Just like chickens, female red-eared sliders will sometimes lay eggs even when they haven’t mated with a male. They generally lay 7-11 eggs at a time, and can lay 2-3 clutches in a single season. The good news is that these eggs are infertile, so there is no need to worry about incubation or what you’re going to do with a bunch of baby turtles. However, female turtles do require special care when they’re gravid (pregnant) and laying. While regularly laying eggs is part of maintaining a healthy reproductive system for female red-eared sliders, it also takes a significant toll on their body.
If you suspect that your turtle is gravid, take her to an experienced reptile veterinarian, or even a turtle breeder if you know one. They can palpate her to feel for eggs, or take an x-ray. DO NOT attempt to do this yourself — you may accidentally break the eggs inside of her, which can turn into a life-threatening problem.
Alternatively, if your turtle can’t lay her eggs, she may retain them, which causes a life-threatening condition called egg-binding. This is one of the big benefits of providing a shoreline-type basking area with deep substrate, as the female always has access to a nesting site and the risk of egg-binding is greatly reduced.
When a female red-eared slider needs to lay her eggs, look for these changes in her behavior:
- Attempting to escape her enclosure
- Making digging motions with her hind legs
- Excessive basking
- Loss of appetite
Gravid turtles need extra food and calcium to compensate for the nutrients they lose from forming eggs. Even if the eggs aren’t fertile, your female will still have special dietary needs during pregnancy and after she deposits the eggs. Double-check her UVB bulb (it should be an Arcadia or Zoo Med — for more information visit here) and provide extra pieces of cuttlebone for calcium. She will also need extra protein. Offer whole prey such as appropriate fish and even small birds/rodents, as well as an extra dose of pellets for vitamins.
When your turtle is ready to lay, get a dark plastic tote and fill it with untreated topsoil at least 12” deep. Use your hand or a trowel to mix water evenly throughout the soil to moisten it. If the soil is cold, let it warm to room temperature. Place the bin in a quiet, low traffic area, then add your turtle and partially cover the bin to help her feel more comfortable and secure. If the room is cold, you may add her heat lamp.
Give her privacy.
If you have a garden, you can potentially take your turtle outside to lay her eggs, but she must be strictly supervised throughout the whole process to make sure she doesn’t run off and get lost.
Remove the eggs after you have returned the turtle back to her tank. If you suspect they may be fertile, freeze the eggs before disposing of them so they won’t hatch. Turtle eggs (even unfertilized) make a great treat for other reptiles such as blue tongue skinks, hognose snakes, corn snakes, and other omnivores and carnivores.
What is Egg-Binding?
Egg-binding occurs when female reptile can’t/doesn’t lay her eggs for one reason or another — that reason may be calcium deficiency, poor nutrition, not having a place to lay the eggs, stress, disease, malformed eggs, or a flaw in her reproductive anatomy. The most common reason for egg binding in captive turtles is lack of a suitable place for the turtle to lay her eggs or disturbance.
Egg binding is dangerous because unlaid eggs start to “rot” inside a female turtle’s body, eventually killing her. If she doesn’t lay eggs, but the symptoms persist, take her to an experienced reptile veterinarian, as she may be egg-bound.
Ernst, C. H., & Lovich, J. E. (2019). Turtles of the United States and Canada (2nd ed., pp. 444–470). The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Perez, N. (2015, May 16). Identifying a Gravid Turtle. RESTO-Aquatic Turtle Owners (All Species Welcome). https://www.facebook.com/notes/resto-aquatic-turtle-owners-all-species-welcome/identifying-a-gravid-turtle/10153313740578966/
Is Your Turtle Pregnant? Caring For a Gravid Captive Turtle. (n.d.). My Turtle Cam: Aquatic Turtle Care Information. Retrieved September 26, 2020, from https://www.myturtlecam.com/caring-for-gravid-aquatic-turtles.php