Why I Like Turtles in the Water Garden

map_turtle_2(In response to David Curtright’s Web exclusive article Why I Don’t Like Turtles in My Ponds)

I enjoyed Mr. Curtwright’s article, and felt that his criticism of these three species of turtles in backyard ponds and water gardens was more than justified. The ubiquitous Red-eared Slider is an especially egregious offender in this regard and is even banned in several states and in some countries because of their barbarian [sic] behavior. They could easily be considered the Hydrilla of US turtle species…

The title of the article seemed to convey a universal dislike of all of our chelonian friends who might peacefully inhabit a water garden, which was somewhat unfortunate, since there are other quite reasonable choices for pond owners outside of the unholy trio mentioned in the article.

On the plus side, turtles can become just as endearing to their owners as prized koi. There are few pond experiences as cool as watching your turtle plop off a basking log and swim over to you in order to take food from your fingers.

But even with a fish & plant-friendly species of turtle, caring adequately for year-round turtles in the water garden requires some vital modifications to the pond and surrounding area…more comprehensive modifications are necessary if successful breeding is a desired objective. Unless one is an expert or specialized hobbyist–and has a pond constructed or modified specifically for the care of aquatic turtles, it’s probably good advice to omit them from the pond altogether.

A few months ago, this same subject came up on the Victoria Adventure email forum, and I composed a hasty ad hoc, but fairly comprehensive listing of various North American turtle species, and their potential suitability for water gardens;

“Assuming the not undaunting challenge of providing a turtle-proof & predator resistant pond and/or enclosure has already been met, the following information should prove useful to this discussion

Native [US] freshwater turtles, just like aquatic plants, can be broken down into informal groupings for the purposes of garden pond utility.

a) Terrestrial

b) Semi-aquatic, or Semi-terrestrial if one prefers…

c) Aquatic

d) Basking

Since these are informal & somewhat arbitrary designations, there is a considerable subjective overlap between a & b which contains Box, Wood, Bog, Spotted, & Blandings turtles…most of which are heavily protected throughout their range and make for poor pond subjects anyway.

Aquatic turtles for the purposes of this discussion could be described as those which seldom bask and spend most of their life in the water…often submerged. Representatives of this group would include Mud, Musk, Common & Alligator Snappers, and the Softshells both spiny & smooth. Mud & Musk Turtles… Kinosternon & Sternotherus respectively, actually make great pond subjects, except for the fact they’re seldom seen since they tend to stay underwater most of the time. They are however a first-class choice for aquaria…especially the hatchlings which perform mesmerizing underwater acrobatics which can keep one spellbound for hours. Softshell Turtles require a sand substrate with some shallow water and feed heavily on fish and crayfish. They are the fastest swimming US freshwater turtle known, and can out swim a trout. Additionally, Softshells have the mobility and agility more common to birds and mammals than reptiles, being able to strike with the speed of a rattlesnake, and an adult Softshell can outrun a human on level ground. That sounds incredible, but I’ve chased many of them and this is no exaggeration. An adult Softshell would be devastating on relatively slow-swimming koi and goldfish. The exclusion of Snapping turtles in garden ponds would hopefully be an instinctive decision…

Basking turtles are what usually comes immediately to mind whenever turtles are associated with water gardens, because they bask during the day, thereby making a delightful visible contribution to the pond aesthetic.

Basking turtles include, but aren’t limited to the cooter/redbelly group [Pseudemys] which are peremptorily disqualified on account of the fact that they are entirely herbivorous, and unless one usually picks winning lottery ticket numbers, the Painteds [Chrysemys] and Sliders [Trachemys] should also be stricken during this Chelonian voir dire for similar reasons, because they’re omnivorous with a decided preference for aquatic veggies, and will almost certainly pose a potentially serious and ongoing threat to aquatic plants.

The exception to this rule would be if only hatchlings were kept in the pond, which by virtue of their diminutive size, makes them almost incapable of doing any serious damage to prized Nymphaeas. Unfortunately, due to FDA Regulation 1240,62 enacted in 1975, it is unlawful to sell a turtle in the US with a carapace [top shell] length of less than 4”, which puts this [hatchling] size off limits to most pond owners. And hatchlings do grow up eventually…but there’s no harm in keeping a hatchling of any legal species around for enjoyment in the pond until it starts to become a problem, after which it can be released into its native habitat.

This brings us finally to where we needed to end up all along…with the genus Graptemys …the Map Turtles & Sawbacks…so called because of intricate maplike patterns on the carapace, and the prominent vertebral projections which are tipped in black, somewhat resembling saw teeth. At the risk of seeming exclusionary, we need to strike 4 of the 13 odd species immediately…This quartet is…again…quite informally, known as the “big-headed Maps”, not because of any inherent narcissism, but because of dietary adaptations found in the female of the species which causes some fairly impressive and exaggerated sexual dimorphism. The females get considerably larger than the males, and possess outlandishly large heads which support massive mandibles and commensurate jaw muscles which are deployed for crushing the shells of large freshwater mussels upon which they feed almost exclusively. The males feed upon much smaller mollusks, gastropods, and aquatic invertebrates, so these turtles are better left to specialized riverine habitats which can supply these dietary items in abundance. One could of course keep only males, but what fun is that? The Mississippi Map and Common Map are still legally obtainable should one wish to go this route.

1) Alabama Map Turtle, treated here as a single species although the previously monotypic pulchra species has now been split into quarters I believe, although I’m not quite current with up to date taxonomy

2) Barbours Map Turtle

3) Mississippi Map Turtle

4) Common Map Turtle

Two Texas species may be stricken also due to protected status…The Cagles Map Turtle & Texas Map Turtle

Unfortunately when Alabama protected the Black-knobbed Sawbacks [both northern & southern variants] a while back, this caused the last of the sawbacks to be whisked off the market. This elite group consisted also of the Yellow-blotched Sawback & Ringed Sawbacks, which are Federally protected and are the most strikingly beautiful representatives of the genus by far.

This leaves us finally with the False Map Turtle, Ouchita Map Turtle, & Sabine Map Turtle…the three musketeers of the potential pond group, and because of legal, habitat, & dietary constraints, make for the best basking turtles suited for an adequately-sized water garden if one requires turtles in the pond and has already satisfied the requisite habitat requirements. Their diet consists of small mollusks, gastropods, crustaceans, terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates. They will feed readily on a floating turtle food such as Tetra’s Repto-Min. This diet can be supplemented with dehydrated krill, and a bug zapper suspended over the pond will insure a steady supply of fresh insects. Plant depredation will be minimal at best with any of these three species.

A basking site near the center of the pond to keep them safe from land-based predators, an adequate diet, and a soil substrate [containerized can work] on the pond bottom for hibernation is all that’s required in the pond itself to keep these delightful reptiles alive & healthy…

Just as a personal aside, these map turtles have the cutest faces of most any basking turtle, and if you’re going to look at them day after day, it might as well be a pleasant experience…

”And then they came for the turtles, and there was no one left to speak for them.”
Adapted from the Martin Niemoller quote

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