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Water turtles, particularly the popular red-eared sliders, display a distinct mating ritual that should be easy to identify with careful observation. However, these turtles are so numerous and are released into the wild so often that in some areas they’re considered an invasive species. For this reason, it’s not recommended to breed pet water turtles intentionally, and to avoid allowing them to mate if possible.
Pet Water Turtles
Although there are many different wild species of water turtles living in the United States, the most popular in the pet trade, according to the San Diego Turtle and Tortoise Society, is the red-eared slider, or trachemys scripta elegans, a subspecies of the common pond slider. These are the most common turtles to be found in aquariums and are easily identified by the yellow and black stripes on the head, neck and legs, as well as the bright red ear patches that give this species its name.
When Turtles Mate
Typically, male red-eared slider turtles don’t reach sexual maturity until they're 2 to 4 years of age. For females, it happens even later, at 5 to 7 years. It’s illegal for pet turtles to be sold before they reach at least 4 inches in diameter, at which size it's unlikely a female will be ready for mating. A male, however, might be mature enough at this size. In the wild, red-eared sliders and other pond turtles have distinct breeding seasons during the months of March and June, but pet turtles kept indoors might desire to breed year-round.
The Courtship Dance
When a male turtle initiates courtship, he can be observed coming onto the female by swimming backwards in front of her while tickling her face with his front claws. It should be noted, however, that both male and female turtles sometimes do this for reasons other than mating. During the mating ritual, this behavior can go on for hours or even days before the female relents and allows the male to mount her. He will stay mounted atop her shell long enough to insert his tale beneath hers and fertilize her eggs.
Identifying a Pregnant Turtle
If you have witnessed your pet water turtles mating, you should be able to tell within two or three weeks whether the female is pregnant. Gently insert your finger into her shell in front of her hind leg to feel for lumps. These lumps are eggs, and if you find them, you'll need to separate her from the other turtles and provide a laying area for her outside of the water, along with plenty of UVB light to bask in as well as extra calcium in her diet.
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