already unwanted ones.
There is albino which are quite common in the hobby, with albino res eared sliders the hatchlings start out yellow and grow into a creamy white and even a soft pink that makes them look like a plucked chicken, and it retains only one other colour, the red jelly beans or slashes at the sides of their eyes. Albinos have poor eyesight and are sensitive to sunlight (sunburn) and as a pet (they are rare in the wild) it is recommended to keep them indoors and not in a backyard pond.
Pastel RES turtles are expensive, a few hundred dollars at the least, they are prone to dying early and developing abnormal scute layout on the shell. They are an attractive turtle with the red and orange coloration to them but next to nothing is known of them, how they were created or what other problems they may have.
It sounds a little experimental to me and I don't think it should be done for something like the pet trade. Breeding an animal that people struggle to find homes for is ... irresponsible.
I think you should stick with the green red-eared sliders - they are hardy, cheap and needing a home.
Personality and Character
Turtles have a bad reputation as being emotionless, shelled reptiles that don't do anything but sit in tank and bite at poking fingers. There is also the stigma of Salmonella associated with them more so than any other reptile, which is not fair since Salmonella is everywhere – soil cows, cats, lizards. There is an eww factor to them for some people, but they are fabulous pets and interesting creatures when spotted in the wild.
A wild RES turtle is likely terrified of humans and if you happen to catch one on land it will hustle its butt to the waters and disappear, only to reappear at a safe distance and watch you. A pet turtle on the other hand will jump into the water or try to reach over the tank top to get your attention and say hi you're home, feed me.
Whether wild or not red-eared slider turtles share a few traits – curiosity, perseverance and they have a stubborn streak in them. Of all the pets I have owned, none come close to a turtles level of curiosity - including the degu - particularly when it comes to their tanks or habitats.
Sometimes the turtle will come off as destructive, but really he is just investigating the changes and if he or she doesn't like it, you will know. My one turtle is always moving the plastic plants around so they all sit in one corner of the tank, his sleeping corner, the rest of the tank is to be left wide open.
A pet turtle once it is comfortable is endless joy in so many small ways. They have such large personalities to them compared to those tiny hard-shelled bodies of theirs. I know I'm biased when it comes to turtles, they poop roses – but my two are unique and different from each other in more than just appearances (well they look the same actually one is a little smaller).
It is hard not to smile when I just gave them a cherry tomato or a strawberry and they have 'captured' it and are now showing it off to me by holding it in their mouths while swimming 'eagerly' at the glass towards me. Just like it is hard not to sigh when they start their notorious begging, complete with accurately landed excited splashes, of which they are excellent at.
Red Eared Slider Turtle Myths
Steam literally rushes out of my ears when I hear this first myth being uttered by anyone. I turn into a hand talking, no breathing educator whose words are flowing so fast out of my mouth that most just stare at me blankly and politely nod. It is easily my single biggest push button when it comes to pet turtles.
The turtle will not grow larger than whatever sized tank you put it in. I am not sure where it started, but I am willing to put my money on the pet stores selling them in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This myth reeks of marketing and putting a positive spin on a 'negative' selling point – they grow big and need lots of space.
Turtles grow to their genetic predetermined size. When you put them in a tiny tank with the intent on keeping them tiny, you end up with a sick turtle whose shell grows more up than out, so the shell resembles a pyramid - this is not healthy at all.
A comparison would be rasing a puppy in a closet to keep it the size of a puppy. Ridiculous right? It is no less ridiculous in regards to turtles.
Another myth whose roots were likely to be helpful and prevent abuse involves the size of minimum space a turtle needs.
Ten gallons of tank for every inch of turtle is the stated rule of thumb on nearly every turtle site. This is a nice idea, and I see what they were trying to do by establishing a set minimum that sounds like it would provide lots of space.
But most people will buy not just a tank and turtle. But plants, fish, decorations and more all taking up space. A four-inch turtle would get a forty gallon tank fifteen gallons are taken up with decorations, your turtle now has considerably less space than even the barest minimum.
This lack of vocal cords also gave rise to the myth that turtles do not feel nor respond to pain. They do, they feel everything done to them when being cut up alive, they are just unable to vocalize a response we recognize as 'the animal is in pain'.
Turtles are great pets for children.
No they're not actually. They are horrible pets for kids, and turtles and kids are a bad mix unless supervised. Kids love to stick things in their mouth, kiss their new pets and so forth. Hand hygiene is the best way to prevent salmonella, but unfortunately too few parents understand the importance of this when dealing with turtles or turtles habitats.
The Salmonella scare in the 1980s was a result of kids and turtles. Most kids will not properly maintain the tank. Turtles are an adult pet, you kids got trix's.