Back in November, right before it got cold for the winter, my sons found a turtle nest filled with new hatchlings near the base of their slide. The boys were playing in the backyard when they noticed the hole with six little turtles peeking out.
We were all surprised to find them, particularly that time of year. And they must have just hatched because they weren’t much bigger than quarters. Who knows what compelled their mother to place the eggs so far into our yard from the water and so late in the year. Knowing they might not survive the cold–their nest, even if they could have overwintered inside, had been thoroughly excavated by my excited children–Matt brought them in and set them up in a tank. He’s an experienced turtle keeper.
The turtles have been with us since before Thanksgiving. The picture above was taken on their first day on our kitchen counter. It’s not the best shot of these guys, but I think their charm is still evident. Turtle hatchlings are hard not to adore, and so I willingly gave up my counter space.
The turtles’ most distinct marking was a red patch of color on the sides of their handsome little heads. So we assumed they must be Red-eared sliders, an identification none of us further researched or questioned.
The holidays came and went before I sat down to read about the turtles living in my kitchen. This was when the turtles started to lose their charm. Red-eared sliders are, it turns out, a problematic invasive species that outcompetes native Yellow-bellied sliders. Because they’re popular pets, Red-eared sliders are often released in neighborhood ponds and rivers when pet owners tire of them. Then the hardy Red-eared sliders reach sexual maturity faster, produce more offspring, and outsize the natives, establishing themselves readily outside their natural range. Red-eared sliders belong in Mississippi, not in South Carolina.
This knowledge was hard to take. Our turtles were growing fast, and we’d been planning to set them free once the weather warmed up. What would we do with them now? I didn’t want to set them free and perpetuate the problem. And making soup didn’t feel right; the kids really like these turtles. My best idea was to take a road trip to Mississippi, where we could put the turtles back where they belong. It would be about a nine-hour drive. I could do that.
Then the plot thickened. Our little turtles, which had such distinct red markings as hatchlings, started to look less like Red-eared sliders. As they’ve grown–and they’ve nearly quadrupled in size–the red spots have faded to a barely noticeable orange blush. And when I started comparing photos of Yellow-bellied sliders (Trachemys scripta scripta) with those of Red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), it seemed we could have been wrong. Our turtles look more like Yellow-bellied sliders than their red-eared and bothersome cousins. And so the springtime release, it seemed, was back on.
However, the turtle identification problem doesn’t end there. Last weekend I spent some time with my good friend Kimberly who happens to be a turtle expert. She didn’t see my hatchlings, but I told her about our identification challenge, and she shed a little light on the situation.
She said that, around here, it’s hard to find a pure population of Yellow-bellied sliders, particularly in neighborhood lagoon systems, because Red-eared sliders are such popular pets. The two species are similar enough that they can interbreed and hybridize. So our turtles are likely a little of both.
I’m not sure what this means for our turtles, though probably the release is still on as soon as it warms up. I can’t drop six hybrid turtles in the Mississippi, if that’s what they are. But on the other hand, dropping them in the backyard is kind of wrong too, right? Maybe the problem is much bigger than me and my six turtles. Or maybe every turtle counts. The turtles are too big for the tank now, and they’ve started nipping at each other because they’re cramped and grumpy. We have to do something. Tension is mounting in the turtle tank . . .