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Red-bellied Cooter

Pseudemys rubriventris

Red-bellied cooters live in large ponds, streams, rivers and adjacent marshes, usually in areas with lots of aquatic vegetation. (James Harding/Michigan State University)
Red-bellied cooters live in large ponds, streams, rivers and adjacent marshes, usually in areas with lots of aquatic vegetation. (James Harding/Michigan State University)

The red-bellied cooter is an aquatic turtle with a dark, highly domed shell and a distinctive red belly. It can be found basking along the edge of ponds, streams and rivers throughout the Potomac River and in coastal portions of Maryland and Virginia.

Appearance:

  • Highly domed carapace (shell) that varies in color from brownish to black
  • Reddish bands across the middle of the scutes (plates) on the carapace. These bands vary depending on the turtle’s age and sex, and may only be visible when the shell is wet.
  • Reddish plastron (underside of the shell)
  • Young have a greenish carapace and an orange plastron
  • Black head with light lines that run toward the snout
  • Heavy upper jaw with a notch in the center
  • Grows 10-12.5 inches long

Habitat:

  • Lives in large freshwater lakes, ponds, streams, creeks, rivers and adjacent marshes, as well as in brackish rivers
  • Usually found in areas with deep, fast-moving water, a muddy bottom and lots of aquatic vegetation
  • Suns itself on rocks and logs to control its body temperature
  • Disappears into the water when alarmed
  • Hibernates in the mud at the bottom of rivers in winter

Range:

  • Found throughout the Potomac River and in the coastal plain of Maryland and Virginia

Feeding:

  • Omnivore
  • Feeds on snails, plants, worms, tadpoles, crayfish and insect larvae

Predators:

  • Skunks, crows, raccoons, herons and bullfrogs all prey upon red-bellied cooters
  • Lawn mowers often kill turtles that are resting in the grass in backyards

Reproduction and Life Cycle:

  • Little is known about red-bellied cooter mating habits
  • In June or July, females dig a nest near the water. They try to use the same nesting area every year.
  • Females lay 10-20 eggs, covering the nest afterward. They provide no care for their eggs or young.
  • Eggs hatch in 10-16 weeks
  • Lives 40-55 years

Other Facts:

  • Also called the redbelly turtle
  • Gets its name from its reddish plastron
  • The largest recorded basking turtle in the Chesapeake Bay region
  • Extremely shy and easily scared. If you spot a red-bellied cooter in the wild, it’s best to keep your distance and use binoculars to get a better look. If you get too close, it will quickly swim away.
  • Can be confused with painted turtles. You can distinguish a red-bellied cooter by its larger size, reddish plastron, and lack of yellow marks on its head.

Sources and Additional Information:


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