Isolated population in Massachusetts currently confined to ponds within Plymouth County.
Freshwater ponds of varying sizes with abundant aquatic vegetation.
The primary range of the Red-bellied Cooter is from the coastal plain of New Jersey south to Carolina and inland to West Virginia. The Northern Red-Belly Cooter formerly known as the Plymouth Red-Belly is only found in ponds located in Plymouth County. The Red-Belly is a specialist with biological needs that make it vulnerable to environmental changes.
Northern Red-Belly Cooters feed primarily on aquatic vegetation, especially milfoil (Myriophyllum psp.)While young they may also occasionally feed on crayfish or other invertebrates.
An adult female is 10-12 inches long and may weigh as much as 10 pounds. The male is smaller. The carapace, or upper shell, ranges in background color from light chestnut to black, with reddish, vertical bars. The lower shell, or plastron, is coral red in females and pale pink in males, with dark mottling in both sexes. The color tends to darken with age, especially in the male.
Red-bellied Cooters overwinter at the bottom of ponds and sometimes streams. During the warmer months, they are found almost exclusively in the water. Females will leave the water to nest and occasionally individuals will leave to migrate from one water body to another. Mating occurs in shallow water during the Spring.
Females will dig a nest in sandy soil near the pond during late spring or early summer, and lay about 10-20 eggs. Incubation lasts about 73 to 80 days. Newly hatched turtles are about an inch long and weigh about a quarter of an ounce. Generally, the young turtles leave the nest for the pond in late summer, but sometimes they’ll stay in the nest through the winter, emerging the following spring.
The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program has been running a headstarting program for Red-Bellied Cooters since 1980. The Buttonwood Park Zoo has been involved in this program since 2000. Each year MassWildlife in cooperation with others collect roughly 100 hatchlings and raise them in captivity for the year, in order to produce yearlings that at the time of release are roughly the same size as a three year old. The larger yearling have been given a “Head Start” and are less likely to be predated and more likely to make it to adulthood.
Did You Know?
Sex determination in Red-Bellied Cooters is temperature dependent. Warmer nest site temperatures produce females and cooler sites produce males.