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Turtles And Turtle Traps



By Kenneth Williams

Turtles are the oldest living reptiles, over 200 million years old. Ecologically, they are important scavengers; and are common inhabitants of most Oklahoma ponds and streams. They are often seen basking in the sun, on rocks and partially submerged logs that have ready access to water. Turtles are diurnal creatures, active during the day and sleeping at night. Many pond owners find turtles to be a nuisance because they sometimes interfere with angling activities. Turtles occasionally will strike at catfish baits and become hooked; or feed on captive stringers of fish. Also, turtles quickly learn to eat commercial fish foods that are often fed to channel catfish and hybrid bluegill. Turtle populations can grow rapidly to nuisance proportions when fish feed is available regularly.

This fact sheet will describe life histories and habits of common aquatic turtles and offer methods to reduce turtle populations in ponds. Construction plans for a low-cost, easily constructed turtle trap are included.

It is a common misconception that all turtles consume large quantities of fish and consequently, ruin angling opportunities. This is not true. Oklahoma’s most common pond turtle, the red-eared turtle or red-eared slider, feeds mainly on aquatic vegetation, dead fish and other organisms.

Carnivorous species such as the common snapping turtle do eat fish. However, their numbers are usually quite small in most ponds and actual numbers of fish eaten are few.
There are three main groups of aquatic turtles, the sliders and coots, snapping turtles and soft shell turtles.

Pond Turtle Life Histories
The red-eared turtle - Trachemys scripta elegans is the most common turtle found in Oklahoma ponds. Typically, adults weigh 5-18 lb. and shell length is 5 -113/8 inches long. Life span of this turtle is about 20 years in the wild and up to 40 years in captivity. Red-eared turtles (deletion} inhabit ponds and quiet, river back waters with soft muddy bottoms and dense vegetation.

Red-eared turtles were once sold in many pet stores, however, Salmonella bacteria found on about 14 percent of young turtles now prevent sales of turtles less than 4 inches in length as pets in the United States.

The turtle is identified by the bright red “ear” patch found on the head, behind the eye.

Red-eared turtles are often seen basking on logs in or near the water. Basking increases body temperature and speeds digestion. Basking also dries the skin of the turtle causing leeches and other external parasites to fall off.

Breeding season is from March to June. Nests are constructed through June and July. Red-eared turtles lay 1-3 clutches of 4-23 oval eggs in shallow pits dug by the female. Nests are covered with a layer of soil after eggs are laid. Young turtles hatch in 8-10 weeks but many spend their first winter in the nest. Hatchlings are about 1 inch in diameter.

Young red-eared turtles feed on aquatic insects, tadpoles, snails and crawfish. As they mature they convert to a plant diet.

Red-eared turtles begin to hibernate in muskrat burrows, hollow logs or other cavities when water temperature drops to 500 F. Optimum temperature for red-eared turtles is about 850 F.

Snapping turtle - Chelydra serpintina
Snapping turtles are large, usually 10-35 lb but can weigh up to 85 lb. shell length is 8-18 inches. The tail is almost as long as the shell. Snappers are aggressive turtles when on land, often lunging forward repeatedly and biting when provoked. The powerful hooked jaws of a snapping turtle can cause severe injury and may result in severed fingers.

The common snapping turtle can be distinguished from the closely related alligator snapping turtle Macroclemys temmincki by a row of saw-toothed keels on the tail. The snapper also has a smaller head.

Common snapping turtles live in a variety of permanent bodies of freshwater. Unlike the red-eared turtles, snappers bask in shallow water with only their head above the surface.
Populations rarely reach nuisance levels in most ponds.

Snapping turtles bury themselves in the mud with only eyes and nostrils exposed and await their prey. They are omnivorous and eat a variety of crayfish, snails, mussels, fish, reptiles, amphibians small, birds and mammals, carrion and
vegetation.Mating season extends from April to November. June is the peak egg laying month. Typically, 25-50 spherical eggs are deposited in 4-7 inch deep cavity. Female snappers are sometimes seen on roadways as they travel to nesting sites sometimes far away from water.

Like the red-eared turtle, snapping turtles hibernate in winter.
Snappers are edible and considered fine table fare by many anglers. The meat is reported to consist of 7 flavors.

Alligator snapping turtle - Macroclemys temmincki
Alligator snappers do not have saw-toothed keels on the tail and can become much larger than the common snapping turtle. Alligator snappers typically weigh 35-150 lb. but may attain weights as much as 219 lb. Shell length is 15-26 inches.

These turtles are found in sloughs, oxbows and deep rivers. Preferred habitat includes areas of fallen timber.

Feeding habits are similar to the common snapping turtle.

Alligator snappers have a pink, worm-like structure located on the tongue. The turtle lies quietly in the mud on the pond bottom with mouth open, moving the worm-like lure to attract unsuspecting prey. Alligator snappers are more effective fish predators than the common snapping

April to June, alligator snappers lay one clutch of 10-52 spherical eggs in an excavated cavity in the soil. Unlike the common snapping turtle, the alligator snapper does not go more than about 150 feet from water to lay eggs. Young turtles hatch in the fall.

Snapping turtles are long-lived creatures with a relatively slow metabolism and low activity level. They require little food throughout the year to grow and reproduce.

Spiny softshell - Apalone spiniferus
Softshell turtles are identified by their flexible, flattened carapace covered in leathery skin. Softshells have paddle-like webbed feet with 3 claws. They move quickly on land and are fast swimmers. The neck is very long. Adult softshell turtle shell length can reach 16 inches. Use caution when handling softshells; their beak and claws are sharp and they can be aggressive. Softshell turtles have the ability to breathe by absorbing oxygen in the pharyngeal (throat) tissues and in anal tissues as well as through the lungs.

Softshell turtles can be found basking on banks or floating in the water of ponds, lakes and rivers, but rarely on rocks and logs.

Softshell turtles lay 4-32 spherical eggs in nests constructed in sun lit banks of sand or gravel, May through August.
Young turtles emerge August to October. Eggs deposited late in the season may not hatch until the following spring.

Softshell turtles are carnivorous and feed almost exclusively on aquatic insects and crayfish. Fish are a minor item in the diet; however, it does compete with fish for food organisms.

Softshell turtles are edible and are sometimes used to prepare “turtle soup”.

Turtle Trap Construction
Most turtle traps are constructed to use to advantage the turtle’s inclination to bask in the sun. This trap design allows the turtle to climb easily upon a rectangle of 4 inch PVC pipe, however, when the turtle slips back into the water on the cage side, it can not climb out of the trap. This trap is inexpensive to build and will last many years. One of these traps has been in continuous use for more than 15 years with only minor repairs.

1. Construct the top frame of 4 inch diameter PVC pipe. Use 900 elbows for the four corners. Carefully glue each joint to prevent leaks. An outside coat of silicone sealer can be used as extra reinforcement against leakage at the joints. The PVC pipe frame serves to float the trap. Frame size is not important, although traps larger than about 4 ft. x 4 ft. are difficult for one person to handle. Also, plastic coated welded wire is sold in 4 ft. widths which makes 4 ft. dimensions convenient and efficient. Smaller traps work equally well

2. Construct a 4 ft. x 4 x 2 ft. open top cage around the outside of the PVC pipe frame. The cage is best constructed of plastic coated welded wire mesh. Up to about 2 inch by 2 inch mesh size can be used. Other mesh materials can be used, however, trap life expectancy may be less. Fasten welded wire with stainless steel hog rings spaced about 1 inch apart. It is important that the wire mesh is attached to the outside edge of the PVC pipe frame.

3. Attach the trap cage to the frame with plastic cable ties or sturdy, plastic coated wire. The sides of the cage should be even, to slightly above the top edge of the pipe.

4. Build a walk ramp on one or more sides of the cage. Construct the ramp by folding a 16-24 inch piece of wire mesh into a “V” shape. Attach one edge of the ramp to the top side of the cage. Attach the bottom edge of the ramp 6-10 inches below the top edge. Attach the ramp with cable ties, sturdy wire or stainless steel hog rings.

5. Anchor the trap conveniently near the edge of the pond with a concrete block or other suitable weight. The trap will catch turtles as is, however, it is much more effective against snapping turtles when baited. Fish food, dead fish or pet foods are effective turtle baits. Snapping turtles have limited ranges. The trap will be most effective on snappers if it is periodically moved around the shoreline about 100 feet at a time. This is particularly necessary in ponds larger than about an acre in size.

Turtles naturally climb the ramp and attempt to sun themselves on the PVC pipe. The pipe is slick and some turtles fall into the trap. Others are attracted to the bait and enter the trap in search of it. Turtles cannot climb the slick PVC pipe and are trapped inside the cage.

The trap should be emptied occasionally and turtles relocated to a different area.

Collecting Turtles
A fishing license is required to collect turtles in many states. Daily possession limits may be in force and some species such as the alligator snapping turtle are protected and can not be collected. Turtles smaller than 4 inches can not be sold in the United States. Check local regulations in your area before taking turtles from the wild.

Oklahoma regulations concerning turtle harvest are as follows:
(Noncommercial): Taking of turtles shall be lawful in all waters throughout the year with a resident or nonresident fishing license provided that:
• no more than 6 turtles per day are taken;
• shooting of turtles on federal reservoirs is prohibited;
• terrestrial (land) turtles may not be sold;
• taking of the western chicken turtle, map turtle
and/or alligator snapping turtle is prohibited;
• the Wichita Mountains NWR is closed;
• no aquatic turtles may be sold or purchased without the proper commercial turtle harvester or buyers license.

Handling Turtles
Always carefully wash hands with soap and water after handling turtles to prevent possible Salmonella infections. Handle turtles only when necessary. Red-eared turtles are normally docile turtles but they can give a sharp bite or scratch that can become infected if care is not taken. Softshell turtles are quick, agile and often of an aggressive temperament. Handle all snapping turtles with extreme caution. Snappers are very aggressive and will readily lunge and bite the unwary person. A 20 lb snapping turtle can easily damage a finger.




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