Cooters and Sliders
            Riverdave's Journal
      This essay appeared in the
    Durham Herald-Sun on 6/1/97

Turtles are among the most easily observed forms of wildlife along our Piedmont rivers. Most of us are more familiar with the eastern box turtle that occurs frequently in our fields and woodlands. But the box turtle's high, rounded shell distinguishes it readily from the six water-loving turtle species that live in the rivers of our region. In eastern America, the word turtle generally refers to these freshwater species, a terrapin to brackish water species and tortoise to land-dwelling species.  

Having done a number of surveys along the Eno River, we have found that about 80 percent of the turtles there are known as river cooters (Pseudemys concinna) and 15 percent are yellow belly sliders (Trachemys scripta). Sounds like a reading from Dr. Seuss - cooters & sliders! The remaining 5 percent consist of painted turtles, musk turtles, mud turtles and snappers. These surveys do not necessarily reveal the correct percentages for the total turtle population, but they do reveal who the chief baskers are!  

So on any given sunny day, the vast majority of turtles on the log by the edge of the river will be cooters and sliders. They are flat-shelled, streamlined turtles that have webbed feet and are well adapted for aquatic life. It takes cooters and sliders 15 seconds to swim the width of the Eno. For a hapless, land roving eastern box turtle who tumbled in the water by accident, it might take 15 minutes to clumsily make the journey.  

The common names for the turtles are interesting. The word cooter has been used by residents of the southern American countryside to refer to certain freshwater turtles. The term may have been introduced by slaves brought to the new world from the Congo River basin. A number of west African languages share the word "kuta'' for turtle. To this day on certain Caribbean islands, to "coot'' refers to a sexual act, possibly because sea turtles are often observed mating in shallow waters near the shore.

The word slider probably refers to the predictable response of this basking turtle when approached too closely by a group of Eno River wafters. The long claws of the turtle help it to pull up on logs and remain balanced, often in very precarious positions. But when approached, the slider extends its legs horizontally and remains motionless, as if poised to parachute through the air. When a large intruder finally crosses the turtle's safety zone, it tilts and "slides'' into the river.

Often it is extremely difficult to distinguish the cooter and the slider, even at close range, unless binoculars are used. The best identifying marks are on the side of the head. The cooter has narrow, yellow, horizontal lines and the slider has one wide vertical yellow band directly behind the eye.

Often the older turtles are covered with a mat of mud and algae and do not reveal the intricate and beautiful patterns on the carapace, or top of the shell. But young cooters display an astonishing paisley pattern, and on sliders a series of vertical oval markings are visible. It is said that in ancient China the markings could reveal the future of one who happened upon a turtle in the wild.

Cooters and sliders begin their life as hatchlings from eggs that are laid by the mother in the river bank. Nesting could be almost any time in spring, summer or fall. A clutch of a dozen eggs is typical. Hatchlings immediately begin their march down to the river, facing many predators that might enjoy the taste of the soft-shelled young one. Once in the water, the babies remain close to shore to avoid being conspicuous prey for the largest predator of the river, the largemouth bass.

Often these silver-dollar sized hatchlings can be seen perched on a log above the water. When approached slowly, they can be picked up for closer examination. Many times people exclaim that they used to buy these types of turtles in pet stores years ago. But in most cases, the red-eared slider, a turtle native to regions west of the Mississippi River, was the species they kept as a pet. The sale of cooters and sliders is no longer legal in North Carolina.

Cooters and sliders are generally herbivores as adults, feeding on aquatic plant life. As juveniles they primarily eat insects. Adults will eat animal food when it is obtainable, as I have found that they are attracted to a turtle trap baited with dead fish. They have no teeth, possessing strong jaws and a honed beak. Cooters and sliders are not able to completely withdraw their heads into a closed shell like the eastern box turtle does. Cooters and sliders escape danger with their swift decent into the river.

Respect shown by humans to turtles in our area is fairly well established. We consider them wise because they generally go about their business at a slow but steady pace and live to respectable ages minding their own business. In other cultures they are revered even more. In the Middle East where I lived for many years, turtles were often placed on the flat roofs of homes as pets to protect the inhabitants below. In Japan, representations of turtles are given to newlyweds to wish the couple a long life of happiness.

But the pinnacle of turtle respect and veneration must come from India. There, an ancient cosmological legend states that the earth rests on the back of a giant elephant and in turn, the elephant stands on the back of an even larger turtle! If this is all true, I have finally unraveled the mystery surrounding the difficult events of this past year. The giant slider supporting the world must have seen comet Hale-Bopp approaching from the far corners of the solar system. Interpreting the comet as an evil omen, the cooter became frightened and decided to "slide'' off that great cosmic log into the Milky Way. This sudden action caused the giant elephant to jostle the earth, producing what we all experienced in North Carolina as Hurricane Fran.

Photo left by Mary Hopson: river cooter
Photo right by yellow belly slider