by Whit Gibbons

May 21, 2017

Examples of art imitating nature are uncountable and as varied as faux mink coats, ice sculptures of animals and the Chihuly glass flowers in the Bellagio Las Vegas lobby. A recent article in the journal “Humans and Nature” by ecologists Jeff Lovich of the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona, and Katsuya Yamamoto of Kobe, Japan, have added a new layer to the assertion that “art takes nature as its model.” The scientists give evidence that as nature changes, so does the art that portrays it.

Jeff Lovich is an internationally known turtle biologist who has conducted ecological research on turtles in many regions of the world, including Japan. He recently showed me a series of photographs of tin toy turtles that were popular in Japan for decades prior to World War II. From at least the 1920s to the end of WWII, the toys were “muted earth-tone colors representative of native species of Japanese turtles.” Lovich and Yamamoto conducted research on the turtles and became familiar with how the toys were a manifestation of local species.

In the 1950s, as Japanese toys became an important exported commodity, the colors of Japan’s toy turtles began to change. They became brighter. Reds, greens and yellows began to be displayed more prominently. Exports to America had increased, and perhaps more vibrant colors were in demand. But according to the Lovich and Yamamoto, the shift has a more intriguing explanation involving the international pet trade and the subsequent presence of a new turtle in Japan – the red-eared slider turtle. As the authors note, the “change was coincident with the importation of large numbers of colorful slider turtles to Japan via the pet trade.”

Red-eared sliders are native to more than a dozen U.S. states, with a geographic range that encompasses most of the Gulf States from Alabama to Texas and northward to Kansas, Missouri and Illinois. Outside the prescribed area where they occur naturally they can become an invasive species. Sliders have been introduced to and survived and thrived in temperate and some tropical zone areas on every continent, except for Antarctica, as well as many large islands, including Japan.

Red-eared sliders are pretty. A new hatchling has a vivid green shell, yellow stripes on its face and legs, and a bright splash of red or orange on the sides of the head. They are the most common species of pet turtle in the world. Millions have been sold as hatchlings in the pet trade and transported to every state and dozens of countries, whereupon a problem arises. A turtle leaving a pet store could be in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to take care of it. Upon realizing their incompetence as a pet owner, many people just release the turtle into a nearby body of water, where it can become an environmental problem because of competition with native turtles.

A similar problem arises when a person does take care of a hatchling properly, so that it reaches maturity. An adult slider turtle can weigh 100 times more than it did as a tiny baby turtle that was easy to keep in a small bowl, resulting in another reason for many people wanting to get rid of pet turtles. This is true throughout the United States and, not surprisingly, in other countries as well. This led to the “subsequent establishment and numerical dominance (of red-eared slider turtles) in Japanese wetlands.”

Freshwater turtles native to the Japanese islands were mostly shades of brown, sometimes with yellow markings, but red-eared sliders are now more prevalent. Toy turtles are still being made in Japan and exported as they have been for the past 70 years. But the color patterns have changed, presumably in response to human perceptions of what a typical Japanese turtle looks like. Cultural changes have always occurred in response to environmental changes. The red-eared slider has offered an opportunity to observe the transition.

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