On your way across the Bay, there’s no doubt you’ve seen the Delta’s most visible reptile: an Alabama red-bellied cooter basking lazily on a log or root. Though they seem to be plentiful, they are rarely found above I-65, making Alabama’s official reptile also one of its most endangered. The Causeway plays a pivotal role in the survival of this herbaceous, freshwater turtle.
EASY PREY Its natural predators include alligators, raccoons, fishes, birds (especially fish crows) and even fire ants. Many adult red-bellied turtles have alligator tooth markings; youths do not, leading to the assumption that few youngsters survive such attacks. Biologist David Nelson says the babies are “tasty little morsels” for many predators.
TRIBAL ROOTS “Cooter” is a popular colloquial term for freshwater turtles native to the Southern and Eastern United States, adapted from the African tribal word “kuta.”
SUNNY DISPOSITION Cold-blooded cooters bask on logs and pilings to raise their body heat in order to improve digestion and movement. Especially skittish, they’re quick to jump into the water when bothered.
ROADKILLED Humans have contributed to the deaths of these turtles by hunting and eating the species, collecting their eggs, contaminating vegetation with herbicide and causing damage with boat propellers. Perhaps most significant is roadside mortality, particularly along the Causeway.
CHILL FACTOR These unique reptiles do respond differently to each winter’s severity. In warmer years, they can be seen no matter the season, but colder winters lead them to go into a short underwater hibernation of sorts.
MUTANT NINJA? A slight misnomer, the red-bellied turtle’s underside varies in color and intensity: It ranges from deep red (found primarily in males and babies) to orange to pale yellow (particularly among bigger females).
Give ’em a Brake
David H. Nelson, biology professor at the University of South Alabama and local red-bellied turtle expert, has been monitoring their roadside mortality rates for more than a dozen years.
◗ Because females must deposit eggs on elevated land (above water), the roadsides on the Causeway are obvious choices for them to nest. “They lay eggs in various areas on the side of the road and are inadvertently hit by cars as they do so, ” says Nelson. The impact of these deaths is huge: “Because they can produce many eggs in a lifetime, the loss of even one female will have a significant impact on the population.”
◗ Following the installation of protective fencing along the Causeway in 2007 and 2008, the researcher has seen a “significant decline” in thoroughfare fatalities for the red-bellied turtle. “It has been a good success story, ” he says. But it’s not over yet.
◗ To do your part, Nelson says to simply “keep an eye out for turtles when going across the Causeway. Don’t try to pick them up; just avoid hitting them.” Being aware of turtles’ nesting patterns can let you know when to be most cautious: June and July for egg-laying mothers, March and April for emerging hatchlings.
Do you have a favorite local critter or plant that you’d like to see featured in Natural Selections? Email suggestions to Haley at [email protected].
text by HALEY POTTS • illustration by kelan mercer