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Turtles of South Dakota

There are seven types of turtles in South Dakota. Of the seven turtles, five are listed as threatened, endangered, or rare. Only the snapping turtle and the painted turtle hold no special status.

Some species are rarely ever sighted. For instance, the Blanding’s turtle has not had a verifiable sighting since the 1960s and it is unclear if they still exist within the state. 

Turtles are essential species to the state and it is illegal to collect and hunt any wild turtle which holds a special status. The snapping and the painted turtles can be collected or hunted but only if you hold a hunting and fishing license.  

Here is our list of turtles you will find roaming around the state of South Dakota:

1. Common Snapping Turtle

Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) on rocks and sand by grass in Sioux Falls, Minnehaha County, South Dakota, USA
A Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) on rocks and sand by grass in Sioux Falls, Minnehaha County, South Dakota, USA. – Source
  • Experience Level: Advanced
  • Family: Chelydridae
  • Scientific Name: Chelydra serpentina
  • Adult Size: 9 to 20 inches (23to 51 cm)
  • Lifespan: 55 years
  • Conservation Status: No special status in South Dakota, No special status on US Federal List, Least Concern on the IUCN Red List

Common snapping turtles are large freshwater turtles. They are the largest turtle species in South Dakota. The carapace length of these turtles is 9 to 20 inches. 

They also reach an average weight of 12.8 lb (6 kg). They can however reach weights of 44 lb, which is the weight of the largest specimen recorded in South Dakota.

The tails of the snapping turtle can be almost as long as the carapace length. Their long tails are unusual among the turtles of Dakota. 

The species also have tiny plastrons, long necks, and a large head. The plastron and the underside of the chelonian are a pale cream color. The head, carapace, and tail are dark in coloration. You can find tubercles on the limbs and neck of the turtle.

The species has sharp beaks which are capable of causing serious injuries such as broken fingers and deep lacerations. Apart from their vicious beaks, the turtle also has long claws. 

The snapping turtle is an aquatic species and is found mostly in water. As with other turtles, the species do come out of the water on occasions – such as when females have to nest and lay eggs.

The species can be found in cattle ponds, swamps, marshes,  reservoirs, rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds. These turtles bask on logs.

The snapping turtle is an omnivorous species although they lean more on the carnivorous side, they prey on animals within their habitat that are smaller than they are.

These include fish, snakes, small mammals, and birds. Plant foods that the species feed on include vegetation and algae. They use their sharp claws and powerful jaws to tear carrion and large prey apart before eating. The snapping turtle is an ambush predator who hides in muddy bottoms of its habitat waiting for prey. 

The snapping turtle is a solitary animal, especially the territorial adult males. Most interactions between snapping turtles are generally aggressive. These turtles are particularly aggressive when on land.

This aggression extends to humans and any other potential danger. Once in the water, the snapping turtle usually swims away from perceived threats. 

Mating and breeding occur in spring after the turtle has overwintered in organic matter and mud at the bottom of the water body they inhabit. Females can store the sperm of males for up to two years. 

Females nest in June and July. They can lay up to 90 eggs. These eggs are spherical and leathery. Incubation usually lasts for about four months.

The sex of the hatchlings is determined by the temperature of the environment during the incubation period. 

In South Dakota, the snapping turtle can be found throughout the state. The turtle’s occurrence is more limited in the semi-arid and arid regions of the state because of limited freshwater habitats.

In North America, the turtle can be found in the eastern two-thirds of the United States. They can also be found from the southern part of Canada to Texas.

The species can be found in a large percentage of freshwater habitats east of the Rocky Mountain. Wild populations can also be found in Mexico and other regions within Central America.

The specials hold no special status in South Dakota. Within the state, the snapping turtle is considered to occur regularly and is a game species.

The snapping turtle is considered to be a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List and holds no special status on the US Federal List.

2. Painted Turtle

Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) being held by someone at Fort Pierre National Grassland, Murdo, South Dakota, USA
A Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) being held by someone at Fort Pierre National Grassland, Murdo, South Dakota, USA. – Source
  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Chrysemys picta
  • Adult Size: 3 to 9 inches (9 to 23 cm)
  • Lifespan: 40 years
  • Conservation Status: No special status in South Dakota, No special status on US Federal List, Least Concern on the IUCN Red List

The painted turtle has bright red and yellow markings along with its shell, neck, and head. These markings appear to be painted onto them and give them their common name.

The painted turtle is a moderately sized freshwater turtle that reaches an adult carapace length of 3 to 9 inches and an average weight of about 1 lb (450 grams).

The carapace of this turtle is unkeeled and smooth with a dull green to brown coloration marked with bright red or yellow lines. The underside of the turtle is covered by an orange or red plastron which features dark marking that fades as the specimen ages. 

The skin of the turtle varies from olive to black. The neck, limbs, and tails feature yellow stripes. The eyes of the turtle are yellow with a horizontal black bar that goes across the pupil. Adult females are generally larger than adult males.

The males however have thicker tails and the cloacal opening is much farther from the carapace edge. Males also have elongated claws on the forelimbs. 

The painted turtle can be found in a wide variety of fresh water bodies with abundant aquatic vegetation and slow-moving water, they prefer shallow water bodies. Abundant vegetation provides protection from predators as well as nutrition.

They can be found in large reservoirs such as lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams. They can be found in abundance through the Prairie Pothole Region.

The painted turtle is diurnal, meaning it is most active during the day. The painted turtle, like most pond turtles in south Dakota, bask throughout the day. They can be found basking on objects that stick out of the water such as rocks, and logs.

They bask individually or in large groups. Basking in large groups helps to protect them from predators. 

The turtle is omnivorous and feeds on crustaceans, fish, amphibians, fish, insects, algae, and plants. The painted turtle overwinters in organic matter and mud at the bottom of the water body they inhabit.

They do so to avoid the freezing temperatures of winter. Mating and breeding occur in spring typically from May to June.

Gravid females nest in June and July. Eggs laid are elongated. The hatchlings emerge in August. 

In South Dakota, the painted turtle is quite common. They can be found in almost every permanent waterbody within the state.

They have been observed in all the counties apart from Dewey. The species can also be found in the Missouri river although in smaller numbers than the false map turtle. 

The painted turtle holds no special status in South Dakota and as such is not monitored by the South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks. The species is considered to be a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List and holds no special status on the US Federal List.

The painted turtle can reach an age of 40 years although the average lifespan of painted turtles is around 30 years. It is common for pet painted turtles to be released into the wild once they get big.

This is not advisable even if the painted turtle is native to your locality. Captive-bred turtles can introduce diseases and pathogens to wild populations.

3. Blanding’s Turtle

Blanding's Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) being held in front of a grassy area with a blue sky at Long Point National Wildlife Area, Ontario, Canada
A Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) being held in front of a grassy area with a blue sky at Long Point National Wildlife Area, Ontario, Canada. – Source
  • Experience Level: Advanced
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Emydoidea blandingii
  • Adult Size: 5 to 9 inches (13 to 23 cm)
  • Conservation Status: Special Concern in South Dakota. Endangered on the IUCN Red List, Global Rank of G4 (Apparently secure), and a State Rank of S1 (Critically imperiled) 

The Blanding’s turtle is quite a large freshwater turtle that can reach a length of 9 inches. On average the length of adult specimens ranges from 5 to 9 inches.

The carapace of the turtle is dome-shaped and dark in coloration with small yellow flecks. The underside/plastron of the turtle is lightly colored with dark blotches on the scutes. The shell of the turtle is hinged.

The hinge allows the turtle to retract the head and neck into the shell. The throat, neck, and lower jaw of the turtle are bright yellow in coloration.

Their unique features make them easy to identify. The males of the species are usually smaller than the females. The males also usually have longer tails. 

The Blanding’s turtle inhabits permanent bodies of water with slow-moving currents. They are also found in wetlands. They prefer water bodies with sandy substrates and abundant vegetation. 

The Blanding’s turtle is an omnivorous species feeding on vegetation and animals smaller than they are. Some animals they feed on include frogs, fish, insects, and other invertebrates. They also feed on carrion.

The Blanding’s turtle may be a large freshwater turtle, but it is quite agile and chases down its prey in the water. During the day, the Blanding’s turtle basks on logs, vegetation, and banks.

The Blanding’s turtle overwinters at the bottom of their aquatic habitats. Breeding occurs in spring after the overwintering period.

The turtles reach maturity at 14 to 20 years with the males reaching maturity faster as they are smaller. Breeding lasts until May.

Females lay eggs from May to June with clutch sizes of 5 to 12 eggs. Incubation takes approximately two months. 

In South Dakota, sightings are very rare with the only verified sighting of the species being in Big Sioux River near Sioux Falls in 1963. This is in the county of Minnehaha.

Wild populations have been observed in the Sandhills near Valentine, Nebraska so it is possible that wild specimens exist in the sandhill region of South Dakota as well. In the rest of North America, these turtles can be found in the Great Lakes regions from Sandhills in western Nebraska to Iowa and Minnesota, and New York. 

In South Dakota, Blanding’s turtle is a species of Special Concern. On the IUCN Red List, the species is listed as Endangered. The turtle has a Global Rank of G4 (Apparently secure) and a State Rank of S1 (Critically imperiled). 

4. False Map Turtle

False Map Turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica) on a rock in front of a lake near Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, South Dakota, USA
A False Map Turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica) on a rock in front of a lake near Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, South Dakota, USA. – Source
  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Graptemys pseudogeographica
  • Adult Female Size: 9 to 10 inches
  • Adult Male Size: 4 to 6 inches
  • Conservation Status: Threatened in South Dakota, no special status on the US Federal list, Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, Global Rank of G5 (Demonstrably secure), and a State Rank of S3 (Rare)

The map turtle is quite a common turtle in North America. It is also commonly kept as pets across the United States. While their population is quite secure across North America, this is not the case in South Dakota where they are considered a threatened species.

The false map turtle is a riverine species, meaning the species is commonly found inhabiting rivers.

The females of this species are quite large compared to other pond turtles. Adult females reach lengths of 9 to 10 inches while males reach adult lengths of just 4 to 6 inches.

The map turtle has an olive to brown carapace. The carapace is marked by pale yellow lines which look like contours on a map. These reticulated patterns on the caprice give the map turtle its common name.

These patterns are more noticeable on young turtles and fade as they age. The skin of the species is also covered in yellow lines. Behind each eye is an L-shaped mark.

The front feet aren’t webbed, however, the hind feet are webbed. The webbing aids the turtle when it swims.

Adult females are generally larger than adult males. The males however have thicker tails and the cloacal opening is much farther from the carapace edge.

The map turtle has a keel running down the middle of the carapace. Also, the posterior end of the carapace has serrated marginals. 

The map turtle is found mainly in rivers, especially large rivers. They can also be found in oxbow lakes, backwaters. Young map turtles prefer waters with little flow and abundant vegetation. 

The map turtle is an omnivore. Adults are more herbivorous while juveniles are more carnivorous. Animals that false map turtles feed on include fish, insects, crustaceans, crayfish, and snails. They also feed on carrion.

The map turtle is a good swimmer and is known to live in rivers with swift currents. The map turtle is a diurnal species and spends large portions of its day basking on logs and rocks that stick out of the water.

During the winter, the species brumate at the bottom of their habitats. Here they bury themselves in the mud or sands at the bottom of the river. 

Mating occurs in the spring after the species have overwintered. Gravid females nest from May to June and can lay up to 16 eggs. Incubation lasts for two months after which the hatchlings emerge. 

In South Dakota, the map turtle has been observed in the counties of Corson, Hughes, Stanley, Buffalo, Gregory, Charles Mix, Douglas, Hutchinson, Bon Homme, Yankton, Clay, and Union. Throughout the rest of North America, the species are known to occur in the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and the tributaries that feed these two rivers. 

The species is considered threatened in South Dakota. The turtle holds no special status on the US Federal list and is considered a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.  

5. Ornate Box Turtle

Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata) in rocky sand somewhere near Vetal, South Dakota, USA
An Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata) in rocky sand somewhere near Vetal, South Dakota, USA. – Source
  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Scientific Name: Terrapene ornata ornata
  • Adult Size: 5 to 9 inches (13 to 23 cm)
  • Conservation Status: Special Concern in South Dakota, Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List, Global Rank of G5 (Demonstrably secure), and a State Rank of S2 (Imperiled) 

The ornate box turtle is a box turtle and as such terrestrial. Although this is a terrestrial species, the ornate box turtle is still a pond turtle as it belongs to the Family Emydidae.

This box turtle is referred to as ornate because of the bright yellow lines that mark the carapace. As with other box turtles, the carapace is domed. The carapace is brown in color. 

The plastron is hinged and allows the animal to retract its limbs and head into the shell. The turtle is moderately sized and adults reach lengths of 4 to 6 inches.

The females are slightly bigger than the males but not by much. Telling the males and females apart is quite easy.

While females have yellow or brown eyes, males have red eyes. Also, it is easy to identify ornate box turtles. They are the only south Dakota turtle with a strongly arched carapace with yellow streaks and without a bright yellow throat and lower jaw. 

The ornate box turtle may be a pond turtle, but it is terrestrial. It can be found living on agricultural lands, and grasslands.

They are commonly found near water bodies and wetlands. During the day, they spend a lot of time in burrows they dig themselves.

The ornate box turtle is an omnivore and feeds on plant matter, carrion, worms, and insects. The turtle is known to eat any prey smaller than it is.

During the winter, the turtle brumates in deep burrows that they dig. Right after wintering, the turtles will breed. Mating starts in May and continues into summer.

In South Dakota, the species can be found in the southwest and south-central.

They have been observed in Pennington, Oglala Lakota, Fall River, Bennett, Jackson, Todd, and Tripp. The ornate box turtle inhabits the grasslands and Sandhills of their geographic range.

Within the rest of North America, the species can be found throughout the great plains. They can be located from South Dakota to Texas and Mexico. 

The ornate box turtle is considered to be a species of Special Concern in South Dakota. The turtle is also considered to be Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

6. Smooth Softshell Turtle

Smooth Softshell Turtle (Apalone mutica) basking on sunny sand near Devil's Lake State Park, Wisconsin, USA
A Smooth Softshell Turtle (Apalone mutica) basking on sunny sand near Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin, USA. – Source
  • Experience Level: Advanced
  • Family: Trionychidae
  • Scientific Name: Apalone mutica
  • Adult Female Size: 7 to 14 inches (18 to 36 cm)
  • Adult Male Size: 5 to 7 inches (12 to 18 cm)
  • Conservation Status: Special Concern in South Dakota, Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, Global Rank of G5 (Demonstrably secure), and a State Rank of S2 (Imperiled) 

The smooth softshell is one of the softshell turtles that can be found in South Dakota. As you may have already guessed. These turtles are called softshells because of their leathery carapace.

Instead of a hard shell, these turtles have soft shells. The turtles are quite large with females being much larger than males. Adult flames reach lengths of 7 to 14 inches while adult males reach carapace lengths of 5 to 7 inches.

The carapace is usually tan in coloration. While females have tan carapaces with dark brown mottlings, adult males have dark streaks and spots on their shells. The limbs, neck, and head are olive-gray to tan. 

The smooth softshell is among the most aquatic of all the freshwater turtles in North America. These turtles hardly ever come out of water even to bask.

Instead, they bask by coming to the surface while still in the water. The species prefer bodies of water with fast-moving water such as large rivers. They can however also be found in streams, oxbow lakes, and reservoirs.

The species is a strong swimmer and very quick both in water and on land. The species is also a strong diver and is known to conceal itself in mud. Because of their tan coloration, they can be difficult to see.

While the species feeds on both animals and plants, they are primarily carnivorous. The species is known to feed on carrion, amphibians, mollusks, and snails.

The species is known to brumate over the winter and mate during the early spring.

Gravid females proceed to lay eggs in June. The eggs then incubate for two months with hatchlings emerging in August.

The larger female takes longer to reach maturity as compared to the much smaller male. Females reach maturity at age 7 years while males generally reach maturity at age 4 years.

In South Dakota, the species can be found in the Missouri River and its large tributaries that feed the river, they have been observed in the following counties – Corson, Walworth, Dewey, Sully, Stanley, Hughes, Lyman, Brule, Gregory, Charles Mix, Bon Homme, Yankton, Lincoln, Clay, and Union.

Apalone mutica is considered to be a species of Special Concern in South Dakota.

The turtle is also considered to be a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The species holds no special status on the CITES and the US Federal List.

7. Spiny Softshell

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: Advanced
  • Family: Trionychidae
  • Scientific Name: Apalone spinifera
  • Adult Female Size: 8 to 16 inches (21 to 41 cm)
  • Adult Male Size: 4 to 12 inches (10 to 30 cm) 
  • Conservation Status: Special Concern in South Dakota, Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, Global Rank of G5 (Demonstrably secure), and a State Rank of S2 (Imperiled) 

The ther softshell endemic to South Dakota is the spiny softshell. Softshell turtles are known for their leathery carapace which unlike the bony carapace of other turtles is soft.

The spiny softshell belongs to the Family Trionychidae which includes other North American softshells.

Females of the species Apalone spinifera are much larger than males are.

Adult females reach carapace lengths of 8 to 16 inches, while males reach a carapace length of 4 to 12 inches. Males may be much smaller than females but they do have longer, thicker tails.

The carapace and body of the spiny softshell are olive-green. The plastron on the other hand is lightly colored and unmarked.

The spiny softshells are so-called because of the tubercles/spines on the anterior margin (front edge) of their carapaces. This gives the anterior margin of the carapace a rough texture.

The spiny softshell is an aquatic turtle, like other freshwater turtles, the spiny softshell can be seen basking out of water. Sometimes, the spiny softshell may float near the surface of the water and bask that way.

Other times, the turtles can be seen basking on wood debris, muddy banks, and sandbars. The species prefer rivers with muddy or sandy buttons. They can also be found in oxbow lakes and even backwaters.

The species is primarily carnivorous, feeding almost exclusively on animals. The species eat fish, aquatic insects, amphibians, tadpoles, mollusks, and carrion. The species is known to feed on vegetation as well.

The species brumates through winter by overwintering in the muddy or sandy buttons of their habitats. Breeding occurs after brumation. Mating starts in early spring.

Gravid females proceed to lay eggs in June. The eggs then incubate for two months with hatchlings emerging in August. Females lay 12 to 18 eggs. These eggs are white, spherical, and leathery.

The larger female takes longer to reach maturity as compared to the much smaller male. Females reach maturity at age 7 years while males generally reach maturity at age 4 years.

The spiny softshell can be found in large rivers in South Dakota these include the Missouri, White, Whetstone, Vermillion, Minnesota, Keya Paha, James, Cheyenne, Big Sioux, and Belle Fourche Rivers. Along the Missouri River, the smooth softshell is more common.

The spiny softshell is considered to be a species of special concern in South Dakota. The spiny softshell is listed as a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The species holds no special status on the US Federal List.

Frequently Asked Questions

What turtles can be found in South Dakota?

A large number of turtle species can be found in South Dakota.

These species include the snapping turtle, painted turtle, false map turtle, Blanding’s turtle, false map turtle, ornate box turtle, smooth softshell, and spiny softshell. Of all these turtles the snapping turtle and the painted turtle are the most common.

The rest are considered either threatened or of special concern.  Many of the species are found in the Missouri River and its tributaries.

Can you keep a turtle as a pet in South Dakota?

Laws regarding keeping turtles as pets are quite strict. While it is legal to keep turtles as pets, it is illegal to buy, sell, barter, or trade any turtle species. The commercial activity of turtles is considered illegal.

While turtles can be exported into the state, it is illegal to export the snapping turtle into the state.

Unless you have a Fishing/Hunting license, it is illegal to take a turtle from the wild. Only two species can be collected or hunted and these include the common snapping turtle and the painted turtle.

All the other turtles are protected as the species are either threatened or hold a status of Special Concern.

Are turtles in South Dakota dangerous?

While turtles are not usually dangerous, they can cause harm under the right circumstances.

One way they can cause harm is through the transmitting of salmonella. This bacteria can cause salmonella infection which can cause complications among people with weakened immune systems, children, and the elderly.

Additionally, species such as snapping turtles and the two softshells have powerful bites. These bites are capable of causing serious lacerations.

Conclusion

South Dakota is a US State located in the Northcentral United States. This state is bordered by North Dakota, Wyoming, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa.

There are seven turtles native to South Dakota and these include the snapping turtle, painted turtle, false map turtle, Blanding’s turtle, false map turtle, ornate box turtle, smooth softshell, and spiny softshell.

Many of the turtles endemic to South Dakota hold special status and are illegal to hunt or collect even with a fishing and hunting license. Only the snapping turtle and the painted turtle hold no special status.

Also, the commercial trade of turtles is not allowed in South Dakota.

If you have questions or need additional information, kindly leave a comment.

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