Spiny Softshell Turtle

Apalone spinifera


7 - 16-1/2 inches (female), 5 - 8-1/2 inches (male). Animated pancakes. Softshell turtles do not have a hard outer covering for their shells, but instead have a tough outer skin, devoid of scales or scutes. Olive carapace, males skin is sandpapery. There are conical, spiny projections along the front edge of the carapace. Carapace rimmed by a light border that may be outlined by a darker line. Carapace is olive to tan, with a pattern of black ocelli or dark blotches. Plastron is an immaculate white or yellow. Head and limbs are olive to gray with a pattern of dark spots and streaks. Two dark-bordered light stripes are on each side of the head, one going back from the eye, the other going back from the mouth.

Softshell turtles are exquisitely adapted to an aquatic lifestyle. They have fully webbed feet (almost paddles), and a smooth shell that and is extremely flattened and streamlined. The edge of the carapace is smooth, allowing the turtle to rapidly burrow into mud or sand bottoms. The long neck and elongated nostrils allow the turtle to remain hidden in the mud and still reach air. A fair amount of oxygen can be obtained directly from the water through a specialized vascular development at the back of the mouth. Three claws on each limb. Often the underlying skeleton can be discerned through the carapace. Long neck. Snout is long and tubular with nostrils at the tip, each with a septal ridge. The thick tail of the male extends well beyond edge of carapace (with opening near the tip), female's much smaller tail does not. Males usually better marked, females becoming more pale and mottled with age.


The spiny softshell ranges from western New York, western Pennsylvania and southern Ontario west to southern South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and south to the Gulf costal states and into New Mexico. It has been introduced into New Jersey, the Gila-Lower Colorado river system in Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, and western New Mexico. Ranges as far south as Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Coahila, and eastern Chihuahua, Mexico.

Rivers, large streams, freshwater bayous. Prefers some water current, sandy or muddy bottoms, and at least some aquatic vegetation. Often found around fallen trees with spreading, underwater limbs.


Highly aquatic. May bask on a bank, but will rapidly retreat to the water when disturbed. Can move surprisingly fast, essentially running for the water. Will bask in shallow water. Often lies buried in the bottom, using its long neck and nose to reach the surface for air. Usually sleeps at night buried in the substrate. Strong and fast swimmer. Can and will bite! Their long necks can reach an unwary hand even toward the rear of the carapace. Handle larger individuals by the rear legs, if at all. They have been reported to squirt blood from the eyes when disturbed.


Nests May to August, in full sunlight and close to the water. Nest is 6 to 9 inches deep, 4 - 32 hard shelled, brittle, round eggs 1-1/8 inch in diameter. Incubation varies from 95 days at 25 C to 52 days at temperatures above 30 C. They appear to not be temperature-dependent sex determinate. Sex ratios are near 1:1. Hatchlings (30 - 40 mm) resemble adult males in shape, color, and pattern.


Predominantly carnivorous: insects, fish, frogs, crawfish. Will take some vegetation. Will actively pursue and capture small animals, also use a gape and suck attack to take prey on the bottom.

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