Species spotlight: Iowa's turtles

By Greta Solbrig on May 17, 2024 in Blog

Though sometimes tricky to spot, Iowa has an abundant array of turtle species, each with their own style and personality.

The painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) is one of the most apparent in the state, but that does not make it any less exciting to spot. Their bright orange shells and yellow markings give them an interesting appearance, and they are typically found basking in the warm sunlight. Luckily, painted turtles are relatively adaptive, so changes in aquatic environments have not proven to be as much of a challenge compared to their other native counterparts.

Less tranquil is the snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Found across the state, this species is not one to approach haphazardly. It is territorial even amongst members of their own species. Typical characteristics include a long tail and a sharp, hooked upper jaw. They are large with few predators, and you do not want to mess with these reptiles. Though they are slow, their bite force rivals that of a tiger, with jaws ideal for ripping apart their meals. In the past the species was abundant across Iowa; however, populations have drastically declined in recent years due to recreational and commercial harvesting.

Staying strictly on land, ornate box turtles (Terrapene ornata) are medium-sized and characterized by their tall, rounded shells. While many box turtles have markings, the ornate species gets its name from their thin lines radiating from each scute (section of the shell), in addition to the typical yellow splotches. You may be wondering: why are they called box turtles? The name comes from their ability to retreat into their shells, with a modified plastron that can close the shell almost completely, thus they can hide in their own little “box.”

Somewhat less publicized are softshell turtles. When you think of a turtle, the shell is almost always a defining characteristic, serving as protection and defense against predation. Soft shell turtles, however, are encased by rubbery material that is smooth and undivided by scutes. While less suited for protection, the odd shells give the species an advantage with it comes to swimming, with the ability to hunt at impressive speeds under water. Species in Iowa include both smooth (Apalone mutica) and spiny (Apalone spinifera) softshell turtles.

The pond slider (Trachemys scripta) is only native to a few counties in southeastern Iowa. But its subspecies, the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), is now common in many Iowa waterways, having found their way into the environment as a byproduct of the pet trade. Released red-eared sliders can carry diseases for which wild species have no immunity. This species is easy to identify, with a dark, greenish shell and a red marking behind each eye. Remember, it’s never ok to release any pets into the wild.

Iowa is home to an assortment of even more turtles, large and small. Map turtles, wood turtles, Blanding’s turtles, mud turtles and musk turtles are all present in Iowa waters, each with their own role in the ecosystem. Iowa’s vast assortment of turtle species is one to behold, and with proper ecosystem management, we can safeguard these interesting creatures for future generations.