"I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station,
through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in."

    George Washington Carver (1864-1943)

    Former slave, chemist, educator

"I can see clearly now the rain is gone.
I can see all obstacles in my way.
Here is the rainbow I've been praying for.
It's gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day!"
   Jimmy Cliff (1948 - ), Bright Sunshiny Day  

 


Red-footed tortoise, Chelonoidis carbonaria, male. Morne du Vitet, Saint Bartholomew, Lesser Antilles.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Karl Questel).

 


 

The Triumphant Persistence

 

ORDER CHELONIA: TURTLES

 

    The lineage of turtles arose in the Triassic Period. Even the largest of all modern species, the enormous leatherback turtle, Dermochelys coriacea, is dwarfed by some extinct members of the order that were several times again its size.

 

    All turtles belong to one of two suborders. Members of the order Pleurodira retract their necks in an horizontal, sideways fashion. There are rather few members of this group alive today, and many indeed have very long, almost snake-like necks. The other suborder, Cryptodira, includes most modern representatives of the chelonians. Their defining characteristic is that their necks are retracted into the shell in a vertical, sigmoid way. To this group belong all the turtles of the Caribbean be they marine, freshwater, or terrestrial.

 

    As a proof that a turtle's bodily structure can hardly be more efficient and successful, modern species resemble their most ancient predecessors to a remarkable degree. All possess a bony shell (covered in leathery skin, in some species) into which the head, limbs and tail can be pulled snuggly in order to protect them from attack.

 

    No living turtle has any teeth. Instead, they possess horny plates along the rims of their jaws, which effectively constitute a sort of bill. Like a bird's, this arrangement suits a turtle very well when it seeks to ingest its favored food item, be it plant or animal.

 

    Most turtles have excellent eyesight and quite a remarkable sense of hearing. Although the vast majority of species are usually silent animals, a number of tortoises emit growls and clucks as part of their mating rituals.

 

    Although fabled for their phlegmatic and docile disposition, in fact some of the larger turtles can be fast and dangerous when defending themselves. The largest living freshwater turtle, Macroclemys temincki, the huge alligator snapper of temperate North America, can sever a human hand with one bite of its immensely powerful and sharp jaws. The aforementioned leatherback has been known to attack boats when cornered. Of course, and like most animals, turtles tend to be shy when approached by humans.

 

    While there are five species of sea turtles that nest in sandy Caribbean beaches (all of them are endangered due to direct predation by man and habitat destruction), there are few species of native Antillean turtles that are terrestrial or confined to freshwater habitats.

 

    Terrestrial species are commonly called "tortoises", and have strong legs and feet ending in flat soles and blunt nails, appropriate for carrying their - sometimes massive - bodies on land. Aquatic turtles have more flattened shells and webbed feet (modified into long, oar-like appendages in marine species), which enable them to be surprisingly fast and agile when swimming.

 

    The red-footed tortoise, Chelonoidis carbonaria, is found in South America, the Lesser Antilles, and north to the Virgin Islands. Possibly, its presence in the islands is due to a combination of means of dispersal both anthropogenic and natural. It does not seem to be abundant anywhere within its Antillean range, but is still common in some lowland regions with little human disturbance. It is sometimes seen crossing roads in coastal areas.

 


Red footed tortoise, Chelonoidis carbonaria, female.

Near Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands.

 

    Extinct, fossil members of this and related genera are known from both the Lesser and Greater Antilles. Some of them were quite large in size. Like its relatives elsewhere, the red-foot is a slow mover that feeds mostly on plant material, particularly leaves, flowers, and fallen fruits.

 


Semi-domesticated red-footed tortoises, courting pair.

The male tries to mount the female while she eats, uttering its peculiar calls somewhat between a pig's grunts and a hen's clucks.

Charlotte Amalie, southern Saint Thomas, United States Virgin Islands.

 

    Several species of Trachemys sliders inhabit the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas. Like many of their North and Mesoamerican relatives, they are frequently seen basking on emergent logs and rocks along rivers and the margins of ponds and lakes. They are omnivores that feed on fish, shrimp, carrion and plant matter. Juveniles will eat mostly fish, invertebrates, and other animal matter, while adults tend more toward feeding on plants, though they will sometimes devour small animals, even wading bird's chicks. Sliders have excellent eyesight, are skittish in disposition, and frequently take to the water at the slightest disturbance. Large individuals can bite and scratch viciously when captured. Even juveniles are very agile swimmers and can stay submerged for several minutes at a time.

 

Extremely wary of suspicious movements, a female Antillean slider (Puerto Rican race, Trachemys stejnegeri stejnegeri) keenly watches me.

Caņo Tiburones Nature Reserve, northern Puerto Rico.

 

    The genus Trachemys is mostly confined to the Caribbean islands. Trachemys decussata is a Cuban endemic, T. terrapen is Jamaican, and T. stejnegeri is shared by Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. Hispaniola is the only island with two species, since it is also inhabited by the endemic T. decorata., which lives only in the Neiba Valley-Cul de Sac. One outlying species, the red-eared slider, T. scripta, is native to North America but has been introduced to some of the Antilles.

 

Antillean slider (Puerto Rican race, Trachemys stejnegeri stejnegeri) female. Caņo Tiburones Nature Reserve, northern Puerto Rico.
Other races are endemic to Hispaniola and the Bahamas.
Although it is still reasonably common in Puerto Rico itself, the Hispaniolan race is seriously endangered due to human predation.
Moreover, mongooses raid their nests given any opportunity, in all areas where they have been introduced and where this turtle and related species are found.

 

Antillean sliders (Puerto Rican race, Trachemys stejnegeri stejnegeri), pair. Florida, central Puerto Rico.

The male (on the left) can be told apart from the female by its smaller size and much longer front claws.

These it will use to scratch the female during courtship.

 

Antillean slider (Puerto Rican race, Trachemys stejnegeri stejnegeri), juvenile. San Juan Botanical Garden, San Juan, north-eastern Puerto Rico.

In places like these these terrapins grow accustomed to people and approach them with curiosity,

often even accepting food handouts.



Antillean slider (Bahamian race, Trachemys stejnegeri malonei). Great Inagua, The Bahamas.
(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 

Antillean sliders (Hispaniolan race, Trachemys stejnegeri vicina) basking on logs.

Santo Domingo, southern Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Pedro Genaro Rodriguez).



Cuban slider (eastern race, Trachemys decussata angusta), male. Guanahacabibes Peninsula, western Cuba.
(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).



Jamaican slider, Trachemys terrapen, female. Windsor, north-eastern Jamaica.
In the second photograph, a pierid butterfly sips the turtle's tears straight from its eyes, in search of salts.



Jamaican slider, Trachemys terrapen, female. Eleuthera, The Bahamas.
(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).