Living in a county surrounded by water, it’s no surprise we have many freshwater and marine creatures. These creatures range from giant whales in the Atlantic Ocean to tiny newts in small temporary freshwater forested wetlands.
One amazing, relatively common turtle in Florida is the softshell turtle. This freshwater turtle is one of 26 species of turtles found in the state.
They are the largest of the New World soft-shelled turtles and have the most Old World characteristics, like its pliable elongated, wrinkled shell and tolerance for brackish water.
The Florida softshell turtle is a relatively large, flat turtle resembling a thick, leathery pancake with skin covering its shell. Flat bony skeletal armor can sometimes be seen through this skin.
The sexes vary in size with males growing up to about 12 inches and females measuring up to 24 or more inches.
Adults are usually colored by a dark brown to brownish-gray, sometimes olive colored, with dark spots.
Also, there are usually small dark bumps on the carapace (top part of the shell). The carapace of the Florida softshell is covered with longitudinal rows of tubercles that resemble ridges in younger turtles but are less evident in larger specimens.
In adult turtles, the plastron (belly) of the shell usually extends farther than the carapace.
All four feet are fully webbed, making them excellent swimmers. The tubular, snorkel-like nose has nostrils with special valves that can close when submerged.
The softshell turtle ranges throughout the Florida peninsula down to the Keys, but has only been encountered on Big Pine Key. They extend up into Georgia and southeastern South Carolina.
They are found in freshwater ponds, lakes, streams, canals, sinkholes and roadside ditches. They are occasionally found in quiet brackish tidal waters.
They can be seen basking on cool, sunny days, resting on floating vegetation, logs or a muddy bank.
They are primarily aquatic, spending most of their life in the water; however, they are equally adept to both land and water and have the ability to move at quick pace in both.
When on land, they are often seen buried in the soft mud or under sand in and around their habitat.
Primarily carnivorous, softshell turtles thrive on aquatic crustaceans, insects, mollusks and amphibians. They mostly eat fish and snails.
Like most predators, they are opportunistic and will even prey on small waterfowl like ducks and herons.
Scavenging is also a part of their eating habits. These creatures hunt and can chase down prey. At times, they have been seen burying themselves under sand with their heads exposed where they attack unsuspecting prey when it comes within reach.
June is nesting season in north Florida.
In a single season, the female soft shell can nest two to seven times and is able to produce almost 225 eggs every year, more than almost any other reptile species.
Once the female leaves the site of the subsurface nest, there is no further parental care for the eggs or the young.
Because of temperate weather conditions, Florida softshell turtles can remain active year around.
In Georgia and South Carolina, these turtles hibernate during the coldest time of winter. They are able to tolerate long submergence times under water, especially during the time when they are inactive. The water is cold with a high concentration of oxygen.
Respiration and gas exchange can occur through their skin and likely through the cloacal (anal) membranes.
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