Is your pet an invasive species?

A story of two turtles sold in the pet trade and what happens when owners don’t realize that their pet might possibly outlive them. Michigan State University Extension encourages everyone to be on the lookout for aquatic invasive species in Michigan.

Red-eared sliders in a tank. Photo credit: Beth Clawson
Red-eared sliders in a tank. Photo credit: Beth Clawson
Does this story sound familiar?

Hello, my name is Mach 1 and my brother name is Mach 2. We are 13 years old this year and are captive red-eared slider turtles. We were sold from a pet store in 2003. That’s the same year that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) cartoons made a comeback. Kids not only wanted the toy, but also wanted a real turtle. Baby turtles have always been a popular pet store item but we really sold like crazy when the new TMNT cartoon was created to sell the action figure toy back in 1987. Since then, turtles like me, native from the Mississippi river basin, have been sold around the globe.

That is okay if you know in advance that I might be the size of a large coin when you bought me, but that I will grow into the size of a dinner plate when I am fully mature. I will also live to be about 50 years old. I am semi-aquatic and require a large water tank (about 100 gallons) for my habitat. Most people don’t think about that when they buy pets like me. Also, like me and my brother, my previous owner bought two of us thinking that just one would be lonely. He did not realize that together we would require double the environment.

My boy moved away after he grew up and left me with his dad. Now Dad has to move and can’t take us with him. We were both in a 15 gallon tank with some water but not enough space to swim in. He gave us away. Our new owner gave us a bigger tank (30 gallons) and floated a raft on the top for us to climb on. It is better but it is still not big enough; but for the first time ever we can turn around under the water. We like that. We try to dig our way out without success.

Turtle pet trade

The red slider turtle is the most globally traded turtle in the pet industry today. They are a now considered a non-native invasive species in more than 22 states and several countries. It is estimated that more that 52 million individuals were produced in the United States on turtle farms and sold to foreign markets between 1989 and 1997. According to the Global Invasive Species Database, “Their omnivorous diet and ability to adapt to various habitats, gives them great potential for impacting indigenous habitats.”

Most buyers are unaware of the mature size and longevity of their new pet. This often results in many dying or being release into local rivers and ponds when they are no longer wanted. Since they came from more southern states, it was once thought that they would not survive in most northern winter conditions. Unfortunately, this has proven untrue as many have adapted to icy winter conditions and can survive under the ice to colonize in their new environment.

What you can do?

Avoid buying exotic aquatic pets unless you are prepared for their special needs and long term care long term care. Buy the toy not the animal. Michigan State University Extension in partnership with the Michigan Invasive Species Information Network (MISIN) and other state agencies provides a few simple tips to help prevent the introduction of aquatic invasive species:

  • Never release aquatic plants or animals into local waterways
  • Build water gardens well away from other waters
  • Give or trade unwanted exotic pets, fish, and plants to another hobbyist, environmental learning center, aquarium, or zoo. Sometimes a pet store will take it back if it is certified healthy by a veterinarian.
  • Seek an appropriate rescue shelter for pets.
  • Contact a veterinarian or pet retailer for guidance on humane disposal of animals
  • Report invasive species found in the wild to MISIN

Remember releasing a pet into the wild is never the right action to take. If it does manage to survive it can become an invasive species. In Michigan, releasing exotic animals into the wild is both cruel and illegal. The effects on the ecosystem are sometimes irreversible.

Sometimes exotic plants and animals are accidently moved around through our recreation activities. Boats, fishing equipment, and recreation gear that are used in lakes where there are invasive species present need to be inspected for aquatic invasive species hitchhikers. They need to be cleaned, live wells drained and everything dried before leaving for home or your next destination. These steps help prevent the movement of unwanted invasive species from lake to lake.

For more information about invasive aquatic plants contact Beth Clawson, MSU Extension Educator. To learn more about invasive organisms and invasive aquatic plants contact Michigan State University Extension Natural Resources educators who are working across Michigan to provide aquatic invasive species educational programming and assistance. You can contact an educator through MSU Extension’s Find an Expert system.

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