“What kinds of turtles can you find in New Mexico?”
I was amazed at the number of turtle species there are in New Mexico!
In fact, there are so many species I have broken them down into a few different categories.
8 kinds of turtles in New Mexico:
Freshwater Turtles in New Mexico:
Freshwater Turtles make up the largest group of turtles native to New Mexico. 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 live in eastern New Mexico.
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
- 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 New Mexico 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 New Mexico. 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. 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 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.
#4. Mexican Plateau Slider
- Trachemys gaigeae
- 5 to 8 inches long.
- A large orange spot with a black edge appears on either side of the head.
- The carapace coloring is olive, with orange and red curved lines.
The Mexican Plateau Slider and its subspecies, the Big Bend Slider (Trachemys gaigeae gaigeae), prefer permanent water habitats. They only live in the Rio Grande river system and surrounding ponds, canals, and drainages.
Mexican Plateau Slider
Credit: United States Geological Survey (USGS)
You can easily tell this species apart from its relatives by looking at its shell; the red-orange curved lines on the carapace are a giveaway that you have found a Mexican Plateau Slider!
#5. Rio Grande Cooter
- Pseudemys gorguzi
- 8 to 12 inches long.
- Light yellow oval spots behind eyes.
- The carapace is green to olive, and the plastron is a light tan with dark lines that fade with age.
The Rio Grande Cooter has a very small range and population.
It is only found along the Rio Grande River in Texas and New Mexico. Its population continues to drop because of pollution and water diversion projects, and it is currently a near-threatened species.
If you find a Rio Grande Cooter in the wild, the easiest way to tell what you have found is to look at its neck. It has a large, bold, Y-shaped mark on the chin.
#6. 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 New Mexico 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!
#7. Sonora Mud Turtle
- 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 southwestern New Mexico. It eats insects, snails, crayfish, fish, frogs, and occasionally water plants.
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!
#8. Yellow Mud Turtle
- Kinosternon flavescens
- 4 to 5 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 Yellow Mud Turtle will live in almost any body of water it can find in New Mexico!
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!
Box Turtles in New Mexico:
These turtles live primarily on land, and have taller shells than most freshwater turtles.
#9. Western Box Turtle
- Terrapene ornata
- 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 southern and eastern New Mexico. 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 New Mexico?
Leave a comment below!