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What the shell! A guide to turtle watching at Austin's Lady Bird Lake

Bradley Allf
American-Statesman staff

While the most famous wildlife in Austin is undoubtedly the colony of bats living under the Congress Avenue Bridge, paddling below that bridge is another conspicuous animal that deserves more recognition — the turtle.

All over Lady Bird Lake, walkers, paddlers and cyclists can spy turtles basking on logs and swimming just under the surface. The American-Statesman turned to two Texas turtle experts — Carl Franklin, president of the nonprofit conservation group Texas Turtles, and Tim Cole, owner of Austin Reptile Service and a member of the Austin Herpetological Society — to provide a primer on the river reptiles.

The County Line barbecue restaurant in West Austin is a prime turtle-spotting location, and researchers find plenty of specimens there, like this green guy seen on June 5.

According to Franklin and Cole, you can see six species in the waterways around Austin. Cole said this is a sign of a well-functioning ecosystem, even in an area with a significant human presence. You can see these turtles by the dozens along the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail. The County Line barbecue restaurant near Bull Creek, a West Austin tributary of Lady Bird Lake, even has educational placards to help you identify each type and holds fundraisers for turtle conservation.

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Herpetologist Carl Franklin captures turtles for research in Bull Creek at the County Line restaurant during World Turtle Day on May 23, 2017. The turtles were measured, weighed and tagged for a longterm study of the turtle population in the creek near the restaurant.

Franklin and Cole agreed that getting to share a landscape with wild animals in such abundance is hard to come by in most cities, and is a good example of how humans and wildlife can coexist if nature is given a chance.

Below, we list these six turtles in order from easiest to identify to hardest. If you love wildlife but don’t want to fight the crowds vying for a glimpse of a bat, why not give turtle watching a try and go find all six?

A snapping turtle crawls across a spillway in Bastrop county.

1. Common snapping turtle

If you see a turtle with a head the size of your fist, you’re probably looking at a snapping turtle. These dinosaur-like creatures have a brownish shell that’s serrated at the back and have large, plated feet. Their scientific species name, serpentina, comes from their extremely long, snake-like necks, which can stretch nearly the length of their entire bodies. These are the largest turtles in Lady Bird Lake and are seen a bit less frequently than most other turtles because they don’t bask as frequently, Franklin said.

Snapping turtles are incredibly resilient animals. In colder regions, they can survive for months under the ice without ever taking a breath of air. They are also the garbage disposals of the turtle world, eating just about anything they can fit in their mouths, from small birds and fish to algae.

While these turtles get a bad rap for being “pugnacious,” as Franklin described it, they only snap when they feel threatened. Stories of snapping turtles splintering broomsticks in a single bite are probably tall tales, but they do have remarkably powerful jaws that can deliver a potentially dangerous bite. Perhaps for this reason, a Dallas pizza delivery driver in 1990 was robbed by a man wielding a large snapper: a robbery not at gunpoint, but at “turtle-point.”

Snapping turtles are extremely long-lived, and some studies suggest a maximum age of at least 100 years. This means there may be snapping turtles in Lady Bird Lake that were born before there was a Lady Bird Lake at all.

Distinguishing features: Long tail and neck, huge head, serrations on back of shell, small plastron (belly side of shell).

A spiny softshell turtle is seen at Balmorhea State Park, swimming in the cienega along with some local fishes.

2. Guadalupe spiny softshell turtle

If snapping turtles are the tanks of the turtle world, softshells are the pancakes. These flat, adroit swimmers are built for aquatic life, sporting soft, webbed, oar-like feet and long, pointed nostrils that look like a snorkel.

“They use that nose to probe in rocks and sand looking for prey items,” said Franklin. This prey includes insects, tadpoles and fish. The most distinctive feature of the softshell is its namesake soft shell, which is leathery and pliable. These turtles are usually greenish with yellow markings and are fairly common to see basking around Lady Bird Lake.

“What’s really fun is watching the males court the females,” said Cole. When this happens, the much smaller male faces the female and waves his feet in her face rhythmically. “It’s a little dance,” he continued.

Despite their arresting name, these turtles are capable of inflicting a painful bite and can grow nearly as large as common snapping turtles. A cousin of the spiny softshell, the critically endangered Yangtze giant softshell turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in the world, growing more than three feet long and weighing 200 pounds. There are estimated to be fewer than ten of these giants left in the wild.

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Indeed, all over the world, turtles are threatened by collectors that sell them into the pet trade or to overseas markets that use turtles for their supposed culinary or medicinal qualities. Franklin remembered one zealous collector in Texas who exported between 2,500 and 5,000 pounds of live turtles a week to China, including many softshell turtles.

“That was entirely unsustainable,” he said. “Turtles are long-lived animals, and they have to be long-lived because that’s the only way that they’ll last.”

Since then, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has cracked down on the over-collection of turtles, and it is now illegal to collect and sell any native turtle species in Texas.

Distinguishing features: Round, leathery shell, snorkel-like nose, smooth skin

A red-eared slider swims up to a piece of bread on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah in 2008 at the Turtle Pond on the University of Texas campus.

3. Red-eared slider

The red-eared slider is probably the most common turtle in Lady Bird Lake. It has a gently domed shell and a yellow belly. Hatchlings have dazzling patterns of emerald green and yellow; however, as they get older, the colors become a bit more drab. The most distinguishing feature of these turtles is the eponymous red spot on the sides of their heads, which is how you can tell a red-eared slider from other similar turtles like cooters. That said, the red can fade on older males, making identification more difficult.

Sliders can be seen all over Lady Bird Lake basking on logs and buoys. If approached too closely, they will jettison off a perch into the water, which is how they earned the name “slider.”

In the '90s, this species of turtle became, a bit puzzlingly, a sort of “viral” pet. Stores sold young turtles by the millions, driven in part by the popularity of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Unfortunately, most of these turtles did not survive, in part because “turtles do not make ideal pets,” Franklin said. Those that did survive were often released into local waterways, where they found fellow sliders and reproduced, making red-eared sliders an invasive species in some parts of the world.

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While red-eared sliders are native to Austin, we have our own types of turtles in Lady Bird Lake that aren’t supposed to be there, such as yellow-bellied sliders and Mississippi map turtles. So far, sightings of these non-native turtles are uncommon.

Distinguishing features: Red marking on head, green and yellow stripes on feet

Eric Munscher, director of the North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group, shows some of the turtle species, like these musk turtles, captured in Lake Austin in 2016.

4. Common musk turtle

Despite its seemingly mean-spirited name, the common musk turtle is a remarkable animal. Probably the least commonly seen aquatic turtle in Austin because they rarely bask, musk turtles spend much of their time walking along the river floor scavenging for snails and dead fish. These are our smallest turtles, rarely getting more than 5 inches long, and they have a distinctive narrow, ovular shell. They are mostly brown except for some yellow striping on the face. Musk turtles can be mistaken for young snapping turtles but are distinguished by their much smaller tails.

“They’re well-known for releasing a strong smelling musk that people find unpleasant, and it actually comes from their glands that are in their shell,” said Franklin. “It doesn’t come out of its butt.”

Cole said your best bet for spying musk turtles is at Iron Works Barbecue in downtown Austin, where the turtles can be seen feeding on chicken bones patrons throw in the water. Other places to see them include the section of Bull Creek that runs through St. Edward's Park, where the clear water allows you to see them walking around on the bottom of the creek.

Distinguishing features: Small, ovular shell, typically seen on the river floor, small plastron (bottom part of the shell)

Conservationist Viviana Ricardez displays a pair of Texas map turtles endemic to the state in 2018.

5. Texas map turtle

The Texas map turtle is a beautiful creature that is frequently seen basking on logs along the borders of Lady Bird Lake. These fittingly named turtles are endemic to Texas, meaning that they are found nowhere else in the world.

Map turtles get their name from the cartographic yellow designs on heads that “look like a little road map,” said Cole.

Map turtles can look similar to sliders and cooters but are distinguished by the raised bumps along the middle of their backs, which are actually the turtles’ vertebrae. A turtle cannot “get out of” its shells any more than a person could “get out of” their back, precisely because of these vertebrae — the shell and the body are fused.

Map turtles are found all over Lady Bird Lake, though they are warier than sliders and cooters and will splash into the water with little provocation when approached. Map turtles are particularly common at the County Line restaurant along Bull Creek.

While snapping turtles will eat almost anything, map turtles have a more refined pallet, Franklin said. The small males eat mostly aquatic insects that live on rocks, while the much larger females subsist almost entirely on freshwater mussels, which they crush with their powerful jaws. Making artistic “rock stacks,” as is commonly done in the area around Barton Springs, destroys the habitat of these turtles’ prey (not to mention that of the endangered salamanders that live there, too).

Distinguishing features: Raised bumps along back, intricate yellow lines on head, flaring shell that’s serrated at the back

Eric Munsch holds a Texas cooter on June 5.

6. Texas cooter

Like the map turtle, the Texas cooter lives nowhere but Texas. It’s probably Austin’s hardest turtle to identify because it shares many features with the sliders and map turtles, with whom it often shares basking logs. These large, attractive animals have a green shell and yellow and green markings on the face and legs. The shell tends to be relatively flat and they lack the red marking of the slider and the intricate head patterns of map turtles.

Cooters are unique among Austin’s turtles in that most of their diet is made up of plant matter. Franklin said that while no turtle has teeth, cooters have rows of spiky projections in their mouth that look like teeth and help with grazing on algae. They also have specialized bacteria in their gut that helps break down the plant fibers.

As with all turtles, during the breeding season female cooters crawl onto land looking for a place to lay eggs. They are particularly vulnerable at this time, especially to cars. Franklin said if you happen to see a turtle on the road and can safely pull over, you can help usher the turtle across the road.

“Pay attention to what direction she’s headed … and move her to the side of the road she’s going to,” said Cole. “A lot of people make the mistake of putting them back in the water and now they’ve got to start all over again.”

Distinguishing features: No red mark on head, relatively flat shell, lots of yellow on head

Snap a shell

If you see a turtle in Austin, consider photographing it and adding it the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department’s Texas Nature Trackers database. Nature Trackers volunteers can help you identify the turtle if you aren’t sure what you found. Go to tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/wildlife_diversity/texas_nature_trackers.