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|Chicken turtle lithograph of 1842|
|Chicken turtle, Central Florida|
The name "chicken" turtle refers to the taste of their meat, which used to be popular in southern markets.
The chicken turtle is similar in appearance to the eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys picta picta), but has an unusually long, striped neck that is close to the length of its shell, with a yellow stripe on both the forelegs and rear legs. They have webbed feet to help them swim. It has a distinguishable net-like pattern on its carapace. The carapace is pear-shaped, and is an olive to dark brown. Females are usually larger than the males, and males have a longer, thicker tail. Males also have longer front claws. At birth, chicken turtles are one inch in diameter, and adults reach from 10.2-25.4 cm. The chicken turtle is medium in size compared to other turtles.
Chicken turtles are regularly encountered on land, migrating between aquatic habitats or seeking areas to burrow into the soil and escape dry conditions. Males generally travel around farther than females. They are social, spending much of their time basking on logs and rocks and swim in small groups. Chicken turtles hibernate in the soft mud, but only in the northern part of their range, and vegetation of bodies of water. They are known to be timid and if caught they generally will bite very easily.
Wild chicken turtles have been recaptured up to 15 years old after their first capture. Some reached the maximum ages of 20 to 24 years.
Chicken turtles are semi-aquatic turtles, found both in water and on land. They prefer quiet still bodies of water: Shallow ponds and lakes, ditches, marshes, cypress swamps, and Carolina Bays. They prefer water with dense vegetation and soft substrate. Chicken turtles are tolerant of ephemeral aquatic habitats and readily travel onto land to burrow into the soil and escape dry conditions. They've been found at depths of a few centimeters to more than 2 m.
Males reproduce with female chicken turtles by vibrating the fore-claws against the female's face. Once the female is receptive, copulation occurs. Chicken turtles are different from most other North American turtles because they nest in either fall or winter. In South Carolina, there are two-egg laying seasons; from winter to early spring (February to may) and fall to early winter (August to November). Females excavate cylindrical nest on land in a variety of soil types, from sandy to heavy soils. Females lay 2 to 19 clutches of eggs. Chicken turtle embryos go through a period of dispause in the late gastrula stage. They must experience a period of cool temperatures before development proceeds. Eggs hatch in 152 days at 29 Celsius, some eggs may overwinter in the nest before hatching. Incubation temperature influences the sex of the embryos, with a 25 degrees Celsius incubation temperature resulting in all males. Warmer temperatures result in an increase in female embryos, with only 11 percent becoming males at incubation temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius.
Chicken turtles are omnivorous, eating crayfish, fish, fruits, insects, invertebrates, frogs, tadpoles and plants. During the first year of their life they are almost completely carnivorous. Although they are mostly carnivorous at birth they will still eat plants. Chicken turtles use their well-developed hyoid apparatus to create suction that pulls food items into their throat, which is very unusual.
Chicken turtle populations are currently considered stable throughout their range, although they do face potential threats. The eastern chicken turtle species is listed as state threatened in Virginia. Habitat destruction reduces suitable habitat for foraging, migration, and hibernation. Chicken turtles are sometimes killed on roads as they migrate between habitats. Hunting for food impacts populations of chicken turtles as well.
There are three distinct sub-species of Chicken turtle:
- Eastern chicken turtle (Deirochelys reticularia reticularia)
- Florida chicken turtle (Deirochelys reticularia chrysea)
- Western chicken turtle (Deirochelys reticularia miaria)
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