Florida Softshell Turtle
Turtles are ancient shelled reptiles that have existed for 220 million years. Florida has more species of turtle than other states. Of the 26 species found in Florida, the vast majority (18) are fresh water turtles such as the Florida softshell. The adults have a brownish-green or tan carapace (shell) covered with skin and a white or cream underside. Their noses are long and round; their necks are also long and their feet are webbed. The females grow about 24 inches in length, but the males usually grow to only 12 inches. They live approximately 30 years in captivity and 20 plus years in the wild.
Florida softshells are native to the eastern U.S., primarily in the state of Florida, but they also range to South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. Their huge oval shells are impeccably camouflaged to match the bottom of a lake, pond, canal, swamp, marsh, stream, etc., in which they remain hidden much of the time with just their heads or snouts exposed. The turtles’ long necks and odd-looking snorkels on their noses allow them to stretch up to the surface of shallow water in order to breathe, without having to leave their hiding places. They can remain under water for hours, because vessels in the lining of their throats and other parts of their body absorb oxygen. By remaining hidden in sediments and sands, they are able to fire out their long necks and grab unsuspecting prey as it passes by. Their diet consists of crayfish, fish, frogs, amphibians, crustaceans, mollusks, water fowl, and insects.
There is little information about their mating habits, but nesting occurs between mid-March and July in southern Florida and between June and July further north. A female can nest 2-7 times in one season and produce more eggs per year (225) than
almost any other reptile species. They emerge from the water in daytime, dig a hole in the sandy area near the waters edge, and lay 10–30 eggs. Sometimes they use newly- constructed alligator nests, taking advantage of the female alligator’s protective surveillance. Raccoons, foxes, skunks, crows, the American black bear and other predators eat the eggs.
If the nest survives predation, the eggs hatch after 2–3 months and tiny (1.25 inches), brightly patterned hatchlings emerge. They are olive-yellow with large gray spots, yellow and orange markings on the head, and a yellowish border around the carapace. These markings are lost as they age. These tiny turtles must remain hidden as much as possible, because they are an ideal meal for bullfrogs, snakes, fish, wading birds (herons, egrets), raptorial birds (kites, eagles), mammals (armadillos, striped skunks, otters), and small alligators.
Florida softshell turtles are almost entirely aquatic, but can move quickly on land as well as in water. They are occasionally seen basking in the sun on logs, on muddy banks, or in floating vegetation. They are known for being extremely aggressive and will snap or scratch at anything within reach of their sharp jaws and claws, if they are handled or feel threatened. “Ferox” means “ferocious.” Apalone ferox can also excrete a foul smelling musk to warn away predators. They become inactive in cold weather and will hibernate in winter in the northern part of their range.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, concerned with the increasing popularity of turtles and the potential for over- harvest as a domestic and foreign food source, approved strong protective measures at their June 2009 meeting for all threatened species.
The softshell in our tank at the Green Cay Nature Center is a show stopper. People love to watch it emerge from its hiding place in the sand and rise to the surface of the water for air and food. They are amazed by its size, form, and color. It is adopted yearly by many patrons and the money is used to help feed the animals. We also have many softshell turtles throughout the wetlands, so keep a sharp lookout for them.