List of Turtle Species in South Dakota 2022 (ID + Pictures)

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

Missouri River
Most turtle species in South Dakota can be found in and around the Missouri River. Cmichel67, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

With over 77,000 square miles of land and less than 1 million inhabitants, most of South Dakota consists of the sparsely-populated Great Plains. While these lands are rich in non-aquatic fauna and flora, many of South Dakota’s waters are barren of diverse turtle populations.

Of the 7 turtle species native to South Dakota, only two are not listed as threatened, endangered, or rare. While painted turtles and snappers can be found in almost any body of water, most other species are relegated to a small portion in the Southeast in and around the Missouri River.

The Blanding’s turtle, South Dakota’s rarest turtle, has not been reported in decades, and habitat destruction has taken a toll on species such as the smooth and spiny softshells.

Conservation is more important than ever for South Dakota’s wildlife to thrive, and much of helping these fascinating turtles hinges upon awareness and education.

Below is information about the seven unique species that call South Dakota home.

1) Painted turtle

Painted turtle underwater
Although painted turtles usually prefer freshwater, they can also thrive in brackish water and salt marshes. psweet / CC BY-SA 4.0
  • Scientific name: Chrysemys picta
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Adult weight: 0.6 lbs (300 g) males, 1.1 lbs (500 g) females
  • Adult carapace length: 3 – 6 in (7.62 – 15.24 cm) males, 4 – 10 in (10.16 – 25.4 cm) females
  • Maximum verified size: 10.5 in (26.7 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 55+ years
  • Lifespan (captive): 25 – 40 years
  • Conservation status: Least Concern

The painted turtle is the most widely distributed turtle in all of North America as well as the most common turtle in South Dakota. This adaptable species can be found in almost any permanent body of water throughout the state and has been observed in almost every county. They typically prefer freshwater but can thrive in brackish water and even salt marshes.

Painted turtles are easily recognizable to most residents of South Dakota due to their basking tendencies and distinct coloration. As their name would suggest, painted turtles are brightly colored with several different markings. It has bright red and black markings along the rim of its carapace, olive lines running across its carapace, and yellow stripes along its head, neck, and limbs. They can be seen basking in large groups, often stacking on one another.

Painted turtles have an adaptable diet, regularly ingesting insects, vegetation, and mollusks. While young turtles are typically more carnivorous than their older counterparts, all members of this species are opportunistic in nature.

Breeding may occur twice per year, typically in the spring and occasionally in the fall. Painted turtles rely on cool weather cues to signal breeding seasons and typically mate after emerging from hibernation.

Males use their long claws to stroke females in mating rituals in the water, and females go to shore to dig nests in sandy soil. After laying 4 – 15 eggs, the female buries her clutch and leaves her young to fend for themselves. Painted turtles hatch in approximately 72 days and must begin life with the difficult task of digging themselves out of their nests.

2) Common snapping turtle

Common snapping turtle on road
Common snapping turtles rarely leave the water, only leaving to lay eggs or move to a new body of water. Alec Edward / CC BY 4.0
  • Scientific name: Chelydra serpentina
  • Other common names: Snapper
  • Family: Chelydridae
  • Adult weight: 10 – 35 lbs (4.5 – 16 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 8 – 14 in (20 – 36 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 75 lbs (34 kg) and 19.3 in (49 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 30 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 40+ years
  • Conservation status: Least Concern

Along with the painted turtle, the common snapping turtle is one of only two species of unprotected turtles in South Dakota. It is easily the largest turtle species, regularly surpassing 30 pounds. Despite how common this species is, it is secretive and rarely leaves water other than to lay or move to a new body of water.

This widespread species will happily inhabit any permanent body of water across the state, such as lakes, ponds, marshes, slow-moving streams, and reservoirs. The only true requirement for this species is muddy lake bottoms, which it requires for hibernation and ambush hunting. Common snapping turtles are highly opportunistic, often swallowing prey whole. Although it has strong hunting tendencies, the diet of the common snapping turtle is made up of approximately 1/3 plant matter.

It spends much of its time motionless while it waits for food to come by. This still nature causes common snapping turtles to regularly grow algae on their carapaces, which gives them a distinct foul smell. They may bask on occasion in an effort to rid themselves of this algae but typically remain on the surface of the water rather than leaving.

Common snapping turtles are highly prevalent due to how prolific of a species they are. They mature at a relatively young age for turtles at 5 – 7 years. Females deposit 25 – 90 eggs in a 4 – 7 inch deep nest annually, with the young overwintering before hatching.

Females may lay many clutches as this species is long-lived. Although they may live up to 60 years in the wild, common snapping turtles rarely get this old in South Dakota as a major game animal.

3) Blanding’s turtle

Blanding's turtle
Blanding’s turtle has a bright yellow chin and throat and is the rarest species in South Dakota. Howard Williams / CC BY-SA 4.0
  • Scientific name: Emydoidea blandingii
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Adult weight: 1.5 – 3 lbs (0.68 – 1.4 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 7 – 9 in (17.8 – 22.9 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 10 in (25.4 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 75 – 100 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 75 – 80+ years
  • Conservation status: Endangered

Blanding’s turtles are a striking and distinctive species with a bright yellow chin and throat contrasting with dark skin and carapace. As the rarest species in all of South Dakota, the Blanding’s turtle is a species of special concern. Even outside of the state, this species is federally acknowledged as endangered and has noticeably declining numbers. Much of this sensitivity is due to their late age of sexual maturity, at 14 – 20 years of age.

There have only been three recorded sightings of Blanding’s turtles in South Dakota by scientists, and only one of these has been verified. This individual, observed in the Big Sioux River in 1963, is often speculated to have been a released pet due to it being found in a river.

It is often speculated that populations were present in southeastern regions of South Dakota, and the only reports of the species within South Dakota are in this area. It is thought that individuals from the Sandhills in neighboring Nebraska may eventually make their way into the state. This is a distinct possibility due to the migratory nature of Blanding’s turtles, which often travel from wetland to wetland while overwintering and mating. They are omnivorous in nature, feasting heavily on crustaceans and plants.

Blanding’s turtles have one of the highest rates of multiple paternity of all turtle species, with females often taking on several male partners per mating season. Despite having multiple mates, females often seek out the same males year after year.

It is assumed that this species regularly surpasses 60 years old, but they are difficult to age as Blanding’s turtles show no signs of aging or decline.

4) Ornate box turtle

Ornate box turtle
The ornate box turtle has a strong shell for protection and bright yellow coloration. Annie Kreager / CC BY 4.0
  • Scientific name: Terrapene ornata ornata
  • Other common names: Western box turtle, western ornate turtle
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Adult weight: 0.5 – 1.5 lbs (0.23 – 0.68 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 4 – 5 in (10 – 12.7 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 5.9 in (15 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 25 – 35 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 40 – 60+ years
  • Conservation status: Near Threatened

The ornate box turtle is the only truly terrestrial turtle found in South Dakota as well as the only true box turtle. Unlike other species in the state, it has a double-hinged plastron that it uses to fully hide in its strong shell for protection.

It is one of two major subspecies of western box turtle, and the only one found in South Dakota. Unlike its counterpart, the desert box turtle, ornate box turtles require temperate climates and grasslands.

This species lives up to its name, with bright yellow lines radiating from each scute of its dark brown or black carapace. Its brown, green, or red face and legs are similarly accented with bright yellow. These colors are even more prominent in males, who also have noticeable red eyes as opposed to the black or brown eyes of females. Brightness and patterning may fade with age in both sexes.

Ornate box turtles can be found in the Sandhills and open grasslands of South Dakota, but their numbers are declining. Frequent construction is destroying the shrubs that this species requires to stay cool and hibernate, especially sand sagebrush. On top of this loss of habitat, the ornate box turtle has an intrinsically fragile population.

Although some ornate box turtles may lay several times per year, it is common for females to only lay once per year. They have a very small clutch size of only 3 – 8 eggs, and these eggs have a high mortality rate. This is due to the fact that eggs are openly laid in nests that are only 2 inches (5 cm) deep and left entirely unguarded.

Additionally, the few hatchlings who survive mature at a late age, with males maturing at 8 – 9 years and females at 10 – 11 years. The sex of this species is determined by the temperature it hatches in. Those which incubate at temperatures above 84 °F (29 °C) are female, and those below are male. Because ornate box turtles typically live in warm regions, female box turtles outnumber males almost 2 to 1.

5) False map turtle

False map turtle basking
The false map turtle is mostly aquatic but also loves to bask to keep warm. Annika Lindqvist / CC BY 4.0
  • Scientific name: Graptemys pseudogeographica
  • Other common names: Sawback turtle
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Adult weight: 0.33 – 0.8 lbs (0.15 – 0.4 kg) males, 2.4 – 4 lbs (1.1 – 1.8 kg) females
  • Adult carapace length: 3.5 – 5.9 in (9 – 15 cm) males, 4.7 – 10.6 in (12 – 27 cm) females
  • Maximum verified size: Unknown
  • Lifespan (wild): 30 – 50 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 35 years
  • Conservation status: Least Concern

False map turtles are medium turtles with a strongly-keeled brown carapace. The outer rim of its shell is distinctly serrated, lending it the nickname of sawback turtle. This species has gray-green skin with light yellow stripes along its legs and face.

This dark brown and yellow coloration may make it superficially resemble the painted turtle, but these two species do not have overlapping territories. In South Dakota, the false map turtle can only be found in the Missouri River and its associated tributaries. At one point, false map turtles were considered the most common turtle species in these waters, but numbers are presumed to have declined due to habitat loss and destruction, making it a threatened species.

In particular, the false map turtle requires fast-moving waters to thrive, meaning dam construction is highly detrimental to this species. It is a mostly aquatic turtle, easily navigating the free-flowing regions it is found in. Despite this, the false map turtle is known to be fond of basking. Not only does basking help this species stay warm, but false map turtles have a mutualistic relationship with grackles, who eat leeches off of their necks and legs.

Outside of basking, this diurnal omnivore typically will only leave the water to lay in the spring and fall. Females rarely stray far from their given body of water, digging nests with their hind legs and depositing 6 – 13 eggs.

Courtship and mating is a delicate process for the male false map turtle, as females are often twice his size and ten times his weight. A male will track females down by scent and carefully court them by gently stroking their heads and necks with his claws.

6) Smooth softshell turtle

Smooth softshell turtle
The smooth softshell turtle has a snout that acts as a “snorkel” and is also used to sniff for food in between crevices. Irvin Louque / CC BY 4.0
  • Scientific name: Apalone mutica
  • Other common names: Mud turtle
  • Family: Trionychidae
  • Adult weight: Unknown
  • Adult carapace length: 4.5 – 7 in (11.4 – 17.8 cm) males, 6.5 – 14 in (16.5 – 35.6 cm) females
  • Maximum verified size: Unknown
  • Lifespan (wild): 20+ years
  • Lifespan (captive): 11+ years
  • Conservation status: Least Concern

As its name suggests, the smooth softshell has a soft, leathery carapace. This shell, which is flat, olive-gray, and occasionally freckled, leaves it distinctly susceptible to predators. Consequently, the smooth softshell is quick and alert on land and water alike.

Aside from its shell, the smooth softshell has a number of distinct characteristics. It has a long neck and head, with a tubular snout and pronounced nostrils. It uses this snout to act as a “snorkel” by sticking just it out of the water. This breathing is often supplementary, as the smooth softshell is able to breathe underwater by absorbing oxygen through the skin on its neck and cloaca.

When it isn’t being used as a snorkel, a smooth softshell’s snout is used to sniff between crevices for food. It is a sensitive species that requires unpolluted water and muddy substrates for hibernation. In South Dakota, it is only officially documented as being seen in the southern Missouri River, but many reports extend its range to the northern regions of the river.

While it lacks any federal designation, the smooth softshell is considered threatened in South Dakota due to its sensitivity. In particular, this species’ chosen laying grounds, the sand bars of the Missouri River, are susceptible to destruction or disruption by tourists and construction. Excessive flooding due to man-made causes or even exceptionally heavy rains will result in the death of any eggs which do not remain submerged.

Additionally, this species matures late, with males maturing at 4 years and females maturing at 9 years. The survival of breeding individuals is critical, but these larger individuals are often targeted by hunters for meat.

7) Spiny softshell turtle

Spiny softshell turtle
Spiny softshell turtles can breathe through their skin and spend lots of their time buried in sand or mud. Nick Kamm / CC BY-SA 4.0
  • Scientific name: Apalone spinifera
  • Family: Trionychidae
  • Adult weight: 0.29 lbs (0.13 kg) males, 26.5 – 33 lbs (12 – 15 kg) females
  • Adult carapace length: 5 – 9.25 in (12.7 – 23.5 cm) males, 7 – 17 in (17.8 – 43.2 cm) females
  • Maximum verified size: 18 in (45.7 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 25 – 50 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 20+ years
  • Conservation status: Least Concern

Spiny softshells are named for the row of spines along the front edge of their shells, a trait that easily differentiates them from their close relative, the smooth softshell. In addition to these spines, the spiny softshell can be told apart by its nostrils, which are C-shaped and pig-like as opposed to the separated round nostrils found in smooth softshells.

Hatchlings are born with dark spots along their olive carapace. In females, these spots become less prominent as the rest of their shells darken, but males maintain this pattern from their juvenile age.

In South Dakota, its range overlaps heavily with the smooth softshell as it can be found in the southern regions of the Missouri River. It is less common in these waters, but its range extends further north into many other rivers throughout the state. In theory, this greater range has to do with its earlier maturation at 6 years old as opposed to 7 – 9.

The spiny softshell prefers fast-moving rivers that allow rich oxygenation. Like the smooth softshell, it is able to breathe through its skin and spends much of its time buried in sand or mud. It is also reliant on sand bars for laying and may lay 4 – 39 eggs depending on the locale.

Spiny softshells are opportunistic carnivores that will eat almost any prey available, but they highly favor crustaceans and aquatic insects. This species uses its sharp beak to crack open shells and is surprisingly aggressive when handled, easily delivering a painful bite with its long neck.

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