Spiny Softshell, Apalone spinifera

One subspecies, Eastern Spiny Softshell (A. s. spinifera), occurs statewide in Tennessee.

Description:  A round, flattened aquatic turtle (males 5.0 to 9.25; females 7.0 to 17.0 inches in length) with a long, tubular snout.  The brown to olive-gray carapace (upper shell) feels like sandpaper and has small spines on the front edge.  Young females and males have distinct black dots and circles on the carapace, while adult females have brown or gray blotches.  Limbs are strongly spotted and a light stripe, with dark, thin border, extends from eye down each side of the neck.  Plastron is cream-colored with no markings. Males have longer, thicker tails.

Similar Species: Midland Smooth Softshell has a smooth carapace without spines on the front edge.

Habitat: Found in large rivers and streams mostly, but also lakes, ponds, and marshes. Prefers clear, sandy or muddy bottomed rivers with a little vegetation. Basks on fallen trees, sandbars, or rock ledges.

Diet: Primarily carnivorous; including crayfish, insects, snails, tadpoles, and small fish.

Breeding information: Courtship and mating occurs in deep water during the spring. Females choose a sandbar or sandy bank to dig a nest and lay 9-38 round, white eggs. The eggs hatch after 60-90 days and the hatchlings immediately enter the water.

Status in Tennessee: Locally abundant across Tennessee except for northeast corner. Vulnerable to commercial harvesting, shoreline development, and chemical pollution.

Fun Facts:

  • The upper shell is soft, leathery and does not have any scales or plates. A rough outline of their vertebrae and ribs can faintly be seen in the middle of the back.

Best places to see in Tennessee: Dale Hollow Lake or Reelfoot Lake and their surrounding tributaries.

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

Jensen, J. B., Camp C. D., Gibbons, W., and Elliot, M. J. 2008. Amphibians and Reptiles of Georgia, University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA. 575pp.

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

Spiny Softshell
Spiny Softshell