Under F.A.C. 68A-25.002(6), no person can take a cooter species, their eggs, or parts there of, from the wild.
Florida is home to several species and subspecies of cooters: the river cooter, Florida cooter, Florida red-bellied cooter and Suwannee cooter. There are similarities in appearance across all cooter species: they all have moderately to highly domed shells, yellow to cream stripes on their heads and limbs, females grow larger than males, the shells on male turtles are less domed, and males have longer claws. The Suwannee cooter, a species covered by Florida’s Imperiled Species Management Plan, is the largest cooter in the state. There is some taxonomic uncertainty between species and subspecies that future research will help resolve the relationships between cooter species.
Pseudemys concinna concinna
The shell is highly domed with a black to dark brown base color. The shell pattern is made up of green, yellow, brown and/or black markings. A light backward-facing ‘C’ shaped mark can be seen on the second scale (scute) of the shell. The bellies are yellow to orange with black pigment along the seams. Adult size ranges from 9-13 inches with a maximum shell length of 17.2 inches.
Pseudemys floridana floridana
Pseudemys floridana peninsularis
The elongated shell is moderately domed, with a dark brown or black base color, and yellow or orange lines. The belly is plain yellow. Adult size ranges from 9-13 inches with a maximum shell length of 15.6 inches.
Florida Red-bellied Cooter
The shell is black and highly domed with reddish to yellow-orange vertical stripes on each scale. The belly is yellow orange to reddish. Adult size ranges from 8-12 inches with a maximum shell length of 14.8 inches.
Cooters are predominately herbivorous, and primarily eat rooted aquatic vegetation. Juveniles may eat insects and small fish but shift to a plant-based diet as they age. Cooters can be most easily seen basking on floating logs, rocks or vegetation on sunny days and are quick to flee to the water if disturbed. Cooters are aquatic turtles that only leave the water to nest, or search for new habitat during periods of heavy rain or drought. Cooters sometimes nest in yards or flower beds.
Cooters can live up to 40 years. Females have delayed maturity and may not lay their first nest until they are 10 years old. The nesting season generally spans from spring to fall but varies with latitude throughout the state. In south Florida, cooters may nest year-round. Cooters can nest multiple times a year, and individual turtles have been recorded nesting up to 6 times in a single year. Clutch sizes range from around 5–30 eggs with larger females producing larger nests.
Cooters can be found throughout Florida, although different species use different habitats. Florida cooters, which can be found state-wide, and Florida red-bellied cooters, which can be found throughout peninsular Florida, prefer permanent non-flowing bodies of water such as lakes, canals, ponds, swamps, marshes and slow-moving rivers. River cooters, which can be found from the Big Bend region through the Tampa Bay area, prefer bodies of water with a moderate current and can be found in rivers, backwaters, impoundments and spring runs. All species prefer to live in bodies of water that are abundant with aquatic vegetation.
Florida Red-bellied Cooter
Predation: Racoons, opossums, red foxes, river otters, feral hogs, dogs, black bears, alligators and birds of prey are all threats to cooters, but the impacts of native predators to cooter populations is minimal. Nonnative predators, such as Argentine black and white tegus or red imported fire ants, prey on eggs and hatchlings of cooters and may be a more significant threat than native predators.
Habitat loss and degradation: Habitat loss and degradation from development and agriculture is affecting all cooter species. Runoff and pollution can degrade water quality and can affect aquatic vegetation.
Vehicle Impacts: Motorized boats may be a significant source of mortality in highly trafficked areas. Cooters are also vulnerable to car strikes when crossing highways or roads during the nesting season.
Disease: Turtle fraservirus 1 has impacted cooter populations, although the net effect of this virus is unknown.
How You Can Help
Turtles can be helped across the road if it is safe to do so, but it’s important to only move the turtle in the direction it was heading and release it once it is safe. Turtles should not be moved, even if it appears there isn’t appropriate habitat for it nearby.
If a turtle is nesting in your yard, the best thing to do is leave the turtle and nest alone. Both cooters and their nests are protected from take in Florida, and generally do not meet the criteria of nuisance wildlife. Cooter nests generally hatch within 90 days. If you wish to protect the nest, a marker can be placed several feet away from the nest and the area can be avoided (for example, not mowed over or raked), or a cage may be placed over the nest to protect it. If you find a nest that has been dug up by predators but there are still whole eggs, contact a wildlife rehabilitation facility for further assistance.
To avoid spreading turtle fraservirus 1, do not capture and transport any cooters, even those that appear healthy, to release at new locations.
Report any sightings of sick or deceased turtles to the FWC by calling the Turtle Hotline at 352-339-8597.