20 Types of Turtles Found in North Carolina! (ID Guide)

What kinds of turtles can you find in North Carolina?”

 

common turtles in north carolina

 

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

 

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


Today, you will learn about the 20 different kinds of turtles in North Carolina.

 


Freshwater Turtles in North Carolina:

Freshwater Turtles make up the largest group of turtles native to North Carolina. 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 north carolina

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 North Carolina.

 

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 north carolina

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 North Carolina 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 North Carolina. 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. Diamond-Backed Terrapin

  • Malaclemys terrapin

common turtles in north carolina

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Females are 6 to 9.25 inches; males are 4 to 5.5 inches.
  • Concentric rings are formed in each carapace section, either as grooves and ridges or as alternating light and dark lines.
  • Skin is gray with black flecks and spots over the limbs and head.

Diamond-Backed Terrapins are the ONLY freshwater turtle in North Carolina adapted to live in salty water!

 

They are found along the coast in salt marshes, tidal flats, brackish streams, and barrier beaches. Incredibly, they can also live in full-strength saltwater for extended amounts of time.

Diamond-Backed Terrapin Rangemap:

 

Diamond-Backed Terrapins have evolved to be extremely well-adapted to life in saltier coastal waters, even though they look similar to their freshwater cousins. For example, here are a few unique ways they obtain fresh drinking water.

  • They will drink the top layer of freshwater that forms on brackish or saltwater when it rains.

  • They tip their heads up with open mouths to catch raindrops as they fall!

 

There are SEVEN different subspecies of Diamond-Backed Terrapins. They are separated by their location along the east coast, ranging from New England all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The only subspecies in North Carolina is the Carolina Diamond-Backed Terrapin (M. t. centrata). The plastron (lower shell) curves inward at the base of the tail, meeting the carapace.

 

In the video below, you can see examples of many sub-species of Diamond-Backed Terrapins!

 


#4. River Cooter

  • Pseudemys concinna

types of turtles in north carolina

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 central North Carolina 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.

 


#5. Coastal Plain Cooter

  • Pseudemys floridana

species of turtles in north carolina

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 9 to 13 inches long. The record is 16 inches.
  • The carapace is brown to olive or dark green.
  • Light vertical stripes on the carapace differentiate the Coastal Plain Cooter from its cousins.

 

The Coastal Plain Cooter is one of the largest cooter turtle species in North Carolina!

 

Coastal Plain Cooters live in lakes, swamps, marshes, and rivers. They are primarily herbivorous, but they will eat insects if they are abundant and easily caught.

Coastal Plain Cooter Rangemap:

Credit: Virginia Herpetological Society

This turtle is in decline in North Carolina due to excessive hunting for the meat and pet trades.

 

It’s estimated that 60% of Coastal Plain Cooters sold as pets (or for consumption) are wild specimens that have been hunted or captured. Many states now list this species as protected, which is helping preserve the remaining population.

 


#6. Northern Red-Bellied Cooter

  • Pseudemys rubiventris

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 10 to 12.5 inches long.
  • The carapace is usually patterned and highly variable, with reds, olive to green, black, and brown sections.
  • Red markings on the belly and sides are almost always present.

 

As its name suggests, this species has a vibrant red plastron that is sometimes marked with green spots.

 

These turtles primarily live in freshwater lakes, streams, and ponds in northeastern North Carolina.

Northern Red-Bellied Cooter Rangemap:

Credit: Virginia Herpetological Society

 

If the circumstances are right, this turtle will venture into brackish streams near the coast. We know this because there have been barnacles found on some individuals.

 

One way to tell the Northern Red-Bellied Cooter apart from other turtles is to look at the pattern on its head. The lighter markings form a distinct arrow shape on the head, pointing toward the snout!

 


#7. 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.

 


#8. 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 western & southern North Carolina 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!

 


#9. 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 North Carolina 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.

 

 


#10. Striped Mud Turtle

  • Kinosternon baurii

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 3 to 4 inches long.
  • The carapace is generally dark brown or black with three light lines.
  • Young Striped Mud Turtles have a keel, or ridge along the spine, that flattens with age.

 

The Striped Mud Turtle prefers smaller, shallow bodies of water for its habitat. You are likely to see one in cypress swamps, drainage canals, and even ditches in Florida.

Striped Mud Turtle Rangemap

Credit: Virginia Herpetological Society

 

Striped Mud Turtles may also be easier to spot than other mud turtles because they spend more time on land than any other! They forage for insects, sun themselves, and rest out of the water, which is very unusual for mud turtles. 

 


#11. 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 North Carolina 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.

 


#12. 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 North Carolina 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!

 


#13. Chicken Turtle

  • Deiochelus reticularia

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 4 to 6 inches long.
  • Coloring is brown to black, with yellow or orange spots on the sides of the head.
  • The neck is the longest of all North American turtles, except for soft-shell species.

 

Chicken Turtles are one of the most social turtles in North Carolina!

 

They often swim or bask in groups and rarely travel or live alone. It’s most common to see groups of Chicken Turtles basking in the sun, as most of their other activity such as feeding and reproduction, happens underwater.

 

The preferred habitat of Chicken Turtles in southeastern North Carolina is still water, such as ponds, ditches, or marshes. However, they are frequently seen on land, where they forage for food and bask in the sun.

Chicken Turtle Rangemap:

 

I was surprised to find out that Chicken Turtles were named because of the taste of their meat, which was a popular delicacy in the 1970s! Unfortunately, they are now an endangered species because of this popularity, though efforts have been started to protect the remaining population.

 

To see an example of how long their neck is, take a look at the video below!

 


#14. Bog Turtle

  • Glyptemys muhlenbergii

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 3 to 3.5 inches long.
  • The coloring of the carapace is brown to black with yellowish or red centers. Orange patches appear on either side of the head.
  • The belly is often dark, sometimes with a few light spots.

The Bog Turtle is the smallest turtle in North Carolina!

 

It prefers to live in swamps, muddy-bottomed streams, and sphagnum bogs. Groups of up to TWENTY Bog Turtles often share a small area.

Bog Turtle Rangemap:

 

The Bog Turtle is listed as Critically Endangered in North Carolina. Its population is declining for several reasons, including a low reproduction rate, poaching for the pet trade, and automobile accidents.

 

There are currently quite a few groups trying to repopulate the species, and captively bred Bog Turtles have recently been released into the wild with transmitters. Hopefully, these efforts will result in an increased population of this interesting species!

 

Bog Turtles have lived in North Carolina for many centuries and are considered one of the oldest turtle species in the area. Fossils that are indistinguishable from modern Bog Turtles have been found and dated back to 1.8 million years ago!

 

In the below video, you can see a pair of fully grown Bog Burtles being handled by a researcher – compared to most turtles, they look tiny!

 

 


Box Turtles in North Carolina:

As you’ll read below, the ONLY Box Turtle in North Carolina is the Eastern Box Turtle. 


#15. 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 North Carolina, 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 North Carolina 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!

 

 

 


Sea Turtles in North Carolina:

Because of their migratory nature and ability to range far into the ocean, sea turtles are not truly “native” to one part of the world. The sea turtle species below can be seen on the coast of North Carolina.


#16. Green Sea Turtle

  • Chelonia mydas

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Weighs 150-420 lbs. and is 30 to 60+ inches long. However, some individuals have been recorded much larger, more than 600 lbs!
  • The carapace is smooth, with 4 sections on each side.
  • Coloring is olive, brown, or gray. Its name refers to a layer of green body fat found under its shell.

 

Green Sea Turtles live in coastal lagoons and bays throughout North Carolina. Incredibly, they rarely come to shore except to lay their eggs, preferring to spend most of their time in the water. They are actually tough animals to see because they are extremely fast swimmers and prone to hiding or fleeing with any signs of danger.

Green Sea Turtle Rangemap:

Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries)

 

Did you know Green Sea Turtles use the Earth’s electromagnetic waves?

 

In a process known as Natal Homing, these incredible turtles use magnetic crystals in their brains to read the magnetic waves coming from the Earth. They use this information to find the specific beach where they were hatched to lay their own eggs! Though it sounds like science fiction, it’s a common mechanism in many sea turtles.

 

One of the most concerning threats to Green Sea Turtle populations is climate change.

 

The warming of seawater is changing the migration & nesting pattern of the turtles. Interestingly, the sand temperature changes resulting from climate change also affect the ratio of male to female turtles, which can cause changes in breeding patterns and decreased hatch populations. Poaching, bycatch, nesting site loss, and disease are the other top threats to Green Sea Turtles.

 


#17. Loggerhead Sea Turtle

  • Caretta caretta

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • The average weight is 300 lbs. and 35 inches long. Record Loggerhead Sea Turtles have reached over 1,000 lbs!
  • The carapace coloring is red to orange-brown, edged in yellow. The belly is cream to dusky beige.
  • The Loggerhead’s carapace sections are much more pronounced than any other sea turtle.

 

The Loggerhead Sea Turtle gets its name from its large, blunt head!

 

It uses its powerful jaws to feed on much harder prey than other sea turtles, such as whelks, conch, and other hard-shelled invertebrates.

 

In North Carolina, Loggerhead Sea Turtles are rarely seen, mostly because they live where most people typically never visit. They love open oceans and can swim great distances between breeding seasons.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle Rangemap:

Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries)

The largest nesting population of Loggerhead Sea Turtles is right here in the USA! Unfortunately, most other nesting populations, such as ones in the Caribbean and Japan, have seen a recent steep decline – up to 90% of the total nesting population has declined in these regions. Part of the reason for the steep decline is that Loggerhead Sea Turtles don’t reach reproductive maturity until age 35!

 

The most concerning threat to Loggerhead Sea Turtles in North Carolina is bycatch. This happens when they are unintentionally caught in a net or trap meant for fish or shrimp, which can cause the turtles to drown or be severely injured when they try to free themselves.

 

Loggerhead Sea Turtles have an interesting way of keeping their shells healthy. They allow fish to “clean” them by eating the barnacles and other parasites that live in their shells!

 


#18. Leatherback Sea Turtle

  • Dermochelys coriacea

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Weighs 600 to 6,000 lbs and is 48 to 96 inches long.
  • The carapace is made of flexible, leathery skin, and the coloring is black to slate gray.
  • The sections of the carapace are diamond-shaped, stretching the length of the body.

The Leatherback Sea Turtle is the largest sea turtle in North Carolina!

 

It ranges all over the world into every ocean but prefers temperate to cooler water during most of its life. Leatherback Sea Turtles are highly migratory and will travel up to 10,000 miles per year between foraging and nesting grounds! Its hatching grounds in the USA range along the western coastline.

Leatherback Sea Turtle Rangemap:

Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries)

 

Like most sea turtles, Leatherback Sea Turtles face severe population decline and are listed as endangered in most countries. One of the primary threats to Leatherback Sea Turtles is the collection of their eggs for human consumption. Even though they are a protected species in most countries, poaching and illegal collection are still common.

 

One of the most interesting features of the Leatherback Sea Turtle is its speed; even though it is the largest living sea turtle, it’s also the fastest. Swimming speeds of nearly 22 miles per hour have been recorded! It uses this speed to travel great distances, often traveling over 3,600 miles between nesting and foraging grounds. Considering their size, they’re pretty fast on land too!

 


#19. Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle

  • Lepidochelys kempii

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Weighs 80 to 100 lbs and is 23 to 28 inches long.
  • The carapace is nearly circular when seen from above, and usually a uniform olive green. The belly is yellowish.
  • Young Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles are a uniform purple all over.

 

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles live in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean and can be found along the eastern coastline. They prefer shallow water with a sandy or muddy bottom.

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Rangemap:

Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries)

This species is the smallest sea turtle in North Carolina!

 

Their size may be one reason they have a unique nesting strategy called arribada, where many nesting females gather offshore and come out of the water together, nesting in a tight group. Arribada nesting can help the nesting mothers protect each other from predators, and also helps more hatchlings make it to the open ocean.

 

Due to habitat loss, pollution, and injuries from fishing nets, Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles are the most critically endangered sea turtle species. Currently, their estimated nesting female population is less than 250 individuals. Intensive conservation efforts are underway, but populations have not increased since about 2010.

 

These sea turtles are particularly susceptible to casualties from oil spills. For example, almost all of the 156 sea turtles that died and 456 that were rescued from the Deepwater Horizon disaster were Kemp’s Ridleys.

 


#20. Hawksbill Sea Turtle

  • Eretmochelys imbricata

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Weighs 95 to 165 lbs and is 30 to 35 inches long.
  • The carapace coloring is amber with irregular light and dark streaks. The coloring changes slightly with water temperature.
  • Hawk-like, hooked beak.

 

Hawksbill Sea Turtles get their name from their hooked beak, which they use to reach into small crevices and pull out their prey. They primarily eat sea sponges but also prey on small fish, jellyfish, mollusks, and crustaceans.

 

The Hawksbill Sea Turtle lives in lagoons and coral reefs in the oceans around the world, preferring tropical and subtropical climates. It spends part of its life in the open sea but frequently returns to shallower water. In North Carolina, Hawksbill Sea Turtles spend much of their time foraging in coral reefs.

 

Hawksbill Sea Turtle Rangemap:

Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries)

 

Hawksbill Sea Turtles are critically endangered due mostly to exploitation and consumption by humans. Commonly, “tortoiseshell” accessories and items are made from the shell of the Hawksbill, and while killing them is now illegal in most countries, poaching is still a serious threat. The threat of poaching is made worse because they only nest once every 1-5 years, much less than most other sea turtles.

They are the only sea turtle that prefers to nest on rocky beaches instead of the sand!

 

Hawksbills search for “pocket” beaches, small coves, or inlets surrounded by rocks when nesting. Then, they travel high up the beach and lay their eggs in the shelter created by plants.

 


Do you need additional help identifying turtles?

Try this field guide!

 


Which of these turtles have you seen in North Carolina?

 

Leave a comment below!

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