Michigan State University masthead

common musk turtle

common musk turtle
Sternotherus odoratus

Image of common musk turtle (juvenile)Description

This is a very small turtle with a narrow, high-arched brown or black carapace and a pointed, protruding snout. They usually have two yellowish stripes on each side of the head. (In older specimens these stripes may fade.) Two or more soft, pointed barbels are usually visible on the chin or throat. The yellow or brownish plastron is very small, with many of the scutes separated by skin. The male musk turtle differs from the female in having broader areas of skin between the plastral scutes and a longer, thicker tail tipped with a stiff spine.

Adult Carapace Length:

3.25 to 5.37 inches (8 to 13.7 cm).

Habitat and Habits

These turtles inhabit shallow, slow-moving or quiet waters with some aquatic vegetation. In Michigan they prefer the shallows of lakes with marl, sand, or gravel bottoms. Poor swimmers, they usually crawl along the bottom, nosing under or around objects for food. Musk turtles rarely bask out of water but may occasionally climb out onto rocks or emergent branches to sun themselves. During the warmer months they are most active in the early morning and in the evening, and some populations are quite nocturnal. Musk turtles eat a wide assortment of foods, almost always under water. Included in their diet are insects, snails, crayfish, worms, tadpoles, and aquatic plants. When disturbed, musk turtles give off an unpleasant musky odor from glands under the edge of their shells. This has led to the common name "stinkpot." They will also threaten with open jaws and bite if handled.

Image of common musk turtle Reproduction

Female musk turtles nest from May to August. Some dig a normal nest cavity, but others simply deposit their eggs under shoreline debris or fallen logs, or in the sides of muskrat houses. Each female lays from 2 to 9 elliptical, brittle, hard-shelled eggs. These hatch in 60 to 80 days into tiny black hatchlings less than an inch long. Those lucky enough to reach adulthood may live for many decades -- the record for a captive was over 54 years.

Range and Status

Musk turtles are locally common in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula; a few scattered records exist for the northern half. This species is distributed rather unevenly through its Michigan range.

Image of common musk turtle (hatchling)Acknowledgement

James Harding
MSU Museum
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824
(517) 353-7978