Monday, February 6, 2012

Aquatic Ferrari - The Florida Softshell Turtle

There’s a tremendous advantage to having a tall carapace (upper shell) and sturdy plastron (bottom shell) if you’re a turtle in the southeastern United States. Here there be alligators and despite the fact that an alligator can exert thousands of pounds of pressure of chomping power on their prey, if they can’t slam their jaw shut on their oversized meal, they have to look for lunch elsewhere.

Sliders and Cooters are the SUVs of the turtle world. They’re hefty, relatively slow moving but strong bodied. I’ve often seen tooth marks where an alligator has cracked a hole in the carapace but got no further. Florida Softshell Turtles (Apalone ferox) on the other hand have soft, flexible upper and lower parts that are covered in skin as opposed to the keratinous, fingernail-like covering on other turtle shells. Softshells are the Ferraris of the turtle world. While the shell doesn’t afford them much protection against the crushing bite of an alligator, I have seen them use their speed to their advantage. The bottom right photo shows the head of a large female softshell in the toothy grasp of the alligator. The turtle didn’t panic and seemed content to be escorted around. Instead of struggling and wasting energy, it was biding its time. When the alligator opened up to get a better bite, the softshell took off with a burst of speed. Sorry gator.
The Florida Softshell Turtle can be distinguished from other softshells by the bumpy ridge above the head on the carapace. Males grow to be around 12 inches while females are sizably larger at 20 inches. Florida softies are omnivorous and aquatic, although they do bask out of the water and cross roads as necessary. In the spring the females will find a soft-soiled area to lay their eggs or if they’re feeling lucky, the female will sneak her eggs into the side of an alligator’s nest where ironically they are protected from nest predators by the mama alligator. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if you’re an SUV or a Ferrari. What matters is how long you’re in the race.

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