Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were originally inspired by red-eared sliders

Photo of a red-eared slider

The Dickinson County Nature Center has two red-eared slider animal ambassadors.

Red-eared slider turtle (Trachemys scripta) are found throughout the United States, but that hasn’t always been the case.

These aquatic turtles are natively found in the southeastern United States from Texas to Alabama north to southern Ohio and into Kansas. Their native watersheds may have even extended into Iowa.

Graphic of native red-eared slider range

Red-eared sliders are natively found in the orange-colored watershed regions.

Red-eared sliders gained popularity in the 1900s as pets, and that popularity skyrocketed in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the rise of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle” franchise. In the original comic book series by Mirage Studios, Leonard, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo were all mutated red-eared slider turtles, and their red bandanas were an allusion to the species that has red markings behind the eyes.

In different “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle” series, the turtles changed species or were non-descript, but the red-eared slider reference came back in the “Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” animated series in 2018. In that series, each turtle is a different species: Leonardo is a red-eared slider, Raphael a snapping turtle, Donatello a softshell turtle and Michelangelo a box turtle.

Graphic about ninja turtles

As red-eared sliders were kept as pets, they began to be released or escaped into their environments. The USGS map above shows burgundy highlights were these non-native turtles now have significant populations.

Red-eared sliders are protected in Iowa, meaning it is illegal to kill one or collect a wild turtle to keep as a pet.

(What kind of turtle is it? Learn how to tell the difference between Iowa species.)

Red-eared sliders love the water.

As aquatic turtles, red-eared sliders really love the water. They spend almost their entire lives in the water except when they come out to bask in the sun. They even hibernate October-April in the mud at the bottom of the river or pond that they call home, and they sleep underwater during their active periods.

They caress their loved one.

Red-eared sliders have some interesting courtship behaviors that include caressing that special someone. A male will follow a female to shallow water and then will swim in front of her, facing her head to head, where he will stretch out his front legs and rub the sides of her face.

If she responds positively, she may respond by caressing his front legs with her front claws, and then they will proceed to breeding.

(Turtle prints craft)

Temperature determines gender.

Like other turtles, the temperature determining if a turtle egg turns into a female or a male. Mostly females will hatch at temperatures of 84 degrees and higher, or mostly males will hatch at lower temperatures in late August.

They eat healthier with age.

It seems like humans cut back on red meat as they age and try to fit more fruits and vegetables into their diets. The same is true with red-eared sliders. Young hatchlings are mainly carnivorous, using that protein to grow. Older turtles turn more herbivorous and eat plenty of vegetation.

Like all aquatic turtles, red-eared sliders have to eat in the water. Their fixed tongues can’t move freely, so eating underwater helps their food to move around in their mouths to get ground down and to be swallowed.

(Read about painted turtles here.)

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