By Tom McClellan
In Fort Steilacoom Park in Lakewood, some turtles have moved into Waughop Lake. But one of them apparently decided to “go on walkabout” Tuesday morning, and made it across the brand new asphalt trail around the lake.
Maybe he was tired of being crowded into Waughop Lake with as many as 8 other turtles. Maybe he is an aspiring Yertle the Turtle, wanting to be the ruler of all that he sees. Or maybe it was a simple case of “cherche les femmes”.
These turtles are not native to Washington. They are “red-eared sliders”, and they are native to the southern U.S. and northern Mexico. So how did they get to Waughop Lake? The answer is that they are popular as pets, at least when they are small. But they can grow up to 12 inches in length, and live 20-40 years. That’s more of a commitment than some pet owners are willing to accept after a while, and so unfortunately people have released them into habitats where they do not belong.
Red-eared sliders get their name from the small red stripe along the sides of the head. Here is a close up of our friend the road-crosser, who was a little bit shy about being photographed. But you can still see the red stripe.
The “slider” in the name comes from their ability to slide off rocks and logs into the water very quickly. They have long claws which help them to climb up out of the water to catch some sun. Being cold-blooded reptiles, warming up in the sun helps get their bodies up to a temperature that aids their metabolism. They spread out their legs and extend their necks to absorb even more sunlight. There is a particular log on the eastern shore of Waughop Lake that seems to be their favorite to haul out and catch some rays. I have seen as many as 9 of them there at once. But if you get too close, they’ll slip into the water and swim away.
In addition to Waughop Lake, they have also been spotted in Lake Louise, Lake Steilacoom, and Wapato Lake in Tacoma. While mostly aquatic, they will go overland when searching for new places to hang out. And the females will leave a pond or lake to lay their eggs.
As an invasive species, they can disrupt an ecosystem by outcompeting the local fauna. It is illegal to sell them in Florida, and several countries. So it is with mixed feelings that park visitors catch sight of them in Fort Steilacoom Park. They are cool to see, but they are not supposed to be there. These turtles are also “asymptomatic carriers” of salmonella, meaning that they don’t get affected by it but they can infect a person who handles them. So if you encounter one like I did, don’t touch it. All observations are of interest and can be submitted to Lori Salzer at Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at firstname.lastname@example.org.