Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the October 2, 2005 Newsletter issued from the Sierra Nevada foothills somewhat east of Placerville, California, USA

Returning back at Fred's, of all things, there sat a large Red-eared Turtle, TRACHEMYS SCRIPTA, right in the middle of the gravel road. This is the most commonly encountered sun-basking pond turtle found in the Southeast, but I was surprised to see one here.

Moreover, the nearest pond must be half a mile away with a lot of steep slopes and scorched vegetation atop hard-baked, cracking ground between here and there. The river is about half a mile below us but it's whitewater. There are trickling streams here and there, but they are very steep with many waterfalls, and just not where Red-ears are found. Red-ears are inhabitants of sluggish rivers and streams, ponds, swamps and lakes with soft bottoms and dense vegetation -- nothing we have near here. This turtle was dusty as if he'd lugged his big shell a long way, and I think maybe he'd done just that. We happened to have the camera that day so you can see the turtle, dust and all, just as he greeted us at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/r-e-turt.jpg.

My Audubon field guide to the reptiles and amphibians clearly shows that in North America Red-eared Turtles are mostly a southeastern US species, getting no closer to California than eastern New Mexico. Clearly this is a case similar to what happened with bullfrogs: Both these species have been introduced far from their native homelands. Apparently Red-eared Turtles are common in this area. In fact, I read that now they are found in South Korea, Guam, Thailand, Germany, France, South Africa, Israel and Australia. They're also native from the US Southeast south through Central America into Venezuela.

One reason Red-eared Turtles have spread so far beyond their native area is that they are the original "pet turtle." If, when you were a kid, you told the pet-store clerk you wanted "a plain old turtle to keep in a shallow fishbowl with some rocks," it's almost certain you got a Red-eared Turtle, and almost certain it died not long afterwards.

Kids nowadays of course wouldn't settle for a general fishbowl turtle, plus U.S. government regulations now require turtles to be at least 4 inches long before they can be sold as pets. Nowadays a kid would want a turtle, say, that is lemon yellow with pink eyes. Well, if they got such a thing, it would still be the Red-eared Turtle, because turtle breeders have developed a variety of Red-ear "color morphs," mostly in pastel colors. Actually those lemon yellow ones with pink eyes are pretty common.

This isn't to say that Red-ears are common everyplace. Over large areas their numbers have been decimated by people collecting them for the pet trade, plus pollution and habitat destruction has taken its usual toll, and during recent years many people have taken to trapping them for the food trade, much turtle food being exported to Asia.