Chicken Turtle (Deirochelys reticularia)

Photos by J.D. Willson unless otherwise noted

Description: Chicken Turtles are mid-sized turtles (6-9 in; 15-23 cm carapace length) with shells that are egg-shaped (widest over the hind legs) and patterned with a pale yellowish netlike pattern. This species has an extremely long neck that is striped with yellow and also has vertical black and yellow stripes on the “seat of its pants.” The plastron is usually yellow and unmarked and females reach larger sizes than males.

Range and Habitat: Chicken turtles are found in the Coastal Plain of the southeastern U.S. but are absent from the Piedmont and Mountains. This species may be found in a variety of heavily-vegetated aquatic habitats but is generally absent from large permanent ponds and reservoirs. Chicken Turtles are most common in shallow, still waters, particularly ephemeral and seasonal wetlands with abundant vegetation.

Habits: Chicken Turtles occasionally bask but spend most of their time in the water. They hunt amidst aquatic vegetation for prey which includes aquatic insects, amphibian larvae, small fish, and especially crayfish. This species is among the most terrestrial of our turtles and nearly all males and some females leave the wetland each fall to spend the winter buried in the forest. Additionally, during drought this species aestivates in uplands rather than migrating to other wetlands. Chicken Turtles are unusual among turtles in that they have a winter egg-laying period that begins in late summer and early fall, declines during the coldest months and resumes again in February and March. Eggs overwinter in the nest and emerge a year or more after eggs were laid. This species has a much “faster” life-history than other turtles in our region, meaning that young grow and mature quickly and adults do not live long (usually less than 15 yrs.) as other turtle species that share their range. Much that is known about the ecology of Chicken Turtles is derived from population studies conducted at the Savannah River Ecology Lab, particularly the work of Dr. Kurt Buhlmann.

Conservation Status: Chicken Turtles are fairly common in our region and are not protected. However, the reliance of this species on temporary wetlands and its extensive use of both aquatic and terrestrial habitats make it potentially vulnerable to habitat loss and degradation.

Pertinent References:
Buhlmann, Kurt A. Habitat Use, Terrestrial Movements, and Conservation of the Turtle Deirochelys reticularia in Virginia. Journal of Herpetology. Vol. 29 (173-181). 1995.

Buhlmann, K. A. and J. W. Gibbons. 2001. Terrestrial habitat use by aquatic turtles from a seasonally fluctuating wetland: implications for wetland conservation boundaries. Chelonian Conservation and Biology 4:115-127.

Gibbons, J. W. and J. L. Greene. 1978. Selected aspects of the ecology of the chicken turtle, Deirochelys reticularia (Latreille) (Reptilia, Testudines, Emydidae). Journal of Herpetology 12: 237-241.

Gibbons, J. W., J. L. Greene and J. D. Congdon. 1983. Drought-related responses of aquatic turtle populations. Journal of Herpetology 17:242-246.

Account Author: Patia M. Connell, University of Georgia – edited by J.D. Willson and Judith Greene