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Sanibel residents spot pregnant Florida chicken turtle

By SCCF - | Feb 17, 2021

SCCF Doug and Leah Beck

During the last 30 years, the Florida chicken turtle has been rare on Sanibel, with only four verified sightings between the 1980s and 2019. But that changed recently when Doug and Leah Beck, who are major supporters of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s terrestrial and freshwater turtle research, alerted herpetologist and Director of Wildlife & Habitat Management Chris Lechowicz to a strange-looking turtle crossing the street near their home.

He was excited to inform them it was in fact a pregnant female Florida chicken turtle. She was radiographed by the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, which showed seven eggs, and was outfitted with a radio transmitter.

“We can track her movements on the island and learn which habitat she chooses during both the dry and wet seasons,” Lechowicz said, adding that it is the western-most island location documented for the species.

He said the Florida chicken turtle is an ephemeral species of turtle that is only active at certain times of the year. They live around temporary water bodies and remain dormant in the dry season (aestivation) until the proper amount of water collects in wetlands during the wet season. However, they can become active during the dry season with irregular but consistent rainfall. Populations of the turtles are especially scarce on barrier islands because they need freshwater and feed mostly on crayfish, tadpoles, and fish.

They are often confused with freshwater sliders and cooters because they are part of the same taxonomic family — Emydidae — which is the largest turtle family in the United States.

SCCF A Florida chicken turtle hatchling swims in a shallow marsh on Sanibel.

HOW TO IDENTIFY THEM

The Florida chicken turtle has an oblong shell shape, web-type patterns on the carapace, a very long neck like a softshell turtle, and a characteristic black bar on the bridge (running alongside both sides of the turtle’s body). No other U.S. species possesses the black-barred bridge.

They also have an odd nesting pattern and even stranger incubation cycle. Chicken turtle eggs have been shown to go through a diapause (a pause in egg development) — the eggs don’t develop continuously as they do in other native turtles. Instead, they wait for an environmental cue, such as a seasonal temperature change or increased rainfall indicating the beginning of the rainy season. It is a common trait in many South American species of turtles, especially along the Amazon River. The longest-recorded incubation time for the species is about 18 months, whereas the duration for most of our turtles is about 60 days.

Because of the species’ unusual lifecycle and rarity, it’s easy to understand why Lechowicz is especially pleased that the sharp-eyed Becks quickly reached out to him about their find.

To report any findings of unusual terrestrial turtles, email clechowicz@sccf.org.