11 Types of Turtles Found in Iowa! (ID Guide)

What kinds of turtles can you find in Iowa?”

 

common turtles in iowa

 

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

 

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

 


Today, you will learn about the 1 different kinds of turtles in Iowa.

 


Freshwater Turtles in Iowa:

Freshwater Turtles make up the largest group of turtles native to Iowa. 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 iowa

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 Iowa.

 

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. Painted Turtle

  • Chrysemys picta

species of turtles in iowa

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 Iowa 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 Iowa. 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.

 


#3. Northern Map Turtle

  • Graptemys geographica

common turtles in iowa

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 eastern Iowa. 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.

 


#4. Ouachita Map Turtle

  • Graptemys ouachitensis

types of turtles in iowa

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 Iowa 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!

 


#5. False Map Turtle

  • Graptemys pseudogeographica

species of turtles in iowa

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 Iowa 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 Iowa, 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.

 


#6. 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.

 


#7. 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 Iowa 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!

 


#8. 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 Iowa!

 

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!

 


#9. 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 Iowa 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.

 


#10. Wood Turtle

  • Glyptemys insculpta

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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.

 

Look for these turtles in north-central Iowa 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 the Wood Turtle was pushed south by glacier activity during the last ice age. Remains of Wood Turtles in southern states have been found dating back 11,000 years! Climate changes have allowed Wood Turtles to re-populate their original northern range.

 


Box Turtles in Iowa:

As you’ll read below, only ONE species of Box Turtle lives in Iowa. Hopefully, you will find it as interesting as I do!


#11. 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 Iowa. 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.

 


Do you need additional help identifying turtles?

Try this field guide!

 


Which of these turtles have you seen in Iowa?

 

Leave a comment below!

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