Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera)

Photos by J.D. Willson unless otherwise noted

Description: Apalone spinifera are easily distinguished from other turtles because of their different looking carapace. Unlike most turtles in Georgia, the spiny softshell turtle has a flat, leathery shell with very flexible edges, “resembling a pancake”. This carapace can get up to 18″ long in females and only 9″ long in males being an olive, brown to grayish color with dark spots in males and younger turtles. In adult males, the shell has a lot of spines on the carapace, but in females it only has a few spines. Apalone spinifera has a snorkel-like nose with 2 yellowish lines on the sides of its head. Their feet have more webbing than most of the other turtles in Georgia. This may be because they spend most of their life in water compared to other turtles. Spiny Softshells resemble Florida Softshells and are best distinguished by range (Florida Softshells are only found in the Coastal Plain) and habitat (Spiny Softshells prefer rivers and streams while Florida Softshells are often found in ponds and wetlands).

Range and Habitat: The spiny softshell turtle occurs from South Carolina, west to Texas and north up the Missouri River system to Montana and the Dakotas, then east to western New York. It is found throughout the state South Carolina and in Georgia except in the mountains and south-central portions of the Coastal Plain. Apalone spinifera are most common in rivers and streams with muddy or sandy bottoms, but are also found in large lakes and reservoirs.

Habits: Softshells often bury themselves in the mud or sand where they sleep or wait for food to carelessly swim by. They can sometimes be observed basking on sandbars or logs protruding from the water. These turtles are mainly carnivorous, eating almost anything living in the water that will fit into its mouth. This includes, fish, insects, and crayfish. They bury themselves in the sand or mud with only their head sticking out and grab prey as they swim by. Spiny softshell turtles are most active April through October. They usually breed in May and lay 4 to 30 eggs on sunny sandbars or in loose soil.

Conservation status: Apalone spinifera is currently common and is not protected by State or Federal government.

Pertinent References:
Weisrock, D. W., and F. J. Janzen. 2000. Comparative molecular phylogeography of North American softshell turtles (Apalone): implications for regional and wide-scale historical evolutionary forces. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 14:152-164.

Account Author: Anna Tarter, University of Georgia – revised by J.D. Willson