Stripeneck / Loggerhead Musk Turtle (Sternotherus minor)

Photos by J.D. Willson unless otherwise noted

Description: Loggerhead musk turtles have an adult carapace length of 7.5-11.5 cm (2.9-4.5 in). While juveniles have a well-defined central keel on their carapace as well as two additional keels along the side, these are mostly lost in adulthood. The plastron is small and doesn’t completely protect the turtle. It contains one inconspicuous anterior hinge and a single gular scute. The carapace is tan to dark brown with black streaking or spotting and has overlapping vertebral scutes. They have light brown heads with dark spots as well as a pair of barbells on their chins. Males can be differentiated from females by their larger head and longer tail that has a curved claw-like tip used in mating. The two subspecies of loggerhead musk turtles, the nominate loggerhead musk turtle (S. m. minor) and the stripe-necked musk turtle (S. m. peltifer), have a widespread range of overlap and intergradation. Sternotherus m. minor has a large brown or gray head with many small black spots and a pale pink, yellow, or white plastron. Sternotherus m. peltifer has yellowish, broken stripes on the head and neck and an orangish plastron. The nominate subspecies is more likely to retain remnants of all three carapace keels into adulthood.

Distribution and Habitat: The range of S. m. minor extends from north-central Georgia to southeast Alabama and north-central Florida while the range of S. m.peltifer stretches from southwest Virginia and eastern Tennessee to the Gulf and the Pearl River in Mississippi. Loggerhead musk turtles tend to reside in clear limestone springs in Florida as well as in rivers and stream tributaries of the Gulf Coastal Plain and Piedmont regions of Georgia. Stripe-necked musk turtles, on the other hand, inhabit fast flowing rivers and streams with rock and cobble bottoms in the Cumberland Plateau region. They sometimes ascend clear, shallow creeks at the edges of mountains, often reaching 1000 feet of elevation.

Reproduction and Development: Mating occurs underwater in the spring and fall. Females lay 1-4 clutches of two or three elliptical eggs a year. Egg laying lasts from spring to summer and is characterized by a nest dug in organic debris along a stream bank or in a nearby sandy area. After 60-120 days of incubation, the young emerge. Males reach sexual maturity at an average of 4 years while females may be 8 years old.

Habits: Highly aquatic, loggerhead musk turtles spend a large portion of their time searching for prey or mates along river bottoms. They have been seen crawling in Florida springs at depths of 20 feet or more. Though they do not bask frequently, musk turtles have been observed climbing snags or cypress knees to bask a significant distance above the water. Loggerhead musk turtles will not typically move overland except to nest. Not much information is known about the habits of stripe-necked musk turtles, though their behavior is probably similar. Both subspecies are largely carnivorous, but they may eat some plant material as well. Their diet includes aquatic insects, crayfish, mollusks, and the preferred small snails. They may opportunistically consume algae from rocks or carrion. Raccoons, skunks, opossums, crows, and common kingsnakes predate nests, while the primary predators of adults include alligators, alligator snapping turtles, snapping turtles, cottonmouths, and large fish. Musk turtles are not without defense, however, as they release a foul-smelling musk when threatened and are equipped with powerful jaws for biting.

Conservation: While this species appears to remain abundant across much of its range, loggerhead musk turtles are vulnerable to pollution and siltation of their habitat, which affects prey abundance. Populations of stripe-necked musk turtle in Virginia and Alabama have seen a decline since the 1980s according to anecdotal observations. Loggerhead musk turtles intended for the pet trade were removed from Florida springs in the 1980s as well, heavily damaging the population.

Pertinent References:
Buhlmann, Kurt, Tracey Tuberville, and Whit Gibbons. Turtles of the Southeast. Athens: University of Georgia, 2008.

Conant, Roger, and Joseph T. Collins. A Field Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians: Eastern and Central North America. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Jensen, John B., Carlos D. Camp, Whit Gibbons, and Matt J. Elliott. Amphibians and Reptiles of Georgia. Athens: University of Georgia, 2008.

Account Author: Lindsay Partymiller