List of Turtle Species in Utah 2023 (ID + Pics)

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

Snow in the Great Basin, Utah
The Great Basin (pictured) spans most of Utah and is not a friendly environment for humans and aquatic turtles alike. Qfl247, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Great Basin is an arid desert landscape that consumes most of Utah. This region is hardly an ideal habitat type for humans and is far less suitable for aquatic turtles. In addition, this desert is known as a “cold desert,” meaning that the region receives very little rainfall but is not necessarily hot like the Mojave, Chihuahuan, or Sonoran deserts. This habitat presents unique challenges to reptiles which rely on their environment for warmth and suitable hydration.

Utah is also mountainous. These huge barriers are often impossible for slow-moving turtles to cross and effectively prevent turtles from colonizing areas past them. As a result, there is only one native turtle species in the state: the Mojave desert tortoise. Other species of turtle are present but have been introduced by humans as we developed the desert into urban environments, bringing water (and turtles) with us.

Most of the turtles found in Utah today have been brought to the state intentionally by humans and are introduced to the native environment as abandoned pets. While the specific impacts of non-native turtles on Utah’s ecosystems are not well understood, it is possible that non-native turtles negatively impact Utah’s wildlife. For example, prey species use a variety of physical and chemical cues to identify predators, and species that evolve in the absence of turtles will be ill-equipped to live with turtles if they are introduced. Turtles can also harbor salmonella and parasites that may adversely impact native organisms that have not evolved defenses against these pathogens.

1) Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii)

Mojave desert tortoise
Mojave desert tortoises help improve the habitat for other species by digging burrows, which are used by many land-dwelling animals as shelter and nesting sites. Dee Shea Himes / CC BY 4.0
  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Other common names: Desert tortoise, Agassiz’s desert tortoise
  • Adult weight: 8 – 15 lbs (3.6 – 6.8 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 9.8 – 11.8 in (24.9 – 30 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 14.7 in (37.3 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 20 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 100 years
  • Conservation status: Critically endangered

The Mojave desert tortoise is the only tortoise native to Utah and one of the few tortoises native to the United States. Desert tortoises are giant and heavy, with scaled forelegs and pointed beaks. Desert tortoises can live longer than humans but require at least 17 years to reach maturity.

Desert tortoises are strict vegetarians that consume leaves, flowers, grasses, succulents, and other greenery in their native habitats. They get most of their water from the vegetation they consume, but they will drink large quantities of water during the rainy season. In addition, tortoises in the genus Gopherus are known to dig burrows used by many other ground-dwelling animals. Many other desert-dwelling animals rely on these burrows for shelter and as nesting sites. As a result, desert tortoises play a crucial role in their ecosystem as ecosystem engineers by changing the landscape and improving the habitat for other species.

Interestingly, invasive grasses have begun encroaching on the fire-prone scrublands that make up the desert tortoise’s habitats. These grasses are flammable and increase the likelihood of fires in the region which can kill tortoises. In addition, climate change has exacerbated drought conditions resulting in increased fire frequency. Finally, habitat loss due to urban development and industrial construction also contributes to the decline of desert tortoises. These factors have contributed to immense losses for this species in recent decades. As a result, they are critically endangered.

2) Pond slider (Trachemys scripta)

Red-eared slider basking
Red-eared sliders (pictured) are often found basking on logs or debris that juts out of the water. Annika Lindqvist / CC BY 4.0
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Other common names: Sliders
  • Adult weight: 7 lbs (3.2 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 4 – 11.5 in (10.2 – 29.2 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 14.5 in (36.8 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 20 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 40 years
  • Conservation status: Least concern

Pond sliders are not native to Utah; Utah has very few native turtle species since a significant portion of the state’s land is desert. As a result, very few turtles can survive there. Luckily for pond sliders, there is an abundance of urban habitats that make small bodies of water plentiful and create an excellent habitat for this invader. The red-eared slider (T. s. elegans) is the only pond slider subspecies reported from this region, but others may be present. Their popularity as pets has caused them to be widespread throughout the United States, and they are considered invasive in some areas.

You will often see red-eared sliders sold as little golf-ball sides turtles at pet stores, and their popularity as pets has encouraged their spread throughout the United States. Red-eared sliders thrive in park lakes and urban creeks and can often be seen in ponds basking on logs or other debris jutting out of the water.

Another factor that helps them spread is their generalist diet. 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. In addition, this species reproduces quickly, and their tendency to congregate in groups helps more significant adults avoid predators.

3) Painted turtle (Chrysemys picta)

Western painted turtle on log
In Utah, there is an isolated population of western painted turtles (pictured). John Krampl / CC BY 4.0
  • Family: Geoemydidae
  • Other common names: Eastern painted turtle
  • Adult weight: 1 lb (0.5 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 5 – 6 in (12.7 – 15.2 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 10 in (25.4 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 20 – 25 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 20 – 25 years
  • Conservation status: Least concern

Painted turtles are vibrantly colored aquatic turtles that resemble pond sliders. They are dark colored with some patterning on their shells and stripes along their faces. 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. Utah is home to an isolated population of the western painted turtle (C. p. bellii), which has decorative underbellies. This subspecies is also the largest of the painted turtle subspecies.

Painted turtles are common in wetlands and marshes, often co-occurring with other similar turtles, although they tend to be smaller river cooters 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 a vital 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. Additionally, painted turtles are not native to Utah, and care should be taken to prevent them from escaping into the wild.

4) Common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

Common snapping turtle
Common snapping turtles are not native to Utah and sightings of them are hardly reported. Eridan Xharahi / CC BY 4.0
  • Family: Chelydridae
  • Other common names: Snapper, tortuga lagarto
  • Adult weight: 10 – 35 lbs (4.5 – 15.9 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 8 – 14 in (20.3 – 35.6 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

Common snapping turtles are native to rivers and lakes of the eastern United States and Central America. This species is not naturally found in Utah, but it has been reported from the state as recently as 2021. The exact method of introduction is unknown, but they have probably been introduced as pet releases. Reports of common snapping turtles in Utah are sparse. As a result, there may not be breeding populations present in the state.

Females will nest in the spring and summer if breeding populations are present. During this time, female snapping turtles will search for a warm spot to dig a nest and lay their eggs. The sex of the baby turtles depends on the nest’s temperature during a critical phase of the turtle’s development. Eggs that are either too cold or too warm will produce females, whereas eggs incubated between 73.4° and 80.6° F (23° and 27° C) will be male.

These turtles have slightly keeled shell scutes, thick legs with long claws, pointed beaks, and long tails. As babies, these dragon-like turtles are small and intriguing, but potential turtle pet owners should think twice before bringing home a baby snapping turtle. Adults are massive and, as their name suggests, can give a nasty bite.

5) Spiny softshell (Apalone spinifera)

Group of spiny softshells
Spiny softshells are less active at night, doing most of their hunting during the daytime. Joe Ebel / CC BY 4.0
  • Family: Trionychidae
  • Other common names: Spiny softshell turtle
  • Adult weight: 26.5 – 33 lbs (12 – 15 kg)
  • Adult carapace length: 5 – 19 in (13 – 48.3 cm)
  • Maximum verified size: 19 in (48.3 cm)
  • Lifespan (wild): 50 years
  • Lifespan (captive): 50 years
  • Conservation status: Least concern

Spiny softshells are not native to Utah but are reported from the state by government officials and civilian naturalists. They can be found in open, shallow, muddy-bottomed rivers, often buried in the mud to hide from predators. When disturbed, they can quickly relocate to another spot in the river and disappear into the soil. This species does not like areas with abundant vegetation. If plants are plentiful, it is too difficult for spiny softshells to disappear into the substrate amongst plant roots. As a result, spiny softshells survive well in urban environments, taking advantage of the fragmented water systems and small, muddy streams that urban development creates.

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 when hunting and will hide from predators at night.

Adult spiny softshells are between 8 and 10 years of age. Females will lay a clutch of round eggs in pits dug in soft soil. Once hatched, baby softshells are incredibly tiny and vulnerable with their soft shells. They are usually around 2 – 3 inches (5.1 – 7.6 cm) in length after hatching.

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