Red-Eared Slider Turtle
Red-Eared Pond Turtle
Trachemys scripta elegans, formerly Chrysemys scripta elegans
As the name would imply, red-ears are most recognizable by the reddish markings on the sides of their heads just behind their eyes. Once also known as the “dime store turtle” because of the huge number of baby turtles sold virtually everywhere prior to the ban on turtles with a carapace length of less than 4 inches (in 1975, by the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, Part 1240.62). In spite of these restrictions, red-eared sliders continue to be one of the most commonly encountered turtles in the pet trade. Red-ears have an oval carapace, with a base color that is predominantly olive to brown, interspersed with varying patterns of yellow, lime and black stripes, reticulations or speckling. As far as most North American turtles go, they can be quite colorful. Adults range in size from about 9-11 inches (22-28 centimeters), with the females being the larger of the two sexes. Red-ears can live to be more than 40 years old.
The red-ear turtle’s original distribution was throughout the Mississippi valley ranging north to Illinois, south to the Gulf, and east to southern Kentucky and Virginia and northeastern Alabama. Within this range their preference is for shallow, slow-moving streams and rivers, swamps, ponds, and lakes. They prefer waterways with a soft substrate and thick vegetation. Within these habitats they are often observed basking on the shores, emergent rocks, trees or floating vegetation. Basking spots are never far from the water, to which they readily retreat when approached. The origin of the name slider may have come from this behavior (sliding into the water when encountered).
Red-eared sliders do very well in outdoor ponds and lakes. They thrive in most of the southern United States and can survive very cold weather, often hibernating below frozen surfaces. If housed outside, care should be taken to prevent their escape to any accessible nearby watercourses. Red-ears migrate readily from one waterway to another, sometimes crossing highways to do so. With that in mind, care should be taken to confine your turtle with barriers no shorter than 12 inches (30 centimeters). Keep in mind that it has been said that what turtles lack in speed they make up for in tenacity. If there is a way to escape, chances are your turtle will find it.
Additionally, care should be taken to provide shelter(s) from predators. A red-ear's natural flight response is to dive into the water and remain on the bottom until the perceived threat has disappeared. Providing a water area with a depth of at least three feet is usually sufficient to deter many predators. Underwater hollows or caves (which can be made by the careful and deliberate stacking of rocks and/or other non-floating décor) will also afford the turtle protection from predators.
Indoors, red-ears do well in virtually any large well-filtered enclosure. Due to their size, they should be afforded enough area to swim freely and also to bask. In the case of an adult red-ear, this would mean a minimum of a 60-gallon (225 liter) tank. Large tubs, stock tanks and children’s pools can also be used, but good filtration still needs to be incorporated. Red-ears require both UV lighting and a basking spot. This can be achieved with the use of a fluorescent UV light and an appropriately sized spot or flood light. The wattage will depend upon the size of the enclosure and distance of the light from the surface of the basking area. The basking location should provide at least a 90 degree surface temperature. Adding aquatic plants will increase aesthetic beauty, provide hiding places and add some variety to the slider’s diet as well as aiding in filtration.
Red-ears, like many freshwater aquatic turtles, are predominantly carnivorous as young; eating mostly insects, worms, small fish and invertebrates. As they grow older they begin to become more omnivorous, consuming vegetable matter in addition to live prey. In captivity they will readily eat many of the commercially available aquatic turtle foods. That being said, it is always a good idea to provide as varied a diet as possible to ensure good health and proper nutrition.
The main consideration when purchasing a red-eared slider turtle should be longevity. Red-ears are long lived animals that can thrive in a variety of habitats. If you are not willing to commit to having an animal for several decades, a red-eared slider is not for you.
Red-eared slider turtles can be extraordinarily rewarding pets. Red-ears can become quite tame and many learn to recognize their care-givers and can even be hand fed (but remember to wash your hands!) One turtle parent we know with a large outdoor pond replete with comet fish has been surprised to find her red-eared slider turtle following her into her office or meeting her at her front door for food. Red eared sliders also make a nice addition to outdoor water features and can usually be housed with koi and other larger or faster moving ornamental fish without incident. Red-eared slider turtles can also be kept with painted turtles.
A note about Salmonella:
As mentioned above, the FDA enacted a ban on the sale of small turtles in 1975. The primary reason for the 4” law (as it is commonly known) is to prevent small children from being able to fit a turtle into their mouth (and subsequently contracting Salmonella), which apparently happened far more than most of us would like to believe. Having a four-inch turtle does not prevent a turtle from potentially transmitting Salmonella however. All turtles (as well as many other animals and a lot of food items) have the potential to carry Salmonella. That being said, in spite of the amount of attention that is given to turtles and Salmonella in the news, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates that only 6% of Salmonella infections in the U.S. may be traced to reptiles. The bottom line is be careful and be responsible. With all reptiles and amphibians (and any other animal for that matter), care should be taken to wash one’s hands after handling or even touching the animal. Furthermore, if you have young children (who are more susceptible to all types of infections) a turtle or reptile may not be your best choice for a pet.