South Carolina has a diverse range of habitats for its size, from its sandy shores to its densely wooded forests. As a result, a wide range of turtles calls South Carolina home, with almost 20 species residing in the state. Below, we’ll take an in-depth look at eight of the Palmetto state’s most interesting types of turtles.
1. Chicken Turtle (Deirochelys reticularia)
The chicken turtle is rather morbidly named for its meat, which is said by many to taste just like chicken! It has three subspecies that vary slightly by color, size, and geographic range: the eastern, Florida, and western varieties. In South Carolina, the eastern subspecies is the most common.
On average, the chicken turtle ranges from around 6 to 9 inches long. It has an unusually long neck for its size and a dark brown shell with a light brown webbing-like pattern throughout the carapace. Its skin color varies from olive green to dark brown with yellow stripe-like markings.
This species’ geographic range covers most of the American Southeast from west Texas to South Carolina and as far south as southern Florida. It prefers still or slow-moving freshwater habitats like streams, ponds, and marshes with lots of aquatic vegetation.
2. Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)
Named for its tendency to dig large, expansive burrows like a gopher, the gopher tortoise is the only tortoise native to the southeastern United States. Like most tortoise species, it is entirely herbivorous.
While most of us think of tortoises as being very large, the gopher tortoise is quite diminutive in size–at least as far as tortoises go. It averages 9 to 15 inches long on average and has a tall, light brown dome-shaped carapace. Its large, rugged limbs are covered with thick protective scales ideal for burrowing. Its underside and plastron are a yellowish color.
This unique tortoise’s geographic range covers most of Florida and southern Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina’s coastal plains. It prefers forested habitats with sandy soil that it can easily burrow into for shelter.
3. Spiny Softshell Turtle(Apalone spinifera)
Due to its super flat, soft shell and long, thin snout, the spiny softshell looks more like a bizarrely-shaped frog than a turtle! However, despite not having a hard, protective shell like most other turtles, its unique body is perfectly suited for its highly aquatic lifestyle.
True to its name, the spiny softshell’s carapace is completely smooth with no individual scutes. Its long, snorkel-like snout allows it to breathe easily while it leaves the rest of its body completely submerged underwater. It ranges from olive green to dark brown in color and has tiny cone-shaped spines along the bottom edge of its carapace. On average, it ranges from 7 to 20 inches long, and females are much larger than males.
4. Striped Mud Turtle (Kinosternon baurii)
The striped mud turtle gets its common name from the three yellowish stripes running lengthwise down its small carapace. Its scientific name, Kinosternon baurii, is in honor of German herpetologist, George Baur.
At just 3 to 5 inches long, the striped mud turtle is fairly small as far as turtles go. Its carapace is typically dark brown, aside from its three distinctive yellow stripes. In addition to these stripes, the turtle’s carapace also often has a yellow ring or border around the edges. It has darker brown skin with similarly yellow striping along the sides of its head.
Native to most of the southeastern US’ coastal areas, this little turtle lives throughout eastern South Carolina. It is semi-aquatic and prefers wetland habitats like swamps and marshes. Incredibly, it can live for up to 50 years, though 30 to 40 is more common on average.
5. Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta)
The loggerhead sea turtle is the world’s largest hard-shelled turtle and one of the largest turtle species in general. It’s also South Carolina’s most common sea turtle!
Averaging 3 to 4 feet long and 250 to 400 pounds, loggerheads are absolutely huge! Their heads are also quite large and equipped with super-strong jaws for cracking open prey like crabs and mollusks. They typically have a reddish-brown carapace (top portion of the shell) and a yellowish plastron (bottom portion of the shell). Their skin is pale yellow and covered in reddish-brown splotches.
The loggerhead sea turtle has a quite wide geographic range stretching across much of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans as well as the Mediterranean Sea. It nests along South Carolina’s beaches from May through October yearly and often swims along the state’s coastal waters from April through November every year.
6. Yellow-Bellied Pond Slider (Trachemys scripta scripta)
The yellow-bellied pond slider is one of three pond slider subspecies. The other two are the well-known red-eared and the lesser-known Cumberland sliders. Interestingly, this species is carnivorous as a juvenile but shifts to a more herbivorous diet with age.
On average, the typical yellow-bellied pond slider ranges from around 5 to 13 inches long, with females being much longer and larger than males. It has a dark brown carapace with thin yellow striping and a yellowish plastron. The turtle’s skin is dark green with prominent yellow stripes throughout. Its colors tend to darken with age.
This species’ geographic range is quite wide and covers most of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and northern Florida. It can live in various freshwater habitats such as ponds, streams, and swamps and prefers habitats with lots of aquatic vegetation. During the day, it spends much of its time basking on nearby rocks and logs.
7. Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata)
The spotted turtle is small yet has a bold appearance thanks to its yellow-spotted carapace. Interestingly, it is highly sexually dimorphic, with males having darker faces than females and redder eyes, while females’ eyes are more yellowish.
This unique species averages just 3 to 5 inches in length and has a dark brown to dark grey carapace. The shell is somewhat flat and covered in tiny yellow spots. Its plastron is yellowish or orange with dark brown splotches. The turtle’s skin is similarly dark brown with an orange splotch on either side of the head and an orange to reddish underside.
Spotted turtles mainly live along the US east coast from Florida up through Maine. They also live in the Great Lakes area. In South Carolina, they can be found throughout the state in shallow wetlands like marshes and swamps with lots of aquatic vegetation.
8. Eastern Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta picta)
The eastern painted turtle is one of three painted turtle subspecies, with the Midland and western varieties being more common in the Midwest and western half of the US. Of the three subspecies, the eastern variety is the only one residing in South Carolina.
On average, the eastern painted turtle ranges from around 5 to 7 inches long, with males being slightly smaller than females. It has a somewhat flat, dark brown carapace with reddish markings along the sides and pale outlines along its individual scutes. The turtle’s skin is dark green with yellow, orange, or reddish markings along its legs. Its plastron is pale yellow.
Painted turtles are one of the most widespread native North American turtles. The eastern subspecies mainly live along the eastern US coast from Georgia up through Maine and parts of southern Canada. It can be found throughout South Carolina in a variety of habitats, including slow-moving streams and large, open wetlands.
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