Oklahoma Turtles

 

Oklahoma is home to a diverse community of turtles.  Seventeen species of turtles are found in our state including two species of land-dwelling turtles (box turtles) and fifteen species of aquatic turtles.  A brief description of each of these species is provided below.   Altogether, these 15 species represent four families, or groups, of turtles.  The family Chelydridae is comprised of two species of large, carnivorous turtles – the Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and the Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii).  The family Kinosternidae is represented by four species of relatively small aquatic turtles known as musk or mud turtles – the Yellow Mud Turtle (Kinosternon flavescens), Mississippi Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum hippocrepis), Razor-backed Musk Turtle (Sternotherus carinatus) and the Common Musk Turtle or Stinkpot (Sternotherus odoratus).  The family Emydidae is the largest and most diverse group of turtles and includes the map turtles, the box turtles and the familiar aquatic basking turtles.  Three species of map turtles can be found in streams and rivers in eastern Oklahoma – the Common Map Turtle (Graptemys geographica), the Ouachita Map Turtle (Graptemys ouachitensis) and the Mississippi Map Turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica kohnii).  Two species of box turtles live in Oklahoma – the Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) and the Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata).  Four other aquatic turtles belong to this group and these are often referred to as basking turtles because of their behavioral tendency to bask or sun themselves on logs and rocks – the Eastern River Cooter (Pseudemys concinna concinna), the Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), the Western Chicken Turtle (Deirochelys reticularia miaria) and Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta).  The fourth and final family of Oklahoma turtles is the Trionychidae or softshell turtles, which is comprised of two species – the Smooth Softshell Turtle (Apalone mutica) and the Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera).

The conservation status of Oklahoma’s turtles is just as diverse as the range of species.  The capture and possession of all turtles is regulated by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation under specific reptile regulations that can be found in OAC Title 800:25-7 Part 3, or OAC Title 800:15 Subchapter 9.  A hunting or fishing license is required to trap or collect turtles for personal use; a commercial turtle harvester license is required to trap aquatic turtles commercially.  Three species of turtles are sufficiently rare that closed seasons have been established to prohibit the trapping, possession or killing of these species.  These closed-season species are the Alligator Snapping Turtle, the Western Chicken Turtle and the Common Map Turtle.  The two species of box turtles, Three-toed Box Turtle and Ornate Box Turtle, can be collected for personal use but all commercial trade is prohibited in large part because their low reproductive rate makes their populations vulnerable to local depletion in the event of over collection.  The remaining species, all of which are aquatic, may be collected for personal use or may be trapped commercially from private waters with an approved commercial turtle harvest license. 

Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

common snapping tutle

Credit: Suzanne L. Collins, CNAH

This is a relatively large turtle with the adults reaching lengths of 8 to 18 inches and weights of 10 to 35 pounds (though a few males have been recorded at over 50lbs).  On average, the males are larger than the females.  Common Snapping Turtles occur in a wide range of aquatic habitats including streams, rivers, sloughs, reservoirs and farm ponds, and they have been recorded in all 77 counties in Oklahoma.  They have a broad diet that includes aquatic plants, insects, snails, fish and occasionally frogs, snakes and birds.  The Common Snapping Turtle has a greenish-gray to black skin color and a dark gray to light brown shell that is often covered with algae.  Young turtles have ridges running the length of their shells, but as they age the shell become smoother.  The neck is relatively long and the head is large.  The tail is long and usually has a ridge of jagged scales running along the upper surface.  These turtles are primarily nocturnal and spend much of the day in shallow water or hiding in vegetation and woody debris within the water.

 

Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)  

alligator snapping turtle

This is a very large turtle and adults commonly reach lengths of 15 to 25 inches or more.  Males are much larger than females and frequently exceed 80 to 100 pounds.  Unlike the Common Snapping Turtle, Alligator Snapping Turtles have difficulty traveling over land and rarely leave the water except for females that travel short distances (usually less than 300 feet) from water to lay their eggs.  As a result of their poor ability to travel out of water, Alligator Snapping Turtles are almost never found in ponds or isolated bodies of water.  Most Alligator Snapping Turtles are found in the eastern third of Oklahoma in streams, rivers and reservoirs, especially where there is tree cover over the water.  Alligator Snapping Turtles have very large heads and long necks that cannot be completely withdrawn into their shells.  Their skin color and shell color are usually a dark brown.  Their tails are long and relatively smooth.  The upper shell (carapace) has three prominent ridges, or keels, running the length of the shell from front to back and these remain throughout the life of the turtle.  There is a small, pink projection near the tip of the Alligator Snapping Turtle’s tongue that the turtle can wiggle and used as a lure to attract fish.  Alligator Snapping Turtles are primarily carnivorous and feed on aquatic insects, fish, frogs and even other turtles.  Because of its rarity and low reproductive rate, the Alligator Snapping Turtle is classified as a species of special concern and a year-round closed season prohibits the trapping, possession or killing of these turtles.

Yellow Mud Turtle (Kinosternon flavescens)

This is a small turtle that grows to about five inches in length.  Yellow Mud Turtles are common and are found in soft-bottomed streams, farm ponds, temporary pools and shallow wetlands across the western half of Oklahoma.  They frequently travel across land and readily colonize ponds and other isolated bodies of water.  Their diet is broad and includes insects, crayfish, tadpoles, and aquatic plants.  The shell is smooth, rounded and generally a yellowish-brown color.  The skin color is grayish with a yellow tint to the head and neck.  Like all mud and musk turtles, it can emit a foul odor when threatened.

Mississippi Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum hippocrepis)

Mississippi Mud Turtle

Credit: Suzanne L. Collins, CNAH

The Mississippi Mud Turtle is a small, dark turtle usually less than five inches in length.  It is relatively common and found across most of the eastern third of Oklahoma in soft-bottomed streams, ponds, swamps and shallow wetlands.  They feed on a wide variety of foods including aquatic plants, insects, crayfish, snails and tadpoles.  The skin color is dark gray, and there are usually two yellowish to cream-colored lines running along each side of the head and neck.  The shell is smooth and ranges from a dark olive-green to a dark gray-brown color.  Like all mud and musk turtles, it can emit a foul odor when threatened, and spend most of their time on or near the bottom in shallow water.

Razor-backed Musk Turtle (Sternotherus carinatus)

Raxoe-backed musk turtle

Credit: Suzanne L. Collins, CNAH

This is an uncommon, small turtle that rarely exceeds five inches in length.  They are found primarily in gravel-bottom or rocky streams in southcentral and southeastern Oklahoma (Arbuckle and Ouachita Mountains).  They feed on aquatic plants, aquatic insects, snails and other invertebrates.  Their skin color is yellowish-brown to tan, and their shell is light colored and is unusual in having a prominent ridge down the center from which it receives its name “razor-backed.”  Like all musk and mud turtles, it can emit a foul odor when disturbed or threatened, and it has several small barbels (soft projections) extending from under the chin.

Common Musk Turtle or Skinkpot Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus)

common musk turtle

Credit: Suzanne L. Collins, CNAH

This is a common, small turtle usually four inches or less in length.  It is found in muddy or soft-bottomed wetlands, small ponds, sloughs, swamps and slow-moving streams across much of the eastern 2/5 of Oklahoma.  Its skin color is gray to dark gray and there are two prominent, yellowish-colored lines that run across the face, and along each side of the head and neck.  There are several soft barbels (projections) on the chin and neck.  The shell is dark brown, smooth and rounded.  Because Skinkpots rarely leave the water, their shells are often covered in algae.  Although this is a common turtle, it is rarely seen because it spends much of its time foraging along the bottom of shallow wetlands and streams.  They feed on aquatic plants and small aquatic insects and crustaceans.  Like all musk and mud turtles, they can emit a foul odor when disturbed or threatened.

Common Map Turtle (Graptemys geographica)

common map turtle

Credit: Suzanne L. Collins, CNAH

This is a rare aquatic turtle found only in a few watersheds in the northeastern corner of the state (Delaware and Mayes counties).  The Common Map Turtle is a medium sized turtle with the adults ranging in length from five to ten inches; adult females are normally larger than males.  They occur in gravel-bottom streams and small rivers where their diet is comprised of snails, aquatic insects, crustaceans and fish.  The shell is generally broad and low in profile with a jagged ridge along the midline of the upper shell’s surface and a jagged hind edge.  The shell is usually a green-brown color with fine yellowish or orangish markings.  The skin color is greenish with many yellow lines and markings on the head, neck, legs and tail.  The term “map turtle” comes from the lines and markings on the shell that resemble the markings on a map.  This species commonly basks or suns on rocks and logs in the water.  Because of its limited geographic range and rarity in Oklahoma, a closed season has been established for this species that prohibits the trapping, possession or killing of this turtle.

Ouachita Map Turtle (Graptemys ouachitensis ouachitensis)

Ouachita Map Turtle

Credit: Suzanne L. Collins, CNAH

This is a medium sized, aquatic turtle that attains an adult length of five to ten inches.  Like all map turtles, the female Ouachita Map Turtle is generally larger than the male.  This species is uncommon but widespread across the eastern half of Oklahoma in streams, rivers and reservoirs.  Aquatic plants comprise the bulk of the diet, but aquatic insects and snails are eaten as well.  The shell is olive-green to brown in color with faint yellow markings and dark blotches.  The top of the shell is relatively low, but there is a jagged ridge running along its midline.  The skin color is greenish brown with several fine, yellow lines extending down the legs and along the neck.  The most prominent markings are yellow backward “L”-shaped markings on the top of the head behind each eye, and several long yellow lines that run the length of the neck and reach the eye.  The term “map turtle” comes from the lines and markings on the shell that resemble the markings on a map.  This species commonly basks or suns on rocks and logs in the water.

Mississippi Map Turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica kohnii)

Mississippi Map Turtle

Credit: Suzanne L. Collins, CNAH

This is a medium sized, aquatic turtle that reaches an adult length of five to ten inches.  Like all map turtles, the female Mississippi Map Turtle is normally larger than the male.  This species is found in a wide variety of streams, rivers and reservoirs in roughly the eastern quarter of Oklahoma but is generally uncommon.  Its diet is comprised primarily of snails, aquatic insects, crustaceans and small mussels, but it also feeds upon aquatic plants.  The profile of the upper shell is relatively low, but there is a distinct jagged ridge running along the shell’s midline.  The shell is dark olive to brown in color with numerous yellowish, circular markings.  Fine yellow lines run the length of the tail, legs and neck, but none of the yellow lines on the neck reach the eye.  There is an obvious yellow “V”-shaped marking behind and below each eye.  Like all map turtles, the Mississippi Map Turtle is active during the daylight hours and frequently basks or suns on logs in the water and along the banks.

Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta belli and Chrysemys picta dorsalis)

painted turtle second type of painted turtle

    Credit: Suzanne L. Collins, CNAH

 

The Painted Turtle is a small, aquatic turtle that reaches an adult length of five to seven inches with females being larger than males on average and having shorter tails.  Painted Turtles are found in streams, sloughs and ponds with abundant vegetation and cover.  Aquatic plants make up most of their diet, but they also eat aquatic insects and crustaceans.  They are frequently found basking or sunning on logs and banks.  There are two populations of Painted Turtles in Oklahoma and some herpetologists consider these to be separate species.  The Western Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta belli) is found in a few counties in north central Oklahoma along the Kansas border (Alfalfa, Grant and Kay counties).  The Southern Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta dorsalis) is found in extreme southeastern Oklahoma in the southern half of McCurtain County.  Turtles in both populations have dark green skin with yellow or reddish-orange stripes on the neck, legs and tail.  The shell of the Western Painted Turtle is green with yellow lines and markings; the shell of the Southern Painted Turtle is dark and has a red, orange or yellow stripe extending down the center ridge.   

Western Chicken Turtle (Deirochelys reticularia miaria)

This is a medium-sized aquatic turtle that reaches an adult length of five to nine inches, and the females are normally much larger than the males.  The Chicken Turtle is a rare species in Oklahoma with scattered populations in south central Oklahoma and along the Red River in eastern Oklahoma (Cleveland, Pottawatomie, Seminole, Coal, Atoka, Marshall, Bryan, Choctaw and McCurtain counties).  This species is found primarily in streams, marshes, sloughs and ponds with abundant aquatic vegetation.  The diet is comprised mainly of aquatic plants but aquatic insects make up a small portion of the diet.  The Chicken Turtle is sufficiently rare that a year-round closed season was established to prohibit the collection, killing and possession of this species.  Chicken Turtles have a gray-green skin color with yellow stripes on the legs, neck and head.  The shell is oval or pear-shaped, and dark green or tan in color with numerous faint yellowish markings. 

Eastern River Cooter (Pseudemys concinna concinna)

eastern river cooter adult

Eastern River Cooter Adult

Credit: Suzanne L. Collins, CNAH

 

easter river cooter juv

 

Eastern River Cooter Juv
Credit: Suzanne L. Collins, CNAH

This is a relatively large aquatic turtle that reaches an adult length of nine to thirteen inches (females are typically larger than males).  The River Cooter is common and found in rivers, large streams and reservoirs across the entire eastern half of Oklahoma.  Within its habitat, it is usually found in areas with shallow water and abundant vegetation or cover.  Its diet is comprised primarily of aquatic plants, but aquatic insects and crustaceans are eaten also.  The River Cooter’s skin and shell colors are green when they are young but both darken to a dark green as they mature.  Young cooters and adult cooters both have fine yellow stripes on their legs, tails, necks and heads.  Their shells are low in profile and are marked with many yellow circular and “C”- shaped markings.  Like the related map turtles and sliders, the Eastern River Cooter is a turtle that frequently basks or suns itself on logs and rocks jutting out of the water. 

 

Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)

red-eared slider

This is a medium-sized aquatic turtle that grows to an adult length of five to eight inches (females are larger than males).  This is possibly the most abundant turtle in Oklahoma and is found nearly statewide in streams, rivers, ponds, reservoirs, marshes and sloughs.  The Red-eared Slider is frequently found moving away from water and between ponds.  As a result of their mobility, they readily colonize ponds and isolated bodies of water.  They live in a variety of aquatic habitats, but are most common in ponds and slow-moving waters with an abundance of aquatic vegetation.  Young Red-eared Sliders feed on aquatic insects, snails, crustaceans and small fish, but adult sliders are primarily vegetarian and eat aquatic plants.  The most obvious physical trait of the Red-eared Slider is the presence of a bold red patch of skin behind each eye from which its name is taken.  The skin color of the slider is variable.  Young sliders have green skin but the color darkens as they age and very old turtles may be dark olive or nearly black skin.  The shell color also is variable.  Young sliders have a green shell with yellow lines and markings.  The shell darkens as it matures and becomes an olive green with yellowish markings.  In very old turtles, the shell is brown or nearly black and has no markings on it.  The Red-eared Slider is a basking turtle and often seen lying in the sun on rocks or logs, or floating at the water’s surface.

Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis)

three-toed box turtle

Credit: Suzanne L. Collins, CNAH

This is one of only two land-dwelling turtles in Oklahoma.  The adults are relatively small and grow to a length of five or six inches.  Three-toed Box Turtles are typically found in forested areas, woodlands, forest edges and thickets, and they are found across the eastern half of the state.  They are active during the day and hunt or search for insects, earthworms, snails, fungi and fallen fruits at ground level.  Their skin color is primarily brown, but some adults, especially the males, may have white, yellow, orange or red spots and blotches on their front legs, necks and heads.  The sex of many adults can be determined by examining the eye color.  Adult males normally have red to orange eyes, while the females’ eyes are normally brown to yellow.  Box turtles have high, dome-shaped shells that are usually a medium brown color.  The shells may be plain, or they may have some black or yellow markings.  The feet of the box turtle are stout and used for digging and walking on land.  The hind feet of most individuals have only three toes (instead of four) and this is the origin of their common name.  A box turtle has the ability to pull its head, neck and legs completely into its shell when threatened or disturbed.  Box turtles are long-lived but have a low reproductive rate and a poor ability to move long distances.  Because of this, box turtle populations can become locally depleted if heavily harvested or captured.  In Oklahoma, it is lawful to keep box turtles as pets, however, it is unlawful to sell or trade box turtles commercially.  Box turtles have a specialized diet and are relatively difficult to keep in captivity; therefore we do not recommend that they be kept as pets.

Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata)

ornate box turtle

Credit: Suzanne L. Collins, CNAH

This is one of only two land-dwelling turtles in Oklahoma.  The adults are relatively small and reach a length of only four to five inches.  Ornate Box Turtles are found in a wide range of habitats including prairies, woodlands, stabilized dunes and shrublands.  Usually they are found in habitats with abundant grasses and forbs at ground level, and often in areas with sandy or loamy soils where the turtles can dig easily.  Ornate Box Turtles are found statewide but are most common in the western half of the state.  They are active during the day and search for insects, earthworms and fallen fruits at ground level.  Their skin color is variable but is primarily dark with yellow blotches and spots on their necks, heads and legs.  Some individuals may have entirely yellow heads, while some males may have red or orange spots on their front legs.  The sex of many adults can be determined by examining the eye color.  Adult males normally have red eyes, while the females’ eyes are brown to yellow.  Ornate Box Turtles have high, dome-shaped shells that are dark brown or black with many yellow lines and markings.  The underside of the shell is very distinctive and is black with yellow markings like the upper surface (by contrast, the Three-toed Box Turtle has a plain brown or beige underside to its shell).  The feet of the box turtle are stout and used for digging and walking on land.  The hind feet of most individuals have four toes.  The Ornate Box Turtle has the ability to pull its head, neck and legs completely into its shell when threatened or disturbed.  Ornate Box Turtles are shorter-lived than other box turtles and more difficult to keep healthy in captivity.  In Oklahoma, box turtles may be kept as pets legally, however, it is unlawful to sell or trade box turtles commercially.  Because of their specialized diet of insects, Ornate Box Turtles are relatively difficult to keep in captivity and do not make good pets.

Smooth Softshell (Apalone mutica mutica)

smooth softshell

Credit: Suzanne L. Collins, CNAH

This is a large turtle that reaches an adult length of six to 15 inches.  Adult female softshell turtles are much larger than males.  They live in streams and rivers with sandy or soft substrates, and can be found in these habitats across most of the main body of Oklahoma.  Softshell turtles are usually found in or adjacent to the water and do not move easily on land.  As a result, they rarely move overland into ponds or isolated wetlands.  Most of their diet is comprised of insects, crustaceans, snails and small fish.  They are often found in shallow water where they will sit on the bottom, or partially buried in the substrate, with the neck out-stretched and their nostrils extending just above the surface of the water for air.  The Smooth Softshell’s skin color is a light greenish-brown and there is a black-edged, yellowish stripe on each side of the head and neck that extends through the eye.  The shell is flat and covered with a leathery olive to brown skin.  The male’s shell may have a few dark dashes and spots, while the female’s shell may have several larger dark spots or a mottled pattern.  The neck is very long, but is often retracted into the shell.  The feet are broad and webbed to aid in swimming and digging.  Softshell turtles may be locally common in rivers and streams and may be harvested commercially with a specific license.

sping softshellCredit: Suzanne L. Collins, CNAH
Smooth Softshell (L) and Spiny Softshell (R)

 

Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera)

This is a large aquatic turtle that may reach an adult length of eight to 20 inches (adult females are much larger than males).  Spiny Softshell turtles live in streams and rivers with sandy or soft substrates, and can be found within these habitats statewide.  Softshell turtles are usually found in or adjacent to the water and do not move easily on land.  As a result, they rarely move overland into ponds or isolated wetlands.  Most of their diet is comprised of insects, snails, crustaceans and small fish.  The softshell turtle is often found in shallow water where it may sit on the bottom, or partially buried in the substrate, with its neck out-stretched and its nostrils extending just above the surface of the water for air.  The Spiny Softshell has a light greenish-brown skin color with small dark markings on the legs.  There is a black-edged, yellowish stripe on each side of the head and neck that runs through each eye.  The shell is flat and covered with a leathery olive to brown skin and is marked with large, dark circular spots.  The front edge of the shell (behind the neck and head) has a small row of hard, spike-like projections from which the Spiny Softshell turtle gets its common name.  Softshell turtles have broad, webbed feet that aid in swimming and digging.  Because of their powerful webbed feet, softshell turtles swim surprisingly fast.  Softshell turtles may be locally common in rivers and streams and may be harvested commercially with a specific license; however, it is unlawful to collect softshell turtles greater than 18 inches in length because these are reproductively important mature females.  Two subspecies of Spiny Softshell are found in Oklahoma.  The Western Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera hartwegi) is found in the Arkansas River watershed; the Pallid Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera pallida) is found in the Red River watershed.