Is there such a thing as a soft shell turtle? I thought if a turtle’s shell was soft it meant it was sick.

February 2007

Yes, there are softshell turtles, but the name doesn’t reflect this particular turtle’s state of health.

Unusually long necks, snorkel-like noses and shells flat as pancakes make softshell turtles  one of the state’s most unique reptiles. 

Softshells are one of North Carolina’s most unusual reptiles. Instead of hard shells like most turtles, softshells have a flat, flexible, leathery shell that gives them the appearance of a large cookie.

Three species of softshells live in North America, but only one lives in North Carolina – the spiny softshell (Apalone spinifera). Two subspecies live here as well; the Apalone spinifera aspera, fairly common and widespread in the Pee Dee and Santee river systems, and A. s. spinifera, which is rare and listed as a species of special concern.

Softshells are reclusive reptiles. Their habitat is primarily rivers and large streams with sandy or muddy bottoms, but they also occur in lakes or other quiet bodies of water that have sand or mud bars. They can quickly bury themselves when pursued. Their murky, yellowish color is excellent camouflage in sandy bottoms, where they sometimes lie in shallow water and extend their long neck and snorkel-like nose to barely break the water’s surface and catch a breath.

Softshells are the most carnivorous of all our freshwater turtles, feeding mostly on aquatic insects, crustaceans, worms and occasionally small fishes or carrion. Feeding techniques include active foraging or hiding to ambush prey. Females grow larger than males, with shells that can reach 18 inches in length.

These interesting and awkward-looking animals are almost totally aquatic, leaving the water only to lay eggs and occasionally bask. Their heavily webbed feet make them strong swimmers and, for a turtle, they can move quickly on land.

Handling softshells requires caution. If restrained, their powerful jaws and strong claws can inflict serious injuries. Their long necks give them a greater bite radius than other turtles.