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Contains articles and advice on a wide variety of turtle and tortoise species. Answers and addresses questions on species husbandry, captive status, breeding, news and conservation issues concerning turtles and tortoises.

Feeding Box Turtles (Terrepene spp.) and Wood Turtles (Clemmys insculpta): The Importance of Commercial Diets (and how to trick your pet into accepting them!)


Wood TurtleBox and wood turtles are well-known for both their suitability as pets and the unusual degree of intelligence that they display.  Unfortunately, they often put their brain power to use in thwarting their owners’ efforts to provide them with a balanced diet.  More so than most other species, box turtles (and, to a lesser degree, wood turtles) very often become fixated upon certain foods, and can be very stubborn about switching.  As a result, they sometimes end up living on inappropriate diets composed of 1 or 2 favored items, such as strawberries and cooked chicken.

Prepared Box Turtle Diets

Prepared foods formulated specifically for box turtles, supplemented with a variety of natural foods, provide the best means of assuring that captive box turtles are consuming a balanced, nutritious diet.  Zoo Med’s Canned  or Pelleted Box Turtle Food, or Bug Company’s Box Turtle Pellets should form the bulk of your pet’s diet. Taste is a big factor with box turtles, and each of these foods has a different fruit-base and taste, so be sure to experiment a bit.

Tricking Your Turtle

Keeping turtles a bit hungry is useful when attempting substitutions, but most captives carry plenty of reserve fat and so can usually wait out their owners.  There are a few tricks that can be used to increase the palatability of prepared box turtle diets.

Especially effective is spreading blueberry or strawberry jelly over the prepared diet.  The fruits themselves can also be used, but turtles tend to be very good at picking out only what they want and leaving the rest…covering the food with jelly forces the turtle to consume everything.

Canned Snails and Insects

Canned insects and invertebrates offer an excellent means of increasing dietary variety while adding to the attractiveness of commercial turtle foods.  We’ll take a look at using canned and live invertebrates, as well as the importance of fruits and vegetables, in Part II of this article.

Further Reading

Please see my article Providing a Balanced Diet to Reptile and Amphibian Pets  for further information on reptile and amphibian nutrition.



The Cuatro Cienegas Slider (Trachemys scripta taylori) and other Unusual Relatives of the Red Eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)


Note: For further information on red eared sliders in the wild and captivity, please see The Red Eared Slider in Outdoor Ponds  and Typical and Atypical Habitats of the Red Eared Slider

The red eared slider is familiar to herp enthusiasts the world over, but many of its relatives are not.  As one of the many subspecies of the common slider, the red-ear is cousin to a surprising variety of rare and poorly studied turtles.

Widely-ranging Subspecies

The red-eared slider is one of 15 described subspecies of the common slider, Trachemys scripta.  The common slider is considered to be the most variable, in terms of physical appearance, of all turtles, and has a huge natural range.  Common sliders of one variety or another may be found from southeastern Virginia to northern Florida, west to Kansas and New Mexico and south through Mexico to northern Columbia and Venezuela.

A Slider among Sea Turtles

The most “exotic” slider subspecies that I have handled are the Nicaraguan slider, Trachemys s. emolli, which was shown to me by a friend in Costa Rica, and the Meso-American slider, Trachemys s. venusta.  I encountered the Meso-American slider at Tortuguero, Costa Rica, where it nests on ocean beaches amidst green and leatherback turtles.

It is said that Meso-American sliders wash out to the sea from the mouths of nearby rivers, then make their way to the beaches to nest…but I have not heard an explanation of  how they negotiate the return trip.  In any event, I have observed them in large rivers and can attest to the fact that at least some individuals nest on ocean beaches, right along with sea turtles.

Sliders in the Desert and Box Turtles in Water

Perhaps the rarest of all slider subspecies is the Cuatro Cienegas slider, Trachemys s. taylori, found only in the Cuatro Cienegas Basin of Coahuila, Mexico.  Smack in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, this 500 square mile oasis is also home to another very rare and unusual turtle – Coahuilan box turtle, Terrapene coahuila.  Long isolated from related species, the 75+ animal species endemic to Cuatro Cienegas have developed a host of unusual survival strategies.  The Coahuilan box turtle, for example, is unique among all box turtles in spending most of its life in water.

I’ve worked with Coahuilan box turtles in captivity…its hard to describe how strange it is to see them bobbing about in deep water.  With their highly-domed shells, they seem completely unsuited for a watery existence, yet get along quite well.  Their future in the wild is tenuous at best, but they breed very well in captivity.

Further Reading

An interesting article on the unique reptiles and amphibians of the Cuatro Cienegas Basin is posted at http://www.desertfishes.org/cuatroc/literature/cc_symp1/4/j4.html.



Typical and Atypical Habitats of the Red-Eared Slider – Field Observations


I have run across colonies of feral sliders in Nassau (Bahamas), Baja California, Nevada, northern California, Japan (including in temple ponds in historic Kyoto!), Venezuela, St. Lucia and St. Croix.  Such sightings, of course, are not noteworthy, considering that this plucky survivor is well established in 25 or more countries on all continents except Antarctica (actually, when referring to animals with large ranges it’s standard to state “except Antarctica“…I’m not so sure this applies here for all I know there may be one paddling about some researcher’s outdoor hot tub!).  Parks in Korea, marshes in Brazil, ponds on Guam and countless other far-flung habitats all have their resident sliders.

It is, however, in New York where I have had most of my experience with feral populations.  Sliders, usually originating as released pets, are very common in waterways within NYC, but may also be found in relatively isolated areas as well.

Natural Habitat

Quiet, mud-bottomed waters with abundant vegetation and basking sites are considered to be the typical habitat in the northern part of the range, while tropical slider subspecies tend to occupy large rivers.  “Typical”, however, is a quite plastic concept as concerns this adaptable turtle.

New York‘s Resident Sliders

In New York, I have encountered red-eared sliders such unlikely habitats as Pine Barren’s cranberry bogs with highly acidic waters, shaded, fast-moving streams and tidal creeks bordering the Great South Bay (please see photographs).  They are also to be found in the Hudson River along the west side of Manhattan, watering holes in outdoor exhibits at the Bronx Zoo and in just about every park pond within NYC…the various natural and artificial waterways of Central and Prospect Parks have amazingly dense populations.

Along one stretch of the Bronx River which I have frequented since childhood, partially submerged shopping carts and car hoods are the most frequently used basking sites (the few logs that are available are rarely occupied by turtles!).

Further Reading

Detailed maps of the slider’s range in North America, as well as the US Geological Survey’s assessment of its impact on non-native habitats are posted at http://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/FactSheet.asp?speciesID=1261


Hands-On Experiences in Sea Turtle Conservation: Tagging Green, Leatherback and other Marine Turtles with the Caribbean Conservation Corporation in Costa Rica


Marine turtles (popularly known as “sea turtles”) are well-liked by all, herpers and “other” people alike.  They are, in many ways, creatures of great mystery, yet opportunities to become involved in hands-on research with them abound.

My first field research outside of the USA was with green turtles (Chelonia midas) at Tortuguero, Costa Rica…a place I had been longing to visit since reading So Excellent a Fishe, written by legendary turtle biologist Archie Carr (if you are at all interested in sea turtles or the American tropics in general, please do not miss this book, there’s none other like it).

Archie Carr – the Visionary at Tortuguero

The Caribbean Conservation Corporation operates the world’s longest-running sea turtle monitoring program, and manages the now famous research station at Tortuguero.  It was the world’s only sea turtle protection organization when formed by Archie Carr in 1959, and remains the most influential.

The CCC has always relied heavily upon volunteer researchers, and many who have roamed Tortuguero’s beaches have gone on to interesting careers in herpetology…certainly my own experiences there are still an influence after nearly 25 years.  The 5 decades’ worth of data gathered by program participants forms the foundation of nearly all that is currently known about the biology of sea turtles in the Caribbean.

Volunteer Opportunities and Contributions

Leatherback Turtle and ICCC researchers become involved in all aspects of marine turtle field work – counting and re-locating eggs, monitoring nest success, and, most thrilling of all, tagging the huge females at night as they finish nesting (often carried out while mounted on the turtle as she scrambles for the sea!).

Depending upon the season, participants may work with green turtles, 1,200 pound leatherbacks, or both.  Studies focusing on the area’s incredible diversity of birdlife (over 300 species have been recorded) are also conducted.  An amazing assortment of other wildlife, including jaguars, kinkajous, caiman, tarantulas of several varieties, jaguarundi, tapirs, and strawberry poison frogs, assures that you will be as awestruck as was I.

You can learn more at http://www.cccturtle.org/.  There are turtle tagging opportunities here in the USA as well… please look for future articles on diamondback terrapin tagging and other programs.


Conserving the Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizi): why good intentions must be paired with knowledge


The desert tortoise was at one time collected in huge numbers for the pet trade.  Unfortunately, most were not properly cared for, and survival rates were abysmal.  This, combined with massive habitat loss in the American Southwest, led all states within its range to adopt protective legislation, and to its listing with CITES and the IUCN.

Unwittingly Introducing Pathogens

Many people cooperated – releasing their pets or, through various organizations, rehabilitating injured tortoises and then turning them loose.  Unfortunately, a respiratory disease commonly afflicting captive tortoises took hold among wild populations, and more harm than good resulted from the rescue and release efforts.

Incomplete Habitat Protection

On a grander scale, the habitat protection granted the tortoises often failed to take into account a unique twist in the species’ life history.  In the northern portion of their range, desert tortoises migrate to hilly areas at the onset of cold weather and hibernate in communal burrows that are 15-35 feet in length.  These long-established burrows are essential to winter survival, as a burrow of suitable length (15+ feet) cannot be constructed by a single tortoise in one season.

Setting aside areas where the tortoises were observed to forage and nest was an admirable step, but ultimately fell short of what northern populations required.  The hibernation sites, often far-removed from foraging areas, were not always taken into consideration.

Both problems have largely been rectified, but only at the cost of lives and time.  The key point to be taken here is that we must all read, exchange information and observe…either of the above might have been identified by anyone who looked closely enough – pet keeper or field biologist alike.


A California Department of Fish and Game report on the desert tortoise’s  natural history is posted at:


Image referenced from Wikipedia Commons

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