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Spiny Softshell Turtle Care Guide

Spiny softshell turtles aren’t the easiest to take care of, so they shouldn’t be the first choice for beginner turtle parents. They can be aggressive toward other species, and even their handlers.

The spiny softshell turtle as the name suggests has a soft carapace that can easily become damaged. This can quickly lead to infection and a sick turtle if proper care is not provided all the time.

Female spiny softshell turtles are some of the largest freshwater turtles in all of North America. Because of their size, female spiny softshells need a very large, aquatic setup. Most aquariums are too small to handle a female, and they need to be set up outside in ponds.

Despite the needs of these turtles, they can make fascinating pets, and if you still want to care for one, or you already have a spiny softshell turtle, then keep reading as we go over everything it takes to care for these creatures.

Spiny Softshell Turtle Facts

Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera) in dry straw by Armour, South Dakota, USA
A Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera) in dry straw by Armour, South Dakota, USA. – Source
  • Experience Level: Expert
  • Family: Trionychidae
  • Scientific Name: Apalone Spinifera
  • Other Names: Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle
  • Adult Male Size: 5 to 10 inches (13cm to 25cm)
  • Adult Female Size: 7 to 19 inches (18cm to 48 cm)
  • Average Lifespan: 50 years 
  • Average Price Range: $80.00 to $300.00

Subspecies of the spiny softshell turtle include:

  • Texas Spiny Softshell Turtle – Apalone spinifera emoryi
  • Gulf Coast Spiny Softshell Turtle–Apalone spinifera aspera
  • Guadalupe Spiny Softshell Turtle–Apalone spinifera guadalupensis
  • Pallid Spiny Softshell Turtle–Apalone spinifera pallida
  • Northern Spiny Softshell Turtle–Apalone spinifera spinifera

How Big Do Spiny Softshell Turtles Get?

Females of this species get much bigger than males, and they are some of the largest aquatic turtles in North America. The alligator snapping turtle is one of the few North American turtles that get bigger than spiny softshells.

Females can routinely have carapace lengths of 19 inches and larger and can weigh around 20 to 25 pounds. Males on the other hand only get a fraction of this size. They max out around 10 inches.

How Long Can Spiny Softshell Turtles Stay Submerged?

Spiny softshell turtles have lungs to breathe, but they can also take in oxygen while in the water.

They have special linings located in their throats, on their skin, and in their cloacas that can take oxygen from the water. Because of this adaptation, spiny softshell turtles can stay submerged for a long time.

While hibernating, some spiny softshell turtles have been known to stay submerged for up to seven months without coming up for a breath of air.

Why Are They Called “Spiny” Softshell Turtles?

Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera) on some dry rocks somewhere in Lebanon, Tennessee, USA
A Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera) on some dry rocks somewhere in Lebanon, Tennessee, USA. – Source

There are smooth softshell turtles and spiny softshells. According to Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, these turtles were named spiny softshell turtles because of the spiny ridge on the upper shell just behind the head of the turtle.

These bumpy projections are called tubercles. It has been thought that these bumps are similar to the scales on their limbs. Smooth softshell turtles don’t have these tubercles.

Where Are Spiny Softshell Turtles Found In The Wild?

Eastern Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera ssp. spinifera) baby on someone's hand at Lake Erie, Ontario, Canada
Eastern Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera ssp. spinifera) baby on someone’s hand at Lake Erie, Ontario, Canada. – Source

Spiny softshell turtles range all the way from the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec, through many American states, and down in regions of Mexico. They prefer freshwater habitats with sandy banks including ponds, rivers, streams, tributaries, and shallow lakes.

They spend most of their time in the water but don’t tend to get very deep. They prefer sandy or muddy bottoms with relatively low amounts of vegetation.

Spiny softshell turtles need soft, sandy, or muddy areas to hide in and lay their eggs. When threatened the spiny softshell will retreat to the water, and often bury themselves at the bottom of the water with only their heads exposed.

They also lay their eggs on sandy banks. The female will dig out a small burrow, deposit her eggs, and cover them up.

How Long Do Spiny Softshell Turtles Live?

Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera) chilling on grass near water in King County, Washington, USA
A Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera) chilling on grass near water in King County, Washington, USA. – Source

Spiny softshell turtles, once they reach adulthood, can live for more than 30 years in the wild. While in captivity, when they are cared for very well, spiny softshell turtles can live up to 50 years, or possibly longer.

What Do Spiny Softshell Turtles Eat?

These turtles are mostly carnivores, feeding on fish, insects, worms, and crustaceans. They have been known to munch on vegetation on occasion though.

Softshell turtles can actively hunt, or lay in wait like ambush predators. They will cover themselves in sand or mud at the bottom of their habitat and wait for unsuspecting prey to wander too close.

They will then snap it up and swallow it whole.

Do Spiny Softshell Turtles Have Any Predators?

Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera) in the water somewhere near Bryanston, Middlesex, Ontario, Canada
A Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera) in the water somewhere near Bryanston, Middlesex, Ontario, Canada. – Source

Baby spiny softshell turtles have plenty of predators as they are so small and helpless. Skunks, foxes, birds, large fish, coyotes, raccoons, and other mammals feed on small, juvenile spiny softshell turtles, while some of these will also raid nests and consume the eggs.

Once a spiny softshell turtle reaches adulthood, there are few predators who can catch or eat these aggressive turtles. Alligators and humans are the biggest predators of adult spiny softshells.

Are Spiny Softshell Turtles Endangered?

In the United States, the spiny softshell turtle is not considered endangered or threatened, but in Canada, this turtle is listed as endangered. This is due to development along shores where the spiny softshell turtles live and nest.

Damming of the waters, motorboat collisions, and the fact that females take up to 15 years for them to reach sexual maturity factor into the decline in their numbers. Nest predation by raccoons and foxes further decreases spiny softshell numbers in Canada.

Right now, population numbers are considered healthy in the United States, but this could quickly change. Habitat destruction and pollution threaten the lives of spiny softshell turtles in the U.S.

Tank Setup For Spiny Softshell Turtles

Closeup of Spiny Softshell Turtle half submerged
Closeup of Spiny Softshell Turtle half submerged

If you plan on caring for these turtles you need plenty of space, even for the smaller males. You need at least a 75 to 100-gallon tank for male spiny softshell turtles. For females, you need a 400-gallon to 600-gallon stock pond or similar.

The pond setup for the female needs to be at least 4 feet deep as well, as depth is just as important as how many gallons.

Spiny softshell turtles are solitary creatures and can be aggressive, especially male turtles housed together. Most spiny softshell turtles don’t get along with any tankmates, as if it can fit in their mouths, they will eat them.

You may be able to house a few larger, fast-swimming fish with spiny softshells, but these turtles may see the fish as food, or get irritated with them. Depending on the attitude of the spiny softshell turtle, it may leave the fish alone, or it may try and take a bite out of them.

Either way, most experts don’t recommend putting tankmates in with spiny softshell turtles because of their aggressive natures.

Watch Out For Sharp Edges

The spiny softshell turtle doesn’t have the hard protective covering other turtles have regarding their shell. The softshell turtle has more of a cartilaginous shell, covered in a rubbery skin.

Because of this adaptation, their shell is prone to damage and infection much easier than hard-shelled turtles. You’ll constantly have to be on the lookout for shell damage, and infections.

One way to help prevent this is to remove anything with sharp, or hard edges. Don’t put in large, sharp rocks, or gravel. Make sure basking areas and accessories have smooth edges.

Just like in the wild, spiny softshell turtles need a soft, muddy, or sandy bottom in their enclosure. This will make them feel more at home and happier, especially when they can burrow into the smooth substrate. You’ll need a 4 to 6 inches deep layer for larger turtles to burrow into.

Set Up A Basking Area

LUCKY HERP 80 Watt UVA+UVB Vapor Heat Lamp Bulb, High Intensity Self-Ballasted Heat Basking Lamp/Bulb/Light for Reptile and Amphibian, Sun Lamp for Bearded Dragon Lizard Turtle

Even though spiny softshell turtles may spend most of their time underwater, and you may not see them ever bask, you still need to set up a dry, basking area for them. They need an area either outside or in their tank that allows the turtle to dry out, warm up, and get plenty of UV rays.

If you have an outdoor setup, you don’t have to provide additional light, as the sun will provide all the UVA and UVB rays they need. Indoor setups will need a strong light with both types of rays as this helps them absorb essential calcium, causes them to be more active, and activates their metabolism.

For indoor tanks, this LUCKY HERP 80 Watt UVA+UVB Mercury Vapor Bulb High-Intensity Self-Ballasted Heat Basking Lamp is a great choice. It provides plenty of UVA and UVB rays for health, and it also heats the basking area. The bulbs can be expensive, but you shouldn’t go cheap or low quality when it comes to heating and lighting lamps.

Get A High-Quality Water Filter

Penn-Plax Cascade All-in-One Aquarium Canister Filter – for Tanks Up to 100 Gallons (265 GPH) – Cascade 1000

One of the most important things you can do for your spiny softshell turtle’s health is to provide very clean water. Whether inside or outside, these turtles need pristine water conditions. This can be accomplished by using a strong, high-quality water filter.

Dirty water can be a breeding ground for bacteria and cause many health problems for your spiny softshell turtle. They can get eye or respiratory infections, shell rot, mouth rot, or other problems from dirty water.

Canister filters are the best solution when you are looking for the cleanest water. They often have separate chambers to filter out most contaminates and biomedia to help keep beneficial bacteria levels healthy. The Penn Plax External Canister Filter is one of the best filters you can get for your turtle.

Chlorinated water can also be a problem for these aquatic turtles. Be sure to use a water dechlorinator when setting up the tank, doing water changes, or any time you add chlorinated water.

Get A Water Heater For Your Spiny Softshell

Orlushy Submersible Aquarium Heater,300W Adjustable Fish Tahk Heater with 2 Suction Cups Free Thermometer Suitable for Marine Saltwater and Freshwater

Like most reptiles, spiny softshell turtles aren’t able to regulate their body temperatures. They have to rely on their environment to keep them within the proper temperature range.

This can be accomplished by installing a water heater in the tank. The optimum temperature for a spiny softshell turtle in the water should be between 70℉ and 80℉. The basking area should be around 90℉.

A good water heater will often have a thermostat, but keep a separate thermometer on your turtle’s tank just in case the water heater malfunctions. TheOrlushy aquarium heater is available in different strengths and is a highly-rated water heater for larger tanks.

What To Feed Spiny Softshell Turtles

You should feed your spiny softshell foods that it is likely to find in the wild.

These include guppies, insects such as gut-loaded crickets, frozen blood worms, mealworms, grubs, and ghost shrimp. You can also use commercial turtle pellets, though it may take some time for them to eat the pellets.

Baby and juvenile spiny softshells need to be fed every day and often twice a day, while adult turtles can be fed every other day.

To make sure your turtle is getting enough calcium, feed them fish or shrimp as these are high in calcium. Whole fish and shrimp with bones and outer shells are great sources of calcium.

You can also supplement with a cuttlebone. These are usually found in the bird section of your local pet store. They come from cuttlefish and are great calcium supplements.

Just remove any metal pieces and set the entire cuttlebone in your turtle’s enclosure. He or she should occasionally bite small pieces off. If your turtle seems completely uninterested in the cuttlebone, try breaking off small pieces and see if it eats them.

The cuttlebone can stay in the water for a few weeks before it needs to be removed. Often though, the turtles will either eat the whole thing over this time, or there will only be a tiny piece left. In either case, replace it with a new cuttlebone.

How Long Can A Baby Spiny Softshell Turtle Live Without Food?

While adults can often go weeks without eating, especially when they are hibernating, baby softshell turtles need to eat every day. They require more calories for their growing bodies.

Baby spiny softshell turtles may survive a few days without food, they will be weakened and at increased risk for illness. Make sure they are fed every day, at least twice a day. Feed them enough food they can eat within 10 to 15 minutes, then remove any uneaten food.

What Diseases Can Spiny Softshell Turtles Get?

Some of the most common health problems and diseases associated with spiny softshell turtles are metabolic bone disease, salmonella, white spot disease, and a new virus that is spreading across wild turtle populations in Florida.

Metabolic bone disease (MBD) can be prevented by providing a diet rich in calcium and making sure they have enough UVA and UVB rays.

Signs of MBD include bowed, swollen, dragging, or weak legs, paralysis, deformed shell or jaw, and lethargy. This can be treated with calcium supplements, injections, and sometimes antibiotics.

All reptiles can be carriers of salmonella, while this doesn’t typically affect the animals themselves, we can get sick from it. Be sure to wash your hands after handling any reptile, cleaning, or touching anything that comes in contact with your turtle.

White-spot disease can affect some turtles which can lead to skin lesions, and anorexia, and can be fatal if it’s not treated. Spiny softshell turtles are olive, dark green, or brown, so if you see white spots or lesions on your turtle or its shell, get it to a vet quickly.

The turtle with the white-spot disease can be cured if it gets treatment.

Recently, a new virus has been affecting freshwater turtles in Florida. It was originally known as the bunyavirus but is now known as Turtle Fraservirus-1 (TFV1). It’s a virus that has no known cure yet, and symptoms include:

  • Sunken, cloudy eyes
  • Swollen or crusty eyes
  • Sluggish, unresponsive behavior
  • Irregular swimming patterns
  • Outstretched neck, or head on the ground
  • Has red skin, or red patches on the bottom of its shell
  • Discharge from eyes or nose

There is not much information on this disease yet as it has not been sufficiently studied, but officials are asking to be informed when turtles are found exhibiting these symptoms. You can contact Florida Fish and Wildlife’s freshwater turtle hotline at 352-339-8597 to report sick turtles. Or you can use the FWC Reporter App.


Can softshell turtles eat lettuce?

Spiny softshell turtles are mainly carnivores that eat fish, crustaceans, and insects, but they can occasionally eat leafy greens. Greens such as mustard, turnip, and collard greens, as well as kale, offer spiny softshells plenty of nutrition and should be offered as food on occasion.

Lettuce on the other hand is usually very low in nutrition. Iceberg lettuce, the most popular lettuce, has little more nutrition than tap water. It’s really nothing more than green, leafy water, so it should not be fed to your pets.

How long can a softshell turtle be out of the water?

Most aquatic turtles can spend up to eight hours out of the water, but then they need to get back into their watery environment. Softshell turtles on the other hand can dry out and become dehydrated much faster because of their softer shell.

They usually come out of the water on occasion to bask and dry off in an effort to help stave off algae and fungal infection, but they typically don’t spend more than an hour out of the water at a time.

If you own a spiny softshell turtle, we suggest only taking it out of the water for short periods, and only when absolutely necessary. If it needs to move, try and keep it in a humid environment, such as a box with damp cloths, or a little bit of tank water.

How do you hold a softshell turtle?

Softshell turtles can be aggressive toward humans, and basically anything else, so knowing how to handle it is imperative to preventing a nasty bite.

Never approach the turtle from the front, because they have long necks that can stretch out very fast. Start from the back of the turtle and gently lift up the backside.

Keep your hands away from the front half of the shell.

The turtle may try to run or jump a little bit. While you are lifting up the back end of the turtle, slide your other hand under the plastron (bottom half of the shell). Keep your palm against the plastron and spread your fingers out, then carefully lift up.

Keep the turtle’s front half tilted upward at about a 45-degree angle, then take your free hand and gently cradle the back end. Again keep your hands away from the front half of the shell, and don’t lift them by the legs. This can cause injury to the turtle and yourself as it flails about.

In this position, the back legs should straddle your forearm, and all your digits will be away from the jaws.

One important note; if you encounter any wild turtle or tortoise on the road, and you want to help them cross safely, always move them in the direction they are facing. If you move them in the opposite direction, they will just turn around and attempt the road crossing again.

That’s All For Now

Spiny softshell turtles are one of the most unique-looking turtles in North America. With their flattened, leather shells, and their long nostrils, they can be an interesting animals. 

Unfortunately, you should know that these animals require a lot of water, and can be aggressive toward tank mates, and their handlers so added caution is advised. You will need a large pond setup if you have a female because they get so large.

Because of their soft shells, these turtles need other special needs, like a soft bottom, and nothing with hard, sharp edges that can harm their shells. With the correct setup and reptile experience, you can be a spiny softshell turtle owner.

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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