34 Types of Turtles Found in The USA! (ID Guide)

What kinds of turtles can you find in the United States?”

 

 

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

 

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

Today, you will learn about the 34 different kinds of turtles in the United States.

 


Freshwater Turtles in the United States:

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


#1. Common Snapping Turtle

  • Chelydra serpentina

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 the United States.

 

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

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 the United States!

 

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. Western Pond Turtle

  • Actinemus marmorata

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 3.5 to 8.5 inches long.
  • Their limbs have prominent scales, and the head is spotted or webbed with black.
  • Carapace coloring is black or dark green to brown with some yellowish spots. Usually, a pattern of dots or lines radiates from the center of each shell plate.

 

These turtles can be found in the western United States in ponds, lakes, rivers, and even irrigation ditches. It prefers habitats that give it access to plenty of aquatic plants like watercress, water lilies, and cattails. Western Pond Turtles are omnivorous, and their diet includes insects, frogs, tadpoles, and even carrion.

Western Pond Turtle Rangemap:

In the United States, the Western Pond Turtle’s population is extremely endangered.

 

Habitat loss due to development and invasive pet turtles that have been released into its environment has contributed to their decline.

 

In addition, over-hunting for food has put additional pressure on them. For example, Western Pond Turtles were once the main food source for hogs that were bred on Hog Island in California! The hogs learned to dive for the turtles in the shallow water of the lake. They got so good at hunting and eating the turtles that, unfortunately, the population there is now extinct.

 


#4. Painted Turtle

  • Chrysemys picta

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 the United States 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 the United States. 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.

 


#5. Southern Painted Turtle

  • Chrysemys dorsalis

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 4 to 5 inches long.
  • A distinctive red or orange stripe down the back of the shell.
  • A plain, pale-yellow plastron (tough belly skin) that is sometimes lightly spotted.

 

The Southern Painted Turtle is the smallest painted turtle species in the United States!

 

These turtles are often kept as pets because of their small size and unique coloring. In the wild, they live on the edge of lakes and streams.

Southern Painted Turtle Rangemap:

Interestingly, the Southern Painted Turtle’s diet changes as it grows.

 

Young hatchlings and juveniles have a diet that is 1/4 vegetation and 3/4 animal matter. Then, as adults, it switches, and about 3/4 of their diet is made up of vegetation! Some common food sources for them are duckweed, algae, young crayfish, and dragonfly larvae.

 

Like many species of turtles in the United States, they can live for a very long time! It is normal for this species to live 50 or more years! Because of this fact, many people who purchase a Southern Painted Turtle as a pet end up releasing them back into the wild. 🙁

 


#6. Northern Map Turtle

  • Graptemys geographica

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 the United States. 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.

 


#7. Ouachita Map Turtle

  • Graptemys ouachitensis

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 the United States 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!

 


#8. 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 the United States 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 the United States, 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.

 


#9. Diamond-Backed Terrapin

  • Malaclemys terrapin

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 the United States 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 different subspecies are:

  • Northern Diamond-Backed Terrapin (M. t. terrapin)
    • The carapace is boldly patterned with dark rings.
  • Carolina Diamond-Backed Terrapin (M. t. centrata)
    • The plastron (lower shell) curves inward at the base of the tail, meeting the carapace.
  • Eastern Florida Diamond-Backed Terrapin (M. t. tequesta)
    • The carapace does not have rings, and the middle of each scute is only slightly darker than the outside.
  • Mangrove Diamond-Backed Terrapin (M. t. rhizophorarum)
    • The neck and back legs have dark, bold stripes instead of the usual spots.
  • Ornate Diamond-Backed Terrapin (M. t. macrospilota)
    • The carapace has a dorsal keel, or center ridge, with large round bumps running its length.
  • Mississippi Diamond-Backed Terrapin (M. t. pileata)
    • The carapace is the darkest of the sub-species, usually almost uniformly black.
  • Texas Diamond-Backed Terrapin (M. t. littoralis)
    • The skin is greenish-gray, darker than other subspecies but still with black spots.

 

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

 


#10. 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 the United States 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.

 


#11. Coastal Plain Cooter

  • Pseudemys floridana

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 the United States!

 

Coastal Plain Cooters live in lakes, swamps, marshes, and rivers. Coastal Plain Cooters 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 the United States 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.

 


#12. 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 the United States.

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!

 


#13. 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.

 


#14. 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 the United States 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!

 


#15. 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 the United States!

 

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!

 


#16. 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 the United States 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.

 


#17. 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 the United States 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.

 


#18. 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 the United States 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!

 


#19. 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 the United States!

 

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 the United States 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!

 


#20. 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 the United States 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.

 


#21. 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 the United States!

 

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 the United States. 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 the United States 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!

 


#22. 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 the United States 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 the United States:

As you’ll read below, a couple of species on this list are not box turtles. Because they’re also land dwellers, I have included them here. Hopefully, you will find them as interesting as I do!


#23. 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 the United States. 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.

 


#24. 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 the United States, 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 the United States 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!

 


#25. Florida Box Turtle

  • Terrapene bauri

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 5-6.5 inches long.
  • The carapace is high and dome-shaped, with broken, irregular light lines and a dark brown background.
  • Usually, there are three toes on the back legs instead of the usual 4.

 

The Florida Box Turtle lives in wetlands, marshes, and swampy areas with heavy rainfall. It prefers wet environments with plenty of water nearby but will live most of its life on land where it eats many species of plants as well as animal prey. It prefers fleshy fruit such as low-hanging berries, and gastropods like snails.

Florida Box Turtle Rangemap:

Even though it likes water, this species rarely enters the water deep enough to swim!

 

Unlike most box turtles who only lay one clutch of eggs in a season, the Florida Box Turtle can nest up to FOUR times a year! The average size of a nest is between 1-9 eggs.

 

Even with this prolific breeding adaptation, the overall population of the Florida Box Turtle is in danger and considered threatened. Automobile accidents, habitat loss, and predation are leading causes of the declining population of this species.

 


#26. Three-Toed Box Turtle

  • Terrapene triunguis

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 4.5 to 5 inches long.
  • Three toes on the hind limbs, instead of the usual four seen on other box turtles.
  • The coloring of the domed carapace is uniform olive to brown, sometimes with light streaks or spots.
  • Occasionally, a Three-Toed Box Turtle will also have bright orange or yellow spots on its legs and head.

 

Three-Toed Box Turtles live in woodlands, prairies, and thickets in the United States. They are highly adaptable and thrive in most environments. In fact, they are the only species of box turtle that remains in good health in indoor enclosures as pets.

Three-Toed Box Turtle Rangemap:

There have been reports of people being sickened from eating “poisonous” Three-Toed Box Turtles.

 

While the turtles are not actually poisonous, it’s been theorized that the Three-Toed Box Turtle can eat poisonous mushrooms. The mushrooms don’t affect the turtles’ health, but the toxins from the mushrooms can stay in the turtles’ system and make predators sick!

 


#27. Gopher Tortoise

  • Gopherus polyphemus

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 6 to 9.5 inches long.
  • The carapace is brown or tan, with grayish-brown skin that has orange or yellow blotches.
  • Growth rings are easy to see in young individuals, but in older tortoises, the carapace is very smooth.

 

The Gopher Tortoise is the ONLY tortoise in the eastern United States!

 

Gopher Tortoises live in sandy areas where burrowing into the soil is easy. They are scavenging herbivores and consume a variety of plants as long as they are easily accessible.

Gopher Tortoise Rangemap:

 

Gopher Tortoises face the threat of a declining population due mostly to human development of their habitat. You may even come across Gopher Tortoise Crossing signs, which are part of an effort to protect this species! In the United States, rules and regulations limit land development containing Gopher Tortoises or their burrows, and it is illegal to relocate them without permission from Fish and Wildlife services.

 

The Gopher Tortoise makes extensive burrows in the sandy soil, which are used as shelter by up to 360 other species. Most notably, Gopher Tortoises often share their burrows with Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes!

 

Check out the video below to get a close look at a Gopher Tortoise burrow!

 


#28. Desert Tortoise

  • Gopherus agassizii

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 8 to 15 inches long.
  • The carapace is high and domed with no definite pattern but usually ridges in concentric circles on the plates.
  • Coloring is brown, gray, or horn. The belly is yellowish or light brown.

 

Desert Tortoises live in arid climates in the United States and can withstand very little rain and intense heat. They prefer firm ground for building burrows and also use rocks as shelter. Their burrows have a characteristic half-moon-shaped opening.

Desert Tortoise Rangemap:

This tortoise spends 95% of its life underground, conserving water and energy and only coming to the surface for food and to breed. It can survive ground temperatures of up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit! In fact, the Desert Tortoise is one of few species that can withstand the extreme heat and lack of rain in Death Valley.

 

The Desert Tortoise is an “indicator species,” one that shows the health of an ecosystem by its population health. Unfortunately, this species is in widespread decline throughout its habitat. Reasons for this decline and the decline of many desert species include urban expansion, mining, natural predation, and off-road vehicle use that destroys their burrows.

 


Sea Turtles in the United States:

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 have nesting populations in the United States.


#29. 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 the United States. 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.

 

A subspecies of the Green Sea Turtle is the Black Sea Turtle. Unlike Green Sea Turtles, they are found only on the Pacific coast. Black Sea Turtles in the United States are similar in most ways to Green Sea Turtles. They face the same threat of extinction, and the only major difference is that they are darker in color and have a very limited habitat.

 

One of the most concerning threats to Green and Black 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 and Black Sea Turtles.

 


#30. 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 the United States, 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 the United States 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!

 


#31. 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 the United States!

 

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!

 


#32. 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 the United States!

 

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.

 


#33. Olive Ridley Sea Turtle

  • Lepidochelys olivacea

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Weighs 80 to 100 lbs. and is 20 to 29 inches long.
  • The carapace coloring is uniformly olive green to brown, and looks nearly round from above.
  • The skin is usually grayer in color than the shell.

 

Olive Ridley Sea Turtles are the most numerous sea turtle in the world!

 

They can be found in the protected, calm water of bays and lagoons in the United States. However, they prefer warmer water and generally stay in the open ocean, ranging into the temperate climate of the United States less frequently than other sea turtles.

Olive Ridley Sea Turtle Rangemap:

Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries)

 

Even though Olive Ridley Sea Turtles have the largest worldwide population of any sea turtle, they are still endangered. Their population worldwide has decreased 30-50% since scientists began to track it. Fishing net by-catch, direct harvesting for meat and eggs, and pollution are all threats to the Olive Ridley Sea Turtle.

 

Like Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles, the Olive Ridleys use a strategy called “arribada,” coming to shore by the thousands to nest in groups.

 

One feature that sets the Olive Ridley Sea Turtle apart from other sea turtles is its front and back claws, which extend from its flippers. Males use their claws to hang on to females when mating, and females use their claws when they dig their nests.

 


#34. 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 the United States, 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!

 

They search for “pocket” beaches, small coves, or inlets surrounded by rocks when nesting. 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 the United States?

 

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