Turtle time

Take a walk with a turtle. And behold the world in pause.   -Bruce Feiler

Frogs are the rock stars of the wetland, with their impossible-to-ignore vocals. Despite teaching countless frog life cycle lessons as an Arboretum educator, I consider myself more of a turtle groupie. Turtles: silent, serene, and secretive. They glide through the water or bask on rocks and logs. Speak too loudly, and they’ll slip away. The best location for freshwater turtle viewing at Adkins Arboretum is from the members-only bridge. In warm weather, visitors are likely to spy one of three turtle species: red-eared slider, eastern painted turtle, or common snapping turtle.


red-eared slider (photo by Alan Wilson)

The red-eared slider earned its name from the red stripe around its ears and from its ability to slide into the water at the first sign of danger. Also known as the “Dime Store Turtle,” the slider has long been a popular pet. While sliders are native to the southern United States and northern Mexico, they’ve become established in many other places as a result of pet release, earning them a spot on the “Top 100 Invasive Species” list. The primary food source of the red-eared slider is aquatic plants. They also eat small aquatic animals, including insects, crustaceans, and tadpoles. Sliders can grow up to 12 inches and sport an olive- or brown-colored shell.

eastern painted turtle

eastern painted turtle (photo by Leah Reynolds)

Often confused with the red-eared slider, the eastern painted turtle is flatter and lacks the slider’s red ear stripe. Eastern painted turtles have an olive green carapace (top shell) and yellow plastron (bottom shell), with red, orange, and yellow stripes on their neck, legs, and tail. The head of the eastern painted turtle is also distinctive, with yellow stripes, an upper jaw shaped like an inverted “V,” and a toothy projection on each side. Like sliders, painted turtles enjoy a diet of aquatic plants and animals. Adults can reach 7 inches in length, with an amazing lifespan of up to 55 years.

snapping turtle

snapping turtle (photo by Leah Reynolds)

In contrast to the slider and painted turtles, the common snapping turtle is a wetland giant. Reaching up to 20 inches and a whopping 35 pounds, the snapper has beak-like jaws, a mobile neck and head, and a muscular build. Snapping turtles will eat just about whatever they can fit into their mouths, including fish, reptiles, birds, small mammals, and frogs. They are useful aquatic scavengers as well as active hunters. Snappers also have a history of being hunted for turtle soup. Due to its large size, the snapper is unable to hide in its shell and must defend itself through snapping. Snappers bite as a last resort, issuing a warning hiss first.

Turtles, like all reptiles, are cold-blooded and rely on basking to regulate their body temperature. This means that turtle season is limited, beginning in the spring and ending in the fall, when turtles retreat beneath the mud for winter hibernation. With this in mind, don’t delay an Arboretum visit. Like turtles themselves, golden summer days slide by all too quickly.

by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Coordinator


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