By Eric Duran
Spring has sprung again at the Nature Discovery Center, and indeed all over Bellaire and West University. Wildflowers are blooming, wintering birds and butterflies are returning from the south, and creatures are waking from their winter slumber.
We refer to the winter dormancy of warm-blooded mammals as hibernation, and that of cold-blooded reptiles, amphibians and fish as brumation. Warm spring temperatures have roused our own box turtles from their brumation piles. This month we’ll take a look at box turtles and two more species of turtle that you may see returning to action in our park, or perhaps near your own backyard.
The most commonly seen land turtle in the Houston area is the Three-toed Box Turtle. They are generally caramel or some other shade of brown and the size of about half a coconut. The males grow to be a little larger than the females and can also be distinguished from the females by having red eyes (while the females have yellowish eyes).
They can be rather active little turtles, ambling around forests and fields, especially after heavy rains. Box turtles feed on a wide variety of plants and animals such as berries, flowers, mushrooms, insects, worms, slugs and snails. They have a lower shell that is hinged, allowing them to close it to hide their head and legs from predators.
Pallid Spiny Softshell Turtles look like big sand-colored pancakes with four legs and a head. Unlike most turtles, they lack scales on their skin, and their shells are made of cartilage. The males grow to be a little bigger than a bread plate, but the much larger females can grow the size of a serving platter!
Don’t let the “soft” shell fool you, these animals are voracious predators, feeding on aquatic creatures such fish, frogs, and crayfish with their sharp beaks. This sharp beak is hidden behind soft lips, and can deliver a rather bloody and injurious bite (like a snapping turtle), so beware! Softshells prefer still or slow moving bodies of freshwater with silty or sandy bottoms, but can be seen resting on the concrete edges of Brays Bayou, as well.
The most common pond turtle seen around town is the Red-eared Slider. Though the species is native to this part of Texas, its population has been boosted from being a popular pet turtle. Many pet owners will buy them from pet stores, and then release them into the wild when they grow disinterested, or are unable to care for them. This practice in areas outside of the Red-ear’s native range, the southeastern U.S., can be rather detrimental to the native turtles in those regions, such as in Europe and the western U.S.). These common freshwater turtles are mainly carnivorous as juveniles and shift to a mostly herbivorous diet as adults.
If you’d like to find out more about our local turtles and other native reptiles, please join us for our family Meet the Animals Program: Reptile Rendezvous at 2 p.m. on Sunday April 28. Call for information at 713-667-6550 or visit our website at naturediscoverycenter.org
Duran is staff naturalist at the Nature Discovery Center, 7112 Newcastle Dr., Bellaire