Forty-two years ago, a much less leathery-looking Sylvester Stallone bought a pair of turtles at a pet store in an iconic scene from the movie Rocky. On Saturday, from the set of Creed 2, Stallone posted a selfie revealing that his two “original buddies,” Cuff and Link, were still alive and kicking. This shouldn’t be that surprising. If the pair follow the basic biology of their species, there’s a chance they might outlast Stallone, who is 71 years old.
Turtles are notoriously long-lived animals, living from 20 to 100 years, depending on the species. According to an archived 2006 Philadelphia Inquirer article posted on fan site TotalRocky.com, a man named Joseph Marks, who owned the store in which the iconic scene was filmed, has “a signed note from Rocky Balboa’s set decorator, Robert Greenfield, identifying the female red-eared sliders as the originals and affirming that Marks lent them for Rocky Balboa.” This identification is corroborated by comments left by one ecologist on Reddit, who says that Cuff and Link are Trachemys scripta elegans, the Latin name for the turtles.
They’re a common pet species, named for the distinctive red stripe on either side of their faces, even though that’s hard to make out in the photo below and in the original film. In his post, Stallone says Cuff and Link are “about 44 years old,” which is a reasonable age for a well-kept red-eared slider to be.
In an interview with PetMD in 2013, Mark Mitchell, Ph.D., a professor of zoological medicine at the University of Illinois, explains that pet turtles often live to what humans consider to be middle age. “In most cases, many of the aquatic turtle species — including Red-Eared Sliders and Painted Turtles — theoretically can live into their 40s,” he said. “They could potentially live longer, but we just don’t have records.” Some sources say they can live to 50; others say even 60 years is possible. A lack of proper documentation makes it difficult to say for sure.
Nevertheless, the various factors that can help a pet red-eared slider reach a full lifespan are careful temperature control, adequate food, and proper hygiene. Turtles, being ectotherms (that is, they rely on outside sources to heat their bodies), can’t just be left at room temperature; water should be kept at around 78 to 82 degrees, and a heat lamp can be used to create a “basking area” of 80 to 85 degrees. Being omnivorous, they eat anything from plant matter to dead insects, though those kept as pets are often fed turtle pellets. Water filtration systems are necessary to keep out toxins like ammonia. The 2006 Philadelphia Inquirer article reported that Cuff and Link got a “good home” with Marks, who cares for them in an aquarium with rocks and feeds them dry Meow Mix.
This level of care, combined with the unique genetics of turtles, suggests that Cuff and Link may indeed live longer than their 44 years. A 2013 study in Genome Biology on a different species, the western painted turtle, showed that they carry many genes that are activated in low-oxygen conditions, suggesting that these may play a protective role in turtle health.
By most accounts, it seems like Cuff and Link may be approaching the winter of their lives, though if you ask Tony Croasdale, an Environmental Education Planner with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, they’ve got a long way to go. In a blog post he published in 2017 about red-eared sliders becoming an invasive species in Rocky’s hometown, he wrote that some individuals have been known to live much longer than the aforementioned 40. “Do not buy a red-eared slider unless you are prepared to have it for 70 years!” he wrote. “Do not dump unwanted turtles in our waterways.”
Cuff and Link, enjoying their second wave of Hollywood fame, probably don’t need to worry about that.