Turtle talk

Learning about Arkansas’ most beloved reptiles

Alligator snapping turtles sometimes grow to huge sizes, with adult individuals often exceeding 100 pounds.

How many different species of turtles live in Arkansas? I wondered this after seeing several kinds in the Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge recently.

The first I came across were a common snapping turtle and Eastern musk turtle plodding across a gravel road beside which was a long irrigation canal.

Down the road, I saw scads of red-eared sliders basking on logs. There were map turtles, too, with beautiful patterns on their heads and shells, a painted turtle with a bright orange line down the middle of its shell and a pair of moss-covered river cooters.

Stopping beside a flooded field, I used binoculars to get an up-close look at a big softshell turtle sunning on the bank. Later, I found and photographed a three-toed box turtle with colorful markings on its head.

On my morning drive, I’d seen at least eight species of turtles. And when I checked the Herps of Arkansas (www.herpsofarkansas.com) website that night, I learned there are eight more species that reside in our state as well, bringing the Arkansas total to 16. Some are very common. Others are rare. All are interesting creatures sure to bring joy to those who observe and study them.

Common snapping turtle

Common snappers live throughout Arkansas and the Eastern United States. They appear quite sinister, often striking out with their powerful hooked beak and long claws. Older ones sometimes weigh more than 30 pounds.

Snappers occasionally eat game fish and young water birds, but the turtles play an important role in the ecology of ponds, lakes and streams, where they usually prowl the bottom for carrion. They sometimes serve as a food source themselves and are often fried, stewed and used in soups.

Alligator snapping turtle

No freshwater turtle in the U.S. grows larger than the alligator snapping turtle. Adults often exceed 100 pounds, with occasional specimens topping 200. Despite their large size, however, alligator snappers are rarely seen. They spend their lives roaming the bottoms of sloughs, deep rivers and oxbow lakes out of sight, except when they come ashore to lay eggs.

Alligator snappers are distinguished from common snappers by their extremely large heads and three prominent rows of pointed ridges extending the full length of the upper shell. They eat mostly fish, which they attract by wiggling a pink wormlike lure on their tongue. These huge reptiles are protected statewide. Possessing one is illegal.

Musk turtles

Arkansas waters are home to two species of musk turtles: the Eastern musk turtle, which is quite common, and the razor-backed musk turtle, which is quite rare. Nicknames such as stinkpot and stinking jim derive from their ability to produce a strong, unpleasant-smelling secretion from their musk glands. Two thin yellow stripes usually mark each side of the head and neck.

If a turtle ever falls on your head or into your boat, musk turtles are probably involved. They are known to bask in trees as high as 6 feet above the water. Fishermen often catch them trying to steal bait off their hooks.

Mississippi mud turtle

The shy, secretive mud turtle is closely related to musk turtles but differs in having a double, rather than single, hinged lower shell. This permits the turtle to close up as completely as a box turtle.

In color, mud turtles match the muddy ponds and ditches they often inhabit. Young snapping turtles look similar but have long tails with saw-toothed projections on top. Mud turtles have short, smooth tails.

Map turtles

Map turtles are so named because their shells are adorned with beautiful, bright maplike patterns and colors. Some have high, knobby back ridges and are known locally as sawbacks. All inhabit rivers and lakes and are quick to dash into the water at the slightest disturbance.

Arkansas’ three species are the Northern map turtle, the Mississippi map turtle and the Ouachita map turtle. Particular patterns of yellow stripes, whorls and curlicues on the head help identify each species. Females grow much larger than males.

Southern painted turtle

Bright colors adorn the aptly named painted turtle. The bottom shell is yellow or orange, and a red stripe runs the length of the dark top shell. The species favors shallow portions of ponds, ditches, lakes and stream backwaters.

Painted turtles love the sun and often spend hours each day on favored basking logs or rocks. They eat many types of aquatic plants and animals.

Red-eared slider

Redears are our most common water turtles. Unfortunately, lawbreakers often use them for target practice. Killing an animal just to have something to shoot shows a lack of conscience and proper outdoor ethics. These turtles are no threat to fish populations and play an important role in nature’s system of checks and balances in our lakes and streams.

Red-eared sliders were once commonly sold as pets but are now protected by laws that restrict their sale. No other Arkansas turtle has a distinct red or orange stripe on each side of the head behind the eye.

Eastern river cooter

Like other basking turtles, cooters slide into water at the least sign of danger. They “haul out” and sun for hours on logs and rocks during warm weather. If basking sites are at a premium, they pile themselves two and three high as the late-comers climb atop their neighbors.

The name “cooter” is derived from “kuta,” a word meaning turtle in several African dialects. Adult males have extremely long nails on their front feet, and their shells are rather flat compared with the well-arched shells of females. Rivers constitute their chief habitat, but these turtles also live in ditches and ponds.

Western chicken turtle

The seldom-seen chicken turtle derives its name from its long “chicken” neck and the flavor of its flesh. The extra-long, strongly striped neck and vertically striped rump (“seat of the pants”) are good field identification marks. Also look at the forelegs; each has a broad yellow stripe along its front surface.

Chicken turtles live in calm to slow-moving waters, including sloughs, oxbow lakes and irrigation ditches. They spend much time basking with their long necks outstretched.

Three-toed box turtle

Most of us know this familiar creature, a plodding “dry land” turtle often seen crossing roads. Its name refers to its ability to tightly close its shell like a box when frightened. Most have three toes on each hind foot, each with a claw that aids in digging a nest for egg laying or turning soil to find grubs, worms and other favored foods. Mushrooms, berries and garden vegetables are often eaten as well.

Ornate box turtle

This rarely seen Arkansas turtle resides in the few remaining areas of prairie habitat in the state. Protection of these areas with their unique flora and fauna is key to the species’ continued survival here.

The name “ornate” refers to the striking light-and-dark pattern on both their upper and lower shells. A strong pattern of radiating yellow lines on each section of the dark belly shell, or plastron, helps distinguish this turtle from its three-toed cousins.

Softshell turtles

Some folks call softshells “pancake turtles” because of their shape. They are round, flat turtles with a soft, leathery shell-like covering unlike the hard shells of other turtles. An extremely long neck and snorkel-like nose allow breathing while the turtle rests out of sight on the bottom of a stream, ditch or pond.

Two species live in Arkansas: the midland smooth softshell and the spiny softshell. Both are powerful swimmers and can run on land with startling speed. They feed largely on crawdads, insect larvae and fish and are, themselves, considered quite tasty by many Arkansans.