Turtles and tortoises form the oldest living group of reptiles on earth; fossil evidence suggests that turtles were alive during the Triassic Period, which was over 200 million years ago. They have evolved little since this time and remain well-adapted for a variety of different environments; in fact, turtles can be found on every continent except Antarctica. In Missouri, seventeen species of turtles can be found. These Missourian turtle species can be classified into three groups: hard-shelled aquatic turtles, soft-shelled aquatic turtles, and hard-shelled land turtles. However, the turtles in all three groups share distinct anatomical similarities that separate them from other living species (Briggler 2008).
One such anatomical similarity is the structure of the turtles’ shells. Turtle shells are composed of two main parts–the upper section called the carapace and the lower section called the plastron. The hard-shelled species have shells composed of bony plates called scutes, while the soft-shelled species have reduced bony plates covered by tough skin instead of scutes. A male turtle’s shell will have a concave plastron to allow the turtle to fit over a female’s shell during mating, and a female turtle’s plastron will be flatter, allowing for more internal room to grow eggs. Additionally, turtles do not have teeth. Instead, they have a sharp-edged beak that covers the lower and upper jaw. This beak allows turtles to use their jaws like scissors to bite off bits of food. Lastly, all turtles lay their eggs on land. Females will typically select well-drained, sandy or loose soil to deposit their eggs and are picky about choosing a nesting site (Briggler 2008).
All species of turtle found in Missouri are protected under state law as either game or non-game species. They pose no threat to game fish or humans if unprovoked. The turtles of Missouri are beneficial scavengers, for they feed on water plants, dead animals, snails, aquatic insects and crayfish. It is illegal to capture, sell, or trade Missouri’s turtles in the pet trade, and only the common snapping turtle and the softshell turtle species are considered game if captured by approved methods (Briddler 2008). To help turtles thrive in Missouri, be careful when you drive, especially in spring and summer when turtles are mating and nesting, and report any known turtle poaching activity to Operation Game Thief by calling 1-800-392-1111 (“Turtles” 2015). To find out more about reporting poaching activity, click here.
Meet the Turtles:
Hard-shelled aquatic turtles:
Alligator Snapping Turtle:
The alligator snapping turtle is the largest species of turtle found in Missouri. Their upper shell measures 15-26 inches, and their weight ranges from 35-150 pounds. They have a noticeably large head that terminates in a sharp, strongly hooked beak and a long tail. Their upper shells have three prominent ridges–one along the center and ones on either side. Adults have brown heads, limbs and shells, and their skin on the neck and other areas may be yellowish brown. Additionally, there are a number of fleshy projections/tubercles on the head, neck and forelimbs of alligator snapping turtles. Alligator snapping turtles feed mostly on fish, but their diet also contains small turtles. They are excellent predators and are able to lure fish by laying motionless on the bottom of a river or slough with their mouths open, for their tongues have an appendage shaped like a stout worm that attract fish. This species of turtle is predominantly aquatic. Alligator snapping turtles are mostly found in deep sloughs, oxbow lakes, and deep pools of large rivers. They take advantage of root snags or submerged logs in deep waters to hide and stalk prey. The turtles will occasionally climb out of the water to bask in the sun, but an alligator snapping turtle seen out of water is most likely a female seeking a place to lay her eggs.
In Missouri, alligator snapping turtles are mostly found in large rivers and lakes of southern, southeastern, and eastern Missouri. Their status in the state is rare and declining due to water pollution, habitat loss, reduction of egg-laying sites, and over-harvesting. Hunting and fishing of these turtles is strictly prohibited by state and federal law (“Alligator Snapping Turtle” 2015).
Blanding’s Turtles are medium-sized turtles with an upper-shell length of 5 to 7 inches. They are characterized by their moderately high-domed upper shells and their long heads and necks. Blanding’s turtles are most recognizable for their bright yellow chins and undersides of the neck. Their heads and limbs are brown and yellow in color, and the upper shells of blanding’s turtles are dark brown or black with many yellow spots or bars. The lower shells are brownish yellow in color, with a large, dark-brown blotch on the outer portion of each scute. The forward third of the lower shells is hinged and moveable. This species of turtle is semiaquatic, and spends much of its time in shallow water along the edge of mashes or river sloughs, walking about on land, or basking in the sun on logs. They feed on crayfish and a variety of aquatic insects, snails, small fish, frogs, and aquatic plants.
In Missouri, blanding’s turtles can only be found in a few counties in extreme northeastern Missouri and one county in extreme northwestern Missouri. This species is listed as endangered in the state due to its limited numbers, a reduction of its natural habitats, road kills, and heavy losses from nest predators like raccoons (“Blanding’s Turtle” 2015).
Common (Northern) Map Turtle:
Common map turtles are small-to-medium sized, hard-shelled aquatic turtles. They have a low ridge along the center of the upper shell, and they have a strongly serrated upper shell. Northern map turtles have brown or olive brown upper shells with a netlike pattern of fine yellow lines. Their lower shells are light yellow, while the head and limbs are brown with thin yellow lines. Additionally, a small yellow spot is present behind each eye. All of the map turtle species have an upper shell length of about 7-11 inches. Map turtles thrive in headwater streams and can be found in the clear, cool rivers of the Ozarks. They feed on snails, mussels, crayfish, and some insects, including the naiads of several species. The species will spend much time basking in the sun on logs or other objects.
In Missouri, the common map turtle can be found primarily in the Ozark region of Missouri and upper Mississippi River in northeastern Missouri (“Northern Map Turtle” 2015).
Common Musk Turtle (Stinkpot):
The common musk turtle, otherwise known as the stinkpot, is Missouri’s smallest species of turtle, with an upper shell length of 2-4.5 inches. The stinkpot has a dark-colored, domed upper shell and a reduced lower shell that is usually yellow, brown, or grayish yellow with brown mottling. Usually, two thin, yellow stripes are found on each side of the head and neck. The fleshy parts of the turtle are dark grey or black. Small projections, called barbels, are present on the chin and throat of common musk turtles. The name “stinkpot” is given to this species because of the foul odor given off when captured. This is produced by musk glands in the skin just below the upper shell along the sides. The turtles are aquatic and live in swamps, sloughs, rivers, and reservoirs. They occasionally leave the water to bask on logs, rocks, or small tree trunks. They feed on aquatic insects, earthworms, crayfish, fish eggs, minnows, tadpoles, algae, and dead animals.
In Missouri, common musk turtles can be found throughout most of Missouri except for the northwestern third of the state. They thrive in rivers and larger streams of the Ozarks and can also be found in small ditches of the Bootheel (“Eastern Musk Turtle” 2015).
Common Snapping Turtle:
The common snapping turtle is one of the most abundant turtle species in the eastern half of the United States. They are large aquatic turtles with a pointed head, long and thick tail, and a small lower shell. The upper shell length is 8-14 inches, and can be tan, brown, or nearly black but is often covered with mud or algae. The shell has three rows, but they become less apparent as common snapping turtles mature. Their heads are often covered with numerous small black lines or spots. The underparts of the turtles are yellowish-white in color. Common snapping turtles have a diverse diet and feed on insects, crayfish, fish, snails, earthworms, amphibians, snakes, small mammals, and birds. Up to a third of their diet, however, is made up of aquatic vegetation. The turtles are commonly found in farm ponds, marshes, swamps, sloughs, rivers, and reservoirs. They prefer muddy bodies of water with heavily available aquatic vegetation and submerged logs. If their body of water dries up, both male and female snapping turtles will travel on land in search of a new habitat.
In Missouri, common snapping turtles are found statewide. With a proper permit, hunting and fishing of the species is allowed; in fact, conservation of the species involves regulated hunting (“Snapping Turtle” 2015).
Eastern River Cooter:
Eastern river cooters are fairly large aquatic turtles that are recognizable by their proportionally small, blunt head. The upper shell is olive brown, brown, or nearly black in color, and it is broad with numerous yellow markings. The lower shell may be plain yellow or have faint gray-brown markings along the scrute seems. The head and limbs of eastern river cooters are typically olive brown or black with yellow lines. The upper shell length measures 9 to 13 inches. Eastern river cooters have diets that consist mostly of aquatic plants, but some aquatic insects, mussels, snails, and crayfish are occasionally eaten. The species live in bodies of water, and spend a considerable amount of time basking in the sun on logs during spring and summer.
In Missouri, this species of turtle can be found throughout the southern half of the state. They are most abundant in Missouri’s rivers and sloughs but also can be found in large reservoirs (“Eastern River Cooter” 2015).
False Map Turtle:
False map turtles are small to medium-sized species that have a brown or olive colored upper shell with narrow, yellow connected circles or lines. The upper shell length varies between 3 to 10 inches. The center of the upper shell has a low ridge, and the hind edge of the upper shell is strongly serrated. The lower shell of false map turtles is colored greenish-yellow with light brown lines that follow the seam of each scute. The turtles’ heads and necks are brown or greenish gray with yellow lines; two thick yellow lines behind each eye of the false map turtle form a backward “L” shape. The species appears to be “wide-eyed” due to the bright yellow eye color with a round, black pupil. False map turtles are semiaquatic, and live primarily in large rivers such as the Missouri and Mississippi, river sloughs, and oxbow lakes or constructed reservoirs. Additionally, they enjoy basking on logs or rocks. They feed on aquatic plants and animals such as snails, insects, crayfish, and dead fish.
In Missouri, false map turtles can be found in central, northeastern, northwestern, and southeastern Missouri (“False Map Turtle” 2015).
Ouachita Map Turtle:
The Ouachita map turtle is a small to medium-sized turtle with an upper shell length ranging from 6 to 10 inches. It has a prominent ridge down the center of the upper shell and bright yellow lines on the head and limbs. The upper shell is colored brown or olive, and like the common map turtle and the false map turtle, features connected yellow lines and circles that resemble a map. The lower shell is yellow in color, and the limbs and head of Ouachita map turtles are olive with thin yellow lines. Behind each eye, wide yellow-orange markings make this species of turtle differentiable from the other map turtles. Ouachita map turtles feed on insects, worms, crayfish, snails, naiads, dead fish, and aquatic plants. They live in slow-moving rivers and streams. Their name comes from a river in southwestern Arkansas and eastern Louisiana and is pronounced WAH-shi-tah.
In Missouri, Ouachita map turtles can be found in rivers and streams throughout the Ozark region. They help control the populations of the animals that they prey on, and are prey themselves to raccoons, snakes, herons, and other predators (Briggler 2006).
The red-eared slider is one of the most common semi-aquatic turtles in Missouri. The upper shell is colored olive-brown with black and yellow lines decorating it and measures 5 to 8 inches in length. The lower shell is yellow with a large dark brown blotch on each scute. The head and limbs are dark greenish-brown in color. The turtle gets its name from the distinct red-orange stripe present behind each eye. Red-eared sliders can live in many different aquatic habitats like rivers, sloughs, lakes and ponds. They especially thrive in areas with ample basking sites and aquatic vegetation for food and security. Additionally, red-eared sliders are known to spend a particularly large amount of time basking in the sun on logs or rocks. Their name “slider” comes from their practice of quickly sliding into water when startled on their basking spots.
In Missouri, these turtles are extremely common. They can be found statewide, except for in a few northern counties. This species is the most popular pet turtle in the United States, and many die due to improper care (“Red-eared Slider” 2015).
Southern Painted Turtle:
The southern painted turtle is a small aquatic turtle with an upper shell length of 4-5 inches. The upper shell is olive brown to almost black, with vibrant coloring. A prominent orange, red, or yellow stripe running down the center of the upper shell, and the outer edge of the shell is often orange, red-orange, or yellow. The lower shell of the southern painted turtle is yellow and sometimes features a faint brown blotch along the center. Southern painted turtles prefer the still, quiet water of shallow swamps, streams, sloughs, and oxbow lakes. Additionally, they require numerous basking sites in their habitats. They feed on aquatic invertebrates like snails, crayfish and insects and on plant materials.
In Missouri, southern painted turtles are found only in the southwest corner of the state. In particular, they live well in Bootheel swamps. They used to be considered a subspecies of the painted turtle, but have been raised to full species status (“Southern Painted Turtle” 2015).
Western Painted Turtle:
The western painted turtle, like the southern painted turtle, is a small, brightly colored species of turtle. The semiaquatic turtle has a smooth upper shell that measures 3 to 7 inches. The upper shell is olive brown or black, and there are yellow, irregular lines and a reddish-orange outer shell that gives the turtle its coloring. The lower shell of this turtle is red-orange with a distinguishable pattern of brown markings that follow the scute seams toward the outer edge. Additionally, the head and legs of the turtle may be dark brown or black and are strongly patterned with yellow lines. These turtles are found in bodies of water that have mud at the bottom and abundant aquatic vegetation. They thrive in slow-moving rivers, sloughs, oxbow lakes, ponds, and drainage ditches. Additionally, they spend a lot of time basking on logs. They eat aquatic plants, snails, crayfish, insects, and some fish.
In Missouri, western painted turtles can be found everywhere except for in southeastern colonies, especially in prairie regions. Historically, painted turtles appear in Native American legends. They are often kept as pets, and may die due to improper care in these cases (“Western Painted Turtle” 2015).
Yellow Mud Turtle:
The yellow mud turtle is a small, dark-colored, semi-aquatic turtle. The upper shell measures 4 to 5 inches and is somewhat flattened and geometrical. The upper shell is olive brown, dull yellow, or sometimes dark brown. The limbs and head are olive, and there is yellow coloring on the chin and neck of the species. The lower shell is colored yellow and brown. Yellow mud turtles prefer sandy habitats and spend equal amounts of time on land and in the water. When in the water, the yellow mud turtle can be found in rivers, sloughs, ponds, water-filled ditches, mashes, and flooded fields. They especially prefer streams or ponds with muddy or sandy bottoms. Yellow mud turtles bury themselves in md or sand on land in the winter and during the hottest months of the summer. They consume a variety of aquatic animals and plants, including insects, snails, crayfish, tadpoles, and dead fish. When captured, mud turtles give off a musky odor.
Yellow mud turtles are listed as endangered in the state of Missouri. Its limited range and specific habitat needs threatens the yellow mud turtle numbers (“Yellow Mud Turtle” 2015). In Missouri, they are found only in a few counties in southwestern Missouri and the Kansas City area. A close relative of this turtle, the Illinois mud turtle, is restricted to only a few marshes in northeastern Missouri (Briggler 2006).
Soft-shelled Aquatic Turtles:
Eastern Spiny Soft-shell:
This species of softshell turtles has small bumps or spines on the front of the upper shell and small ridges on each side of the snout. These features distinguish the species from the midland smooth softshell turtle. Male eastern spiny softshells have an upper shell length of 5 to 9.25 inches, and females have an upper shell length ranging from 7 to 17 inches. The coloring of the upper shell varies with age and sex. Males and adolescents have an olive or tan upper shell with dark spots and circles. Adult females have dark olive or tan upper shells with brown and gray blotches. The head and limbs of the turtles are typically tan or olive with small dark spots. The lower shell is cream in color. The species has a long snout that has yellow stripes on either side. These stripes run from either side of the head. The snout functions like a snorkel and allows the species to spend a long time underwater. Eastern spiny softshells can be found in large rivers, lakes, and large ponds with a muddy or sandy bottom. They prey on fish, crayfish, insects, snails, and tadpoles.
In Missouri, the eastern spiny softshell is found statewide. The species is a game species in Missouri, with a season and daily bag limit. Consult the Wildlife Code of Missouri for current regulations (“Eastern Spiny Softshell” 2015). To visit the Wildlife Code of Missouri’s website, click here.
Midland Smooth Soft-shell:
The midland smooth softshell turtle has a smooth upper shell that lacks and small bumps or scutes. The upper shell length ranges from 4-7 inches for males and 6-14 inches for females. Males and adolescents have an olive-gray or brown upper shell with faint dark markings. Female adults have a mottled upper shell with blotches of gray, olive, and/or brown. The lower shell of midland smooth softshell turtles is cream-colored. Additionally, head and limbs are olive or grey, and a yellow line borded by black lines is usually found behind each eye. These turtles are aquatic and are found in large rivers, streams, oxbow lakes, and reservoirs with sand or mud on the bottom. Their smooth upper shell, webbed toes, and long, tubular snout that functions as a snorkel makes them excellent swimmers. They feed on fish, crayfish, salamanders, tadpoles, frogs, snails, and aquatic insects.
In Missouri, these turtles can be found statewide but are especially common in large rives. They are rare in the Ozarks. The species is a game species in Missouri, with a season and daily bag limit. Consult the Wildlife Code of Missouri for current regulations (Briggler 2006). To visit the Wildlife Code of Missouri’s website, click here.
Hard-shelled Land Turtles:
Ornate Box Turtle:
The ornate box turtle is one of the two species of land turtles found in Missouri. They are small and colorful with a domed upper shell that measures 4-5 inches. The upper shell is flattened along the top and is dark brown or black with yellow lines radiating from the center of each individual plate. A yellow stripe runs down the top of the shell. The lower shell of the ornate box turtle is brown with distinct yellow spots and blotches. The lower shell is hinged, allowing the turtle to close the forward third up against the upper shell for protection. These box turtles have brown or black heads and limbs with yellow spots. There are normally four toes on each hind leg. Ornate box turtles live in prairies and grasslands, open woods, and glades. They feed on insects such as grasshoppers, beetles and caterpillars, and plant matter, especially berries and tender shoots.
In Missouri, ornate box turtles are native to prairies and grasslands. They can be found statewide, except for in the southeastern corner of the state. Their status has been declining statewide, mainly due to loss of habitat and being hit by vehicles (“Ornate Box Turtles” 2015).
Three-toed Box Turtle:
The three-toed box turtle has a high-domed carapace that is colored olive or brown, sometimes with faint yellow or orange lines on the scutes. The lower shell is yellow with brown smudges. Like the ornate box turtle, the lower shell is hinged and is able to offer protection against predators. The turtles have three hind toes. Male three-toed box turtles have red eyes, orange on the head and forelimbs, and a thick tail. Females have yellow-brown eyes, less orange coloring, and a small tail. The three-toed box turtles are found in forests and in brushy fields. Adults usually have a home range of 2-5 acres. Young turtles feed on mostly earthworms and insects, while adults tend to be vegetarian and consume a variey of plants, berries, and mushrooms.
In Missouri, this species of turtle is found statewide except for the extreme northern and northwestern parts of the state. Their status has been declining statewide, mainly due to loss of habitat and being hit by vehicles (“Three-toed Box Turtle” 2015).
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