I cannot say how the young turtle came to pass in front of my daughters and their grandmother at just the “wrong” time. Nor can I explain the age-old fascination children seem to have with such creatures. But it quickly became clear that, having been discovered on a family walk, “Murdle” the turtle was expected to become at least a temporary part of the Conway household.
Like most children, our daughters loved animals of any kind. (They still do, but as young women they are somewhat less inclined to bring in random creatures.) In their 6- and 3-year-old minds, Murdle was clearly in need of a roof over her head. Unfortunately, Murdle was a diamondback terrapin. While some terrapins are successfully kept in captivity, they have needs we really could not provide for. Amid much sadness and ceremony, including a “Goodbye Murdle’’ poster, our young turtle was soon set free.
Pick any pond or lake on Daniel Island, especially on a sunny day, and there is almost sure to be a turtle show in progress. We have many species, including freshwater, saltwater, brackish water and purely terrestrial turtles in South Carolina. The one most often seen on a walk around Daniel Island, though, is the yellow-bellied slider, Trachemys scripta scripta.
Yellow-bellied sliders are very common in freshwater habitats from Florida through eastern Virginia. They are generally dark in coloration, but they have bright yellow stripes or spots on the sides and bottoms of their heads and necks and yellow plastrons, or underbelly shells. The skin colors darken as the turtles age, and older turtles may be almost black on the head, neck and upper shell. These turtles are omnivores. Given a choice, though, they seem to prefer animal protein. They will absolutely grab your fishing bait if you let them catch up with an earthworm. This is to be avoided, as dehooking can hurt the turtle.
I always learn something when writing these columns. This one taught me a lot. I was unaware of the huge number of yellow-bellied sliders and other turtles transferred annually from the wild to household pet status, both here and internationally. This practice has gone unregulated and untracked for many years. As of last fall, however, there are quotas for how many turtles (and many other reptiles and amphibians) a person may possess. Sales are limited and penalties are significant. Beyond the common turtle regulations, possession of certain threatened or endangered turtle species, alligators, skinks or treefrogs is prohibited altogether. All of this information is available on the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) website.
Another learning point was how turtles “shed.” Land tortoises generally don’t shed their shells. But many aquatic turtles, including the yellow-bellied slider, do shed them in small pieces. The top layers of the hexagonal sections, or scutes, drop off periodically, allowing for growth without acquiring a heavy shell casing. Most turtles also shed their skin periodically, like snakes.
Also of note, while most wild animals reach sexual maturity and the ability to reproduce very quickly, they also have fairly short lifespans. Yellow-bellied sliders, and many other turtles, live up to 30 years in the wild and 40 years in captivity, and don’t reach the reproductive age for up to 15 years. If an ecosystem is heavily pressured, it would be quite possible to remove too many turtles before many had a chance to reproduce, thus the reason for the new SCDNR harvest restrictions.
So, if you have pet turtles, regardless of their source, you should check the DNR website for number and species limits.