Photo Credit: John D. Wilson
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Sternotherus odoratus
OTHER NAMES: Eastern Musk Turtle
STATUS: Common statewide in a variety of sluggish-water environments. More tolerant of habitat degradation than other members of its genus. Low Conservation Concern.
DESCRIPTION: In Alabama, the stinkpot varies in colors from dark gray to black and adults range from 3 to 5 inches in length. They have two irregular, yellow stripes running horizontally from their nose down the sides of their head and neck. They have a larger, triangular shaped head to help with crushing snail shells with an oval shape to their body contour. The ridged, or keeled, carapace (top shell) provides camouflage as they hunt for food and also is useful when digging through substrate. The bottom portion of their shell, or the plastron, is much smaller proportionally than those of other turtles. This increases their mobility and makes it easier for them to move, even though they have less protection for their underside. The male has a much larger tail, almost the size of a leg, and has a lot of taper from the end of the shell where it is fairly thick, down to the end of its tail where it is very thin. Females have much smaller tails and tend to have much less tapering in the tail.
They are not an aggressive species and seldom do more than retract their head and open their mouth. They do not lunge to bite like other snapping species, but their jaws are very strong and their bites can be extremely painful. Remember, they have to crack snail shells. So while they are a fairly docile species, be careful not to get too close to their mouth. While they do give off an unpleasant odor, it is not one that is overly noxious and they can and do make good pets.
DISTRIBUTION: The musk turtle can be found throughout the eastern half of North America. They are found as far north as Ontario, Canada and as far south as Florida and Texas.
HABITAT: The stinkpot lives in slow-moving wet habitats such as ponds, streams, lakes, or swamps. The soft substrates in these ecosystems suit the feeding habits of this little turtle, and the slow-moving water allows them to move and hunt easily. However, they do not tolerate brackish water. Due to being cold-blooded, they also prefer to have overhanging limbs of trees to bask on. If they are disturbed while they are basking, they will just dive into the water.
FEEDING HABITS: Smaller individuals that are less than 2 inches in length tend to feed primarily on algae, carrion, and aquatic insects. Those individuals larger than 2 inches in length tend to eat anything that they can catch. They have been observed eating worms, slugs, small fish, leeches, clams, snails, fish eggs, minnows, tadpoles, crayfish and parts of higher plants.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Courtship and mating take place sporadically throughout the year, though it peaks in the spring and fall. Most mating occurs around April and May. The second mating season occurs in September and can stretch into December. In Alabama the stinkpot lays eggs from April to July. Most nesting occurs in the evening. Egg-laying is done near the water, on open ground or in well-built nests up to 4 inches deep. Sometimes several turtles will nest together. Each individual female may lay as many as three to four clutches with up to nine eggs per clutch. Incubation ranges from 65 to 86 days.
AUTHOR: Rick Garrett, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries