Cooter Turtles – Species, Habitat and Care Guide

Try to be like the turtle – at ease in your own shell – Bill Copeland

There was a time when if you wanted to see a turtle, you either went to the zoo or spent some time on the banks of rivers and lakes down South, watching them bask in the sun and laze around all day.

Diurnal by nature, most freshwater turtles tend to keep the same hours as people, so they were always relatively easy to spot and watch, and thanks to both humans and turtles living in close proximity, they inevitably came to rely on each other, and freshwater turtles became an increasingly popular pet in the homes of America.

Cooter Turtles

Whether the surge in popularity of turtles as pets was due to a quartet of pizza obsessed, ninja trained heroes in a half shell or the amiable, easy-going nature of the species is open to debate and almost certainly mired in the mists of history, but whatever the reason was, they found a new habitat, one that agreed with them and their human keepers.

And they’ve continued to surge in popularity ever since, and one of the most popular choices of shell-bound companions in the United States is the Cooter turtle.

The Endless Diversity Of The Cooter Turtle

Okay, so maybe the Cooter turtle isn’t the most endlessly diverse of turtles, but the genus does include a number of different subspecies, that, while sharing some behavioral and general characteristics, are dissimilar and disparate enough to warrant their own classification and place on the aquatic pet chart.

While many naturalists and zoologists disagree on the exact number of different subspecies, they do agree that the Cooter turtle is a species that, mainly due to the contrasting nature of its widespread environment, has evolved to adapt to and prosper in the diverse places in which it has flourished.

All Cooter turtles are native to North America, and while they’ve occasionally been found in European lakes and rivers, the place where the species has thrived and continues to do so, is right here in the United States.

River Cooters 

The most common of all Cooters, the river cooter, is noted for its ability to co-exist and live peacefully with other turtle species. Relatively long-lived for a freshwater turtle, the species has an average expectancy of around forty years or so and can be found from Virginia to Florida and Texas to Ohio. They hide under aquatic plants while sleeping or hibernating, thus making it hard to spot them sometimes.

Far from being the largest member of the Cooter family, while they have been known to grow to around seventeen inches in length, males tend to average around nine inches while the females are slightly bigger at around eleven inches.

Cooter River

River Cooters have elongated, and slightly flattened shells, with the male’s shells that tend to be slightly longer than those of the females, which are recognizable by their color markings, which tend to be either brown or yellow, or even in some cases, black.

Due to the River Cooter being the most widespread of all cooter turtles, they are the most commonly kept, and easy to look after members of the species and can easily be found in both specialist pet stores and with recognized and accredited breeders.

Alabama Red-Bellied Cooter

As their name suggests, this particular variety of red-bellied Cooter is native to Alabama, and unlike the River Cooter, is highly endangered.

With an incredibly short lifespan for a turtle, which sees most members of this particular sub-species barely make it past twenty years of age, the Alabama Red-Bellied Cooter has a dark carapace decorated with red or orange markings on the side.

Due to the scarcity in the wild, and the endangered status, they are one of the members of the Cooter genus that is unsuitable to be kept as a pet, and it’s incredibly rare to see one of these turtles anywhere outside of a zoo or a sanctuary. If you ever happen to stumble upon one, he will likely try to hide in aquatic vegetation, and you should leave it there!

Florida Red-Bellied Cooter 

Mainly found in Georgia and Florida, these gentle giants are some of the biggest Cooter turtles, and like all larger specimens, they don’t have anything to prove to anyone, so they’re content to just be and let the world pass them.

Taking their name from the red markings that adorn the underside of their shells, this subspecies’ calm, confident demeanor is the reason why they can be kept with other species of turtle, as members of this branch of the Cooter family that have been raised in captivity are almost always affable and amiable.

That said, they are big, so you’re going to need a suitable environment in which to keep them, which means either an incredibly large tank (around one hundred gallons) or a purpose-built and enclosed pond.

Herbivorous by nature, they’re easy to feed and care for, and as the species is listed as non-endangered, they are relatively easy to find with reputable breeders.

Texas River Cooter

Dark green and littered with yellow and brown markings that can sometimes fade and disappear with age, the Texas River Cooter is largely found where its name suggests, in the Lone Star State.

Adults can grow to be anything up to fourteen inches long, so even though most don’t reach more than ten inches, as they’re not the fastest-growing animals under the sun, you’ll need a habitat that’s been sized to house the larger members of this family.

Similar in temperament and bearing to their Floridian cousins, the Texas River Cooter is often mistaken for the Red-Eared Slider, and the only way to tell them apart is to check the side of their heads for the markings that are associated with the Slider.

If the turtle doesn’t have the distinctive red markings, it’s a Cooter, not a Slider.

Peninsula Cooter

If it wasn’t because they don’t have the same red markings on the underside of their shells, when you’re face to face with a Peninsular Cooter, you’d swear that you were looking at a Florida Red-Belly.

Hailing from the same area, they’re big Cooters who need a large habitat to thrive in, but as they’re herbivores, they’re easy to look after and simple to feed. And just like the members of the cooter family that they’re often mistaken for, they’re placid, friendly, and charming.

Rio Grande Cooter

Hailing from Mexico and Texas, this slightly smaller and less hardy member of the Cooter family isn’t as widespread or as well-known as the more popular turtle varieties.

While not endangered, the comparative rarity of this olive-skinned and shelled Cooter that sometimes has yellow stripes on its limbs and spots on its armor means that’s it’s a more specialized turtle that is usually only available to buy from more exclusive breeders

Northern Red-Bellied Cooter 

Commonly referred to as the American Red-Bellied turtle, this Cooter can be found in rivers from the Carolina up to Boston and back down to New Jersey because of its distinctive markings.

Often mistaken for the Florida Red-bellied Cooter, the only thing that differentiates the Northern Red-Bellied Cooter from its Southern cousin, are the locations in which it is found, and its size, as it tends to be a couple of inches shorter, even in adulthood, than the turtle that it’s often mistaken for.

While it’s a rarer Cooter than its Southern namesake, it is readily available from a number of specialist breeders who have managed to keep its numbers up in captivity.

Choosing The Right Environment For A Cooter

There’s no getting around or escaping it. Cooters are big. And big turtles need a big habitat, so you’ll need a purpose-built tank or an outdoor pond that’s large enough to house your Cooter – at least one hundred gallons but preferably closer to one hundred and fifty or a purpose-designed, fully designed tank enclosed pond.

Whether you choose an enclosed pond or a tank for your Cooters, as they spend so much time in the water, you’re also going to need a filter that’s more than capable of handling the size of the habitat.

Turtles aren’t like fish, so when you choose a filter for your Cooter’s new home, always go up a step and choose a bigger filter than you need for the size of the tank or pond that your Cooter is going to call home.

One of the species defining characteristics is their love of basking in the sunshine, so you’ll also have to make sure that they have a platform to bask and idle the hours of their days away.

However, the basking serves a dual purpose as while it allows the Cooter to spend time in the sun, it also helps prevent shell rot and keeps their skin and carapace healthy.

So whatever environment you’re going to home your turtle in, ensure that it includes an adequate basking platform with more than enough room for your Cooter population.

Keeping The Heat Up

Most Cooters hail from the warmer waters of the Southern states, so if you want your Cooter to flourish, it’s essential to make sure that your tank or habitat resembles their natural environment as closely as possible.

That means that the water temperature should always be between seventy-five and eighty degrees Fahrenheit and never fall below seventy. It may seem like it’s unduly warm to us, but that’s how Cooters like it.

The best way to ensure that it’s always warm enough for them? Invest in a good aquarium heater, set the temperature control, and let it do the rest.

It’s also crucial that the temperature inside of the habitat, and outside of the water, is also one that the Cooter is comfortable with, which again will be high given the area they hail from.

Ideally, the temperature inside the tank or enclosed environment should be maintained around ninety degrees Fahrenheit, so that your chosen Cooter can bask to its heart content.

Most turtle owners swear by heat lamps that were designed for reptile enclosures. They keep the temperature high enough to make sure that the Cooter is happy, and are simple to set up and use.

Let There Be Light

While they’re basking on rocks in the wild, Cooters are also soaking up as many ultraviolet rays as they possibly can, and like all turtles, ultraviolet light helps Cooters to synthesize and produce Vitamin D.

And even though you can’t bring the sun directly to your Cooters habitat, you can bring the next best thing, an ultra-violet lighting source that’s been engineered and designed to replicate all of the beneficial qualities of the sun.

It’s Feeding Time

Most turtle owners will happily tell you that Cooters are omnivores and will eat whatever they can in the wild. While that’s true of juvenile turtles, as they grow older and begin to mature, they tend to follow, and favor, a herbivorous diet.

This means that you will need to change what you feed your Cooter as it grows and reaches adulthood.

Almost any pet food store will be able to advise you on the best food to feed your growing turtle and when and how to change their diet and wean them off an omnivorous diet to a more plant-based and healthy (for them) diet.

Remember, by ensuring that your Cooter’s diet follows the one they would in their natural domain as closely as possible. You’ll be helping your Cooter to be as healthy as possible.

Strength In Numbers

As we’ve already mentioned, Cooters are incredibly social turtles and spend a lot of their time basking in the sun with other turtles. It isn’t uncommon to see them sleeping on top of each other in the wild, so it’s important to adhere to the social structure that Cooters are used to.

They don’t do well on their own, so it’s crucial that Cooters are kept in (at least) pairs, or more so that they can benefit from, and bloom in, the company of others of their kind.


Cooters are gentle, amiable turtles, and while it may take them a while to get used to being around you and being handled, they’ll eventually choose to come to you and enjoy your company.

There have been some reported cases of Cooters showing unusual aggression, but this is usually because the animals in question were caught in the wild and sold by unlicensed breeders and dealers.

Cooters and turtles that have been born, and partially raised (before they make their way to you) in captivity, tend to be incredibly docile and friendly, which is why it’s important to always purchase a Cooter from a registered breeder or licensed, specialist pet store.

Bringing A Cooter Home

Cooters have maintained a level of popularity among devotees since turtles were first introduced as pets, and as such, there is a well-established network of breeders and stores that are licensed to sell them.

As long as you are purchasing a Cooter from a reputable source, Availability should never be an issue.

And the constant availability of the species means that most turtle varieties have remained at a fairly static price point. A Cooter should never cost less than fifty dollars, or more than one hundred.

If the price you’re asked to pay falls outside of those boundaries, it’s time to start questioning the breeder’s legal standing or the store you’re dealing with.

A Long, Happy, And Healthy Life

Most Cooters have, for turtles, a relatively short life expectancy, and usually live between thirty and forty years in the wild. However, when they’re kept as pets and well-cared for and looked after, their life expectancy increases, and it isn’t uncommon for Cooters to live to be forty-five or even fifty in captivity.

They are a life-long and, in some cases, multi-generational commitment, so before deciding to add a Cooter or two to your family, it’s important to ensure that you have the time and patience to dedicate to them to make sure that they live long, happy, and healthy lives.

Dorothy Razo

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