“What kinds of turtles can you find in Utah?”
I was amazed at how different the turtles in Utah are from one another!
In fact, I have broken them down into a few different categories.
Here are the 3 different kinds of turtles in Utah:
Freshwater Turtles in Utah:
Freshwater Turtles make up the largest group of turtles native to Utah. They are strong swimmers and spend most of their lives in or very near water.
#1. Common Snapping Turtle
- Chelydra serpentina
- Weighs 10 to 35 lbs. and is 8 to 18 1/2 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 have a small, isolated population in Utah.
Look for them living in marshes, lakes, ponds, rivers, and slow streams. They prefer areas with plenty of aquatic vegetation 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 one of their bites causing amputation to a person, it can cause infections serious enough to require an amputation. In fact, their jaws are so strong that snapping turtles commonly eat other turtles!
These 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. 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 turtles in southwestern Utah 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!
Tortoises in Utah:
As you’ll read below, only ONE species of Tortoise lives in Utah!
#3. Desert Tortoise
- Gopherus agassizii
- 8 to 15 inches long.
- The carapace is high and domed with no definite pattern but usually ridges in concentric circles on the plates.
- Coloring is brown, gray, or horn. The belly is yellowish or light brown.
Desert Tortoises live in arid climates in the southwestern corner of Utah and can withstand very little rain and intense heat. They prefer firm ground for building burrows and also use rocks as shelter. Their burrows have a characteristic half-moon-shaped opening.
Desert Tortoise Rangemap:
This tortoise spends 95% of its life underground, conserving water and energy and only coming to the surface for food and to breed. It can survive ground temperatures of up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit! In fact, the Desert Tortoise is one of few species that can withstand the extreme heat and lack of rain in Death Valley.
The Desert Tortoise is an “indicator species,” one that shows the health of an ecosystem by its population health. Unfortunately, this species is in widespread decline throughout its habitat. Reasons for this decline and the decline of many desert species include urban expansion, mining, natural predation, and off-road vehicle use that destroys their burrows.
Do you need additional help identifying turtles?
Try this field guide!
Which of these turtles have you seen in Utah?
Leave a comment below!