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Smooth Softshell, Apalone mutica

The Smooth Softshell Turtle occurs in the northern parts of the state in the Tennessee and Cumberland River drainages.   It also occurs in the Reelfoot Lake area of the Mississippi River drainage. One subspecies, Midland Smooth Softshell (A. m. mutica), occurs in TN.

Description:  A round, flattened aquatic turtle (males 4.5 to 7.0; females 6.5 to 14.0 inches in length) with a long, tubular snout. 

Carapace (upper shell) is smooth and olive-gray or brown; males have faint dots and dashes while females have mottled blotches. The plastron (lower shell) is a plain gray or cream color.

A light stripe, with a dark, thin border, extends from the eye down each side of the neck.

Adult females are larger and have longer hind claws.

Males have longer, thicker tails. Young are olive-colored and covered with dots.

Similar Species: The carapace of the Eastern Spiny Softshell has spines on the front edge and it has a sandpaper-type surface.

Habitat: Prefers large rivers with sandy or muddy bottoms; occasionally lakes.

Diet: Primarily carnivorous; including crayfish, insects, snails, frogs, fish, and worms.

Breeding information: Adults breed in the spring resulting in egg-laying in summer. Open sand bars or river islands are preferred nesting sites. Females lay 4-33 brittle eggs, which resemble miniature ping-pong balls. Hatchlings emerge after 2 months in the nest.

Status in Tennessee: Although listed as rare or species of concern in several mid-western and northern states, Smooth Softshells are low conservation concern in TN. Vulnerable to river channelization, water pollution, and harvesting for human consumption.

Fun Facts:

  • Smooth Softshells are fast swimmers because of their flat, streamlined profile.
  • Commonly seen “snorkeling,” using their long neck and sticking just the tip of the snout out of the water for air.

Best places to see in Tennessee: Along the Mississippi River near Reelfoot lake or along the lower Tennessee River drainage.

Sources:

Conant, R. and Collins, J. 1998. Peterson Field Guides: Reptiles and Amphibians (Eastern/Central North America). Houghton Mifflin Company, New York. 616pp.

Johnson, T.R. 2006. The Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri. The Missouri Department of Conservation, Jefferson City, MO.

Smooth Softshell Turtle
Smooth Softshell Range Map