Hello, Frank Indiviglio here. As a boy working for an animal importer in NYC, I was much taken by the first hatchling Common Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus) I encountered. The minute, jet-black beast, much smaller than a baby Red-Eared Slider, was irresistible. Last month that very same turtle turned 41 (please see photo). So I am, of course, partial to the species, but there are actually very good reasons to keep this fascinating turtle and its relatives.
This turtle rarely exceeds 4 inches in length (record: 5 3/8 inches); males average 3 inches. The highly-domed carapace is olive-brown to black and often algae-coated. The plastron is small, leaving a good deal of flesh exposed. The skin is gray to black, and there are two yellow stripes on the head and a pair of sensory barbels (fleshy protuberances) on the chin and throat.
Musk Turtles bear glands that can emit a foul-smelling secretion designed to deter predators. Fortunately, captives quickly abandon this habit.
The Common Musk’s range extends from southern Ontario and Maine to Florida and west to southern Wisconsin and central Texas. It is one of the few turtles still to be found within NYC.
The highly aquatic Common Musk Turtle favors the slow-moving waters of swamps, canals, farm ponds and river edges, but occasionally occurs in fast-moving streams.
Oddly, they sometimes climb trees to heights of over 6 feet when basking, aided by their small size and mobile legs (the plastron is much reduced). Musk Turtles sometimes surprise people by dropping into boats passing below basking sites!
The average clutch contains 2-5 eggs (range 1-9); 4 clutches per year may be produced in the southern part of the range. The eggs are deposited in a shallow nest (muskrat lodges are favored in some areas), within decaying logs, or below leaf litter. Several females may share 1 nest site.
The incubation period is 9-12 weeks; the tiny hatchlings measure ¾ of an inch in length. Sexual maturity is reached in 3-5 years for males and 5-11 years for females.
Although reported to eat plants on occasion, the Common Musk feeds mainly upon crayfishes, fish, carrion, insects, leeches, tadpoles and snails.
Hatchlings, vulnerable to predation due to their small size, are consumed by bullfrogs, fishes, giant water bugs, raccoons and other creatures.
While Musk Turtles occasionally bask, they differ from many other turtles in not requiring UVB light to synthesize Vitamin D. Along with Snapping, Soft-Shelled and certain other aquatic species, they can apparently obtain sufficient Vitamin D from their diets.
Twenty three species of Mud and Musk Turtles (family Kinosternidae, please see photos) are found from southern Canada to southern South America. They range in size from the Flattened Musk Turtle, Sternotherus minor, which rarely exceeds 4 inches in length, to the 15-inch-plus long Mexican Giant Musk Turtle, Staurotypus triporcatus. I’ll cover several species in Part 2 of this article.
Please write in with your questions and comments.
Video of a “droll” young Musk Turtle hunting.
Staurotypus triporcatus image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by LA Dawson