News from the Tennessee Valley State, Local and National news
TUESDAY, JULY 24, 2007

This eastern spiny soft-shell turtle crawled out of the drainage ditch on Central Parkway Southwest across the street from Decatur Utilities.
Daily photo by Brennen Smith \
This eastern spiny soft-shell turtle crawled out of the drainage ditch on Central Parkway Southwest across the street from Decatur Utilities.

Soft shell,
sharp bite

Area's drought sends turtle
in search of wet home

By Paul Huggins 340-2395

What she lacks in speed, she makes up with ferocity and a powerful bite no finger will survive.

And she's on the move.

As the worst drought in more than a century continues, the eastern spiny soft-shell turtle is prowling, searching for a wet home or a place to lay eggs.

You might even find one crawling out of a drainage ditch as a Daily photographer found in the upper portions of Dry Branch by Central Parkway Southwest. But be wary of picking one up, especially if you approach one from the head.

An aggressive turtle

"They are very aggressive and will try to bite like a snapping turtle," said Debbie Marsh, founder and director of Mama's Education Turtle and Tortoise Haven Rescue in Florence. "A large, grown one can absolutely take a finger off."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service describes them as declining but not a conservation concern. Marsh, however, who cares for more than 300 turtles and tortoises (17 species), believes the eastern spiny soft-shell is crawling toward the threatened list.

She doesn't know why they're declining, but a reptile and amphibian report by the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station said the damming of the Tennessee River has been detrimental to it locally.

The dams interfered with the turtle's preference for free-flowing creeks or rivers. It especially likes a sandy or muddy bottom or bank where it can quickly bury itself for protection. It is content to lie on the bottom of the stream, where it can stay for up to five hours.

Under normal conditions, sightings are rare. But if you discover one and feel inclined to pick one up, say, to remove it from harm's way on a road, be careful.

Marsh said grab it behind the rear legs and then wrap the sides of the shell toward each other like a roll.

Because it doesn't have a hard shell, holding it by the sides will cause its belly to sag and possibly injure it, she said. Then she cautioned again, to be prepared for the turtle to put up a fight, including scratching with its sharp claws.

"I'm not afraid of snakes," said Beverly Newton, a wildlife artist who once collected every kind of snake, including poisonous ones for her college biology classes. "But I won't pick up a spiny soft-shell turtle. It's best to leave them alone, and they won't bother you."

Though Newton has never painted eastern spiny soft-shell turtles, she said they fascinate her.

"They're such odd creatures," she said. "They're flat as a pancake, and they've got that pointy nose. And they can get pretty big, bigger than a (dinner plate) charger."

Adult females can grow as large as 17 inches long, while males may get about half that size. The eastern spiny soft-shell obviously gets its name from having a soft, leathery shell as opposed to the hard shells of the box turtle or snapping turtle found in North Alabama.

Bill Gates, biologist at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, said that while the soft-shell offers less protection than a hard one, it does make the turtle sleeker and a faster swimmer.

Young soft-shell turtles are eaten by raccoons, foxes, herons and fish, he said. Humans are the adults' biggest threat. But they are not often sought for food compared to the snapping turtle, he added.

Besides it's soft shell, the turtle is unique because of its long neck, which Gates said the turtle can use as a snorkel.

The eastern spiny is different from other soft-shell turtles in that it has jagged, teeth-like projections on its forward edge, hence the name spiny. The shell surface on males feels like sandpaper.

Though they can be aggressive, no one needs to worry about an attack, unless trying to pick up one.

A person is only likely to encounter one sunning itself on a bank or a log, Gates said, noting his encounters showed they were solitary sunbathers, in contrast to red-eared sliders, which often congregate, even stack themselves on a log.

"(Eastern spiny turtles) do come out to bask in the sun, but they'll always be close to the water," he said. "And as soon as they detect someone, they'll scoot back into the water."

Turtle power

Characteristics of the eastern spiny soft-shell turtle:

  • It breathes through its mouth, skin and cloaca (the area inside the tail where the digestive, urinary and reproductive tracts merge).

  • Females generally lay 12 to 18 spherical brittle-shelled eggs in the early summer. They may lay multiple clutches per season. Young emerge about 80 days later and are usually 11/2 inches across.

  • Juveniles and sub-adults, especially, spend significant amounts of time buried in the sand or mud in shallow water, especially at night, to remain concealed while inactive.

  • It can quickly bury itself by rocking from side to side to flip sand and mud up onto its back.

  • Food consists of a variety of animals, such as fish, invertebrates, mollusks and carrion.

  • It spends the fall and winter months in the water buried underneath substrate in a state of dormancy.

  • The Tennessee River marks the end of its southern range, which stretches north as far as New York and west to Wisconsin.

    - Paul Huggins

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