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Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone Spinifera) [Video]

The spiny softshell turtle is commonly referred to as the Gulf Coast spiny softshell. These aquatic turtles are bimodal breathers – this means they can breathe both underwater and on land.

This turtle isn’t the only species that can do that. The Japanese pond turtle is also known to spend weeks and even months at the bottom of ice-cold ponds.

If you want to keep a spiny softshell turtle as a pet, you need to be prepared for a high maintenance routine.

Spiny Softshell Turtle Facts and Information

  • Geographical Region: They are found in West Virginia, west of the mountains.
  • Size: Females are larger than males. Females can reach up to 18 inches in length, as males are half that.
  • Habitat: They hang out in most types of fresh water like rivers and lakes. They prefer sandy or muddy bottoms.
  • Food: They eat anything they can catch; fish, small crabs, crayfish, careless birds, snails, and frogs.
  • Interesting Fact: They have the ability to absorb oxygen from water through the vessels in the lining of their throat and other parts of their body. This enables them to stay under water for hours at a time.

The scientific name of the species is Apalone spinifera. They may also be referred to as Trionyx spiniferus (Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle). As according to their scientific name, the A. spinifera belongs to the genus Apalone.

This is a genus of softshells native to North America. Species belonging to the genus include A. ferox (Florida softshell turtle), A. mutica (smooth softshell turtle), and the titular A. spinifera.

The A. spinifera also belongs to the family Trionychidae – the include softshells from all over the world.

The A. spinifera are large turtles and grow up to lengths of 5 inches to 19 inches (12.7 to 48 cm). As with other softshells, this species has leathery, flexible carapaces (shells) hence their name – softshell.

The A. s. pallida subspecies of the spiny softshell have spines on the posterior part of their shell while other subspecies have spines all over their carapace.

The color of these turtles is generally yellow-brown to olive-brown. The shells normally have dark spots on them. Also, a dark line encircles the carapace.

The head and limbs of this species are olive or gray in color. Just like the shell, the head and limbs are dotted with dark blotches. The plastron (underside) of this turtle is lightly colored – usually whitish or yellow.

The A. spinifera has webbed feet with three claws per foot. The webbed nature of their feet aids them in swimming.

Apalone spinifera (Spiny Softshell Turtle)

While there isn’t much difference between the males and females of this species, the males are generally smaller than the females. In addition, the males more commonly have spines found along the anterior border of their carapace.

They are known to live up to 50 years in the wild.

Species similar to the spiny softshell include the African Softshell, Smooth Softshell, and the Florida Softshell. The completely smooth shell of the smooth softshell sets it apart, just as the spiny shell of the spiny softshell sets it apart.

Spiny Softshell Turtle Habitat

These turtles are best kept in ponds, as they will eventually grow large. The smaller males can be kept in a 120 -gallon turtle aquarium.

Adult females cannot be kept in aquariums since they are too large. If you don’t have a pond, females must be kept in stock tanks and Rubbermaid tubs.

Young turtles can be placed in 20-gallon tanks. They will eventually outgrow an aquarium but it will take years.


If you are keeping your turtle in a tank, a strong filtration system is important. The filtration system will keep the water clean and prevent the turtle from falling ill.

As with all softshells, ensure there are no abrasive or sharp edges that can injure the turtle’s shell. Such injuries can easily lead to infections. It’s essential to be on the lookout for any object that can injure the soft carapace.

This turtle basks, so you must provide a large basking area. The basking site needs to have an overhead UV light and a spotlight/heater if the turtle isn’t kept outdoors. The temperature of the basking spot needs to be at least 80 degrees. Additionally, the basking spot needs to be accessible to the turtle.

Spiny Softshell Turtle Diet

In the wild, the spiny softshells are carnivores. They feed mainly on macroinvertebrates such as crayfish, aquatic crustaceans, and aquatic insects.

They also eat fish, amphibians, mollusks, and worms. They hide along lake floors where they can ambush passing prey. Their feeding habit is very similar to other softshells such as the African softshell and the Chinese softshell.

If you are keeping these aquatic turtles as pets, you can feed them a diet of mealworms, fish, prawns, insects, mussels, crayfish, earthworm, crickets, and even commercial pellets.

Choose pellets such as the ReptoMin Floating Food Sticks. They will also eat aquatic plants and romaine lettuce as well.

Spiny Softshell Turtle Breeding

The turtles reach maturity at ages 8 to 10 for both males and females. Breeding takes place in mid to late spring.

These turtles typically breed just once a year, although it is not uncommon for them to breed several times a year. During a nesting season, fertile females lay 9 to 38 eggs. The eggs usually hatch in August/September.

Spiny Softshell Turtle Health

Because of the soft nature of their carapace, spiny softshells are particularly prone to injuries that can easily lead to infections. It is essential that you keep a close eye on the shell. Intestinal parasites and ear infections are two other common health issues that pet keepers are likely to encounter.

A yearly vet check-up ensures that internal parasite infestations are caught early. This can prevent your turtle from meeting an untimely end.

As with all aquatic turtles, keeping their water clean is essential to their health. The spiny softshell turtle is no exception. Ensure the tank has a good pump and filter set up.

Also, the water needs to be changed regularly. Basking helps dry the turtle’s shell and prevent infections. As such, ensure the basking site is large enough for the turtle to completely leave the water and dry off.

Vitamin and calcium deficiency is also a common health issue. Supplement the diet of this turtle if you must.

Spiny Softshell Turtle Predators

Adult spiny softshells have few natural predators. The juveniles and eggs of this species are preyed on by ray-finned fish, herons, red foxes, striped skunks, and raccoons. Humans are also known to hunt adults for food.

Spiny Softshell Turtle Endangerment

The A. spinifera is not endangered nor do they have any special status. They are not considered threatened, or vulnerable by the CITES, IUCN, or the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The main threat to wild populations is rotenone contamination. Rotenone is used to kill unwanted fish. When it contaminates the waters in which the spiny softshells live, this harmful chemical inhabits the turtle’s underwater breathing.


The spiny softshell turtle is quite a challenging turtle to keep. They can be quite aggressive and will bite if threatened. You should avoid handling this turtle if you can.

Since the spiny softshells are territorial, keeping them with other turtles (including other spiny softshells) isn’t advisable as they are prone to attacking other turtles.

While they may be difficult to care for, they are interesting looking, active and have a lot of personality. These characteristics make them wonderful pets.

Don’t forget to leave your questions and comments below!

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Philip Caezar Malasan

Thursday 25th of February 2021

Hello - I wondering if this turtle of ours is a Spiny Soft-shell turtle. Not sure How I can shot it here though.


Thursday 2nd of April 2020

My boyfriend's daughter found a baby spiny soft shell turtle in a pond last summer. It was no bigger than an half dollar. We did some research on the soft shells and have been doing what we felt right. Everything seems to be normal except it had developed a knot if you will right on the "top" center of it's shell. It doesn't act and different , still eats fine and and doesn't appear to be in pain. We cannot find any information on possible causes. Can someone please point us in the right direction. Unfortunately taking it to veterinarian is not an option at this time.

Thank you , Cara Galvan