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Softshell Turtles: Trionychidae

Spiny Softshell (apalone Spinifera): Species Account

Physical characteristics: Also known as a gooseneck turtle or leatherback turtle, the spiny softshell is a medium-sized turtle with a long neck and a rubbery upper shell, or carapace, with tiny spines at the front edge. Its flat carapace is mostly brownish green, but it has black spots and circles in both males and young turtles. The plastron is white or yellowish white. The turtles also have webbed feet, greenish legs usually mottled with black, and typically two yellow stripes on each side of the head. The carapace in females, which are about twice as large as the males, can reach up to 18.9 inches (48 centimeters) in length.

Geographic range: They live in Mexico, the United States, and Canada.

The spiny softshell is also known as a gooseneck turtle or leatherback turtle. (©Steve & Dave Maslowski/Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced by permission.)

Habitat: Spiny softshells live in year-round, sandy- or muddy-bottomed bodies of fresh water, such as large lakes and ponds, as well as in shallow rivers and streams. They live in northeastern Mexico, the eastern half of the United States plus a few spots in western states, and into southeastern Canada.

Diet: Spiny softshells mostly eat meat in the form of just about anything they can find, including crayfish, fishes, and insects that live in the water. They will also eat acorns and leaves.

Behavior and reproduction: This turtle will bask on shore, but it quickly retreats at the slightest movement, so people rarely see them. Larger turtles especially also bask in the upper level of water. Usually, however, this turtle spends the majority of its days buried in the muddy or sandy bottom of its watery home. From this well-hidden spot, a turtle can keep an eye out for passing fishes or insects and dart out its long neck to grab the unsuspecting animal with its jaws for a quick meal. Because it can get oxygen directly from the water, the spiny softshell can stay underwater for long periods without drowning. Those that live in colder areas hibernate from fall to spring by burying themselves in the mud or sand beneath the water and remaining inactive.

Spiny softshells mate in the spring in deep waters. Scientists know little about their courtship or mating behaviors. In June and July, the female crawls on shore and then quickly digs a hole, drops the eggs inside, and covers it up. She provides no additional care for the eggs or the young turtles. She may lay two clutches a year. Each clutch contains four to thirty-two round eggs, each of which measures about 1.1 inches (2.8 centimeters) in diameter. They hatch in about fifty-five to eighty-five days. When the males reach four to five years old and the females reach eight to ten years old, they are ready to mate and become parents themselves. They live to be fifty years old or more.

Spiny softshells and people: People hunt this turtle for food, either to eat themselves or to ship overseas to meat markets in Asia. Some people also collect spiny softshells for the pet trade.

Conservation status: This species is not listed as endangered or threatened, although many of its nests are destroyed each year by raccoons and other animals that eat the eggs. ∎



Behler, John L., and F. Wayne King. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. New York: Knopf, 1979.

Conant, Roger, and Joseph T. Collins. A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America, Third Edition Expanded. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998.

Harding, J. H., and J. A. Holman. Michigan Turtles and Lizards. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1990.

Stebbins, Robert C. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1985.

Additional topics

Animal Life ResourceDinosaurs, Snakes, and Other ReptilesSoftshell Turtles: Trionychidae - Physical Characteristics, Habitat, Behavior And Reproduction, Conservation Status, Spiny Softshell (apalone Spinifera): Species Account - GEOGRAPHIC RANGE, DIET, SOFTSHELL TURTLES AND PEOPLE