Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

May 5, 2010

Dances with Turtles

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:59 pm

Certainly, none of the moves featured on “Dancing with the Stars” would normally be considered “turtle-like.” Were I a star and were I invited to participate in this program, I might well elicit such comparisons but dance moves are typically characterized as swan or butterfly-like, not reptilian. Turtles are, after all, slow, clumsy and awkward right? In truth, turtles are none of the above. In their element (key word here – imagine human dancers trying to perform on a flooded stage!), turtles are masters of controlled movement. In fact, I would only be so lucky if my feeble attempts were compared to a turtle. “He moved across the floor like a Painted Turtle gliding before his mate” would be a high complement.

You won’t ever hear the above phrase for two reasons. First of all, as I said, I don’t dance and secondly because the stage performance world is woefully ignorant of the graceful courtship dance of the painted turtle. I can, at least, do something about that second point and provide you (and the dance establishment) with a recent glimpse of the Painter’s dance in a nearby marsh. Unfortunately, because this routine occurs underwater, the glimpse will have to be fragmentary. You can see the action in the video (here), but I’ve also posted still segments to break it down.

Once Spring water temperatures reach the 60 degree range these turtles begin to turn their thoughts to love. Finding another of their own kind is the easy part, since they are one of the most common turtles in our area. Once found, however, it is the job of the male to convince the female that he is the one that can bring her out of her shell. She balances her part in the game by alternating between hard to get and man-chasing.

The thing begins with a prolonged chase of the female by the male. She “flees” but not so fast that he can’t keep up. His intent, apparently, is to prompt the female into chasing him. Eventually she does reverse the chase and he swims away – keeping just ahead of her. Since this part of the routine is such a familiar part of our human mating game, I won’t even go any further with this part of the description.

Eventually, the male wheels around and positions himself to face the advancing female (see above) . With careful flips of the back feet he hovers over his station and holds his place. As the female approaches closer he holds out his front legs and spreads his toes. When she is within a few inches of his face, he then brings both feet together, palm out, and sets them to quivering (see below).

Male Painters have long white-tipped claws for this very reason (see here). His claws are pointed directly at his intended and their waving motion is directed into her face.  In the muddy environs of the marsh, the white tips stand out clearly – they are his Bird of Paradise plumes. For some strange reason it reminds me of the dance sequence in Pulp Fiction (a movie I am happy to say I never saw except for the previews of the dance scene).

In this non-fictional case, the larger female recoiled and swam away. The male was forced to re-enact the chase and the dance. How many times, I can’t say, because their shenanigans carried them well out of my view.  Ideally, or fictionally, the female would have responded to the nail waving male by reaching out with her stubby claws and touching his palms. Often the male actually tickles the back of the female’s neck as part of the performance. This done, the two sink down to the murky depths and proceed to mate.

To put all this into perspective, I’ve seen this act many times with captive turtles. Related species, such as the Red-eared Slider also perform the same ritual. This is the first time I’ve seen it in the wild and that makes it “specialer”(as non-English majors would say). I can definitely say –and now maybe you will agree – that the maneuvering, side wheeling, hovering, and coordinated claw quivering was poetry in motion and not the clumsy gyrations of a shell-burdened reptile. Maybe, “Moving with the grace of turtle in love” could very well be a new phrase to add to the language? No, it’ll never catch on unless someone translates it into Spanish (“La mudanza con la gracia de tortuga en el amor”, or something like that).


  1. How fascinating – thanks for sharing. I’ve never seen this (the video was great) – the only time I’ve seen painted turtles is when they are sunning on logs or trying to cross roads. I’ll have to keep looking for them!

    Comment by Ellen — May 5, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

  2. Nice. This is not seen on a regular basis, that’s for sure. I’ve been trying recently to see this exact thing at the pond at my house with little avail. Lots of Painted Turtles, tough to catch, tough to watch the mating dance.

    Comment by callsign222 — May 6, 2010 @ 10:07 pm

  3. oops on the grammar… “to little avail”

    Comment by callsign222 — May 6, 2010 @ 10:08 pm

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