Field Guide: Bald Head Island’s Underrated Turtles
July 7, 2023
by Morgan Greene, Education Part-timer
You’re leaning over the railing at the Bald Head Island Wildlife Overlook, scanning the surface of this natural freshwater pond for signs of movement. Apart from the cicadas buzzing in the trees, all is quiet. All is still—ah! At the edge of the pond, something dark green and reptilian rises to the surface under the shade of some overhanging vines! Could it be…?
Oh. Nope, it’s not an alligator. It’s just a turtle, and not even a sea turtle at that. You’ve spotted one of the much more common and underappreciated reptiles of Bald Head Island—the yellow-bellied slider. They may not look like aquatic dinosaurs, and they may not migrate thousands of miles at sea to lay their eggs, but yellow-bellied sliders still lead pretty fascinating lives. Just ask our resident sliders, Thor and Hulk! You don’t get names like that without being a little exciting.
For one, yellow-bellied sliders have an adorable mating ritual. The male slider, distinguishable from the female by his smaller size and long fingers, will stick his hands in the female’s face and flutter his claws to woo her. Thanks to their abundance throughout the eastern United States, you could easily come across this comical romantic display at your local pond, lake, or river, or right here on Bald Head! Mating season lasts from March to July, but mating rituals are still seen in the fall or even winter on occasion.
Like sea turtles, yellow-bellied sliders lay their eggs near the water. They tend to lay 6 to 10 eggs at a time in late spring or early summer. If you see a slider digging a hole with its hind legs, it’s probably making a nest to bury its eggs in! The eggs take about 3 months to hatch, but they’ll spend the winter warm and cozy in their nest while their parents brumate—it’s like hibernation, except the turtles rouse themselves to sun and snack on warm winter days. Then in the spring, the hatchlings will scurry down to the water for their first swim and start munching on bugs, small fish, and tadpoles. These baby sliders will eat just about anything they can fit in their mouths, but adults are mostly herbivorous and prefer leafy greens.
Males can be about 5-9 inches long, and females can reach a foot or more in length. It takes about 3-5 years for male turtles to mature, or 5-7 years for females, but yellow-bellied sliders often live for about 30 years in the wild. Sliders in captivity have been known to live for 40 years or more, so if you’re thinking of getting a pet turtle, make sure you’re ready for a lifelong companion! Although they don’t typically enjoy being handled by humans, yellow-bellied sliders are quite social with each other and often bask, or sun together on warm days. You might even see sliders stacked on top of each other. They mostly communicate by touch or sensing vibrations in the water, but sliders can also make quiet chirping noises, and they hiss if they feel stressed or threatened.
So, why are they called “yellow-bellied sliders,” anyway? The “yellow-bellied” part isn’t too hard to figure out, but “slider” comes from their predator-escape strategy. Unlike sea turtles, sliders are semi-aquatic, which means they need to get out of the water sometimes to relax and warm up. Sliders love to sun on logs and rocks, but when they’re approached by someone or something that appears threatening, they’ll slide off into the water and swim away! Red foxes, opossums, and raccoons may try to take a bite out of unsuspecting sliders, but if the turtle doesn’t slide away in time, it can tuck its head into its shell for protection.
A lot of folks come to Bald Head Island hoping to see an alligator or sea turtle, and who could blame them? These large reptiles captivate us with their fierceness and elegance, but smaller reptiles like sliders are also worthy of admiration. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t get excited about encountering a gator or sea turtle during your stay at Bald Head, but next time you mistake a slider for an alligator, take a moment to keep watching—you might find yourself thinking that yellow-bellied sliders are a little extraordinary, too.
Visit Fleming Environmental Education Center to learn more about what makes our native wildlife – including yellow-bellied sliders – special from our ambassador animals! To plan your visit, click here.