5 Types of Turtles Found in Arizona! (ID Guide)

What kinds of turtles can you find in Arizona?”

common turtles in arizona

I was amazed at the differences between the turtle species in Arizona!

In fact, there are so many species I have broken them down into a few different categories.

5 kinds of turtles in Arizona:

Freshwater Turtles in Arizona:

Freshwater Turtles make up the largest group of turtles native to Arizona. They are strong swimmers and spend most of their lives in or very near water.

#1. Arizona Yellow Mud Turtle

Kinosternon arizonense

types of turtles in arizona

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 3 to 6 inches long.
  • The carapace is flat or sometimes even indented in the center, with brown to olive coloring.
  • The chin and throat are yellow to buff in color.

The Arizona Yellow Mud Turtle will live in almost any body of water it can find in Arizona!

The list of habitats it will live in includes muddy pools, irrigation ditches, cattle tanks, cisterns, and sewer drains. It will even spend time on land migrating to a new water source. It’s definitely not picky about where it calls home!

Just like its habitat, the Yellow Mud Turtle is omnivorous and will eat just about anything it can swallow. Their varied diet is made up of aquatic animals like fairy shrimp, leeches, tadpoles, crayfish, and fish, and also frogs, snails, and slugs. They will even eat decaying plant and animal matter!

#2. Sonora Mud Turtle

Kinosternon sonoriense

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 3 to 6.5 inches long.
  • The carapace has 3 ridges, or keels, along the back.
  • The neck and head are spotted light gray and dark brown.

The Sonora Mud Turtle spends most of its time in the water and prefers streams, creeks, and sometimes stock ponds in Arizona. It eats insects, snails, crayfish, fish, frogs, and occasionally water plants.

species of turtles in arizona

Sonora Mud Turtles were once much more widespread, but their population and range have both decreased because of habitat loss. Now, the species is under special protection and is considered threatened. So, if you spot one in the wild, consider it your lucky day and be extra careful in your observations!

#3. Spiny Softshell Turtle

  • Apalone spinifera

species of turtles in arizona

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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.

Though you may see a Spiny Softshell Turtle in Arizona, they are actually not native to the area! They were introduced when pet specimens were released into the wild. 

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!

Box Turtles in Arizona:

As you’ll read below, a couple of species on this list are not box turtles. Because they’re also land dwellers, I have included them here. Hopefully, you will find them as interesting as I do!

#4. Western Box Turtle

  • Terrapene ornata


common turtles in arizona

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 4 to 5.75 inches long.
  • The carapace is high and rounded, resembling a helmet.
  • Coloring is often dark brown or black background with radiating lines or dots.

Western Box Turtles live in open prairies and woodland areas in southeastern Arizona. They prefer loose soil that is easy to burrow into and seek shelter under boards, porches, or other man-made objects.

Western Box Turtle Rangemap:

Western Box Turtles will eat almost anything they can fit in their mouths!

The list of food they consume includes insects, earthworms, crayfish, other reptiles, including small snakes, birds’ eggs, carrion, berries, melon, and leaves. They have even been known to search through cow droppings in search of beetles!

Female Western Box Turtles have a unique ability when it comes to reproduction. They can mate once with a male turtle and keep the fertilized eggs safe in their bodies for over two years! Then, when the climate and season are most suitable, they lay the eggs.

#5. Sonoran Desert Tortoise

  • Gopherus morafkai


types of turtles in arizona

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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.

Sonoran Desert Tortoises live in arid climates in Arizona 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.

Sonoran 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 Sonoran 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 Arizona?

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  1. Are you sure? Sulcatas have spurs on their legs, and this guy does not appear to have them. He looks like a young, very clean desert tortoise to me.

  2. On the Sonoran Desert Tortoise section, the left tortoise of the two is an African Spurred tortoise, also known as a Sulcata tortoise. (Not a Sonoran Desert tortoise.) There are Sulcata tortoises in Arizona, but they are not native nor living in the wild. They are just pets.