Precocious Courtship and Play in Emydid Turtles


Statistical Research Division, Room 3000–4, U.S. Bureau of the Census, Washington, DC 20233–9100, USA. E-mail:


In many mammal species, precocious sexual behaviour is a component of play. A recent model for the evolution of play fighting behaviour in muroid rodents by Pellis (1993) proposes that social play in those species has its origin in precocious sexual behaviour. Captive juvenile emydid turtles perform precocious sexual behaviour. After reviewing its occurrence, we focus on detailed observations of Pseudemys nelsoni. Precocious sexual behaviour in these turtles is characterized by the striking ‘titillation’ display, usually observed only when adult males court females. In this display, the digits of the front feet are rapidly vibrated above the eyes of the female. In our observations, both sexes performed the display, which was energetic, spontaneous, and inconclusive (in that sequences of precocious courtship typically ended when either the displayer or recipient stopped and rested, left, or started some other unrelated non-social behaviour). Displaying individuals clearly preferred conspecific recipients and often appeared to seek out specific individuals. We discuss several plausible explanations for precocious courtship in these turtles but find none entirely satisfying. The characteristics of the precocious courtship behaviour we observed most closely match those commonly listed for social play. Thus, we conclude that the most likely explanation for this behaviour is that it is a component of social play.