“What kinds of turtles can you find in South Dakota?”
I was amazed at the differences between turtle species in South Dakota!
In fact, there are so many species I have broken them down into a few different categories.
Here are the 6 different kinds of turtles in South Dakota:
Freshwater Turtles in South Dakota:
Freshwater Turtles make up the largest group of turtles native to South Dakota. 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 are widespread throughout South Dakota.
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 South Dakota 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 South Dakota. 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. False Map Turtle
- Graptemys pseudogeographica
- 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 central South Dakota 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 South Dakota, 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.
#4. 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 South Dakota 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!
#5. Smooth Softshell Turtle
- Apalone mutica
- 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 South Dakota!
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!
Box Turtles in South Dakota:
As you’ll read below, only ONE species of Box Turtle lives in South Dakota. Hopefully, you will find it as interesting as I do!
#6. 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 South Dakota. 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 South Dakota?
Leave a comment below!