Were these turtles playing, mating, or fighting?

I went to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. last weekend. The lemur exhibit was curiously lacking lemurs, but there were dozens of turtles of varying species in the lemur’s pond. While watching these turtles, I observed an odd behavior. Two turtles would meet up while paddling in the pond. While facing each other, they would put their front flippers near the head of the opposite turtle and splash that turtles head. The splashing was very quick, as if the flippers were merely vibrating. They would do this, splashing each other, for about 5-10 seconds in a burst. They would pause, and repeat. All the while they are sort of waltzing about the pond.

What the heck was this all about? It was certainly a strange behavior to watch. Any turtle experts?

I used to breed North American turtles (Clemmys spp.). The behavior you describe is associated with mating displays of many different terrapins (i.e., water turtles). It shows up at other times than just breeding, however; I’d almost call it a greeting behavior. You see it a lot more in Sliders (Trachemys spp.). At least, that’s my anecdotal experience.

Glad you asked this. I don’t know the answer, but I can add another observation of this behavior. I was watching a large artificial pond containing dozens of turtles. One turtle was following a slightly larger turtle around. Every 20 seconds or so the smaller turtle would maneuver around in front of the larger and wiggle his front feet in the face of the larger, as you have described. I watched him doing this for at least 5 minutes, and I assume he persisted after I left.

They weren’t doing this: http://youtube.com/watch?v=AWatc5U8RC4 ?

Possibly NSFW, but not bad enough to need two clicks, IMHO.

Male turtles mount from the back. The male is on top of the rear part of the females shell, when mating. I don’t think they could mate any other way due to the shell.

Yeah, I mean, I didn’t think they were actually having sex by slapping each other in the face. Perhaps courting would have been better word choice. :stuck_out_tongue:

lissener has it right-- this is a courting display. Males of the genera he mentions have very long front claws. A male approaches a female face to face and “waves” his front feet at her. Presumably the claws and the hand waving are sexy. If she is mesmerized, they may continue courtship and eventually mate, as described by Harmonious. If “she” is instead a “he”, both usually reconsider their actions. In this sense perhaps it may be viewed as a greeting.

So, in courtship, both of the turtles are simultaneously doing this waving?

Sounds like courtship behaviour, but I also wanted to mention that playing/fighting/mating coexist on a continuum. Behaviour often slides around between these three situations. Reproduction is so important to a species, that most have early play behaviour mimicking eventual reproductive behaviour. When play/mating goes too far, fighting can start.

If it’s the National Zoo, the turtles were probably dying.


How does he get tab A into slot B? Looks like a lot of shell in the way to me.

Then again, I have managed to work around heavy winter clothing before…

For those I’ve observed, he does the waving and she does the playing hard to get. Males of these species are much smaller than females (in some species males are less than 50% the size of females) so if she don’t wanna, it ain’t gonna happen. If she swims away, he may pursue and attempt to present himself once again to her face. Copulation usually only occurs when (if) she deigns no longer to swim away.

Note that this is decidedly not the case for many land tortoises.

Male turtles have an intromitent organ (a penis) which can be everted into the cloaca of the female (again, with her cooperation). This penis is sometimes everted (or “fanned”) without intromission and is visible to observers. Turtle penises are suprisingly large, often complex (think: petals of a flower) and brightly colored. I have never seen though what I would consider “display for courtship” of the penis. It seems to happen perhaps when the turtle is having, um, er, idle thoughts?

Yeah, I would expect a courtship to be a display or behavior on the part of the male that is observed or received by the female.

The behavior I observed was fully mutual. Not alternating either. Just constant, mutual, splashy-splashy. Perhaps two males trying out their pick-up splash?

I’ll speculate-- I am not familiar with the “lemur pond” described, but I’ve seen what may be similar situations at many facilities. A pond built for a specific purpose (like lemurs) may also contain turtles. Since these turtles are not the purpose of the exhibit but merely a happenstance, the pond may become the default dumping ground of additional, miscellaneous, turtles acquired over time. (The OP notes “dozens of turtles of varying species”.)

In the Emydid turtles (Family Emydidae, these “pond sliders” and some others like North American box turtles) the claw waving apparently conveys both courtship intention and some kind of species identification. While courtship of some species has been intensively studied, others remain almost unknown. We do know though that in the wild, several species of similar size and habits may inhabit the same geographic area and the same specific habitat. They literally live together in the same pond, stream, or lake. And they exhibit what to us observers appear to be identical courtship behaviors. Still, the species remain distinct with only rare hybridization. Clearly, something we are not seeing is being conveyed.

In captive situations where crowding occurs and/or where similar but not normally sympatric species are artificially brought together, most of these species turn out to be inter-fertile and hybridization becomes the norm. Apparently something in that species-specific courtship behavior is overcome or broken down by the presence of too many individuals or individuals of species that would not normally encounter each other in the wild. I’ve seen a number of such ponds/exhibits where the turtles can only be identified as generalized slider-types and few or no identifiable pure species remain.

The “claw waving” continues, but whatever its finer details (? speed or rate of waving; closeness of approach, touch or not touch; subtle color patterns exhibited or hidden ?) those details no longer serve to “turn on” the right females and “turn off” males and incorrect females. In situations like this, probably any random turtle may be viewed as a potential mate. So the males may actively engage any other turtle with these displays, including other males as well as individuals of different species. And, since neither of the individuals seems to recognize the signals that should say “quit!”, the display may be protracted.

At any rate, that’s my best guess.

Very much appreciated. Perhaps on my next visit I’ll pay more attention to any info about species or ask a zooperson about 'em.

Great! If you find out anything, and if you have the time, please send me a note-- I’ll be interested.