When most of us think of turtles in Florida, we think of massive, majestic sea turtles gracefully swimming along the Sunshine State’s sandy coasts. However, Florida is also home to a unique range of freshwater turtles! What’s more, they’re quite a diverse bunch of reptiles, ranging wildly in size, color, and even shape.
Let’s look at five of the most incredible freshwater turtles living in Florida’s ponds, lakes, streams, and more.
1. Florida Softshell (Apalone ferox)
One of Florida’s most bizarre freshwater turtle species is, without a doubt, the Florida softshell, a bizarre animal with a smooth, pancake-flat shell and a long, snorkel-like snout. Its soft leathery shell is completely absent of scutes, the large, hard, thin scales normally covering most turtles’ shells. It has wide, webbed feet and tiny claws on the end of each toe.
Although this turtle’s unique traits give it a bizarre appearance, they also make it perfectly suited to the many types of freshwater habitats it commonly inhabits. Its lifestyle is almost completely aquatic, so it spends nearly all of its time underwater with its snorkel-like snout raised slightly above the water’s surface to breathe when needed. It is almost completely carnivorous and mainly feeds on aquatic animals like fish, amphibians, mollusks, and insects.
While many types of softshell turtles exist worldwide, the Florida softshell is one of the largest varieties living in North America. It can range from as little as 6 inches to nearly 30 inches long, though most individuals max out at around 15 inches. Amusingly, its long snout alone can be up to two inches long!
In terms of its geographic range, the Florida softshell lives throughout most of Florida, including much of the panhandle region. This geographic range extends slightly into southern Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina.
2. Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)
Another one of Florida’s most recognizable freshwater turtles is the common snapping turtle. These massive, prehistoric-looking reptiles are incredibly hardy and adaptable, with some individuals’ lifespans estimated at over 100 years. In addition to being widespread throughout nearly all of Florida, this species’ geographic range covers most of the eastern and midwestern United States.
On average, this species can reach anywhere from 10 to 20 inches in length and weigh upwards of 20 pounds! Their unusually thick, heavily textured shells provide a super sturdy and reliable defense, so they tend not to have many natural predators (if any). These giant turtles also have a powerful bite force, and their sharp, pointed beaks allow them to tear into their prey’s flesh easily.
As ambush hunters, common snapping turtles prefer to lie in wait, barely submerged underwater, cleverly camouflaged by surrounding plants, rocks, and algae. It is common to find snapping turtles with large amounts of moss and algae growing on their shells, further assisting with their unique camouflage method. When a fish, amphibian, insect, rodent, or virtually any other animal crosses their path, the snapping turtle will leap into action, sometimes even swallowing its prey whole!
3. Florida Chicken Turtle (Deirochelys reticularia chrysea)
Next, we have the Florida chicken turtle, cheekily named for its meat that many say tastes like chicken. The Florida chicken turtle is one of three main subspecies of the chicken turtle. It stands apart from the other two varieties with its brightly-colored belly, or plastron, which can be varying shades of yellow or orange.
In addition, the Florida chicken turtle has a unique geographic range that covers much of Florida and the American Southeast. The top portion of its shell, the carapace, is also more brightly colored than the other two subspecies, typically a vivid, sunny yellow. It is modest in size, ranging from around 6 to 10 inches in length. The species is also easily identifiable by the bright yellow stripes on its legs.
In terms of habitat, Florida chicken turtles generally prefer small, shallow, muddy, slow-moving bodies of water like small ponds and streams. Thanks to the species’ unusually long neck and webbed feet, it is a speedy swimmer capable of hunting a wide range of small aquatic prey like fish, amphibians, and crustaceans like crayfish.
4. Florida Cooter Turtle (Pseudemys floridana)
It seems the state of Florida has a habit of naming animals after itself, and the Florida cooter turtle is another great example of this phenomenon!
Also known as the coastal plain cooter, this particular species is quite impressive in size compared to most other freshwater turtles. It ranges from 9 to 12 inches long and usually weighs between 4 and 8 pounds. It has bright yellow splotches along the sides and bottom of its plastron and striped green and yellow skin.
As its alternative common name suggests, this turtle prefers habitats along coastal plains throughout the southeastern United States. Interestingly, it is entirely herbivorous, primarily feeding on aquatic plants in shallow, slow-moving, or still bodies of water.
The Florida cooter turtle has become somewhat popular in the pet trade for its large yet manageable size, hardy nature, and non-aggressive temperament.
5. Florida Mud Turtle (Kinosternon steindachneri)
The last freshwater turtle in Florida we’ll cover here is the Florida mud turtle, which was long considered a subspecies of the eastern mud turtle. However, nowadays, it is its unique species within the Kinosternon genus of mud turtles. Its geographic range covers much of Florida but is most widespread in the central and southern parts of the state rather than the panhandle region.
Like other mud turtle species, the Florida mud turtle is modest in size, ranging from around 4 to 6 inches in length. Although small, it is a fierce carnivore, mainly feeding on small fishes, insects, and other aquatic invertebrates. It mainly inhabits small, muddy, slow-moving, or still bodies of water like ponds and lakes.
This little turtle’s shell is noticeably flatter than most turtles’ more dome-like shells, and its shape is long and ovular. The turtle’s shell is typically dark brown or dark green, while its skin color ranges from tan to dark brown. It has a pointed snout with a small yet sharp beak for tearing into its prey.
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