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Turtles in North Dakota

There are four types of turtles in North Dakota and these include the false map turtle, the snapping turtle, the spiny softshell, and the smooth softshell.

The largest of these turtles is the snapping turtle which can reach lengths of 20 inches. The false map turtle is the smallest turtle in North Dakota.

Apart from the snapping turtle which is fairly common statewide, the other species are rare and sightings are uncommon. The snapping turtle is also quite aggressive and is best left alone.

These turtles are docile while in water but are aggressive and defensive when on land. Their powerful jaws are capable of delivering deep lacerations.

1. Smooth Softshell

Smooth Softshell Turtle (Apalone mutica) on pebbles and sand at an unknown location
A Smooth Softshell Turtle (Apalone mutica) on pebbles and sand at an unknown location. – Source
  • Experience Level: Advanced
  • Family: Trionychidae
  • Scientific Name: Apalone mutica
  • Adult Size: 5 to 14 inches (12 to 36 cm)
  • Conservation Status:  Level III Species of Conservation Priority ranking, Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, No Federal status

The smooth softshell is one of the turtles endemic to North Dakota. The species is quite rare in number within North Dakota with the primary geographic range being on the part of Missouri River which it passes through Morton, Emmons, Sioux, and Burleigh.

Outside North Dakota, the turtle geographic range consists of central and south-central United States, starting from Pennsylvania to New Mexico and also to the Florida panhandle. The smooth softshell is divided into two subspecies the Apalone mutica mutica, commonly known as the Midland smooth softshell, which is endemic to North Dakota, and the Apalone mutica calvata, commonly known as the Gulf coast smooth softshell, which is endemic to Louisiana to Florida.

The smooth softshell is found alongside river systems such as the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri rivers.

In North Dakota, the species is mainly found along the Missouri River. This turtle is mainly found in rivers however, it can also be found in lakes, ponds, bogs, and drainage ditches.

The rivers within which they live have muddy or sandy bottoms with sparse aquatic vegetation. They are however not found in rivers and other aquatic systems with rocky bottoms.

The smooth softshell is a large turtle with females being significantly larger than males. Adult males reach lengths of 5 to 7 inches (12 to 18 cm). Adult females reach lengths of 7 to 14 inches.

While the females are larger, the mails have larger longer tails. The turtle’s carapace coloration ranges from orange to olive. While males have a more brownish or grayish carapace, females generally have a tan or brown carapace.

There are dark blotches on the carapace with females having blotchier markings. The plastron is grayish or whitish in coloration and lacks any markings or patterns.

As with all softshells, the smooth softshell lacks a bony carapace. Instead, the turtle has a tough leathery carapace.

Breeding occurs once the turtle is out of brumation/hibernation. Mating starts in April. Gravid females nest from May to July but in the northern United States, which North Dakota is part of, nesting is typically from June to July.

Habitat alteration has had a significant negative impact on the wild populations in North Dakota.

Since research into wild populations is limited and sightings are also limited, the turtle has a Level III Species of Conservation Priority ranking. The turtle holds no Federal status. It is also considered to be a species of least concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

2. Spiny Softshell

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
  • Experience Level: Advanced
  • Family: Trionychidae
  • Scientific Name: Apalone spinifera
  • Adult Size: 4 to 16 inches (10 to 41 cm)
  • Conservation Status:  Level III Species of Conservation Priority ranking, Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, No Federal status

The spiny softshell has a leathery but tough carapace instead of the bony carapace that most turtles have. Adult females are quite large.

Adult males on the other hand are moderately sized. Males can reach lengths of 12 inches however the carapace length ranges from 4 to 12 inches.

Females reach lengths of 8 to 16 inches.  The carapace of this turtle is olive-green to brown. Females have dark blockers and black dots on the carapace while males have several dark circular spots. 

In North Dakota, this turtle can be found on the headwaters of Lake Oahe as well as the tributaries of the Missouri River, below the Garrison Dam. This includes the counties of Mclean, Mercer, Oliver, Morton, Emmons, Sioux, and Burleigh.

Outside the state, the spiny softshell can be found from New York and Carolina to Wisconsin, and from Ontario and Minnesota to Mexico. The species has quite a large geographic range. 

The spiny softshell is very similar to the smooth softshell in terms of physical appearance, as well as behavior and attributes. The spiny softshell can be found in permanent aquatic systems such as creeks, streams, and rivers.

It is essential that the aquatic system has a muddy or sandy bottom as well as a sandy beach. The turtle is known to bask on the banks or logs in the aquatic body. When disturbed, they quickly dash back into the water. 

The spiny softshell brumates during winter. After they come out of brumation, they breed. Mating starts in April.

Gravid females generally nest from May to July. In North Dakota, nesting is typically from June to July. Females lay about 12 to 18 eggs.

Incubation generally lasts two months. Hatchlings emerge in August. While males typically reach reproductive maturity at age four years, females typically reach reproductive maturity at age seven.

Spiny softshell is so-called due to the presence of spines/tubercles on the front edge (anterior margin) of the carapace.

Smooth softshell lacks these spines which also gives them their common name. This is a way to differentiate between the two.

Little is known of the wild populations of the spiny softshell in North Dakota. Sightings are rare and evidence on the wild populations of the species is limited.

As such the turtle holds a Level III Species of Conservation Priority ranking. The turtle holds no federal status. It is also considered to be a species of least concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

3. False Map Turtle

False Map Turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica) in some water near Little People Park off Glenmont Dr, Texas, USA
A False Map Turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica) in some water near Little People Park off Glenmont Dr, Texas, USA. – Source
  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Graptemys pseudogeographica
  • Adult Size: 4 to 10 inches (9 to 27 cm)
  • Conservation Status:  Level III Species of Conservation Priority ranking, NLeast Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, No Federal status

In North Dakota, the false map turtle can be found in the free-flowing Missouri River System below Garrison Dam. This is the only place where the existence of the species has been verified. The river system below the dam passes through Mclean, Mercer, Oliver, Morton, Emmons, Sioux, and Burleigh.

Outside of the state, the turtle can be from along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and the drainage basins of these two rivers in Missouri, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Nebraska, Minnesota, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Kentucky, Kansas, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Arkansas, and Texas.

The false map turtle is generally found in riverine systems. They are found in large rivers such as the Missouri and backwaters, marshes, drowned forests, sloughs, ponds, lakes, and oxbows.

The turtle is generally found in slow-moving waters that provide plentiful basking spots and aquatic vegetation. They can however also be found in large rivers with strong currents.

The false map turtle is a species of map turtles, map turtles get their name from the reticulated patterns on their shell and skin which resemble contours on a map. The species is called the false map turtle to distinguish it from the common map turtle whose geographic range overlaps with that of the false map turtle.

Males are considerably smaller than females. While adult males reach lengths of 4 to 6 inches, females reach lengths of 9 to 10 inches.

False map turtles mate in spring after overwintering. Mating occurs in April and again in October. Females nest from May to July. Females nest in groups. Females generally lay 2 or 3 clutches a year.

Each clutch contains 8 to 22 eggs. Since males are smaller, they reach reproductive maturity at a younger age. Males reach reproductive maturity at age 4 to 6 years while females reach reproductive maturity at 8 to 14 years.

The false map turtle can reach ages of 30 to 50 years. Even in captivity, these turtles are known to reach an average lifespan of 32.5 years with a high of 35 years and 5 months, obtained by a false map turtle at Columbus Zoo.

The false map turtle is an omnivore. Not only is this turtle an omnivore, but it is also known to feed on a wide variety of foods. Since females are bigger than males, they feed on larger prey.

Foods the false map turtle eat include beetles, flies, mollusks, mayfly, damselfly, fish, and other turtles. They also feed on carrion and vegetation.

The turtle has a Level III Species of Conservation Priority ranking.

This is because little is known about the false map turtle. Life history details of the species in North Dakota are very limited. 

4. Snapping turtle

Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) in grass at Parkhurst, Midway, North Dakota, USA
A Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) in grass at Parkhurst, Midway, North Dakota, USA. – Source
  • Experience Level: Advanced
  • Family: Chelydridae
  • Scientific Name: Chelydra serpentina
  • Adult Size: 9 to 20 inches (23to 51 cm)
  • Conservation Status: Level II Species of Conservation Priority ranking, Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, No Federal status

The snapping turtle is common in North Dakota. This species is indeed an invasive species in many other states including Idaho. This is because the species is resilient and can adapt to most conditions.

The species can be found throughout the state. They prefer permanent aquatic systems with flowing water. The habitat within which they live must also have aquatic vegetation and objects they can bask on such as logs, and stumps. 

Outside North Dakota, the species can be found in the eastern two-thirds of the United States. They can be found from Texas all the way to southern Canada. Most of the wild population can be found east of the Rocky Mountain. 

The snapping turtle is a rugged-looking turtle with a carapace length of 10 to 20 inches. This turtle is the largest turtle in North Dakota. It has sharp claws and a strong jaw which is capable of amputating a human finger. 

The snapping turtle holds a Level II Species of Conservation Priority ranking. This means that it is of a moderate level of conservation priority.

The turtle also holds a status of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It has no Federal status. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How many turtle species are endemic to North Dakota?

There are four turtle species endemic to North Dakota and these include the false map turtle, the snapping turtle, the spiny softshell, and the smooth softshell.

Among these turtles, the snapping turtle is the most common. The other species are quite rare and are rarely seen. The painted turtle may have been endemic to North Dakota in the past.

Are turtles in North Dakota dangerous to keep as pets?

The main danger turtles pose as pets are salmonella infection. For this reason, several states ban the sale of turtles smaller than 4 inches. North Dakota is not one of these states.

Regardless, turtles in North Dakota still carry salmonella which can lead to salmonella infections. To prevent salmonella infections, wash your hands with soap and water after handling a turtle or objects that the turtle comes in contact with.

Can I own a turtle in North Dakota?

It is acceptable to own a turtle in North Dakota. 

The commercial take of turtles without a permit is prohibited in North Dakota. This means that the collection of wild turtles is prohibited unless you hold a fishing or hunting license. 

There are, however, no laws concerning the sale, purchase, and ownership of turtles. The state doesn’t also ban the sale or purchase of turtles 4 inches or smaller in size. 

Conclusion

North Dakota is situated in the upper Midwest bordered by Canadian provinces Manitoba and Saskatchewan to the north, South Dakota to the south, Montana to the west, and Minnesota to the east. North Dakota is said to host the geographic center of North America. 

There are four turtles native to North Dakota and these include the false map turtle, the snapping turtle, the spiny softshell, and the smooth softshell. The snapping turtle is the largest of these turtles and the most aggressive as well.

The false map turtle is the smallest turtle species in the state. Apart from the snapping turtle which is fairly common, all the other species are quite rare.

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