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North Carolina Aquariums
Toward a greater understanding of North Carolina's aquatic resources . . .
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Is there such a thing as a soft shell turtle? I thought if a turtle’s shell was soft it meant it wasn’t healthy.

February 11, 2007


Yes, there are such animals as softshell turtles, but the name doesn’t reflect the turtle’s state of health.


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


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.

Softshell Turtle

With unusually long necks, snorkel-like noses and shells flat as pancakes, softshell turtles are one of the state’s most unique reptiles. (Photo by Sherry White)


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 with sand or mud bars. They can quickly bury themselves in sand or mud when pursued, and their murky, yellowish coloring allows them to blend in with sandy bottoms. Sometimes they lie in shallow water, extending their long necks and snorkel-like noses to the surface to breathe.


Softshells are the most carnivorous of all our freshwater turtles, feeding mostly on aquatic insects, crustaceans, worms and occasionally on small fishes or carrion. To feed, they may actively forage, or lie in wait to ambush prey. Females grow larger than males, with shells that can reach 18 inches in length.


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


Handling softshells requires caution. They can bite and scratch vigorously if restrained, and their powerful jaws and strong claws can do damage. Their long necks also give them a greater bite radius than other turtles.