Forty Acres Field Guide: Red-Eared Slider

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UT is an urban university in the heart of the city, yet the campus and its environs teem with fascinating plants and animals—from tropical parakeets to the world’s weirdest cactus.


Red-Eared Slider
(Trachemys scripta elegans)

Stop by UT’s iconic Turtle Pond on a sunny spring afternoon, and you might see something odd: a pair of turtles—one small, one larger—circling each other in the water. Every few seconds, the smaller turtle darts in and vigorously slaps the larger one in the face.

Longhorns are protective of their Turtle Pond, and when a student or professor witnesses what looks like turtle violence, David Hillis’ phone will ring. The UT biology professor is the unofficial guardian of the Turtle Pond, and he dispels Longhorns’ turtle misconceptions several times a week.

In a slightly weary voice, Hillis recounts some of the most common inquiries: “People will call or email and say, ‘I’m worried because the turtles are fighting,’ or ‘There’s a turtle running away from the pond.’”  What looks like slapping is actually normal behavior, Hillis reassures. It’s a springtime ritual in which the male turtle slaps the larger female, hoping to impress her enough to mate with him. And as for runaways, they’re usually a good sign: female turtles take to the grass to lay their eggs.

Turtle FactIn 1999, the Turtle Pond and its adjacent garden were dedicated in memory of the 1966 Tower shooting victims, but the pond has been around for much longer. The pond started out as a research facility for the biology department—until people began abandoning pet turtles there. In the 26 years he’s been watching over the pond, Hillis has had to find homes for the unwanted pets. Non-native species can introduce disease and overcrowd the native turtles, he explains: “It’s a real problem. We have a hard time finding places that will take them in, because no one wants these extra turtles.”

Besides the occasional orphan, the pond is home to four native turtle species: the red-eared slider, the spiny softshell turtle, the Texas river cooter, and the common snapping turtle. The slider—by far the most common species in the pond and the most popular pet turtle worldwide—is a medium turtle ranging from 8-13 inches in length. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but Hillis estimates the pond may hold from 40-50 turtles.

During winter freezes, Hillis hears from students and staff who are worried about the turtles. “I tell people they’re just fine, burrowed in the mud,” he says. “They’re wild animals and they can take care of themselves. What they have to worry about more often is us.”

To read the rest of the Forty Acres Field Guide, click here.

Illustration by Jason Holley.


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