Freshwater Turtle Education

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Recently during AoC classes at Escuela Primaria Ford in Tulum, we talked about the natural history of freshwater turtles, more specifically, the common slider turtle or "jicotea" in Spanish and "áak" or "kaa nish" in Maya. The kids are familiar with this turtle because they are found at the cenotes which are scattered throughout the Yucatán peninsula. While these turtle are wide-spread and their conservation status is listed as Least Concern, IUCN warns us that the common slider turtle nearly qualifies as a species that faces a high risk of extinction in the medium-term future.

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AoC student Martha adds cards to our conservation status banner. 

A favorite book of mine since moving to the Riviera Maya is Animals & Plants of the Ancient Maya, A Guide by Victoria Schlesinger. I always refer to it when studying and preparing our lessons for the kids. Author Schlesinger includes interesting information regarding a species significance to the ancient Maya, influences affecting the environmental situation in the Maya area today, and what travelers can do about it. Below are her notes regarding the common slider turtle.

  • Common slider turtles crawl to the same bit of sand each year to lay their eggs; they like to sun themselves only on particular rocks or banks and resist trying new areas; they sleep in the same nook of their home range each night and seem to be odd, finicky creatures of habit.
  • Slider turtles live by themselves. They spend their day dipping into the water and eating whatever passes by: mainly algae, insects, mollusks, and various bits of vegetation (Lee 1996).
  • On occasion, juveniles take turns chewing on carpets of algae growing from one another’s shells. As the day progresses, they may crawl from the water onto a log or rock and turn and shift until the sun hits them directly. Stretching their head out, lifting their 4 limbs into the air, and spreading their toes, the turtles soak up all the sun they can. Look for them basking between 10 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon.
  • Mate and nest year round, the largest of them laying up to 5 clutches a year; however, this is rare (Moll and Legler 1971). Males commence the mating ritual by doggedly following a female. When she finally allows him to face her, he showers her with a spray of water shooting from his nose. Clutching her neck between his forelegs, they submerge into the water.
  • During the year females live in their home range, but as the skies dry between January and May (Lee 1996), they make a pilgrimage toward the water and their nesting areas. Day by day the females leave for the water, be it a pond, river, lake, or cenote, returning each year to the same patch of land to lay their eggs. Wary and skittish, a female searches the area for her nesting site, pressing her nose to the ground as if smelling it. The area invariably sites out in the open where the sun’s rays can fall across the nest. As the light wants, cooling the temperatures of the earth, the female begins to dig.
  • She brushes away vegetation with her front legs while scooping soil with the back ones, as if swimming on land. Over the course of an hour 2 small mounds of dirt form, one by each back foot. If she hits a rock or root, the whole process must begin again in a new place. She scrapes away the soil as deep as her legs can reach and then begins to lay. Each of the 12 to 20 eggs is positioned carefully, and the piles of mud scraped back into the hole. She urinates on the nest, and it is thought that perhaps the smell aides the turtle the following year in her return to the nest. She gathers vegetation to camouflage the nest – often so well that humans and others cannot find it. By May most females have completed their nesting.
  • Surrounded by warm earth, the tiny, chalk-white eggs, similar to the seeds of a plant, begin to grow. About 2 months later, as the rains commence and the baked earth softens, the young turtles hatch. The turtles can probably live about 30 years, but they are usually eaten or poached before then (Moll and Legler 1971). Slider turtles are preyed upon by crocodiles but, according to old accounts, are able to survive the ingestion due to the thick shells (Lee 1996).
  • Freshwater turtles were an important source of protein for the ancient Maya, and their eggs provided needed calcium. Burn marks on many turtle remains suggest that, in some cases, they were roasted. Turtle shells and bones have turned up a t many sites from Preclassic to Postclassic times, and, in the grand center of Tikal, they were the most abundant reptile bone discovered (Pohl 1990). People still eat freshwater turtles, among them the common slider turtle, but not with the vigor of the past (Lee 1996).
  • Slider turtle shells, drilled with holes, were probably worn or used in the ceremonies. In the Quiche creation myth of the Postclassic Maya, the First Father, who helped form this world, was reborn from the crack in a turtle’s carapace (Freidel, Schele, and Parker 1993). Some interpret the earth’s surface to be the rounded back of a giant turtle shell (Lee 1996.)
  • Painted in the Paris Codex is a string of constellations, and anthropologists continue to disagree about what animal goes with which cluster of stars. Linda Schele and David Freidel see the 3 stars of what westerners call Orin’s belt as a turtle (Friedel, Schele, and Parker 1993). Running the length of its carapace, the 3 stars perhaps represent the 3 ridges of a mud or box turtle’s shell.
  • There is a freshwater turtle called, in Yucatec Mayan, xkokak. People describe it as a turtle whose shell closes up like a box. The breast plate, or plastron, seals shut so that the turtle becomes a fortress of shell. Its heart and breathing slow down, and the turtle can survive on little oxygen for long stretches of time.
  • People in Belize, and in other areas in the Yucatan, grind the plastron of the shell into a fine powder and mix it with water. Babies are fed the liquid to ease asthma or chronic coughs. In Belize people do not eat the meat of the xkokak, except for old people who eat the meat when they want to strengthen their health.
  • Xkokak can be translated several ways. Ak means ‘turtle,’ and kok can be interpreted as “asthma,” “dry or rotten gourd,” or “turtle.” The turtle described by Belizians has tentatively been identified as either the mud turtle (Kinosternon scorpioides and subspecies cruentatum) or the box turtle (Terrapene carolina yucatana). The xkokak can close its shell tight and has 3 ridges crossing the width of its carapace. People find them in the cool, wet shade of the forest or around fresh water (Carr 1991).

 

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