Year of the Turtle
Northeast Region
 

Northern Red-bellied Cooter

Turtle of Concern in the Northeast

In one county in Massachusetts, a native freshwater turtle—the northern red-bellied cooter (Pseudemys rubriventris)—lives more than 250 miles from the rest of the species, which lives along the coast in southern New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. The Massachusetts population has been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1980, when it was listed as a federally endangered species.

As an ecologically and geographically distinct population, the northern red-bellied cooter faces difficult odds; its small population size and limited range can hinder its long-term survival. In more recent times, environmental pressures have challenged turtle survival. Extensive residential and agricultural development have altered its coastal plain pond habitat.

Development, roads and stream channel alteration have fragmented habitat, eliminating many of the natural movement corridors between ponds. Such habitat modifications are a large part of this cooter's predicament.

About the northern red-bellied cooter

With an adult size of 10 to 12 inches and weighing up to 10 pounds, the northern red-bellied cooter is larger than most freshwater turtles, except the snapping turtle. Females are larger than males and reach sexual maturity at 15 to 20 years, and the two sexes are differently patterned and colored.

While headstarting—caring for hatchlings before safe release into the wild—is an important part of the recovery strategy for the northern red-bellied cooter, the Service emphasizes the importance of habitat protection for long-term recovery.

The major threat to the species is lack of open-canopy, sunny habitat, due to changes in land use. In the past, natural fires frequently burned the pine barren habitat occupied by this turtle, leaving openings in the mixed pine and oak forest that are preferred by cooters for nesting.

For 100 years, the area has been protected from fire, allowing most of the remaining undeveloped areas to grow into closed-canopy pine forest. These closed-canopy forests surround most ponds and decrease the heat from the sun needed for incubating eggs in their nesting habitats.

Cooters also face predation. Raccoons and skunks find nests and dig them up to eat the eggs. Even when hatchlings survive that predation threat, they face being eaten by largemouth bass, herons and bull frogs.

Working toward recovery in the Northeast Region

Massasoit National Wildlife Refuge

  • Biologists are surveying the health of populations at Crooked Pond on the refuge.
  • The refuge is also improving the sustainability of nesting sites by enhancing the sunny, sandy habitat essential for this turtle.
  • Firefighters from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, Massachusetts, and Plymouth Fire Department held a controlled burn in May 2011 near Myles Standish State Forest in Plymouth, Mass., to reduce the risk of wildfire to nearby homes and to improve wildlife habitat for species like the cooter.

Partnerships with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife

  • Nest protection is essential for northern red-bellied cooter conservation and recovery, so state biologists monitor ponds with cooters during nesting season. The biologists place screened cages over the nests to prevent the eggs from being dug up by skunks and other animals.
  • The headstart program led by Massachusetts plays a major role in the recovery of red-bellied cooter populations.
    • The program boosts survival of cooters by hatching the eggs and raising the hatchlings to a size large enough to be released into the wild with a reduced threat to predation.
    • For more information on the state headstart program, visit: Mass.gov

The Service, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and private landowners continue to work together to help the northern red-bellied cooter reach recovery in the Northeast.

Download the factsheet (pdf)

Northern red-bellied cooter hatchlings swim at the National Marine Life Center as part of the headstart program in Massachusetts. Credit: National Marine Life Center
Northern red-bellied cooter hatchlings swim at the National Marine Life Center as part of the headstart program in Massachusetts. Credit: National Marine Life Center

The National Marine Life Center, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and partners release the turtles from the 2010 headstart program
The National Marine Life Center, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and partners release the turtles from the 2010 headstart program Credit: National Marine Life Center

Adult red-bellied cooter and eastern painted turtle on a log at Federal pond in Plymouth, Massachsetts.
Adult red-bellied cooter and eastern painted turtle on a log at Federal pond in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Credit: Bill Byrne/Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife


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Last updated: July 20, 2011