While most species of aquatic turtles are inactive, tucked-away on the bottom of a pond in the leaf litter and mud, our resident sliders tend to become active throughout the colder months. All it takes is a few bright sunny days. Among the local turtles, yellow-bellied and red-eared sliders, eastern painted turtle, common musk turtle, and common snapping turtle, it’s the sliders that are most often seen out basking in late fall and winter.
The water is shallow in our wetland. In one area the water is about three feet deep. Most of the pond is far shallower. The sun quickly penetrates to and warms the bottom of the pond. A few days of sunshine brings out the sliders.
The turtles are still in the water when it’s below freezing, though they move very slowly. I once saw a slider through the ice at the edge of the pond. I thought at first it was dead as its neck was outstretched to the side with its head resting on the bottom. When I passed the location an hour later, the turtle was gone.
You might ask, “How do turtles breathe under water during winter?” As alluded to, their metabolism slows down considerably reducing the need for oxygen. Even so, they still need some oxygen to stay alive. Aquatic turtles have developed more permeable skin to allow for the transfer of gas through the skin. They also take in oxygen through a process called “cloacal respiration.” The cloaca is the part of the turtle’s body which is used for waste removal, reproduction and, as it happens, to breathe while under water, a multi-purpose organ to be sure.
So, the next bright sunny day you’re out walking the trails here at the museum, or trekking a favorite hiking trail around some local pond or lake, don’t be surprised if you see a few turtles out on a log taking in the sun. I bet you they’re sliders