As one of the most popular pets in the herping hobby, the joys of Common Musk turtle care are well documented. These small aquatic turtles are very active and are enjoyable to watch as they swim around their tank or pond.
Native to North America, Common Musk turtles are pretty easy to acquire and are legal in most states. However, always check your local laws and try to adopt from an animal shelter if you can. If not, then buying a captive-bred turtle from a registered breeder is the way to go.
In this comprehensive reptile guide, we’ll walk you through the ins and outs of Common Musk turtle care to help you enjoy these fantastic little turtles.
Common Musk Turtle Facts
- Experience level: Beginner to Intermediate
- Family: Kinosternidae
- Scientific name: Sternotherus odoratus
- Other names: Eastern Musk turtle, Stinkpot
- Adult Male Size: 4 to 5 inches (10 to 12.5 cm)
- Adult Female Size: 3 to 4 inches (7.5 to 10 cm)
- Average Lifespan: Up to 50 years
- Average Price Range: $20 to $90
- Where to buy?: theturtlesource.com, undergroundreptiles.com
Common Musk turtles are also affectionately known as “Stinkpots” thanks to their ability to excrete a powerful foul-smelling odor from their musk glands when they feel threatened by predators. The physical appearance of the musk is an orange-colored liquid.
Common Musk turtles can be seen strolling along the substrate at the bottom of their tank while hunting for prey. This is normal behavior and is great fun to watch. This makes up for their poor swimming skills.
Impressively, Common Musk turtles are also great climbers (for a turtle). They can climb trees or rocky ledges that can be up to 2 meters above the water. Sometimes they can fall into passing boats or kayaks from these precarious perches.
What does a Common Musk turtle look like?
Common Musk turtles have black to dark brown or gray-green smooth, high domed shells that lack distinctive markings. Their plastron is a cream color with black or dark brown patches.
Their slightly pointed heads have two yellowish stripes on their long necks, which stand out from their dark skin. They also have fleshy barbels on both their chins and throats.
Males can be identified by their longer tails that are topped with spiked protrusions, whereas females have much shorter tails without a spike.
How big do Common Musk turtles get?
Common Musk turtles are one of the smallest species of turtle found in North America. Males are usually larger than females and measure between 4 and 5 inches (10 to 12.5 cm). Females tend to reach around 3 to 4 inches (7.5 to 10 cm) in size.
Because of their small size, Common Musk turtles can often fall afoul of carapace size restrictions in many states, where turtles cannot be sold if their shells carapace length measure less than 4 inches. Keep this in mind when trying to buy a specimen.
Where do Common Musk turtles live?
Common Musk turtles are native to the central and eastern United States and southeastern parts of Canada. They prefer regions with relatively high humidity.
Common Musk turtles can be found in the following states:
What kind of habitat do Common Musk turtles need?
Common Musk turtles are a fully aquatic turtle species that inhabit boggy or marshy wetland habitats with clear, shallow slow-moving waters. Within these waters, they like to have lots of dense vegetation to provide cover while hunting.
How long do Common Musk turtles live in captivity?
Despite their small size, Common Musk turtles have quite a long lifespan in captivity and routinely live for up to 50 years.
What do Common Musk turtles eat?
Common Musk turtles are nocturnal omnivores. The majority of their diet comes from small amphibians, crustaceans, and mollusks such as snails, slugs, and worms. They will also occasionally eat some aquatic vegetation.
How do Common Musk turtles breed?
The mating season for Common Musk turtles commences in the spring. Once they reach sexual maturity females have been recorded as sharing nesting sites, laying between two and nine eggs in a clutch. The eggs incubate for about three to five months before hatching.
What predators do Common Musk turtles face?
Because they are a quite small turtle, Common Musk turtles can be vulnerable to a range of predators. Snakes and mammals like foxes and raccoons will eat Common Musk turtle eggs, while adults can be targeted by large wading birds, fish, American Bullfrogs, snakes, and the larger Snapping turtles. This is where the musk defense comes into play.
Common Musk Turtle Breeding
The females lay 1 to 9 eggs of elliptical shape that have a hard shell. This breeding usually takes place during the spring that may last till fall, but the eggs take about 60 to 80 to hatch.
Mating happens under water and the season reaches its pinnacle during the months of April and May and continues again in September to October. Eggs are laid under mud or sandy soil.
When the eggs hatch after about 85 days, an incubation period follows which lasts for 9 to 12 weeks. The hatchlings are very small in size, usually about 1 inch.
Common Musk Turtle Endangered
The common musk species is only considered endangered in Ontario, Canada. Raccoons, pollution, poaching and fishing lines, and traps are dangerous to turtles and eggs.
Moreover, the state of Iowa has also listed musk turtles as threatened species. In ranges of Canada, wetlands that have less human populations harbor great amounts of musk turtles.
Common Musk Turtle care sheet
Habitat – Enclosure
Although Common Musk turtles are an aquatic species, they aren’t brilliant swimmers and will spend most of their time in shallower water. It’s a good idea to give a depth gradient to allow the turtle to decide where it wants to go.
A 30-gallon tank is an ideal size for a single adult Common Musk turtle. 20-gallons will do at a squeeze but it’s best to give your pet more room whenever possible. A pair of turtles need a 40-gallon tank at least, although it’s best to only house two females together.
An outdoor pond can be great for housing several Common Musk turtles. Something like a 100-gallon Rubbermaid tub or small stock tank is a great choice. Set this up in a similar way to an indoor tank and make sure to add a closed lid of some kind to protect your turtles against raccoons and other predators.
Despite spending most of their time underwater, Common Musk turtles can still benefit from a basking light and will also need UVB. Some aquatic plants throughout the enclosure, either natural or artificial, can give your turtle some cover to stimulate natural hunting behaviors.
Using some rocks to provide a depth gradient can also help to keep your turtle comfortable, allowing them to move into shallower water when they want to. The maximum depth should be about 10 inches at the shallower side and no more than 24 inches at the deep end.
You’ll also need a water heater and an adequate filtration setup to help keep the tank warm and clean.
Recommended basic products
When keeping any turtle, there are a few basic products that you’ll need. We’ve provided a list of some basic equipment for your Common Musk turtle’s enclosure:
- Tank: Either a 30 gallon aquarium or build an indoor pond system
- Water heater: Aqueon Pro Adjustable Heater
- Water conditioner: API Tap water conditioner
- 2 Water thermometers: Vivosun aquarium thermometers
- Combo UVB/UVA (heating) Lighting: Zoo Med PowerSun UV UVB (160 watts)
- Light Fixture: Zoo Med Wire Cage Clamp Lamp
- Timer: Zoo Med Timer
- Thermometer (basking spot): Exo Terra Thermometer
- Laser thermometer for setup and spot checks (optional): Etekcity Lasergrip
- Filtration: SunSun HW-404B (525gph filtration)
- Automatic Feeder: Zacro Automatic Feeder
Common Musk turtles have a reputation as incredibly messy eaters. Combined with their preference for slower-moving currents, you need to use a filter that can clean up the tank efficiently without disturbing the turtle too much.
The ideal filter should be able to handle at least three times the water capacity of your tank and be compatible with shallow water. So for a 20-gallon tank, you’ll need a filter that can cycle 60-gallons. A submersible filter shouldn’t cause your Musk turtle too many problems.
When it comes to feeding time, you can take some pressure off the filter by moving your Common Musk turtle to a separate feeding enclosure to allow for easy clean-up. You’ll also need to do regular water changes to keep the tank clear as well as a thorough full-tank cleaning every couple of months.
Common Musk turtles like clear waters rather than boggy, muddy bottoms. Thankfully, this makes their substrate needs relatively simple. You can even get away without a substrate entirely.
But for a more natural look, use a couple of inches of medium-sized gravel or some flat rocks. The less substrate you use, the easier cleaning will be.
Common Musk turtles don’t have extreme heat requirements, preferring temperate waters. Use a water heater to maintain the water temperature between 72ºF and 80ºF (22 to 26ºC). Be careful with under-tank heaters as they might burn your turtle as it walks along the bottom of the tank.
For the basking area, the temperature should be around 90ºF (32ºC). While the Musk turtle might not bask too obviously, it’s still beneficial for their health to have a basking spot available.
Depending on the ambient temperature of your home, you may not need a water heater if you live in the right climate. Make sure to thoroughly check out the temperature changes in your home with a full tank setup before you obtain a Musk turtle to decide whether you need a heater or not.
Most of the humidity needs of Common Musk turtles are taken care of by their water supply. For other areas of the enclosure, a range of 30 to 40% humidity is perfect. Monitor this using a hygrometer.
As we’ve mentioned already, Common Musk turtles aren’t going to be prolific baskers but they will still benefit from having a basking spot. They will also need a UVB bulb to help them get the nutrients they need to live a long, healthy life like Vitamin D3.
All lights should be kept on a 12-hour day/night cycle to simulate the natural passage of time for your turtle. This helps to keep their behavior as natural as possible.
To create a fantastic enclosure for your Common Musk turtle, provide enrichment features like flat rocks to create a water depth gradient.
You should also consider adding live or artificial aquatic plants to the enclosure. This gives your Musk turtle some cover while hunting and a place to hide when they deem it necessary.
Common Musk turtles might also enjoy some form of branch or rock ledge above the water. They can climb these outcrops in the wild quite well, so adding this to their enclosure provides more enrichment. Be careful not to position any ledges too close to the basking bulb or your turtle may get burned.
Common Musk turtles are omnivorous hunters, but with more of a meat-focused diet. In the wild, they will mainly eat mollusks such as snails and worms or small fish, amphibians, or aquatic insects. They may occasionally eat some aquatic vegetation as well.
In captivity, this diet can be replicated by using many of the same foods. Feed your turtle on easy mollusks like earthworms. You can also offer bloodworms, crickets, and cut-up pieces of fish and shrimp. Simply drop the turtle food into the tank and watch your turtle hunt.
With earthworms or non-live foods, cut them up a bit to make it easier for your turtle to eat them Common Musk turtles will also happily devour commercial turtle pellets such as Mazuri or ReptoMin.
For some variety, you can also try giving your Musk turtle some fresh, dark leafy greens like spinach. But not all individuals will accept these kinds of food – it really depends on the personality and preferences of your turtle.
Here’s a quick list of all the foods that you can give your Common Musk turtle:
- Aquatic snails
- Black Soldier Fly larvae
- Canned snails
- Collard greens
- Commercial turtle pellets
- Dubia roaches
- Freshwater fish strips (Salmon, Trout etc)
- Mustard greens
It’s difficult to use calcium and vitamin supplement powders in an aquatic tank, so make sure to gut load any insects that you feed your turtle.
Common Musk turtles are extremely messy eaters, so you may want to move them to a separate feeding tub to make clean-up easy. If you are doing this, then you can dust some supplements onto the food every now and then.
Temperament and handling
Are Common Musk turtles good pets?
With their adorable attitude and active lifestyle, Common Musk turtles are great pets to observe in their tank. Handling is a bit more tricky, as these small turtles often feel threatened if they aren’t used to it. This can result in your hands getting musked!
Common Musk turtles have a reputation for having a bit of an attitude. If handled incorrectly, their long necks can allow them to nip your fingers quite easily. This may lead to injuries for the turtle if you drop them in surprise. They might also musk on your hands, which isn’t a pleasant experience.
Give them an opportunity to get used to your presence before attempting to handle them, and even then it’s best to keep it to a minimum. If you do have to pick up your Musk turtle, hold the rear of their shells to combat the reach of their necks.
But if all you want to do is watch your Common Musk turtle swim around, stroll along the bottom of their tank, and admire them as they hunt for food, then these turtles make fantastic pets.
Common Musk turtles can co-hab with other individuals, but avoid keeping multiple males in the same tank. Try not to keep males and females together unless you want to breed them. Multiple females work well if they have enough space.
Signs of good health
When trying to find a healthy Common Musk turtle, it’s always best to find a registered breeder selling captive-bred specimens. There are also a few things that you can observe in the turtle to check its health.
Healthy Common Musk turtles will have smooth shells without any strange bumps or flaking of their skin or scales. Their eyes should be clear, bright, and alert. Signs of lethargy while looking around or moving can indicate a sick turtle.
Common Musk turtles should be active explorers of their tanks. You must also ask to see the turtle eat. A healthy turtle will tear into food with enthusiasm, but if the specimen ignores the food then it could be harboring some health problems.
Common Musk turtles may be small, but they are generally quite hardy turtles. However, like any animal, they can suffer from a few health problems if their living conditions aren’t right. Consistent UVB exposure is the main thing you can do to avoid health problems.
All turtles need UVB to promote strong shell growth and to allow them to get vital nutrients. A lack of UVB can lead to problems such as Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD). This can cause deformed growth and is very painful. MBD can often be indicated by signs of pyramiding – where the turtle’s shell starts to grow strange protrusions.
Like most turtles, respiratory infections can also be an issue for Common Musk turtles and can be caused by improper humidity levels or temperatures that are too cold. If you spot signs of runny mucus, water eyes, lethargic movement, and a reduced appetite, get your turtle checked by a specialist vet.
Common Musk turtles can sometimes develop algae growth on their shells, especially when kept in an outdoor pond. While the algae aren’t harmful, they can hide infections and injuries. Clean your turtle’s shell regularly if it begins to show algae. Use a soft brush and clean, tepid water to wash the shell.
An interesting YouTube video about the Common Musk turtle
Common Musk turtle Hatchling Care
Baby Common Musk turtles generally need much the same care as adult specimens. They can be kept in much smaller containers but will need much shallower water levels as well until they get bigger. A few inches of water is best at first, gradually increasing the depth as the turtles grow.
They may also need slightly higher temperatures and more humidity in their enclosure initially. When feeding hatchlings, always make sure to cut food up into small pieces to enable the babies to eat it without any problems.
Frequently Asked Questions about Common Musk turtles
Common Musk Turtle (Stinkpot) vs Mud Turtle Video Guide
Common Musk Turtles also known as the Stinkpot or Eastern Musk Turtle ar often confused with the mud turtle. This video gives a great walkthrough of their characteristics and key differences between the two turtles.
Common Musk turtles are a fully aquatic species with certain essential needs. They need clear, shallow water with a slow-moving current to replicate their natural environment. This water needs to be kept clean with a strong filter as these turtles can be messy.
Musk turtles need a relatively moderate temperature in their tanks, along with a basking bulb and UVB light. Their diet should mainly consist of meat in the form of insects, mollusks, turtle pellets, and strips of freshwater fish.
Taking care of all of these needs is relatively simple if you have the experience and are enthusiastic about your turtles.
Common Musk turtles aren’t naturally aggressive unless they feel threatened. Most of the time they will quite happily swim or walk around their tank.
But if they don’t want to be picked up, they can use their long necks to dispense a nasty nip if they can reach your fingers. Hold them at the rear of the shell and only handle them when necessary. They can also release a foul-smelling musk if they really feel in danger, which becomes an orange liquid – earning them their “Stinkpot” nickname.
When housing multiple Musk turtles together, it’s best to only keep females in the same tank. Males will quickly become territorial with each other and will fight, while a male and female setup can result in the male tormenting the female during the breeding season. Multiple females can live together quite peacefully though.
Well, that wraps up our complete guide to Common Musk turtle care. These little aquatic turtles are great fun to watch and have plenty of personality. With a good setup that caters to their specific needs, they can be happily housed for up to 50 years.
If you’re considering getting a Common Musk turtle as a pet, make sure to check out the local laws in your state. You may not be able to purchase a turtle measuring less than four inches at the carapace, which can limit the options for Musk turtles. Try and adopt if possible, or buy from registered breeders.
Now, over to you! Do you have a common musk turtle as a pet, or are you considering one? Let me know in the comments below!
Other Musk Turtles