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Florida chicken turtle makes rare appearance

By Staff | Apr 8, 2020

SCCF Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation staff confirm Florida chicken turtle nest containing 10 eggs.

Florida chicken turtles (Deirochelys reticularia chrysea) were considered somewhat common during the 1970s and early 1980s according to reports, but for some reason, no specimens were documented from the late 1980s until a shell (carapace) was found in 2009 on a Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation preserve. Since then, only four more examples have been documented, according to SCCF officials.

In January, SCCF Native Landscape & Garden Center intern Haley Gladitsch was walking back from lunch and noticed a Florida chicken turtle laying eggs in the grass. She immediately notified the Wildlife & Habitat Management biologists, who conduct terrestrial and freshwater turtle research on the island, and they came out to verify and document the occurrence.

The chicken turtle is an odd and rare turtle on the island, with females averaging about 8-9 inches and males averaging about 5-6.5 inches in shell length. They were named chicken turtles because they were thought to taste like chicken and have a very long neck.

Of the 10 non-marine turtles found on Sanibel, only two of them are considered rare – or at least rare to encounter. The chicken turtle is an ephemeral species for the local area, meaning that it is only active when wetlands fill up during the wet season. When the dry down occurs, they dig underground and enter an aestivation (a dormancy) until water levels rise again.

SCCF staff took advantage of the rare opportunity and verified the nest contained 10 eggs. They also fastened a radio transmitter to its shell so they could follow its movements to learn about its life history on the island. As expected, as the water began to dry down over the last month, the chicken turtle dug down and has not moved since. Staff expect that they will not see any movement until the summer rains have filled in the wetlands.