“What kinds of freshwater turtles can you find in the United States?”
I was amazed at the number of freshwater turtle species there are in rivers, lakes, and wetlands in the United States!
In fact, there are so many species and sub-species you may not know what type you’re looking at if you find one. I have broken down each common freshwater turtle species, giving some identifying characteristics and fun facts to help you identify any freshwater turtles you might find!
Today, you will learn about the 22 different kinds of freshwater turtles in the United States.
#1. Common Snapping Turtle
- Chelydra serpentina
- It weighs 10 to 35 lbs. and is 8 to 18.5 inches long.
- The snapping turtle has a long tail, chunky head, and large webbed feet.
- The carapace (upper shell) coloring is black, brown, or olive with no distinct pattern.
Snapping Turtles are widespread throughout the United States.
Look for them living in marshes, lakes, ponds, rivers, and slow streams. They prefer areas with plenty of aquatic plant life to hide in and insects, fish, frogs, and birds to eat.
Snapping Turtle Rangemap:
Credit: Virginia Herpetological Society
Snapping Turtles are best known for their powerful jaws. While there aren’t any recorded incidents of a snapping turtle’s actual bite causing amputation to a person, it can cause infections serious enough to require it. In fact, their jaws are so strong that snapping turtles commonly eat other freshwater turtles!
These freshwater turtles are usually docile, but will become very aggressive if removed from the water. One of the best ways to calm an aggressive individual is to place it back into the water where it can feel safe. I know I have personally picked them up with a large snow shovel to get them off the road and back to safety!
#2. Alligator Snapping Turtle
- Macrochelys temminckii
- Weighs 35 to 115 lbs. and is 15 to 20 inches long.
- Alligator snapping turtles have long, tough shells with triangular ridges resembling an alligator’s back.
- The carapace coloring is black, brown, or olive. The green tips of the carapace are not natural coloring, but algae!
Alligator Snapping Turtles are larger than Common Snapping Turtles but don’t bite as often. They live in the deeper water of canals, rivers, swamps, and lakes.
Alligator Snapping Turtle Rangemap:
This species is the largest freshwater turtle found in the United States!
These massive reptiles can grow up to 115 pounds in weight and grow to be two feet in length.
Alligator Snapping Turtles have an interesting way of finding food. Instead of hunting, they often lie on the bottom of a body of water and lure fish with a pink worm-like appendage in their mouth! Once their prey gets close enough, they ambush their meal.
The Alligator Snapping Turtle’s powerful jaws can bite with 1,000 lbs of force!
So let’s put this in perspective. If you were bitten by one of these large freshwater turtles, it would have the same force as having a small car dropped on you! As you can imagine, they are extremely dangerous and should never be handled in the wild. Even professionals and very experienced herpetologists have been severely injured by their bite!
#3. Western Pond Turtle
- Actinemus marmorata
- 3.5 to 8.5 inches long.
- Their limbs have prominent scales, and the head is spotted or webbed with black.
- Carapace coloring is black or dark green to brown with some yellowish spots. Usually, a pattern of dots or lines radiates from the center of each shell plate.
These freshwater turtles can be found in the western United States in ponds, lakes, rivers, and even irrigation ditches. It prefers habitats that give it access to plenty of aquatic plants like watercress, water lilies, and cattails. Western Pond Turtles are omnivorous, and their diet includes insects, frogs, tadpoles, and even carrion.
Western Pond Turtle Rangemap:
In the United States, the Western Pond Turtle’s population is extremely endangered.
Habitat loss due to development and the release of pet turtles into its environment have contributed to their decline.
In addition, over-hunting for food has put additional pressure on them. For example, Western Pond Turtles were once the main food source for hogs that were bred on Hog Island in California! The hogs learned to dive for the turtles in the shallow water of the lake. They got so good at hunting and eating the turtles that, unfortunately, the population there is now extinct.
#4. Painted Turtle
- Chrysemys picta
- 2.5 to 10 inches long.
- The carapace is low to the ground and generally dark brown or black.
- As the name suggests, they have distinctive yellow, green, and red striping on the carapace, head, and limbs.
The Painted Turtle is one of the most recognizable freshwater turtles in the United States because of its beautiful coloring! Look for the bright reds and yellow-greens on its shell, limbs, and head.
Painted Turtles live near water with very little movement, such as ponds, marshes, small lakes, and slow-moving streams with sandy bottoms. They are attracted to areas with plenty of aquatic plants, which is their primary food source.
Painted Turtle Rangemap:
It is almost impossible to accurately assess the population of the Painted Turtle in the United States. Many pets are released into the wild, causing an ever-expanding range and unstable reproduction rates. Unfortunately, these released turtles can also put pressure on natural populations.
In the wild, Painted Turtles can hold their breath for up to 30 hours in temperate water!
They also have the ability to remain dormant in near-freezing water for up to 4 months. This ability is essential because temperatures in their range often go below freezing.
#5. Southern Painted Turtle
- Chrysemys dorsalis
- 4 to 5 inches long.
- A distinctive red or orange stripe down the back of the shell.
- A plain, pale-yellow plastron (tough belly skin) that is sometimes lightly spotted.
The Southern Painted Turtle is the smallest painted turtle species in the United States!
These freshwater turtles are often kept as pets because of their smaller size and unique coloring. In the wild, they live on the edge of lakes and streams.
Southern Painted Turtle Rangemap:
Interestingly, the Southern Painted Turtle’s diet changes as it grows.
Young hatchlings and juveniles have a diet of about 1/4 vegetation and 3/4 animal matter. Then, as adults, about 3/4 of their diet is made up of vegetation! Some common food sources for them are duckweed, algae, young crayfish, and dragonfly larvae.
Like many species of freshwater turtles in the United States, they can live for a very long time! It is normal for this species to live 50 or more years! Because of this fact, many people who purchase a Southern Painted Turtle as a pet end up releasing them back into the wild. 🙁
#6. Northern Map Turtle
- Graptemys geographica
- Females are 7 to 10.5 inches long. Males are 3.5 to 6.25 inches long.
- Thin yellowish lines form a web on the carapace, similar to a contour elevation map. This is how the Map Turtle got its name.
- Coloring is usually dark brown or dark green with lighter green stripes on the neck.
These freshwater turtles live near rivers and lakes in the United States. They prefer large bodies of water with debris for basking, and spend winters dormant, completely submerged.
Northern Map Turtle Rangemap:
Credit: Virginia Herpetological Society
Northern Map Turtles are primarily carnivores, with most of their diet made up of mollusks like snails and clams. It also eats insects, crayfish, and occasionally plant matter if animal prey is scarce.
You may have a hard time spotting the Northern Map Turtle in the wild! Even though they are active during the day, they are very shy. A basking group of Map Turtles will slide quickly and quietly into the water to hide at the slightest disturbance, leaving no trace that they were there.
The Northern Map Turtle can absorb oxygen through its skin while dormant!
During the cold winter months, this species hibernates together underwater and remains slightly active. They don’t surface at all to breathe but instead absorb enough oxygen to survive. This process is called cutaneous respiration.
#7. Ouachita Map Turtle
- Graptemys ouachitensis
- Females are up to 9.5 inches long. Males are much smaller, only 2.75 to 5.5 inches long.
- Thin yellowish lines form a web on the carapace, similar to a contour elevation map. This is how map turtles get their name.
- Coloring is usually brown to olive, with a light spot under each eye.
The easiest way to tell an Ouachita Map Turtle apart from other map turtles is to look at the dots on its face. Ouachita Map Turtles have three prominent spots – one behind the eye, one under the eye, and one under the jawline.
These freshwater turtles live in the United States in the swift rivers and streams that form the Mississippi River and its tributaries. It prefers sandy or silt-bottomed water as opposed to rocky or muddy.
Ouachita Map Turtle Rangemap:
The Ouachita Map Turtle is named after the river where it was discovered, and it is pronounced WAH-chi-tah, sort of like Wichita!
#8. False Map Turtle
- Graptemys pseudogeographica
- Females are 6 to 10 inches long. Males are 3.5 to 6 inches long.
- Thin yellowish lines form a web on the carapace of adults, similar to a contour elevation map. This is how map turtles get their name.
- Coloring is usually olive to dark brown on the carapace, with light lines on limbs. A line behind the eye forms a backward “L” shape.
The False Map Turtle is also commonly called the Sawback Turtle. It gets this name from the prominent, serrated ridge running along the middle of its back.
The habitat for these freshwater turtles in the United States includes rivers, oxbow lakes, and streams of the Mississippi and Missouri river systems. It is a powerful swimmer and prefers a moderate current and deep water.
False Map Turtle Rangemap:
Like other map turtles in the United States, they spend many of their waking hours basking in the sun!
They forage for food in short bursts, returning to rocks, floating logs, or river banks to warm themselves for long stretches.
#9. Diamond-Backed Terrapin
- Malaclemys terrapin
- Females are 6 to 9.25 inches; males are 4 to 5.5 inches.
- Concentric rings are formed in each section of the carapace, either as grooves and ridges or as alternating light and dark lines.
- Skin is gray with black flecks and spots over the limbs and head.
Diamond-Backed Terrapins are the ONLY freshwater turtle in the United States adapted to live in salty water!
They are found along the coast in salt marshes, tidal flats, brackish streams, and barrier beaches. Incredibly, they can also live in full-strength saltwater for extended amounts of time.
Diamond-Backed Terrapin Rangemap:
Diamond-Backed Terrapins have evolved to be extremely well-adapted to life in saltier coastal waters, even though they look similar to their freshwater cousins. For example, here are a few unique ways they obtain fresh drinking water.
They will drink the top layer of freshwater that forms on brackish or saltwater when it rains.
They tip their heads up with open mouths to catch raindrops as they fall!
There are SEVEN different subspecies of Diamond-Backed Terrapins. They are separated by their location along the east coast, ranging from New England all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The different subspecies are:
- Northern Diamond-Backed Terrapin (M. t. terrapin)
- The carapace is boldly patterned with dark rings.
- Carolina Diamond-Backed Terrapin (M. t. centrata)
- The plastron (lower shell) curves inward at the base of the tail, meeting the carapace.
- Eastern Florida Diamond-Backed Terrapin (M. t. tequesta)
- The carapace does not have rings, and the middle of each scute is only slightly darker than the outside.
- Mangrove Diamond-Backed Terrapin (M. t. rhizophorarum)
- The neck and back legs have dark, bold stripes instead of the usual spots.
- Ornate Diamond-Backed Terrapin (M. t. macrospilota)
- The carapace has a dorsal keel, or center ridge, with large round bumps running its length.
- Mississippi Diamond-Backed Terrapin (M. t. pileata)
- The carapace is the darkest of the sub-species, usually almost uniformly black.
- Texas Diamond-Backed Terrapin (M. t. littoralis)
- The skin is greenish-gray, darker than other subspecies but still with black spots.
In the video below, you can see examples of many sub-species of Diamond-Backed Terrapins!
#10. River Cooter
- Pseudemys concinna
- 9 to 13 inches long.
- The carapace is brown to olive or dark green, with lighter c-shaped and concentric markings in the scutes (sections).
- Five lighter-colored stripes between the eyes.
River Cooters are highly omnivorous and will eat almost anything they can swallow!
This includes aquatic vegetation, land plant matter, and animals both alive and dead! They are enthusiastic hunters and will go to land to catch insects or worms, then return to the water to eat them.
Eastern River Cooter Rangemap:
Credit: Virginia Herpetological Society
Despite their large appetites and aggressive hunting style, these freshwater turtles share their habitat in the United States with many other turtle species. In fact, they are often seen basking in groups with other species, such as Painted Turtles and sliders. River Cooters are even seen stacked on top of one another!
When it comes to breeding, the female River Cooter is very selective! Males have a sort of “dance” they do when trying to mate with a female, vibrating its long nails and waving its arms in the female’s face. Often, she will ignore potential mates who try to court her until one meets her approval! You can see an example of this behavior below.
#11. Coastal Plain Cooter
- Pseudemys floridana
- 9 to 13 inches long. The record is 16 inches.
- The carapace is brown to olive or dark green.
- Light vertical stripes on the carapace differentiate the Coastal Plain Cooter from its cousins.
The Coastal Plain Cooter is one of the largest cooter turtle species in the United States!
Coastal Plain Cooters live in lakes, swamps, marshes, and rivers. Coastal Plain Cooters are primarily herbivorous, but they will eat insects if they are abundant and easily caught.
Coastal Plain Cooter Rangemap:
Credit: Virginia Herpetological Society
This freshwater turtle is in decline in the United States due to excessive hunting for the meat and pet trades.
It’s estimated that 60% of Coastal Plain Cooters sold as pets or for consumption are wild specimens that have been hunted or captured. Many states now list this species as protected, which is helping preserve the remaining population.
#12. Northern Red-Bellied Cooter
- Pseudemys rubiventris
- 10 to 12.5 inches long.
- The carapace is usually patterned and highly variable, with reds, olive to green, black, and brown sections.
- Red markings on the plastron and sides are almost always present.
As its name suggests, this species has a vibrant red plastron that is sometimes marked with green spots.
These freshwater turtles primarily live in freshwater lakes, streams, and ponds in the United States.
Northern Red-Bellied Cooter Rangemap:
Credit: Virginia Herpetological Society
If the circumstances are right, this turtle will venture into brackish streams near the coast. We know this because there have been barnacles found on some individuals.
One way to tell the Northern Red-Bellied Cooter apart from other freshwater turtles is to look at the pattern on its head. The lighter markings form a distinct arrow shape on the head, pointing toward the snout!
#13. Pond Slider
- Trachemys scripta
- 5 to 8 inches long.
- The carapace is usually patterned with concentric rings, with red, olive to green, black, and brown sections.
- Yellow to orange markings on the plastron and sides are almost always present.
The native habitat of the Pond Slider is lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams. It prefers water with plenty of logs, branches, or vegetation to bask on, and often can be seen in large groups.
Pond Slider Rangemap:
The Pond Slider, specifically the subspecies Red-Eared Slider, is the most widely introduced turtle in the world.
This species is commonly purchased as a pet, and then released into the wild when it gets too large or difficult to take care of. Unfortunately, they can cause damage and put pressure on natural ecosystems.
The Red-Eared Slider is also commonly mistaken for Painted Turtles, because of its red marking at the jawline and brightly colored stripes. However, the carapaces of sliders are much more rounded and helmet-like, and they commonly get larger than Painted Turtles in captivity.
#14. Spiny Softshell Turtle
- Apalone spinifera
- Females are 7 to 21.25 inches long; males are 5 to 12.25 inches long.
- The carapace is flexible with a rough sandpaper texture, with a single row of spines or cones along the middle of the back. There is also a row of pointed tooth-like appendages on the edge of the carapace.
- Coloring is olive, gray, or brown with black spots on some individuals.
Look for these freshwater turtles in the United States in lakes, rivers, and streams with sandy or muddy bottoms, and little or no vegetation. I often see them sunning themselves on the banks while kayaking down slow-moving rivers.
Spiny Softshell Turtle Rangemap:
Spiny Softshell Turtles will eat anything in the water they can swallow, including insects, crayfish, and even small fish! To catch a meal, this species buries itself in mud or sand with only its head uncovered, and grabs its food as it swims by.
Spiny Softshell Turtles can “breathe” underwater by absorbing oxygen through the skin of their throats. This is a useful adaptation because they spend very little time out of the water, even sunning themselves in shallows or floating on the surface.
Along with the ability to absorb oxygen through its skin, the Spiny Softshell Turtle has some other unique adaptations that make it perfectly suited for its environment. Its leathery shell is extremely flat, and it has webbed feet and long claws, which allow it to swim quickly away from predators and bury itself in the muddy bottom.
Its most unique feature is its nose, which is long and snout-like! It can poke its nostrils out of the water, and stay completely submerged to protect itself from hungry predators!
#15. Smooth Softshell Turtle
- Apalone mutica
- Females are 6.5 to 14 inches long; males are 4.5 to 10.5 inches long.
- The coloring of the carapace is gray to olive. Females have dark gray to brown or olive mottling.
- The carapace is rubbery and smooth, with no spines or projections on the back.
Smooth Softshell Turtles prefer larger, fast-running rivers but can also be found in lakes and large ponds. They are particularly susceptible to damage caused by polluted water and face habitat threats because of this.
Smooth Softshell Turtle Rangemap:
On land, they are the fastest freshwater turtle in the United States!
Though most people assume that all turtles are slow-moving, the Smooth Softshell Turtle must be quick to outrun predators since its soft shell doesn’t provide much protection. Seriously, you need to look at this video to see just how fast they can run!
It is also a very strong swimmer and can move through the water at up to 12 miles per hour!
#16. Eastern Mud Turtle
- Kinsternon subrubrum
- 2.75 to 4.75 inches long.
- The carapace is smooth, with black or olive coloring. The belly is yellowish-brown, sometimes with black or dark brown markings.
- Hatchlings have a rough carapace with more coloring that fades as the turtle grows.
Eastern Mud Turtles live in the shallow water of ditches, wet meadows, marshes, and swamps in the United States. As their name suggests, they prefer muddy, silty-bottomed water over sandy or gravelly.
Eastern Mud Turtle Rangemap:
Because the Eastern Mud Turtle is small and nondescript, with no unique markings, it can be hard to identify. However, one feature that sets it apart from other species is the hinges on its lower shell, called a plastron, and forms two “K” shapes when viewed from the side. To see what I am talking about, take a look at the video below!
Unlike most other turtles, the Eastern Mud Turtle does not hibernate during cold winter months. In fact, it does the opposite! These freshwater turtles become dormant during the hottest part of the year! This is called estivation.
#17. Eastern Musk Turtle
- Sternotherus odoratus
- 2 to 4.5 inches long.
- The head features two light stripes set on very dark brown or black skin.
- The carapace can range from light olive to almost black, with irregular black markings.
The habitat for these freshwater turtles is slow-moving, sluggish streams and still bodies of water in the United States. It prefers areas with dark crevices where it can hide, and lots of plant matter to burrow in.
Eastern Musk Turtle Rangemap:
If you happen to disturb an Eastern Musk Turtle, it probably won’t take you long to identify it. As its name suggests, when threatened they emit a foul, musky odor. This scent can be detected on land, in water, and it can even waft through the air to ward off predators.
In fact, in other areas, they are even known by another name – Stinkpot!
Another unique feature of the Eastern Musk Turtle in the United States is that it can climb trees! Individuals have been observed fairly high up in the branches. They climb to avoid predators and find a safe place to rest.
#18. Spotted Turtle
- Clemmys guttata
- 3.5 to 4.5 inches long.
- The coloring of the carapace is olive to dark brown with light yellow spots.
- The head and neck have irregular yellow or orange spots and streaks.
The Spotted Turtle prefers shallow marshes, bogs, and swamps and is equally comfortable on land as it is in the water.
Spotted Turtle Rangemap:
Credit – United States Geological Survey
The population of these freshwater turtles in the United States is declining rapidly due to habitat loss and human interference. Because of their unique shell patterns, Spotted Turtles are often removed from their habitat and sold as pets. As a result, they are listed as an endangered or protected species by many governing bodies.
Spotted Turtles are aggressive hunters in the wild and seek out live prey such as worms, slugs, millipedes, and spiders. They are also extremely smart! Studies using mazes have concluded that the Spotted Turtle has the same capacity as a mouse!
In the video below, you can see the unique pattern of the spotted turtle!
#19. Chicken Turtle
- Deiochelus reticularia
- 4 to 6 inches long.
- Coloring is brown to black, with yellow or orange spots on the sides of the head.
- The neck is the longest of all North American turtles, except for soft-shell species.
Chicken Turtles are one of the most social freshwater turtles in the United States!
They often swim or bask in groups, and rarely travel or live alone. It’s most common to see groups of Chicken Turtles basking in the sun, as most of their other activity such as feeding and reproduction, happens under water.
The preferred habitat of Chicken Turtles in the United States is still water such as ponds, ditches, or marshes. They are frequently seen on land, where they forage for food and bask in the sun.
Chicken Turtle Rangemap:
I was surprised to find out that Chicken Turtles were named because of the taste of their meat, which was a popular delicacy in the 1970s! Unfortunately, they are now an endangered species because of this popularity, though efforts have been started to protect the remaining population.
To see an example of how long their neck is, take a look at the video below!
#20. Blanding’s Turtle
- Emydoidea blandingii
- 6 to 9 inches long.
- The coloring of the carapace is usually brown, with many lighter spots that run together to form bars or streaks.
- Blanding’s Turtles have a distinctive bright yellow throat and chin.
These freshwater turtles live in marshes, bogs, and small streams in the United States, but also are found on land. They nest in open grasslands, often quite far away from their water source.
Blanding’s Turtles are fascinating to researchers who study longevity. This is because they have an extremely long lifespan, even for turtles, and show almost no signs of aging no matter how old they get. So it’s possible that a Blanding’s Turtle could live indefinitely if no outside factors affect its safety!
Blanding’s Turtle Rangemap:
The oldest known Blanding’s Turtle was 83 years old!
And this individual was still alive and going strong at this age! In addition to having a very long lifespan, these freshwater turtles have a very long juvenile period and do not start to reproduce until they are 18-20 years old. But once fertile, it’s believed they are capable of reproduction well into their eighties.
#21. Bog Turtle
- Glyptemys muhlenbergii
- 3 to 3.5 inches long.
- The coloring of the carapace is brown to black with yellowish or red centers. Orange patches appear on either side of the head.
- The plastron is often dark, sometimes with a few light spots.
The Bog Turtle is the smallest freshwater turtle in the United States!
It prefers to live in swamps, muddy-bottomed streams, and sphagnum bogs. Groups of up to TWENTY Bog Turtles often share a small area.
Bog Turtle Rangemap:
The Bog Turtle is listed as Critically Endangered in the United States. Its population is declining for several reasons, including a low reproduction rate, poaching for the pet trade, and automobile accidents.
There are currently quite a few groups trying to repopulate the species, and captively bred Bog Turtles have recently been released into the wild with transmitters. Hopefully, these efforts will result in an increased population of this interesting species!
Bog Turtles have lived in the United States for many centuries, and are considered one of the oldest turtle species in the area. Fossils indistinguishable from modern Bog Turtles have been found and dated back to 1.8 million years ago!
In the below video, you can see a pair of fully grown Bog Burtles being handled by a researcher – compared to most turtles, they look tiny!
#22. Wood Turtle
- Glyptemys insculpta
- 5.5 to 8 inches long.
- The limbs of the Wood Turtle have prominent scales and are gray-brown in color with bright orange and yellow splotches.
- The carapace is very rough with concentric grooves and ridges.
These freshwater turtles can be found in the United States on land. However, Wood Turtles do stay near the water and venture into it frequently. They also winter at the bottom of deep pools or rivers.
Wood Turtle Rangemap:
Credit: Virginia Herpetological Society
Wood Turtles have been studied frequently and undergone numerous scientific and common name changes. Other commonly-used names for the Wood Turtle are the Sculptured Tortoise, Red-legged Tortoise, and Redleg.
Fossil evidence suggests that during the last ice age, the Wood Turtle was pushed south by glacier activity. Remains of Wood Turtles in southern states have been found dating back 11,000 years! Changes in climate have allowed Wood Turtles to re-populate their original northern range.
Do you need additional help identifying freshwater turtles?
Try this field guide!
Which of these freshwater turtles have you seen in the United States?
Leave a comment below!