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Turtle Mating, or Simply, Um

Posted: November 18, 2013, 11:30 a.m. EDT


By Elizabeth Creith

Those little red-eared sliders are a staple of the pet trade; they were when I was six years old, and they still are now that I'm approaching sixty. Of course, we understand a lot more about them now. For example, they will outgrow that cute little plastic dish with the palm tree in the middle, unless you feed them, as we were all told to do, on hamburger and lettuce. They won't thrive on hamburger and lettuce, even if you throw in the ketchup. (Some nutritionist or other recently declared that tomatoes were so good for you that even ketchup could be deemed a vegetable. I believe, however, that he drew the line at ketchup-flavored potato chips. But I digress.)

The thing is, those sliders of my childhood days were so short-lived that they never had a chance to get past infancy. There were no awkward birds-and-bees-and-turtles moments with any of them.

We usually have between ten and thirty of the little things in glass tanks that need cleaning daily. I sometimes think we could just keep them in clear tubes, because what they really like to do is pile up, three or four or seven or eight of them. I don't know if they're trying to make the Leaning Tower of Turtle or what, but there they are, stacked up like lumpy green pancakes.

Box Turtle
Box Turtle. iStock/Thinkstock

The inevitable question I get about these turtle-piles, usually from teens or parents, is one of the following.

"Are they mating?” or "Are they doing it?” or sometimes simply, "Are they – um?”

No, they are not Um. For one thing, they're far too small and young for Um. Um has not crossed their minds, and I guarantee that in a mature turtle, Um is one of about four things that will cross its mind. Most of what's going on in those little turtle heads is a 60-cycle hum, similar to the audio output of a fluorescent tube. Definitely not Um.

Besides, if they were Um, you'd know it. For one thing, the bits for Um are in roughly the same place on most species on the planet, in the vicinity of the tail, or where the tail would be if you had one. The process is more or less the same, too. To help with Um, the male usually has specially long and curved front claws that he hooks under the front edge of the female's shell so he can hang on.
 
We had a pair of red-footed tortoises who were really into Um, because they were big enough and old enough to think about it. They went at Um like mink – just really, really slow mink, and much quieter, too. But they made up for it with persistence. Sometimes they'd Um all day. Really, you hardly knew where to look, and some days I thought we should put a plywood lid on their coop to give them some privacy.

Not that they seemed to care about privacy. Maybe we should simply have sold tickets; for sheer novelty tortoise Um could probably give the local strip club a run for the money. Especially box turtle Um; box turtles have little hinged flaps that they use to close up their shells like a box. Sometimes the female box turtle would close her shell on the male's – well, you can imagine – and drag him around the pen like some kind of armored, low-speed dominatrix. Nobody tells you about these things when you talk about opening a pet store.

If it's Um you're looking for, turtles have it. But not those little ones piled up in the corner. All that's going on in there is the 60-cycle hum.

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