Photo Credit: Roger Birkhead
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Pseudemys Concinna
STATUS: Common and statewide in rivers, lakes, and large streams. Subspecific allocation of Alabama's populations is problematic. Lowest Conservation Concern.
DESCRIPTION: River cooters are relatively large turtles with adults having a rather flat carapace, 9-16 inches in length. The carapace is flared posteriorly and is colored brown to olive with yellow or cream colored concentric markings. A faint rear-facing C-shaped mark on the second scute may be used to distinguish river cooters from Florida cooters. The underside of some marginals are marked with dark doughnut shapes with light-colored centers. The plastron may have dark markings anteriorly, especially along seams between scutes. The head and neck have numerous thin yellow stripes; the post-orbital stripe can be used to distinguish between river cooters and pond sliders, the stripe is more pronounced in the pond slider; another distinguishing feature of river cooters is their flat chin, sliders have a rounded chin; cooters have a notched upper jaw with cusps on each side. There is some sexual dimorphism with females having a more dome-shaped carapace and males having long foreclaws.
DISTRIBUTION: Found from eastern Virginia south to Florida, westward to eastern Texas, north to southeast Nebraska and eastward through parts of southern Illinois, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia
HABITAT: Aptly named, river cooters are primarily found in rivers or large streams, but occasionally are found in ditches or saltwater areas near mouths of rivers. Preferred habitat is composed of riverine systems with slow to moderate current, abundant aquatic vegetation and rocky bottoms. Other less frequented habitats include lakes, ponds, deep springs, flood plain river pools, and swamps.
FEEDING HABITS: Primarily an herbivorous species, river cooters consume aquatic vegetation such as eel grass, elodea, and various types of algae. Consumption of animal foods is limited but may include crayfish, snails and insects.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: River cooters enjoy basking in the sun on logs or rocks, but are quick to take to the water at the slightest threat of danger. These turtles are primarily active during daylight hours though females have been known to nest at night. Foraging generally takes place in early morning and late afternoon with loafing time spent basking in the sun, or resting on the bottom. Cooters can spend long periods of time under water without surfacing. Periods of breathing at the surface may range from seconds to a few minutes, while periods of time submerged may be 50 times as long. Turtles will travel from one body of water to another and can move at a good pace. In the southern portion of their range these turtles may be active year round, while those in cooler climates may be dormant for months at a time in the mud bottom of a river or other body of water. River cooters prefer to be well hidden by aquatic vegetation during these periods of dormancy and at night while sleeping. When mating occurs a female will excavate a nest cavity in sandy or loam soil, generally within 100 feet of water. Nesting is generally carried out from May to June with hatchlings immerging from August to September. Clutch sizes range from 9 to 29 pink to white ellipsoidal eggs. Incubation is determined by the temperature of the soil, and hatchlings have been known to overwinter in a nest cavity and emerge the next spring. Hatchlings are green with bright light colored markings. Loss of quality habitat in many areas is a threat to this species. Other challenges include being preyed upon by animals, being run over by automobiles and being eaten by people. Hatchlings are the most vulnerable as they travel from their nest to the water. Aquatic species such as alligators and muskrats will eat hatchlings as well. Although population declines have occurred in some areas, across the whole of its range the river cooter seems to be doing well. Some of these turtles have been known to live for more than 40 years.
Bebler, John L., King, F. Wayne. 1979. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York. 743 pp.
Gardner, K. 2000. “Pseudemys concinna” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web.
River Cooter “Pseudemys concinna” (On-line), Turtle Puddle.Org.
River Cooter “Pseudemys concinna” (On-line), Herps of North Carolina. Org.
River Cooter “Pseudemys concinna” (On-line), Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.
AUTHOR: Bruce Todd, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries