List of Turtle Species in South Carolina 2023 (ID + Pics)

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List of Turtle Species in South Carolina (Identification, Range, & Pictures)

South Carolina coastal plains
Coastal plains in South Carolina are home to diamondback terrapins, which is the only North American freshwater turtle that can also survive in saline water. James Willamor / CC BY-SA 2.0

The east coast of the United States is a hotspot for turtle diversity, and South Carolina is no exception. South Carolina’s diverse landscape runs from the tall Smoky Mountains in the west to the Atlantic coastal plains in the east. Additionally, a network of abundant rivers feeds into lakes, reservoirs, and, eventually, the Atlantic Ocean. These habitats are perfect for all manner of freshwater turtles. As a result, there are 27 species of turtle native to this state.

While freshwater turtles dominate the lakes and rivers of South Carolina, the coastal plains are home to diamondback terrapins, the only North American freshwater turtle that can also survive in saline water. In addition, marine sea turtles, like the leatherback and the loggerhead, can be spotted offshore and onshore! From May to October, South Carolina’s beaches become nesting sites for sea turtles, especially the loggerhead, the most common nesting turtle in the area.

South Carolina is also home to the endangered gopher tortoise, an animal known to be an ecosystem engineer. This species enjoys open habitats with sandy soils where it digs burrows for protection. However, other animals, like snakes, frogs, and mice, cannot dig burrows and rely on the gopher tortoise to build them.

Turtles are essential to South Carolina ecosystems as prey items, predators, and ecosystem engineers. Since many of the species on this list are unprotected, humans often harvest them from the wild for food or pets. Scientists predict that these species cannot support any harvest and that taking native turtles from the wild damages native populations.

1) Pond slider (Trachemys scripta)

Yellow-bellied slider
The yellow-bellied slider is the only pond slider subspecies that is native to South Carolina. Richard Poort / CC BY 4.0
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Other common names: Sliders
  • Adult weight: 7 lbs (3 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 4 – 11.5 in (10 – 29 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 14.5 in (37 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 20 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 40 years
  • Conservation status: Least concern

While two subspecies in South Carolina are the red-eared slider (T. s. elegans) and the yellow-bellied slider (T. s. scripta), only the yellow-bellied slider is native to the state. Red-eared sliders are considered invasive in South Carolina, so it is essential to tell the difference between the two species. The first and most obvious characteristic is to look at the patch of skin that most refer to as the turtle’s “ear.” As their name suggests, red-eared sliders should have red patches, and yellow-bellied sliders have yellow patches. Yellow-bellied sliders also have fewer spots on their plastron or belly. This resource contains a helpful diagram.

The sale of young red-eared sliders is prohibited in South Carolina, and releasing this species into the wild is illegal. The two subspecies are known to get along where they coexist, but non-native sliders still compete with native sliders for food, basking space, and nesting sites.

Pond sliders can consume plants, insects, eggs, and even small fish. In turn, pond sliders become prey for other animals like gar, snakes, coyotes, and opossums. Young pond sliders are particularly vulnerable and more likely to become food for other animals. This species reproduces quickly, and their tendency to congregate in groups helps more significant adults avoid predators. Depending on whether the subspecies are native to an area, this can be a good thing!

While pond sliders are common in the United States, the yellow-bellied subspecies (T. s. scripta) are of conservation concern in South Carolina.

2) Common box turtle (Terrapene carolina)

Common box turtle
Common box turtles live long lives, with many individuals living for more than 30 years, and some living for as long as 100 years! Brent Pease / No copyright
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Other common names: Eastern box turtle
  • Adult weight: 1 – 2 lbs (0.5 – 0.9 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 4.3 – 7 in (11 – 18 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 7.8 in (20 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 30 years, but can live longer than 100 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 30 years but can live longer than 100 years
  • Conservation status: Vulnerable

Contrary to what their name may suggest, common box turtles are rare; although if you see a box turtle in South Carolina, this will be the most likely candidate. This species is considered vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN. They have a large, domed shell painted with red-brown patterns. In addition, the bottom of their shells, called the plastron, has a hinged plate that can cover the front of the shell, protecting the turtle’s head and neck. As a result, common box turtles can almost completely enclose themselves inside their shells when threatened.

These turtles are surprisingly long-lived, routinely living longer than 30 years and even over 100 years of age. However, they take a long time to mature compared to other reptile species, with mature adults at least ten years. The breeding season lasts from mid-spring to fall and varies by region. Adult females will lay between 3 and 8 small eggs during this season. Females only need to mate once every few years to produce successful clutches in subsequent years.

While they were once abundant throughout their range, common box turtles face a series of threats that have resulted in severe population declines over the last twenty years—namely, habitat degradation and conversion of native woodlands to urban environments. In addition, predators, disease, vehicles, and people are also contributors to box turtle mortality.

3) Common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

Common snapping turtle
Common snapping turtles are giants with thick legs and long claws. Chrissy McClarren and Andy Reago / No copyright
  • Family: Chelydridae
  • Other common names: Snapper
  • Adult weight: 10 – 35 lbs (4.5 – 16 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 8 – 14 in (20 – 36 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 19.3 in (49 cm); 75 lbs (34 kg)
  • Lifespan (wild): 30 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 47 years
  • Conservation status: Least concern

The common snapping turtle is a giant, intimidating turtle with solid jaws that, as its name suggests, can give a nasty bite. The freshwater turtles in South Carolina are almost the biggest, second only to the alligator snapper, and can be found in every county. These turtles have slightly keeled shell scutes, thick legs with long claws, pointed beaks, and long tails. As babies, these dragon-like turtles are tiny and adorable, but potential turtle pet owners should think twice before bringing home a baby snapping turtle.

Their strong jaws allow them to hunt prey, from crayfish and fish to small mammals and turtles. However, they are not strict carnivores and can use their jaws to slice aquatic plants into digestible pieces.

During the spring to summer nesting season, female snapping turtles will search for a place to dig a nest and lay their eggs. Unfortunately, female turtles are sometimes attracted to the warm, soft dirt along roadsides and choose to construct their nests in less-than-ideal locations. As a result, road mortality is a significant contributor to hatchling turtle mortality.

Roadways are not the only threat to hatchling common snapping turtles. Young turtles prey on large wading birds like herons, egrets, raccoons, and giant turtles. Adults, however, are not as vulnerable. With their large size, armored shell, staggeringly strong bite, and aggressive attitudes, most predators leave adult common snapping turtles alone.

4) Alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)

Alligator snapping turtle on log
Alligator snapping turtles are the largest freshwater turtle species in North America, with a record weight of 249 lbs! Squeegie / No copyright
  • Family: Chelydridae
  • Other common names: Alligator snappers
  • Adult weight: 155 – 175 lbs (70 – 79 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 31 in (79 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 249 lbs (113 kg)
  • Lifespan (wild): 45 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 70 years
  • Conservation status: Least concern

As their name suggests, alligator snapping turtles are giant, dinosaur-like turtles with powerful jaws, like alligators. Their thick heads house muscles that allow their beaks to break bones. The alligator snapper’s shell is rugged with three distinct ridges. Compared to the common snapping turtle, the alligator snapper’s ridges are more distinct, and its beak is hooked. Alligator snappers are the largest species of freshwater turtle in North America. With a record size of a whopping 249 lbs (113 kgs), these turtles are massive.

Due to their large size, alligator snapping turtles prefer large rivers and lakes and will hide amongst submerged logs or other debris. They are carnivores that predate upon fish, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates. Adults typically consume fish and other large prey items and hunt at night and during the day. When hunting, alligator snapping turtles hide on the bottom of a lake and use a lure-like tongue to draw in unsuspecting fish.

Sometimes alligator snappers are hunted for their meat, although the practice has been banned in some states because alligator snapping turtle populations have begun to decline. This giant turtle has almost no predators when they reach adulthood, except humans. While they are not usually aggressive towards humans, people who use water sources where alligator snappers are known to occur should exercise caution and avoid them when possible.

5) Common mud turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum)

Eastern mud turtle
The eastern mud turtle (pictured) is the only mud turtle subspecies that can be found in South Carolina. Amanda Hurst / CC BY 4.0
  • Family: Kinosternidae
  • Adult weight: 0.34 lbs (0.15 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 2.5 – 4 in (6 – 10 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 6 in (15 cm); 0.45 lbs (0.2 kg)
  • Lifespan (wild): 20 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 38 years
  • Conservation status: Least concern

The only subspecies of mud turtle native to South Carolina is the eastern mud turtle (K. s. subrubrum). They are found in the eastern half of the state. These tiny turtles have domed, brown shells with smooth scutes and blunt faces. Due to their small size and endearing appearance, common mud turtles are often kept as pets. It has two hinges on its plastron, allowing the eastern mud turtle to close its shell and protect its soft body. Unfortunately, juvenile turtles are not born with these hinges and develop them as they age, so baby mud turtles cannot protect themselves as adults can.

Common mud turtles are predominantly found in ponds, streams, swamps, and wetlands, where they enjoy sluggish water with abundant emergent and submerged vegetation. They can often be observed basking on exposed rocks or logs, although they will scurry back into the safety of the water if they notice humans. Their diet comprises insects, mollusks, fish, and plant material in slow-moving water.

The age of maturity for eastern mud turtles is between 4 and 8 years.

6) Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta)

Loggerhead sea turtle underwater
Loggerhead sea turtle populations are at risk due to pollution, climate change, and pathogens. Sarah Faulwetter / CC BY 4.0
  • Family: Cheloniidae
  • Other common names: Loggerhead
  • Adult weight: 155 – 375 lbs (70 – 170 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 36 in (91 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 84 in (213 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 80 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 80 years
  • Conservation status: Vulnerable

Loggerhead sea turtles are massive, oceanic turtles with brown shells marked with light markings. They can be distinguished from other sea turtles using the characteristics described here. This species has large, powerful jaws, which they use to crush the shells of mollusks and other oceanic invertebrates.

They inhabit all the world’s major oceans. Baby sea turtles are closely associated with mats of floating seaweed, and they gradually migrate to coastal waters as they age. As adults, they can be found in various coastal habitats, from salt marshes to coral reefs. During the breeding season, male loggerhead sea turtles migrate to breeding grounds where they wait for females. After mating, female sea turtles will move onto land to dig a nest and deposit eggs. Female loggerhead sea turtles may lay multiple clutches yearly with between 23 and 195 eggs per nest. This species needs to produce many young because young sea turtles are very vulnerable, and most do not survive the trip from the nest to the ocean.

Despite having a large amount of habitat spatially, many loggerhead sea turtle populations are genetically isolated from one another because males and females return to the same breeding sites each year, so gene flow between breeding sites is uncommon. Loggerhead sea turtle populations also suffer from climate change, pollution, and pathogens. In addition, their nesting sites are sometimes developed into coastal cities, and sea turtles are often caught in nets made for fish.

7) River cooter (Pseudemys concinna)

River cooter on rock
The river cooter (left) is common in the southeastern US and shares a number of behaviors with pond sliders. Philip Schaffer / CC BY 4.0
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Other common names: Eastern river cooter
  • Adult weight: 11 lbs (5 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 12 in (30.5 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 17 in (43 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 40 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 20 years
  • Conservation status: Least concern

This native North American turtle resembles pond sliders, although river cooters are more prominent. Other metrics for telling apart the two species can be found here. They are common turtles in the southeastern United States and share many behaviors and habits with sliders, including dietary requirements and habitat type. In South Carolina, they are restricted to reservoirs and impoundments. They primarily consume aquatic vegetation and some aquatic invertebrates, with juveniles consuming more invertebrates than adults. They provide food for mammals like raccoons, foxes, and opossums. River cooters are also vectors for parasite species like nematodes.

Mating and nesting last from the spring to the summer, and clutches can enter a diapause-like state if temperatures are too cold. When this occurs, the eggs delay hatching for several months to give the offspring the best chance of survival. Interestingly, males take longer to mature than females, with females reaching maturity at six years on average and males reaching adulthood at 13.

River cooters display social behaviors, often foraging for food, swimming, and basking. This gregarious behavior may help this species avoid predators as they can observe cues from other turtles, which may observe danger before they do.

8) Painted turtle (Chrysemys picta)

Eastern painted turtles
In South Carolina, eastern painted turtles (pictured) are the only painted turtle subspecies present. Alina Martin / CC BY 4.0
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Other common names: Eastern painted turtle
  • Adult weight: 1 lb (0.5 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 5 – 6 in (13 – 15 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 10 in (25 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 20 – 25 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 20 – 25 years
  • Conservation status: Least concern

This species is another slider look-alike with dark colors, some patterning on their shell, and stripes along the face. However, the defining feature of this species is the orange coloration on the exposed inner margins of the shell. They also have very ornate red patterns on their underside, although the degree of patterning varies by subspecies.

Eastern painted turtles (C. p. picta) are the only subspecies of painted turtle present in South Carolina. Painted turtles are most common in the mountain and central plains regions of South Carolina, often co-occurring with other similar turtles. However, they tend to be smaller than species like the river cooter or sliders. They have an omnivorous diet, including various invertebrates, fish, and plant materials. In addition, young painted turtles are worthwhile prey for mammals, birds, and predatory fish making this species an essential member of the local food chain.

This species is often kept as a pet because of its pretty coloration and docile nature. Potential painted turtle parents should acquire their new pet from a reputable breeder rather than from the wild. While not federally endangered, some states report declines in painted turtle populations, and taking this species from the wild may be illegal.

9) Diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin)

Juvenile Carolina diamondback terrapin
There are several diamondback terrapin subspecies, but only the Carolina diamondback terrapin (pictured) is native to South Carolina. Abbie King / CC BY 4.0
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Other common names: Diamond-backed terrapin
  • Adult weight: 0.7 – 1 lbs (0.3 – 0.5 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 4.5 in (11 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 5.6 in (14 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 6 years (up to 110 years)
  • Lifespan (captive): 26 years
  • Conservation status: Vulnerable

There are seven recognized subspecies of diamondback terrapin, and typically they vary by range with some minor biological and habitat differences. The only species of diamondback terrapin native to South Carolina is the Carolina diamondback terrapin. Its range runs along the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to northern Florida. This species is found in brackish ecosystems and can tolerate higher levels of salt in the water than any other freshwater turtle species in North America. Despite this preference for salty habitats, the diamondback terrapin still needs a nearby source of freshwater to survive.

The carapace of this species is covered in ornate scutes with multiple dark rings on each scute. This pattern can be found on the back and plastron. Their head and neck are decorated in dark spots, and the beak of these turtles is often bare and light-colored. The entire body may be lighter grey than the shell, although exact coloration varies by population.

The diamondback terrapin is classified as vulnerable to extinction, meaning their populations are dwindling, and conservationists are concerned, but it is not yet endangered. This designation is good news because the species was once endangered in the early 1900s. However, familiar threats like habitat loss and vehicle collisions reduce adult populations, which can devastate this species. In South Carolina, diamondback terrapins are a species of conservation concern, and efforts are underway to restore this species’ habitat and present further population declines.

10) Spiny softshell (Apalone spinifera)

Gulf Coast spiny softshell
Gulf Coast spiny softshell turtles reach maturity at around 8 to 10 years of age. Lauren, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Family: Trionychidae
  • Other common names: Spiny softshell turtle
  • Adult weight: 26.5 – 33 lbs (12 – 15 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 5 – 19 in (13 – 48 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 19 in (48 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 50 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 50 years
  • Conservation status: Least concern

South Carolina is home to the Gulf Coast spiny softshell (A. s. aspera), a lighter subspecies of spiny softshell. Spiny softshells are a peculiar-looking turtle species. These turtles have smooth shells with neat, dark circles on their surface and legs with large, webbed feet. In addition, spiny softshells have an elongated, pointed snout that allows them to breathe underwater without exposing their head.

Adult Gulf Coast spiny softshells are between 8 and 10 years of age. From June to July, mature females will lay a clutch of 6 – 24 round eggs in pits dug in soft soil. Once hatched, baby softshells are incredibly tiny and vulnerable because their shells are very soft. They are usually around 2 – 3 inches in length after hatching.

They can often be found in open, shallow, muddy-bottomed rivers, burying themselves in the mud to hide from predators. When disturbed, they can quickly relocate to another spot in the river and disappear into the soil. Spiny softshells can survive well in urban environments, taking advantage of the fragmented water systems and small, muddy streams in urban developments.

The diet of the spiny softshell includes worms, insects, crustaceans, and sometimes fish. Their diet is predominantly carnivorous. Therefore, they are most active during the day and will hide from predators at night.

A similar species, the smooth softshell, belongs to the same genus as the spiny softshell. You can distinguish spiny softshells from smooth softshells by the rows of spines on the front of the turtle’s shell; smooth softshells lack these spines.

11) Chicken turtle (Deirochelys reticularia)

Chicken turtle
Chicken turtles have unusually long necks and cream- or yellow-colored bellies. Leila Dasher / CC BY 4.0
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Adult weight: 0.5 – 1 lbs (0.2 – 0.5 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 4.7 – 7.9 in (12 – 20 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 10 in (25 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 24 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 13 years
  • Conservation status: Not rated by the IUCN, not of conservation concern

Chicken turtles are usually found in ephemeral bodies of freshwater located in wetlands. These shallow bodies of water come and go with the seasons. However, the chicken turtle’s tolerance of these conditions allows them to avoid large predators like alligators and competition with other turtles. Both groups prefer permanent bodies of water and avoid the shallow, ephemeral pools the chicken turtle enjoys. Here, they hunt aquatic insects and crustaceans like crayfish.

They possess unusually long necks, distinguishing them from pond sliders and painted turtles. Their long necks might help them reach into crayfish burrows or to keep their bodies hidden underwater while still allowing the turtle to breathe. Additionally, adults have dark shells with a web-like pattern on their scutes. Their bellies are usually cream- or yellow-colored with tiny patterns.

Several reproductive adaptations accompany the chicken turtle’s preference for habitat. Females can control when eggs develop, allowing them to build nests during seasons when their young are more likely to survive. Once laid, eggs can enter a dormant state called diapause, usually if temperatures are low, and development resumes once temperatures are favorable. Males reach maturity at two years, and females do so at 5. Females will produce up to two clutches annually with around ten eggs per nest.

12) Gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)

Gopher tortoise in burrow
Gopher tortoises spend most of their time in burrows, just like gophers! Larry Jensen / CC BY 4.0
  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Adult weight: 12 lbs (5.4 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 9 – 11 in (23 – 28 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 15 in (38 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 40 – 60 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 90 years
  • Conservation status: Vulnerable

Gopher tortoises are native to a small region of southern South Carolina. They spend the majority of their time in their burrows, like gophers. These burrows provide a secure, stable home for gopher tortoises and other species that utilize gopher tortoise burrows, especially in times of drought, fire, and cold winter temperatures.

Gopher tortoises dig burrows in the soft, sandy soils in their preferred habitats, including longleaf pine savannahs, Carolina Flatwoods, and dry prairies. These habitats are critical not just for gopher tortoises but also for many other endangered or vulnerable species, and fire plays a vital role in maintaining these types of ecosystems. Every few years, a natural wildfire may sweep through a savannah or prairie, eliminating any vegetation that is not fire-resistant and putting nutrients back into the soil. As a result, these ecosystems are home to rare plants and animals that adapted to survive a fire. When humans colonized North America, we took measures to suppress fires, allowing other species to thrive in these savannahs and prairies, causing populations of many of these rare, fire-adapted species to decline, the gopher tortoise included.

Since the gopher tortoise builds burrows used by other species, they are considered keystone species. Without gopher tortoises, animals like owls, mice, frogs, and snakes have difficulty finding shelter from harsh weather or fire.

13) Spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata)

Spotted turtle
Adult spotted turtles are usually around 4.5 inches long and weigh less than a pound. Dean Stavrides / CC BY 4.0
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Adult weight: 0.5 lbs (0.2 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 4.5 in (11 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 5.6 in (14 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 6 years (up to 110 years)
  • Lifespan (captive): 26 years
  • Conservation status: Endangered

These tiny black turtles have yellow spots adorning their shells and bodies, usually with 1 – 2 spots per shell scute. On average, adults are around 4.5 inches (11 cm) long and weigh less than a pound (~0.2 kg). Their range extends along the east coast of the United States and around the Great Lakes region. Spotted turtles almost exclusively occupy dynamic aquatic habitats with substantial terrestrial components like marshes, bogs, and fens.

Adult spotted turtles reach maturity between 8 and 10 years of age. Mating occurs after spotted turtles emerge from brumation in the spring, and females lay eggs in nests dug into the sand shortly after that. On average, a single female will lay between 3 and 5 eggs yearly, although females will occasionally lay a second clutch. This relatively low number of offspring per breeding season means that long-term adult survival is essential for the continuation of the species.

Unfortunately, the spotted turtle population is declining due to the lack of juvenile recruitment into adult populations and reduced adult lifespans. There are several factors influencing both. Predation mortality is naturally high for juveniles, with mammals like foxes and raccoons hunting the tiny turtles. Additionally, their beautiful appearance and small size make them desirable to pet owners, so there is some demand for them in the pet trade. In addition, this species requires a sensitive habitat type that is dynamic and may naturally disappear over time or be destroyed by human development. Spotted turtles are also susceptible to stress and pollution.

14) Smooth softshell turtle (Apalone mutica)

Smooth softshell turtle
The smooth softshell’s pointed nose allows it to inhale oxygen while staying submerged in the water. Irvin Louque / CC BY 4.0
  • Family: Trionychidae
  • Adult weight: Unknown, presumably similar to the spiny softshell
  • Adult carapace length: 4.5 – 14 in (11 – 36 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 14 in (36 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 20+ years
  • Lifespan (captive): 11 years
  • Conservation status: Least concern

Smooth softshells have a flat, smooth shell and a long nose. Endemic to the Mississippi River drainage and some rivers in Texas, smooth softshell turtles are known for their soft, flexible shells, which distinguish them from other turtle species. They love extensive riverine habitats but can be found in many aquatic habitats. In South Carolina, the smooth softshell is restricted to reservoirs and impoundments.

Like spiny softshells, smooth softshells have pointed noses to inhale oxygen while keeping their bodies submerged. Interestingly, the smooth softshell has adapted the ability to absorb oxygen from the water, allowing them to stay submerged for extended periods compared to other turtles. As a result, this species spends almost its entire life exclusively in the water, only leaving it to lay eggs or bask. Additionally, smooth softshells will bury themselves in the substrate of a body of water, sticking their nose up to the surface to breathe. This behavior helps them avoid predators and adverse environmental conditions.

Mating even occurs in the water. Males take four years to mature, and females take nine, on average. Females leave the water during their summer nesting period to dig a nest and deposit their eggs with clutch sizes of up to 33 eggs.

15) Striped mud turtle (Kinosternon baurii)

Striped mud turtle
Although striped mud turtles have a relatively low reproductive rate, they are not endangered. Siddarth Machado / CC BY 4.0
  • Family: Kinosternidae
  • Adult weight: 0.7 – 0.8 lbs (0.3 – 0.4 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 4.1 – 4.6 in (10 – 12 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 5 in (13 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 40 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 40+ years
  • Conservation status: Least concern

As their name suggests, the striped mud turtle is marked with three stripes running along their shells and on their face. These two species are so similar that they were considered the same until the 1980s. However, unlike the eastern mud turtle, nesting for this species occurs in the fall. The nesting season occurs in the summer in northern states like North Carolina and South Carolina. In some areas, especially in the Carolinas and Virginia, striped mud turtles are missing their stripes on their bodies but not their head.

Striped mud turtles occupy the same habitats as the eastern mud turtle, including swamps, bayous, creeks, and sluggish rivers. These omnivorous species enjoy seeds, leaves, algae, mollusks, and invertebrates. The bulk of their diet consists of invertebrates.

During the nesting season, females lay about four eggs in a single nest. Therefore, they only create one nest per season. Despite their relatively low reproductive rate, striped mud turtles are not endangered, and populations appear stable.

16) Common map turtle (Graptemys geographica)

Common map turtle
Common map turtles can usually be found in or near slow rivers, lakes, creeks, and reservoirs. M. Squire / CC BY 4.0
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Other common names: Northern map turtle
  • Adult weight: 0.8 – 5.5 lbs (0.4 – 2.5 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 4 – 10.5 in (10 – 27 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 10.8 in (27.4 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 20 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 30 years
  • Conservation status: Least concern

Northern map turtles are common in the northeastern part of the United States and are superficially similar to pond sliders (Trachemys scripta). Both species belong to the same family, which explains their similar appearance. However, a few clues can help a turtle fanatic tell them apart. First, the margins, or edges, of the shell of map turtles are more serrated than sliders. Map turtles also possess distinct ridges along the back of their shells, whereas pond sliders are nearly entirely smooth. Additionally, the plastron, or underside, of northern map turtles is usually plain, which can help distinguish them from other map turtles.

Males and females vary drastically, with males growing up to 6 inches (15 cm) and females growing up to 10 inches (25 cm) long. Interestingly, clutches laid at the end of summer may delay hatching until the following spring. This ability likely improves the survival of clutches through the winter.

This species can be found sunning on the banks of weedy aquatic habitats, including slow rivers, reservoirs, creeks, and lakes. Here, they will hunt for insects and crustaceans within the water. Additionally, mature adults possess strong jaw muscles that allow them to crack open snails and crayfish.

17) False map turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica)

False map turtle on log
False map turtles have broader heads than other map turtles, although they all have similar dietary needs. Kevin Krebs / CC BY 4.0
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Adult weight: 2.5 – 4 lbs (1.1 – 1.8 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 3.5 – 10.5 in (9 – 27 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 6.2 in (16 cm) males; 10.5 in (27 cm) females
  • Lifespan (wild): 50 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 32.5 years
  • Conservation status: Least concern

False map turtles possess broader heads than other map turtles on this list and are adapted to consume mollusks. However, their dietary needs also overlap with other map turtles. The similarity between the various species of map turtles has confused taxonomists leading to a series of subspecies and species delineations over time. The Ouachita map turtle, for example, used to be a subspecies of G. pseudographica. More species may be described in the future. False map turtles can be distinguished from others using minute characteristics detailed here.

This species enjoys aquatic habitats and prefers large, slow-moving rivers and lakes with various substrates. They will assemble with other members of their species and other turtle species to bask and hunt.

Females and males are drastically different in size, with males being much smaller on average than females. Females produce two clutches a year of between 8 and 22 eggs. Mammals, birds, and various fish species predate young turtles. In some regions, false map turtles are also vectors for helminth parasites, a type of free-living parasite that infects the tissues of animals.

18) Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas)

Green sea turtle underwater
Green sea turtles are native to warmer tropical and temperate oceans. Louis Imbeau / CC BY 4.0
  • Family: Cheloniidae
  • Other common names: Common green sea turtle
  • Adult weight: 240 – 420 lbs (109 – 191 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 3 – 4 ft (0.9 – 1.2 m)
  • Maximum verified size: 5 ft (1.5 m); 871 lbs (395 kg)
  • Lifespan (wild): 70+ years
  • Lifespan (captive): Unknown
  • Conservation status: Endangered

Unlike the leatherback sea turtle, the green sea turtle belongs to the family Cheloniidae. This family contains all other turtle species known as hard-shelled sea turtles. This group has rigid plates, or scutes, on the external surface of their shells. Green sea turtles have five scutes in the center of their shells and four flanking in the center row.

This species is native to warmer tropical and temperate oceans and often migrates between feeding and breeding grounds. Green sea turtles may migrate more than one thousand miles in one trip. Young green sea turtles spend several years in the open ocean until they are large enough to survive in seagrass beds. Their diet consists mainly of seagrasses, sponges, and aquatic invertebrates.

Only female green sea turtles venture onto land; males spend their entire lives in the water. Nesting occurs in the spring. Females will construct several nests and deposit over one hundred eggs into each nest.

Green sea turtles face many threats and are classified as endangered by the IUCN. Among the typical threats listed under other turtle entries on this page, the intentional harvest of green sea turtle eggs severely reduces the number of offspring that make it to the ocean.

19) Leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)

Leatherback sea turtle hatchlings
Leatherback sea turtle hatchlings are at risk of being gobbled up by gulls and other predators as they make their way to the ocean. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Family: Dermochelyidae
  • Other common names: Leatherback
  • Adult weight: 550 – 1500 lbs (249 – 680 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 4 – 6 ft (1.2 – 1.8 m)
  • Maximum verified size: 10 ft (3 m); 2019 lbs (916 kg)
  • Lifespan (wild): 50+ years
  • Lifespan (captive): Unknown
  • Conservation status: Vulnerable

Leatherback sea turtles belong to an ancient lineage of sea turtles with unique characteristics. Firstly, instead of scutes, the leatherback has bony plates covered in skin and deep ridges along its shell. They also lack claws, a characteristic found in members of the Cheloniidae family. Leatherbacks are the only member of their genus and the only surviving member of the family, Dermochelyidae. They can be found throughout most of the world’s warm oceans.

These creatures are large and long-lived. One characteristic accompanying these traits is a relatively late age of sexual maturity. Leatherback sea turtles reach sexual maturity between 15 and 25 years of age. During the breeding season, females will migrate long distances to nesting sites, a few of which are found in Puerto Rico, Florida, and the U.S. Virgin Islands but this species nests on many different continents. Females will create several nests during each breeding year and deposit between 50 and 170 eggs into each. Hatchling leatherbacks are tiny, only 2 – 3 inches (5 to 8 cm) in length, and are quickly gobbled up by gulls and other predators on their way to the ocean.

The leatherback’s diet includes soft-bodied invertebrates like squids and jellyfish. They possess delicate, scissor-like beaks which allow them to cut through their prey and process prey items into small, digestible, chunks. The most significant threats to leatherback sea turtles are commercial fishing industries which catch sea turtles by accident, and plastic pollution that ensnares giant tortoises, causing health issues and drowning.

20) Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii)

Kemp's ridley sea turtle on beach
After laying their eggs, female Kemp’s ridley sea turtles return to the ocean and provide no care for their young. José Francisco Colorado-Dapa / CC BY 4.0
  • Family: Cheloniidae
  • Other common names: Kemp’s ridley
  • Adult weight: 77 – 108 lbs (35 – 49 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 22 – 29 in (56 – 74 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 29.5 in (75 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 30 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 30 years
  • Conservation status: Critically endangered

Kemp’s ridley sea turtles can be found along the Gulf and East coasts of the United States. However, their home range encompasses much of the Atlantic Ocean in the northern hemisphere from North America to Europe.

Their diet primarily consists of crustaceans like crabs but they will also consume squid, fish, and jellyfish. Like other sea turtles, the Kemp’s ridley is vulnerable to commercial fishing activities, plastic pollution, and vanishing nesting habitats along beaches.

This species reaches maturity at 13 years and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are solitary animals that only interact with other species members during the breeding season. Female turtles will produce up to three nests during each breeding season. Each nest will contain approximately 110 eggs. Once the eggs are laid, the female turtle returns to the ocean and provides no parental care for her young.

Kemp’s ridleys are the most critically endangered sea turtles, with only 7,000 and 9,000 nesting females as of 2021. Surprisingly, this represents a comeback for the species, which once consisted of only 200 nesting females. They are also the world’s smallest sea turtles. They are extremely rare, and while spotting one off the coast of South Carolina is possible, such an event is improbable.

21) Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)

Hawksbill sea turtle underwater
Hawksbill sea turtles forage for food among coral reefs, lagoons, and shallow rocky areas. shahar chaikin / CC BY 4.0
  • Family: Cheloniidae
  • Adult weight: 95 – 165 lbs (43 – 75 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 30 – 36 in (76 – 91 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 36+ in (91+ cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 30 – 50 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 20 years
  • Conservation status: Critically endangered

Hawksbill sea turtles can be found off the coast of every major continent except Antarctica. Within their range, they forage for food amongst coral reefs, shallow rocky areas, and lagoons. Their shells are a beautiful brown color with pale yellow or grey striations radiating from caudal points on each scute. Their fins are covered in dark scales and have claws along the outer edge. Remarkably, the hawksbill sea turtle is the first reptile found to be bioluminescent and can emit a faint green and red glow.

The name hawksbill is inspired by their pointed beak which allows them to scrape food from narrow crevices and gives them the appearance of a hawk. This adaptation is well suited for their diet of sponges, crustaceans, and anemones.

Annually, females will venture from the water to dig between 3 and 5 five nests for their young. Each nest can contain over 100 eggs which will hatch in about 60 days. After hatching, baby sea turtles race to the ocean and most are captured by predators before they make it to the water. High juvenile mortality, particularly during the first few hours of life, is why mother sea turtles produce so many eggs.

In addition to habitat loss and climate change, humans have a severe impact on hawksbill sea turtle populations. Historically, this species was hunted for its beautiful shells. They are still poached to this day and researchers have devised methods to genetically link products derived from hawksbill shells to wild populations and catch poachers. Unfortunately, this species is still adversely affected by an array of other threats and ongoing efforts are underway to preserve critical habitat and ensure hatchling survival on beaches.

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