Red-eared slider

Male red-eared slider
Photograph by Francisco Velasquez

Red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) are probably the most commonly kept reptile in the world. Their home range lies in the Mississippi Valley drainage, with most of the population occurring in the US from eastern New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and through Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, eastern Kansas, and Missouri north to Indiana and Illinois. They also occur naturally in isolated pockets in other states such as Ohio, and are common in regions of northeast Mexico adjacent to Texas. However, "feral" populations, derived by deliberate introduction or from dumped or escaped pets, have become established in suitable habitat all over the world including other parts of the US.

Introduced red-eared sliders can be seen in ponds in several urban Los Angeles parks, and some of these populations breed. In November 1991, I was given a recently hatched red-ear (it still had its egg tooth and an incompletely absorbed yolk sac) that had been found by Lake Hollywood. Hatchlings are often spotted at the Los Angeles Arboretum, where a large concentration of sliders exists. While this evidence indicates that red-eared sliders can survive and breed in urban Los Angeles it is not clear if enough of the hatchlings survive to make these populations self-sustaining. Fresh water ponds are rare in southern California, and act as magnets for predators such as raccoons that, if given the chance, will happily dine on turtles or their eggs. However, even if hatchling survival is poor, the population is continually being topped up with newly abandoned pets that have outgrown either their tanks or the interest of their owners. Survival for dumped pets is marginal at best and their presence will impact on native flora and fauna. I urge all readers to do what they can to discourage this disgusting habit. Turtles (even red-eared sliders) are not trash! Given the correct housing conditions and a little foresight, red-ears thrive in captivity and can make amusing, simple to keep, and rewarding pets.

Red-eared sliders are webbed-footed water turtles that typically have a red streak on each side of the head, and sometimes a red spot on top of the head. The red streak is sometimes broken up into two or three spots, and varies in shade from orange to deep red. Some red-eared sliders don't have the red streak! The typical hatchling red-ear has an attractive green carapace and skin. The carapace is finely patterned with yellow-green to dark green markings. As the turtles age, the general shell color changes. In young adults the basic green may be replaced by yellow, giving way eventually to a more somber drab olive. The shell is patterned with dark lines, streaks or smudges, sometimes with patches of white, yellow or even red. Identification problems can arise because the red-ear intergrades with turtles such as the yellow-bellied slider in the wild, and they often interbreed with other sliders in captivity. Red-eared sliders have the distinction of probably being the first turtle species to have color variants (such as albino and the pretty pastel phase) developed by breeders.

In old specimens the carapace becomes more uniform in color, as the contrast between the pattern and the shell color diminishes. Brown through charcoal gray to black (melanistic) turtles are also encountered, and often these are elderly males. I have a large melanistic male (carapace length 21 cm, 8") in my collection. If you closely examine the side of his head the distinctive ear stripe can be made out, although the red is replaced by gray.

In addition to the melanistic male, I have two other still growing young and brightly colored males (15.5 cm and 18 cm, 6" and 7") and a mature female (26 cm, 10"). Apart from their smaller size, the males are easily distinguished from the female by their spectacularly long front claw nails and their much longer and thicker tails. The two smaller males were turned over to me with shell problems, both having shell rot and sizable patches of exposed bone on their carapaces. Now, three years later, extensive re-pigmentation has occurred and the pattern has regenerated over the bony areas.

My adults are housed outside in an enclosed pond. They spend a considerable amount of time out of the water basking, but usually remain close enough to be able to dive into the pond at a moments notice if approached. Being long term captives, however, once back in the pond they will stretch out their heads above the water and follow your movements in anticipation of being fed.

I feed them from mid-March through November. I use Purina Trout Chow as the staple for the adults, which is eagerly taken. They are partial to vegetables and get regular offerings of water hyacinth, which I grow in a separate pond, and other water plants. They also graze on plants growing around their pond, including Bermuda grass. For variety, I periodically offer cat kibble, fish, snails, fruit and leafy vegetables. I give hatchlings a similar diet, although they rarely take vegetable matter. Hatchlings are particularly fond of Tetra Reptomin, and this is a useful starter food, but I have raised several batches to 4" in one year on Trout Chow alone.