The spotted turtle and the effects of the pet trade

The spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata):


It doesn’t take very much to understand where the spotted turtle got its name from.  As seen above, its black shell is covered with a polka-dot pattern of yellow spots.  Head and limbs area also generally covered in these spots.  In fact, both the left and right side of these turtles’ faces have a large orange dot, which can sometimes be misinterpreted as ears.  In comparison to other Ontario turtles, which are already quite small to begin with, the spotted turtle is tiny!  This species measures in at less than 13 cm in carapace length (34).  The spotted turtle’s distribution in Ontario can be found below:

The story of the spotted turtle is a sad one.  Historically, maybe three or four decades ago, Ontario was home to roughly 104 populations of these turtles.  These days, 36 of these populations are no longer in existence, and a majority of those that are left are too small to sustain themselves.  It is estimated that over the past 30 or 40 years, the Canadian spotted turtle population has declined by 35%.  The trend is not yet at a standstill, as this number is plummeting further.  Currently, all known populations in Canada add up to about 2000 turtles (34).  I’m not sure about you guys, but 2000 was pretty much the population of my high school – it may seem like a large number, but it is not.  These animals are in trouble.

Unlike some of the other turtles that we’ve discussed, the reproductive output of the spotted turtle is particularly low.  This species has been known to live up to 110 years!  In Ontario, turtles may reach maturity when they are between 11 and 15 years old.  Afterwards, females may not lay eggs every year (34).  Of course, this means that there are very few baby turtles – hence the low reproductive output.  In addition to the issues with reproductive biology, spotted turtles are highly susceptible to predation.  Adults are preyed upon by raccoons, skunks, otters, muskrats, minks, black bears and bald eagles; whereas eggs are preyed upon by raccoons, red foxes, skunks and ants (34).  In relation to yesterday’s talk, you may have noticed the pesky urban predators on those lists.  The raccoon is a particular problem for this species.

The spotted turtle was last assessed as “Endangered” in 2004 by both COSEWIC and SARA.  As you may have noticed, this is the first (and will be the last) “Endangered” turtle species that we have encountered this week.  The spotted turtle is the only turtle in Ontario that has this status.  According to COSEWIC, “Endangered” is defined as: “A wildlife species facing imminent extirpation or extinction.” In other words, they are pretty much worse off than the other turtles that I have discussed.  In Ontario, some populations are protected by government parks and wildlife reserves, but this is still not solving the problem (34).

The spotted turtle is unfortunately a poster child for many of Ontario’s turtle problems.  It has been hard hit by pretty much everything that I have talked about; including habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, road mortality, predation, agriculture, and toxic contimanants (34).  However, in spite of all these factors, a large part of the spotted turtle’s decline has been blamed on illegal pet trade.

Pet trade:

Illegal pet trade is a sad example of how the lovability of turtles have worked to their detriment.  I have made it pretty clear this week that I absolutely love turtles!  Hopefully, by this point in time, you have also learned to love them.  Each day I have tried to list some turtle characteristics that you, the reader, may find interest in.  Unfortunately, it’s these very same characteristics that have made certain turtle species highly sought after as pets.  The spotted turtle is a prime example of population decline caused by over-collection (6)(34).  This species’ vulnerability resides in the fact that it exhibits site fidelity, meaning that it usually goes back to the same place to breed, nest and hibernate.  These reptiles also have a tendency to aggregate in groups (34).  All these characteristics leave spotted turtles as sitting ducks for pet harvest.

Remember the beautiful colouration of the wood turtle?  And the cute and unique yellow throat of the Blanding’s turtle?  It is perhaps these features that have made the above two species popular in the pet trade as well (18)(25).  Another ideal “domestic” trait of all three of these turtle species is that they are all small, which probably ups both the convenience and adorability factor.

In Ontario, a permit is required to collect spotted turtles (34).  However, words on paper obviously wouldn’t stop illegal harvesters from coming in and collecting turtles when no one is around to enforce protection.  As stated previously, these turtles are very small and may hang out in groups, making it unfortunately easy for pet traders to smuggle them out.  The wood turtle is also protected from commercial collection (25).  Again, the same conundrum applies here – it is easy to write these laws, but they are difficult to enforce since the government doesn’t exactly have eyes everywhere.  In the Blanding’s turtle, their road side nesting behaviours make them an easy target for illegal collection (18).

In another somewhat interesting twist of the pet trade, remember Monday?  When I asked you to pay attention to the red blur as you were watching the spiny softshell video?  That red blur was this:

The red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)

It’s a beautiful turtle, and I won’t take that away from it.  However, this turtle is highly invasive.  I had mentioned the red-eared slider while giving my class a presentation on turtle conservation.  Right after doing so, one of my classmates (who is on exchange) shot up her hand and shouted “THOSE THINGS ARE TERRIBLE!”  She proceeded to discuss how destructive they had been in her native country of France.  The situation was quite funny now that I think about it, she was literally enraged over the image of this creature.

The red-eared slider is an extremely popular pet all over the world and is native to the southern United States.  It can be found almost anywhere in the wild due to the pet trade.  The prolific number of these turtles is most likely the result of lost interest.  When people get tired of them, they get released.  It is one of only two reptiles to have made it onto the Invasive Species Specialist Group‘s  Top 100 Invasive Species list (35).  This species has pretty much been stirring up trouble everywhere (36)(37).  Part of the red-eared slider’s success stems from the fact that it is a generalist species (1), meaning that it can make use of a variety of habitats and resources.  This turtle is a nuisance because it will eat just about anything and can be quite aggressive.  Thus, not only can it carry foreign diseases and microorganisms, but it also competes with native turtles for resources (1)(36).  In this instance, rather than over-collection of native species, the pet trade has introduced an unwanted invader.

The irony of the situation is that although the pet trade is overexploiting native species, its presence as a big problem shows that there really are a lot of people out there who love turtles.  If we could somehow harness this passion towards conservation instead of domestication, I think the future of turtle conservation could be a bright one.

What can I do?

  • This one will hopefully be obvious, but don’t support illegal pet trade.
  • Do not purchase these species of turtles as pets.
  • If you already own a red-eared slider or another exotic pet, there is a proper way to part with it if you are no longer interested in keeping it.  Do not just release these foreign species into the wild.  Spread this message to friends with pets.
  • Tell people what you’ve learned!



18 thoughts on “The spotted turtle and the effects of the pet trade

  1. With such a small population, is it possible that the spotted turtle is undergoing inbreeding? If they are undergoing successive generations of inbreeding, would it permanently decrease genetic diversity leading to a “collection” of deterimental alleles in the population? I’m asking because I’m curious as to whether such an endangered species can be saved just by trying to increasing the population.

    P.S. Even I had a red-eared slider as a kid. Two of them. Needless to say, I witnessed to turtle casualties. =(

  2. i’m not sure if there is inbreeding right now
    you have to keep in mind that one “turtle generation” is very long, and there really haven’t been that many since their decline
    i mean, i’m sure that there will be in the future

    the populations really vary in size
    like i think i mentioned
    “a majority of those that are left are too small to sustain themselves”
    that is kind of what i meant – the populations are just too small
    for your problem –
    there might be a chance to save them if we could introduce more genetic diversity, for example, bringing in turtles from different populations
    so i guess the answer is that it may not be as simple as just increasing the population

  3. I have a spotted turtle – for about 8 years now. Was given to me by someone, who said they found it on the road and took it home. They had it for a few years. I love having it, but have been increasingly wondering if I should release “Spot”. My brother lives in a protected marshland. Would he survive now after all time in capativity? He will eat polywogs if we throw some in the tank.

  4. hey michele!
    sorry it took me so long to reply to this
    but at this point, i’m not sure if direct release into the wild is such a great idea
    as you said, it has been living domestically for a long time, so it may not know how to survive when alone
    what i would do is try to contact some conservation groups or specialists in your area, maybe they could give you a more informed answer
    i hope that helps!

  5. hi again, michele
    i got an answer from my conservation professor and he also forwarded the question to a turtle expert at the university of ottawa
    here are their responses:

    “I am certainly no expert on turtles, but I would suspect that “Spot” would indeed do fine if he was released close to where he was originally found. I would not recommend releasing Spot anywhere else for two reasons: Spotted Turtles seem to require fairly specialized habitat (as you know), and you want to be sure that Spot will join members of the same population (especially if these turtles have local adaptations).”

    “If you are not sure of the exact location I
    would keep spot or give him to a educational organism if you no longer can
    take care of him.”

    hope that helps!

  6. hi – Thanks for the comments. I do not know where Spot came from. I will keep him as long as he’ll have me.
    Thanks –

  7. Around 3 years ago I found a spotted turtle in the middle of a road. I did some research on him the night I found him (I know it’s a guy because of the concave plastron) and learned they lived in shallow bodies of water. I went to the place I found him and the only place I found with water was a ditch which was very badly polluted. I searched for some more spotted turtles but didn’t find anymore. So I took him back home and have kept him ever since, but I just recently figured out in some states where the spotted turtle is native, it’s illegal to own. I live in Ohio and I’ve searched online to see if it is illegal here and I haven’t been able to find the answer. Will someone tell me if it is illegal to own, or atleast give me a good website which could further enhance my search on where it is and is not illegal to own? If someone could help me I’d like it a lot.

  8. omg i am doing this for an assignment for school and it is hard to find good information on it!! this website helped allot thanks!!

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