16 Types of Turtles Found in Illinois! (ID Guide)

What kinds of turtles can you find in Illinois?”

 

common turtles in illinois

 

I was amazed at the number of turtle species there are in Illinois!

 

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

 


Today, you will learn about the 16 different kinds of turtles in Illinois.

 


Freshwater Turtles in Illinois:

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


#1. Common Snapping Turtle

  • Chelydra serpentina

types of turtles in illinois

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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 are widespread throughout Illinois.

 

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. Alligator Snapping Turtle

  • Macrochelys temminckii

species of turtles in illinois

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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 prefer living in the deeper water of canals, rivers, swamps, and lakes.

Alligator Snapping Turtle Rangemap:

 

This species is the largest freshwater turtle found in Illinois!

 

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 turtles, it would have the same force as having a small car dropped on it! 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. Painted Turtle

  • Chrysemys picta

common turtles in illinois

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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 turtles in Illinois 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 minimal 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 Painted Turtles in Illinois. Many people keep them as pets and then release them into the wild, causing an ever-expanding range and unstable reproduction rates. 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 when temperatures often go below freezing.

 


#4. Northern Map Turtle

  • Graptemys geographica

types of turtles in illinois

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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 map turtles get their name.
  • Coloring is usually dark brown or dark green with lighter green stripes on the neck.

 

These turtles live near rivers and lakes in Illinois. 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.

Interestingly, Northern Map Turtles can absorb oxygen through their skin while dormant!

 

During the cold winter months, this species hibernates with other turtles 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.

 


#5. Ouachita Map Turtle

  • Graptemys ouachitensis

species of turtles in illinois

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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 turtles live in Illinois 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!

 


#6. False Map Turtle

  • Graptemys pseudogeographica

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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 turtles in Illinois 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 Illinois, 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.

 


#7. River Cooter

  • Pseudemys concinna

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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 turtles share their habitat in southern Illinois with many other turtle species. In fact, they are often seen basking in groups with 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.

 


#8. Pond Slider

  • Trachemys scripta

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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 belly 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 the Painted Turtle 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.

 


#9. Spiny Softshell Turtle

  • Apalone spinifera

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.

 

Look for these turtles in Illinois 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!

 


#10. Smooth Softshell Turtle

  • Apalone mutica

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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 they 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 turtle in Illinois!

 

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!

 


#11. Eastern Mud Turtle

  • Kinsternon subrubrum

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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 southern Illinois in shallow water, such as ditches, wet meadows, marshes, and swamps. 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. 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! Instead, these turtles become dormant during the hottest part of the year! This is called estivation.

 


#12. Eastern Musk Turtle

  • Sternotherus odoratus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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 turtles in Illinois is slow-moving, sluggish streams and still bodies of water. 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 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 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.

 


#13. Spotted Turtle

  • Clemmys guttata

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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.

 

Spotted Turtles prefer shallow marshes, bogs, and swamps. They are equally comfortable on land as it is in the water.

 

Spotted Turtle Rangemap:

Credit – United States Geological Survey

 

The population of these turtles in northern Illinois 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.

 

In the wild, Spotted Turtles are aggressive hunters and will 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 brain capacity as a mouse!

 

In the video below, you can see their unique pattern!

 


#14. Blanding’s Turtle

  • Emydoidea blandingii

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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 turtles live in marshes, bogs, and small streams in northern Illinois 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 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.

 

 


Box Turtles in Illinois:

Box Turtles are primarily land-dwelling turtles, although they can be found in and near shallow water. 


#15. Western Box Turtle

  • Terrapene ornata

 

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 Illinois. 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.

 


#16. Eastern Box Turtle

  • Terrapene carolina

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 4.5 to 6 inches long.
  • The carapace is high and domed, usually with a ridge along the center running from head to tail.
  • Coloring is highly variable, but a pattern of olive, browns, and tans is almost always present.

 

The Eastern Box Turtle can live for over 100 years under the right conditions!

 

A typical lifespan for one in the wild or captivity is about 35 years. But in an optimal enclosure, one could live for much longer without the threat of predators or man-made hazards.

 

In southern Illinois, the habitat of the Eastern Box Turtle includes woodland areas and dense thickets. It prefers areas with lots of access to sunlight and food sources nearby.

Eastern Box Turtle Rangemap:

 

The vivid designs and relatively easygoing nature of Eastern Box Turtles make them attractive as pets; unfortunately, this contributes to their decline in population. These turtles require very specific conditions to thrive in captivity. Special UV lighting, large tanks with fresh, clean water, vitamin and mineral supplements, and relatively deep substrate to burrow are just some of the requirements to keep them healthy as pets.

 

Because box turtles are often taken from the wild in Illinois for the pet trade, most states have prohibited the capture and sale of this species. Unfortunately, many pet turtles die due to poor conditions or are abandoned because they are too hard to care for.

 

The markings of the Eastern Box Turtle are so variable you may have a hard time recognizing one by the shell alone! Some have lines running from the center of each scute, and some have rings of dots that form a lace-like pattern. Other individuals’ lighter markings can merge so that the carapace is almost completely light-colored instead of the usual dark background! The video below demonstrates the huge variability!

 

Many people believe that the vivid coloring on the shell of the Eastern Box Turtle fades with age, but this is incorrect. The shell of most box turtles in captivity fades over time due to lack of natural sunlight!

 


Do you need additional help identifying turtles?

Try this field guide!

 


Which of these turtles have you seen in Illinois?

 

Leave a comment below!

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