List of Turtle Species in Iowa 2023 (ID + Pictures)

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

Forest in Iowa
Iowa provides habitat for 12 turtle species, including Blanding’s turtle and common musk turtle. Yinan Chen, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Iowa is characterized by an abundance of cropland, with additional landcover including forests, grasslands, wetlands, rivers, and lakes, which provide habitat for 12 species of turtles.

After reaching adulthood, most turtles have few natural predators and can coexist well with humans. However, habitat loss and vehicle collisions pose serious threats to many turtles, so helping them cross a road can be an easy way to promote turtle survival.

Two turtle species in Iowa, the yellow mud turtle and the wood turtle, are listed as endangered at the state level, while three other species (Blanding’s turtle, common musk turtle, and ornate box turtle) are listed as state threatened or as species of special concern.

Overharvesting or harvesting during the breeding season also threaten Iowa’s turtles, and as such, the state of Iowa limits the catch and possession of turtles trapped for sport, with additional restrictions on harvest seasons.

Many turtles, including those found in Iowa, display temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD) — meaning that the temperature at which eggs are incubated determines whether males or females are produced. As such, climate change poses a serious threat to turtles by disrupting sex ratios and subsequently changing population dynamics.

Though many turtle conservation efforts focus on charismatic sea turtles, continued awareness of the importance of other turtle taxa such as tortoises and freshwater turtles remains imperative for protecting their populations too.

The following article details the turtle species that can be found in the state of Iowa. Conservation status refers to the classification of each turtle species or subspecies by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), federal status according to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and statewide protections determined by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Family Emydidae

1) Wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta)

Wood turtle
The wood turtle has orange markings on its neck and legs. Blake Ross / CC BY 4.0
  • Other names: Sculpted tortoise, red-legged tortoise, redleg
  • Average adult length: 5.5 – 8 in (14 – 20 cm)
  • Record adult length: 9.2 in (23.4 cm)
  • Conservation status: IUCN endangered, ESA not listed, Iowa state endangered

Formerly known as Clemmys insculpta, the wood turtle has undergone extensive changes to its classification. Occasionally referred to as a redleg, the wood turtle has orange markings on its neck and legs, though these markings are not present in young turtles. The upper shell, also called a carapace, is very rough and sculptured, ranging in color from tan or brown to grayish brown. The plastron, or ventral shell (a.k.a. the tummy-side) is yellow with dark patches.

Wood turtles can be distinguished from other similar turtles, such as Blanding’s turtles, by the lack of a hinged plastron that allows them to fully or partially close their shell. In Iowa, wood turtles are very rare and limited to the Cedar River area in the northeastern part of the state.

These turtles are highly terrestrial but can usually be found near streams, where they forage on arthropods as well as fungi and plant material. In the water, they can also consume algae or other food items present among aquatic vegetation. During the winter, they use aquatic habitats for hibernation.

Behaviorally, wood turtles are docile yet intelligent animals, and as a result, they are highly threatened by the legal and illegal pet trade. Wood turtle population declines have also been attributed to habitat loss, and their federal status is currently under review for listing as a federally endangered species.

2) Ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata)

Person holding ornate box turtle
Ornate box turtles like to burrow in sandy soil to regulate their body temperature. Annie Kreager / CC BY 4.0
  • Other names: Western box turtle
  • Average adult length: 4 – 5 in (10 – 13 cm)
  • Record adult length: 6 in (15 cm)
  • Conservation status: IUCN near threatened, ESA not listed, Iowa state special concern

Iowa’s only fully terrestrial turtle, the ornate box turtle can be found in open grasslands or prairie, usually near the western and eastern borders of the state. These small, tortoise-like turtles are named for their colorful markings on the carapace, which can range in shades of yellow that contrast against a black or gray background. The pattern on the shell is characterized by lines that radiate downward, which may occasionally be broken into spots.

A subspecies closely related to the desert box turtle (T. o. luteola), ornate box turtles can be differentiated by the fewer, thicker radiating lines on their shell pattern. Ornate box turtles prefer sandy soils where they can burrow as a means of temperature regulation to stay cool in the summer and tolerate freezing temperatures in the winter.

These turtles are opportunistic omnivores, consuming grass, fruits, invertebrates, and even carrion. Their lifespan can range into the mid- or late-30s, and though their shell does not increase in size, growth rings on carapace scutes (bony scales) can be used to estimate their age.

Agricultural development in the Great Plains region drastically reduced the amount and quality of available habitat for the ornate box turtle, with other human developments such as fences, roads, and cattle posing additional threats to this species. As a means of monitoring ornate box turtle populations, some researchers have employed specially-trained dogs to find, count, and track individuals. 

3) Northern map turtle (Graptemys geographica)

Northern map turtle basking
Northern map turtles like to bask on fallen trees, rocks, and other debris. byzantinenature / CC BY 4.0
  • Other names: Common map turtle
  • Average adult length: Females 7 – 10.75 in (18 – 27 cm); males 3.5 – 6.25 in (9 – 16 cm)
  • Conservation status: IUCN least concern, ESA not listed, Iowa state not listed

Found in waterways of the eastern part of the state of Iowa, the northern map turtle is highly aquatic and named for the distinct light markings said to resemble a network of charted canals. The shell has a low keel, with lines of yellow or orange surrounded by darker borders on a background that is olive green or grayish black. The limbs are green with yellow stripes, and a yellow spot behind the eye can be used to help identify this species.

Females are much larger than males, with a larger head and jaw that they use to consume larger mollusks and crayfish, including invasive species such as zebra mussels and Asian clams. Males feed on smaller mollusks and insects.

Northern map turtles prefer larger bodies of water, especially with rocks, fallen trees, or other debris that they use for basking. Though they can be occasionally spotted basking, northern map turtles are shy and readily flee into the water if approached.

In the winter, these turtles hibernate underwater, requiring sufficiently oxygenated water, which they must absorb since they do not surface to breathe. Recreational boating activities and degradation of water quality pose threats to this turtle species throughout its range in North America.

4) False map turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica)

False map turtle basking
False map turtles require many hours of sunlight to regulate their body temperature. Annika Lindqvist / CC BY 4.0
  • Other names: Sawback turtle
  • Average adult length: Females 5 – 10.75 in (13 – 27 cm); males 3.5 – 5.75 in (9 – 15 cm)
  • Conservation status: IUCN least concern, ESA not listed, Iowa state not listed

Occasionally referred to as a sawback turtle due to its keeled carapace with a row of low spines, the false map turtle is typically brown or olive on its carapace, with a lighter cream-colored underside. The body and head are gray-brown or black with light yellow stripes.

In Iowa, false map turtles can be found along the western and eastern borders of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. A subspecies, the Ouachita map turtle (G. p. ouachitensis), can be found along the eastern state border of the Mississippi. The Ouachita map turtle can be distinguished from other subspecies by a prominent rectangular light spot behind the eye, with two spots below it, which is narrow in shape in both false map turtles and northern map turtles. In Iowa, the two subspecies can hybridize, leading to individuals that may display some traits of both.

False map turtles typically prefer creeks with aquatic vegetation, logs, and some current, and typically feed on vegetation, insects, and mollusks. They are avid baskers, requiring hours of sunlight to maintain their body temperature and to produce or process nutrients such as vitamin D and calcium. Due to this need for extensive sunbathing, false map turtles are often gregarious and share space with each other to aid in predator avoidance.

5) Red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)

Red-eared slider
Red-eared sliders have a distinct stripe behind their eye that is usually red or orange. Kseniia Marianna Prondzynska / CC BY 4.0
  • Other names: Red-eared terrapin, pond slider
  • Average adult length: 5 – 8 in (13 – 20 cm)
  • Record adult length: 11.4 in (29 cm)
  • Conservation status: IUCN least concern, ESA not listed, Iowa state not listed

The most popular pet turtle in the United States and much of the world, the red-eared slider is native to the southern United States and northern Mexico but has become the most invasive turtle and one of the most invasive animals in the world.

Red-eared sliders can be identified by the broad red or orange stripe behind the eye, which in some rare cases may be entirely yellow. Their close relative, the yellowbelly slider (T. s. scripta), is similar in appearance though without the red-eye stripe. The two subspecies can hybridize, though yellowbelly sliders and yellowbelly x red-eared hybrids have not been found in the wild in Iowa.

In the wild, red-eared sliders prefer still, murky water with vegetation or floating plants, though they are adaptable and highly omnivorous in their feeding habits. Due to their small size, easy maintenance, and long lifespan, the popularity of the red-eared slider as a pet surged in the 1950s and 1960s, when hatchlings were frequently sold at dime stores or by mail order. Turtles that escaped or that were intentionally released were able to readily exploit a variety of habitats, including natural waterways and artificial ponds.

In the 1990s, the rising popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles led to another surge in demand for red-eared sliders as pets in the US and UK especially, with many impulse buyers later releasing their pets and causing environmental problems as these turtles were able to outcompete native species for food, habitat, and basking spots. Feral populations are currently found worldwide, with several nations banning ownership or import of this turtle species.

As red-eared sliders brumate — that is, they enter a period of low activity while maintaining some metabolic activity — rather than hibernate, their northward range expansion in the United States is somewhat limited by their intolerance of prolonged cold temperatures. The majority of Iowa is generally not considered within the native range of red-eared sliders, but they are found in some areas near the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

6) Western painted turtle (Chrysemys picta bellii)

Western painted turtle on log
Western painted turtles are the largest subspecies and can be found throughout the Midwest and Great Plains region. John Krampl / CC BY 4.0
  • Other names: None
  • Average adult length: 3.5 – 7 in (9 – 18 cm)
  • Record adult length: 9.9 in (25 cm)
  • Conservation status: IUCN least concern, ESA not listed, Iowa state not listed

Painted turtles are the most widespread turtle in North America and are easily identified by their smooth shell and vibrant markings of yellow or red streaking patterns on their olive-green or black-colored face and body.

Four subspecies exist, with the western painted turtle found in Iowa and throughout the Midwest and Great Plains region. Their range extends through Montana, southwestern Canada, and the Pacific Northwest, with some additional disjointed populations in the Southwest. Western painted turtles are the largest subspecies, typically with the most ornate markings on the carapace as well as markings on the underside.

Painted turtles are occasionally confused with red-eared sliders but are unique in having only yellow stripes on their face, as well as a flatter and smoother carapace. These turtles can be found in streams, lakes, and ponds, and are tolerant of high elevation areas up to 6,000 feet. They are omnivorous, consuming insects as well as plants, which can aid the seed dispersal of certain plants.

Eggs and hatchlings are susceptible to predation by many animals, including foxes, raccoons, raptors, large fish, and even larger turtles like snapping turtles. Survival improves with age, and wild painted turtles have been recorded living up to 55 years. Some of the unique adaptations of this turtle include being able to survive up to 30 hours without oxygen at room temperature or up to four months at cold temperatures.

To uncover the mysteries behind these traits, the painted turtle was one of the first reptiles to have its full genome sequenced. Scientists found that the genes used by painted turtles to tolerate freezing temperatures and the absence of oxygen are similar to those present in all vertebrates, except the painted turtle is able to express these genes — that is, create more of the products coded for by those genes — to a much greater extent. By further investigating the genomes of painted turtles and other long-lived turtles, this type of research may help to improve our understanding of the genetic basis of human aging.

7) Blanding’s turtle (Emydoidea blandingii)

Blanding's turtle
Blanding’s turtles have a bright yellow chin and hinged plastron. Adam Cushen / CC BY 4.0
  • Other names: Semi-box turtle
  • Average adult length: 5 – 7 in (13 – 18 cm)
  • Record adult length: 10.75 in (27 cm)
  • Conservation status: IUCN endangered, ESA not listed, Iowa state threatened

Named after Philadelphian naturalist William Blanding, Blanding’s turtles are sometimes called “semi-box” turtles due to their semi-aquatic lifestyle and hinged plastron that allows them to partially shut themselves into their shell. These turtles have a black or olive-colored carapace with yellow spots and a distinctly bright yellow chin and throat.

In Iowa, they can be found in the northwestern and central regions, typically preferring wetland habitats with shallow water and plenty of logs for basking. These turtles are omnivores, consuming crustaceans, insects, small vertebrates, and both aquatic and terrestrial vegetation.

One of the longest-lived turtles in its family, wild Blanding’s turtles can exceed 80 years in age, yet do not show substantial declines in survival over time nor do they display other typical signs of aging. Blanding’s turtle is considered endangered by the IUCN, as their populations are threatened by habitat fragmentation and nest predation. Though protected at the state level in much of its range, Blanding’s turtle does not currently have federal protection.

In Iowa, Blanding’s turtles are monitored by researchers, and conservation efforts include rearing hatchlings in captivity before releasing them. Other states have also implemented programs for building nest cages to protect Blanding’s turtle eggs from predation or other damages.

Family Chelydridae

8) Common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

Common snapping turtle
The common snapping turtle is the largest turtle species in Iowa, weighing up to 75 lbs in the wild. Julia Beach / CC BY 4.0
  • Other names: Snapper, tortuga lagarto
  • Average adult length: 8 – 14 in (20 – 36 cm)
  • Record adult length: 19.4 in (49 cm)
  • Conservation status: IUCN least concern, ESA not listed, Iowa state not listed

A large-sized and widespread turtle found throughout much of eastern and central North America, the common snapping turtle is easily distinguished from other species by its distinct appearance and propensity for trying to bite. The specific epithet serpentina refers to the snake-like, highly mobile head and neck of the common snapping turtle, which allows them to bite many well-meaning persons attempting to help them cross the road. They have a large head, long tail, and ridged carapace which can vary in color from light brown to nearly black.

Common snapping turtles are not known for their beauty, described by the Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern/Central North America as “ugly in both appearance and disposition”. These turtles can weigh up to 75 pounds in the wild or 86 pounds in captivity. In Iowa, they are the largest turtle species and can be found in many parts of the state in shallow ponds or streams as well as brackish water.

They are omnivorous and consume invertebrates, small vertebrates, carrion, and a variety of vegetation. Since these turtles can be aggressive, yet are commonly found, if encountered in a road they should be moved with great care to avoid injury to the handler as well as to the turtle. Many myths surround the common snapping turtle, for example, they cannot be safely picked up by the tail (this can permanently harm the turtle) and they naturally avoid humans (nearly all snapping turtle bites are a result of human error in handling).

Family Kinosternidae

9) Common musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus)

Common musk turtle swimming
Common musk turtles are weak swimmers and prefer shallow, clear water. inbetweenbays / CC BY 4.0
  • Other names: Eastern musk turtle, stinkpot, stinking Jim
  • Average adult length: 2 – 4.5 in (5 – 11 cm)
  • Record adult length: 5.5 in (14 cm)
  • Conservation status: IUCN least concern, ESA not listed, Iowa state threatened

The only musk turtle found outside of the southeastern United States, common musk turtles occur in eastern Iowa in wetland habitats along the Mississippi. Though highly aquatic, they are agile on land and are capable of climbing trees up to six feet high. As such, if a turtle falls on your head or into your canoe in Iowa, it can almost certainly be identified as a common musk turtle. Other clues to their identity include a dark gray to brown overall color with two light yellow-green stripes on the chin and throat.

These turtles prefer shallow, clear water, often crawling along the bottom in search of food such as mollusks, insects, and crustaceans, as they are not good swimmers. Common musk turtles occasionally take bait from fishhooks, earning their other colloquial names such as “stinkpot” from the foul-smelling musky secretion they release when threatened. In addition to using this scent as a defense mechanism, some scientists have suggested that common musk turtles may use this secretion or other chemical cues to communicate with their conspecifics and find mates. As common musk turtles are protected by state law, they must be released unharmed if accidentally captured.

10) Yellow mud turtle (Kinosternon flavescens)

Yellow mud turtle
The yellow mud turtle is hard to find in Iowa and is considered endangered in the state. Sarah Smith / CC BY 4.0
  • Other names: Yellow-necked mud turtle, Illinois mud turtle
  • Average adult length: 4 – 5 in (10 – 13 cm)
  • Record adult length: 6.5 in (17 cm)
  • Conservation status: IUCN least concern, ESA not listed, Iowa state endangered

Though previously considered a separate subspecies called the Illinois mud turtle (K. f. spooneri), disjointed midwestern populations of yellow mud turtles — including those found in Iowa — were reclassified after the determination that they were not morphologically or genetically distinct from other yellow mud turtles.

These small turtles have a smoothly domed dark black or olive carapace without markings, while the plastron is yellowish with dark lines. The chin, throat, and limbs are usually lighter in color. In Iowa, they are rare and found only in a few small populations in the alluvial plains of the Mississippi. They prefer shallow bodies of water surrounded by sandy soils in which they bury themselves during hibernation.

The diet of the yellow mud turtle includes aquatic insects and other invertebrates as well as frogs, small fish, and some vegetation such as duckweed. These turtles — which are legally protected in the state of Iowa — have experienced severe population declines in the Midwest, largely due to habitat loss from the withdrawal of water from aquifers. Conservation actions to protect yellow mud turtles include maintaining their habitats, removing barriers to dispersal, and controlling predators.

Family Trionychidae

11) Smooth softshell turtle (Apalone mutica)

Smooth softshell turtle
Male & juvenile smooth softshell turtles sometimes have faint markings, such as dashes or dots. Irvin Louque / CC BY 4.0
  • Other names: Pancake turtle, midland smooth softshell, spineless softshell
  • Average adult length: Females 6.5 – 14 in (17 – 36 cm); males 4.5 – 7 in (11 – 18 cm)
  • Conservation status: IUCN least concern, ESA not listed, Iowa state not listed

Found throughout the central USA, smooth softshell turtles are associated with the Mississippi drainage basin and its river systems. These turtles prefer rivers with moderate or fast currents but can occasionally be found in other bodies of water such as ponds, lakes, or marshes, especially if sandbanks are present.

Smooth softshell turtles can be readily recognized by their flat, pancake-shaped body with no spines, bumps, or projections on the carapace. They range in color from olive-gray to brown, with females sometimes displaying mottled colors. Markings on males or juveniles may include very pale dashes or dots.

Smooth softshell turtles are mostly carnivorous, adeptly hunting crayfish, insects, fish, and amphibians. Like other softshell turtles, they are excellent swimmers but can also run efficiently on land. The soft skin on their shell represents an adaptation for spending long periods of time underwater, as they have increased surface area for gas exchange compared to hard-shelled turtles.

They have sharp claws and, though considered less aggressive than spiny softshell turtles, can scratch or bite if held improperly. As such, these turtles should only be handled with great caution. Though they are fairly common in the major rivers of Iowa, concerns regarding overharvesting have called into question whether these and other Iowa turtle species may require more strict legal protections in addition to exiting possession limits.

12) Spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera)

Spiny softshell turtle
Spiny softshell turtles prefer water with sandy bottoms and sandbanks. Lori Schuster / No copyright
  • Other names: Pancake turtle
  • Average adult length: Females 7 – 18 in (18 – 46 cm); males 5 – 9.25 in (13 – 23 cm)
  • Conservation status: IUCN least concern, ESA not listed, Iowa state not listed

Similar in appearance to the smooth softshell turtle, the spiny softshell is named for the spiny conical projections on the rostral edge of the carapace. The carapace ranges in color from olive-brown to yellowish-brown, with tiny projections that feel like sandpaper and a lighter white or yellow underside. Males and juveniles may have darker circular markings, said to resemble a chocolate chip pancake.

Though similar in appearance to smooth softshell turtles, spiny softshell turtles have U-shaped nostrils rather than round nostrils. There are many subspecies, with eastern spiny softshell turtles (A. s. spinifera) found in eastern Iowa and western spiny softshell turtles (A. s. hartwegi) found statewide, including overlap with the eastern subspecies.

These two subspecies can interbreed through much of their range in the Mississippi River, leading to intermediate phenotypes. They are not easily distinguished from each other, though the western subspecies may have smaller dark circular markings on the carapace. The separation between these two subspecies is debated, with genetic evidence suggesting that western spiny softshell turtles may not be sufficiently distinct from the eastern subspecies.

Spiny softshell turtles are more generalist in their resource requirements than smooth softshell turtles and can be found in shallow or deep water in lakes, rivers, streams, or ponds with varying amounts of vegetation present, though they prefer water with sandy bottoms or sandbanks.

Their diet includes crayfish, mussels, aquatic insects, fish, and algae. By agitating substrates while bottom-feeding, they flush out prey that would otherwise be unavailable to other fish, thereby demonstrating a commensal relationship with fish (such as largemouth bass) that follow them around. Research from Iowa State University has shown that, unlike many other turtle species, sex determination in spiny softshell turtles is determined by an interaction between temperature and protein expression by chromosomes.

1 thought on “List of Turtle Species in Iowa 2023 (ID + Pictures)”

  1. Fine compendium, however, Terrapene ornata ornata is not “Iowa’s only fully terrestrial turtle. Over the last 7+ decades I have encountered and collected
    both Terrapene carolina triunguis and Terrapene carolina carolina on the bluff woodlands of the Mississippi in Muscatine and Scott counties here in Iowa.
    -Terrapene carolina triunguis being the more commonly observed.

    Thanks I learned from your article


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