He’s A Girl!

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Pepe Before Female 400X279

Pepe the Red-Eared Slider A few days before the identity crisis.

Pepe, our seven-year-old Red-Eared Slider, has been living with us since we first moved back to Tokyo. I found him (and his former sister Isabella, who died several months later) in a dirty tray at the side of a local pet shop near where I work. The tray had been heaped with baby turtles, half of them dead, and I was so taken aback by the apathetic treatment of the little creatures (Japan has a truly abominable record when it comes to the treatment of animals… you can go into any pet shop here and find endangered species curled up in cages… I once saw a fennec fox sleeping in a tiny cage. Needless-to-say visiting Japanese pet shops is so distressing that I avoid them whenever possible) that I decided there and then, without much thought for the consequences, to save at least two of the babies before they could die, too.

I hadn’t known that Isabella was sick, and the months that followed we watched her die a slow, labored death as her breathing faltered and froth constantly poured from her nostrils. We couldn’t find a veterinarian anywhere who would handle reptiles and so the only recourse I had was to seek help from the then very spotty Internet, through the help of reptile-lover, and expert, Melissa Kaplan. There wasn’t much that we could do, except to make Isabella’s last days as comfortable as possible.

Pepe survived, however, and graces our living room to this day. He’s put on weight. When you pick him up he feels like a large round stone, more than 20 centimeters long. He spends his days basking on the rock in the aquarium, chowing down on turtle pellets, cabbage, white shrimp, and the occasional slice of banana, and, of course, hours and days and weeks endlessly sleeping. Turtles have the basics of life down to an art and use no more energy than is necessary. I’m always amazed that with virtually no exercise Pepe puts my weight-lifting skills to shame, and when the mood strikes him he can react like lightning.

Since I spend my days working at home I’ve often had time to sit and observe him and learn bit by bit the nature of turtles and how they might perceive the world. I never knew, for instance, that when turtles move about in the water they constantly drink the water, tasting it, and since turtles are air-breathers, they can’t use smell underwater as a sense, and so seem to have evolved taste as an alternative way of locating food and making their way through murky water.

I always thought, too, that reptiles, being cold-blooded, don’t carry their own body warmth, but in winter, when Pepe sidles up against the aquarium pane, the glass fogs up with his exhaled breath and a white jet billows out just like someone drinking a cup of hot coffee.

So you’d think that with seven years of watching him I would be pretty up on his identity. After all he sits there staring back at me day in and day out, no matter the weather. So what a surprise when I looked in the aquarium the other day and spotted a white lump deposited on the back side of Pepe’s sunning rock. I poked it and discovered that it was soft, like a the plastic outside of a mayonnaise tube. It was round, like a mushroom. I picked up the object and nearly dropped it. It was a turtle egg!

“How the heck…?” I said to myself. I looked back at Pepe and just stared. “Pepe, you’re a she? Why didn’t you tell me?”

Pepe said nothing, of course. She’d been vindicated, finally, after all this time of my calling her a him.

“But how did you…?” Yes, lay an egg. I mean, as far as I know Pepe had had no nightly trysts at all in the aquarium-bound existence she’d been subject to all this time. I know that Red-Eared Sliders can only mate once they reach a certain size and that sexual maturity is not determined by age, but by size (also, in general, Red-eared Sliders’ sex is determined, while they are still egg-bound, by the temperature the eggs are reared in: cooler temperatures produce males, and warmer temperatures produce females. Many paleontologists believe that the demise of the great dinosaurs might have come about because the cooler temperatures brought about by a large meteor hitting the earth might have produced too many males and not enough females), so it is highly unlikely that Pepe could have had her eggs fertilized while in that filthy tray in the store.

Later someone educated me about females producing unfertilized eggs, including the revelation that the chicken eggs that I buy in the store are all unfertilized eggs. Shows you just how out of touch with my own food sources I am!

I like to pride myself on my knowledge about animals, but then people like Pepe come around and remind me of just how many surprises I am apt to encounter in even just one representative of a single species. I could probably watch that immobile little shell of a turtle and learn something new every day if I looked hard enough. It’s sometimes easy to overlook the familiar and assume I know more than I do.

No matter how much I know or don’t know, however, Pepe’s clear and earnest eyes will continue to grab me from across the room and have me gazing back. There is a lot of wisdom in there. I guess it’s never a good idea to assume you know what someone else is thinking.

16 Responses

  1. Laughing Knees, that was such a fascinating read. Was Pepe dismayed when you removed her egg? So now, do you have a special place in the garden for Pepe with a warm (or cool depending on your sexual preference), sandbox nearby to put that embryo in to see what might transpire?

  2. Butuki: What a great story. So is Pepe in for a name-change? Pepa?

  3. That was a great read, indeed! A turtle full of surprises, after all these years. Wonderful!

  4. Roberta, sadly the story ended in what might have been a tragedy if the egg had been fertilized. After discovering the egg I turned away from the aquarium to search for a Tupperware container for the egg. When I returned (just three minutes later) Pepe had eaten the egg and looked mighty guilty about it. She even ducked into her shell when my face appeared. I’ll never know what could have become of that egg.

    Pica, I have to think what name Pepe ought to have, but Pepe might just be all right as it is.

  5. Ate it, did she? What a sensible thing to do.

  6. Turtles are nothing if not efficient and opportunistic. What other creature, except cats perhaps, has evolved its entire lifestyle around the concept of complete and utter hedonism?

  7. you know, I think that might go for most all reptiles. Hadn’t really thought of it before…

  8. Years ago in NYC’s Chinatown, my then-husband and I saw a BUCKET of tiny red-eared sliders for sale on the sidewalk. They looked so miserable piled on top of one another, we bought two even though we didn’t have anywhere to keep them. It was a hot day, so we hailed a taxi to rush us to Central Park, fretting the entire time that one of the turtles, who we carried in a plastic bag, would overheat.

    We let both turtles loose in a Central Park pond even though my “inner ecologist” normally can’t stand the thought of introducing “invasive” non-native species into a natural environment. We figured there were already plenty of escaped pet turtles in the Park, and we saw it as a Buddhist-style liberation of life ceremony.

    Years later, I saw a sign in the Central Park Zoo talking about the colony of red-ears that now lives there year ’round, borne from loosed pets. I’ve always wondered if one of “our” little turtles, now large, is among them.

  9. It might make you feel a little less guilty as an ecologist to know that the entire Central Park area is an artifical park designed by reknowned landscaper Frederick Law Olmstead. I guess if you really want to bring the park area back to its roots one would have to get rid of the entire park, in fact most of the entire northeast area of the US, because so little of the original forests are left.

    I recently saw a documentary about how Manhattan was transformed into the great big grid city it is today… I never knew that a lot of people were forced by the government off their land for the city, often quite violently. It’s hard to imagine right now that there was a time when New York City did not exist and that Manhattan was quite a beautiful, forested island.

  10. Yeah, the story of Manhattan Park is one that’s fascinated me for a while, along with Olmstead’s other projects. It’s funny that his vision of “nature” is so much in line with what we believe it ought to be that it now has the ring of truth.

    Actually, as I think about it, it’s not really less “natural” for being artificial in origin. It’s not like the trees and the red-eared sliders aren’t alive, living independently, thinking treeish and turtley thoughts. And aren’t human beings part of the whole web of things, too?

    I love that you see Pepe as having both thoughts and feelings. So often there’s that assumption that reptiles must have none, as they do not have faces or bodies that lend themselves easily to human interpretation. As a kid I spent a lot of time with house turtles and snakes, as my dad as a kid had been an inveterate collector and kept it up when we were children. All of them were rescued from the roadside, several swooped up by my father as he dodged traffic to save them. My favorite reptilian emotional moment was when we were moving one summer, and had half the cats and the snake in my father’s car. At a reststop we paused the car and looked in the far back to check on the animals, and were alarmed to discover that one of the cats had decided the screen top of the snake cage would make a lovely bed. She’d sunk, with the distorted screen, into the cage itself. We felt sure that the snake had escaped into the car, a worrisome thought. But when we lifted out the cat, then the screen, then the snake’s newspaper, there was the snake, curled into as tiny a ball as it could make. As Dad noted then, if a snake could look embarassed, this one certainly did.

  11. pepe is beautiful! and so is your writing of her story

  12. Thanks kasturi. What is a wonder about Pepe is that I never get tired of looking at her eyes. You’d think a turtle wouldn’t have anything to offer in the charm department, but, blimey, she has the most alluring eyes! Sometimes I wonder if it is because reptiles seem to focus so much on their sense organs that they have somehow developed greater expression in such simple things as gazes and tastes and listenings.

  13. Jess Leishman

    Wow! My 16yr old turtle just laid her first egg this weekend too! I didn’t know she would lay one since she has been alone for 11 years. Your post was the first one I found on the internet to calm my fears that something was wrong with my turtle. I still plan on calling the vet but was wondering if you knew more about them producing single eggs on their own. If you can help or direct me elsewhere, please do so. Thanks again for your time.
    Jess

  14. i just saw my turtle today with a mushroom like object sticking out of the tail? i thought it was a snail or a mushroom, but as i looked closely my turtle slowly put it back inside it’s tail. is this their way of mating or is it an egg?

  15. the same thing just happened to me. seconds ago! did pepe wind up laying more eggs?
    my mom and i have been suspicious of “chuck”‘s real sex for a while now. and this confirms it!
    e-mail me if you can about anything that might answer my questions. :-) thanks!

  16. Phew! I am delighted this piece is about a tortoise.
    My scientific method of selecting which post to read by the sound of their titles expected this piece to be some sort of insight of the “transient world”. Example, “he-she” chorus shows in Southern Thailand.

    These creatures (or was it the marine variety?) used to swim right to my doorstep during the nights in August, dig two holes (one as decoy) and proceeded to lay hundreds of eggs.

    Yes…they do have sleepy, sexy eyes!

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