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Soft Shell Turtles :

Soft-Shelled Turtle Information and Care :

courtesy to : www.reptiles magazine .com / BY MIKE MORGAN




The soft-shelled turtles are some of the most recognized turtles in the world, and arguably some of the most unique. Their pancake-like appearance, the lack of bony scutes on their shells, and their snorkel-like neck and head distinguish them from most other turtles. They also possess an adaptation that allows them to breathe underwater, similar to fish. These differences, as well as the soft-shelled turtles’ intelligence and personality, make them interesting species to keep in captivity. 


Due to the fact that soft-shelled turtles are mass-farmed in some parts of the world (numbering in the hundreds of millions per year in some provinces in China), there is probably more information available about the husbandry and care of soft-shelled turtles available than all other turtle species combined. Unfortunately, most of it is written in Chinese and is geared for large-scale operations. Soft-shelled turtles do well in captivity, and with consideration to some of their special needs, they make novel and long-term additions to any collection, with some specimens having lived more than 25 years.


Soft-Shelled Selection:


Soft-shelled turtles belong to the family Trionychidae, which is a reference to the three claws found on each foot. Trionychidae by genus:  

- Africa (Trionyx),

-Asia (Dogania,Aspideretes, Palea and Amyda).

-New Guinea (Chitra and Pelochelys)  

-North America (Apalone, formally Trionyx).

The “true soft-shells” are often referred to as being from the genus Pelochelys, Apalone (Trionyx) and Chitra. Most of the Old World species are hard to obtain, and typically, they are unsuitable for captivity due to their large size. Cantor’s soft-shelled (Pelochelys cantorii) from Asia can reach a length of 6 feet, and the New Guinea soft-shelled (Pelochelys bibroni) of, you guessed it, New Guinea, can exceed 4 feet in length. These are not good fits for most of the commonly found tanks at your local pet store! Most of the commonly kept soft-shells are from North America, but there are some from other countries that are worth looking into.

In India and Pakistan, two uniquely marked species are found. The Ganges soft-shelled (Trionyx gangiticus) and the peacock soft-shelled (Trionyx hurum) both have intricate patterns of dots and lines on the top of their shells and along their neck and head. This is surrounding four outlined spots that resemble eyes. Looking at half of the turtle with the feet sticking out, the markings resemble the face of an owl, complete with tufted ears! The surrounding pattern, relating to both coloration and intricacy, can vary greatly between individual specimens. This appearance is more pronounced in the young, but even the adults tend to retain the “eye” pattern. They are listed as vulnerable in their native range, but I remember years back seeing some that were being kept and bred by some dedicated individuals. Although they can grow to more than 2 feet long, their outlandish shell designs and size can make for an impressive display animal. 


Probably the most available soft-shelled turtle worldwide is the Chinese soft-shelled (Pelodiscus [Trionyx] sinensis), due to it being mass farmed for the food industry. It is considered a delicacy, and various body parts are utilized as health and vitality tonics. Hatchlings are also regularly available in the pet industry. They are usually a drab light-brown color, but albino morphs have been successfully bred, resulting in a beautiful animal. The albinos have a whitish-pink base color, with variable colors of yellow, peach and orange flowing throughout, and highlighting a “ladder” or “backbone” shape on the top of the shell.


Odd Adaptations:


The Chinese soft-shelled also has a unique adaption that allows it to be tolerant of less-than-ideal water conditions. Most turtles process and excrete the waste byproduct urea through the kidneys and out through the cloaca (a common opening for both excretion and reproduction). Studies have shown that Chinese soft-shelled turtles can excrete up to 50 percent more urea through their mouth than through their cloaca. This is thought to be done by flushing the mouth out with fresh water and expelling the urea waste out with it. This could be an adaption to the Chinese soft-shelled turtle’s ability to live in brackish water and even venture into salt water. The polluting salt does not have to travel through the turtle’s body, where it could cause tissue chemical imbalances and overload the kidneys. Imagine if you could drink something and then spit pee back out of your mouth—kidney disease would probably drop dramatically, but mouthwash sales would skyrocket! How about a kiss? No thank you, I’m good! 


Getting back on topic, the soft-shelled turtle is considered by some to be the most aquatic of all freshwater turtles. This characteristic, as well as the urea process, can be accomplished by the soft-shelled turtle’s ability to “breathe” underwater. All soft-shells are thought to have this ability, but the waste processes are species-specific to the Chinese soft-shelled. The Chinese soft-shells in one study (by Ip,Y.K.; Loong, A.M.; Lee, S.M.L.; Ong, J.L.Y.; Wong, W.P.; Chew, S.F. in 2012) would submerge their heads for up to two hours during the “mouth washing/rinsing” process. Two hours! If you have ever watched a resting soft-shelled turtle underwater, they appear to be swallowing constantly, with a rhythmic pulsing around the jaw and through the neck area. Without getting too scientific, there is a process in the throat where water is pumped or forced over several “fingers,” which extract oxygen much like gills in a fish. Soft-shelled turtles are lay-and-wait hunters, and this feature also allows them to maximize this style and stay motionless in one place for longer periods of time. Once mobile, however, I believe the soft-shelled would need access to air, as the body’s oxygen needs would soon increase past the ability of this process.


North American Soft-Shells:


Rounding out the most commonly available species, we have the soft-shelled turtles from North America. There are three main species: the spiny soft-shelled, the smooth soft-shelled and the Florida soft-shelled. All reside natively and are found mostly throughout the eastern and central United States.


The spiny soft-shelled (Apalone spinifera ssp.), as the scientific name suggests, can be distinguished from the two other species by having small spines or spikes along the top of the carapace, with a greater concentration toward the rear. There are six subspecies (A. s. spinifera, A. s. hartwegi, A. s. aspera, A. s. guadalupensis, A. s. pallid and A. s. emoryi), with most retaining the variable and attractive spots on their shells, as well as the yellow and black stripes on their face from their youth into adulthood. As with all soft-shelled turtle species, the males stay smaller than the females, often remaining under 9 inches, whereas a large female can reach 18 inches. 



The Florida soft-shelled turtle (Apalone ferox) is the largest species in North America, and the young are the most colorful. They have small bumps on their carapaces, and their shell shape is more oblong compared to the round shell of the spiny soft-shelled. They are also more stout and heavy-bodied than the other two species. With a female having the potential to reach 2 feet, it can make for an impressive animal when full grown.


The young of the Florida soft-shells are brightly spotted on a light background. The shell is outlined with white, yellow or orange, and the head and neck are striped with the same colors. Unfortunately, these colors fade with age, resulting in a solid brownish-green “lake- bottom” color as adults. Albinos of this species have been hatched out, as well as uniquely patterned and colored individuals with names like “High Orange” and the “Clown.” The former is a bright-orange animal with a leopard-like pattern on the shell, and the latter has an attractive coloration of yellow and black on the legs and shell. It has not been determined if these are breedable morphs or just garishly colored individuals. They are beautiful animals, and it would be worth setting up a breeding project to study and determine their genetics. 
All of the aforementioned species make good candidates for captivity. As stated, males remain smaller into adulthood and tend to retain more of their colors. Males also have a reputation for being more aggressive, so there’s a trade-off. No matter the sex, I find them all visually appealing, especially the lines and face stripes of the spiny soft-shells. 


Please note, due to the soft-shelled turtles’ consideration as a delicacy, many countries and provinces throughout the world have put limitations on the import/export and harvesting of wild species. Even here in the United States, several states have rules about how many one may possess, as well as the times of the year when they may be collected. These laws are constantly changing, so be sure to stay up to date with your particular state’s Fish and Game regulations.


Handle with Care :


Obviously, the best candidate for captivity is a hatchling or young turtle. (Be aware that since the federal laws were passed in 1975, all turtles sold under 4 inches must be sold for scientific, educational or exhibition purposes, not for commercial sales.) Any wild bad habits will not yet be developed, and the young adapt quicker to captivity. While most are even-tempered, the soft-shelled turtle is no joke when agitated. They are very fast on both land and in water, with land speeds being clocked at 15 miles per hour. When those three-clawed feet get moving at those speeds, coupled with a soft-shelled turtle’s powerful jaws designed for crushing mollusk prey, handling soft-shells can become a tricky endeavor. I almost had the first joint of my left index finger removed by a surprised smooth soft-shelled. Those rubbery lips cover sharp ridges, and the bite was lightning-quick and cut, scalpel-like, deep into my bone. Their ability to defend themselves needs to be respected, but as mentioned, most animals raised in captivity do not have such an attitude. 


Scoop small turtles up in your palm, and with the other hand grasping the sides of their shells between the front and back legs. This allows them to be easily controlled. I prefer to handle larger turtles with one hand under their bellies and one on top, like a sandwich. Captive-raised specimens seem to tolerate this method relatively well—just watch out for the claws and that long neck. 


With really large or wild-acting specimens, a different method is employed. When the turtles move their legs quickly, trying to escape, they become unstable and a certain amount of strength is needed to keep them in one place and prevent them from rocking or jerking free. Keep the head away from your body. I approach these types of turtles from the rear and grasp the anterior lip of the shell right behind the neck. Pressure from my knuckles prevents the long, snake-like neck and head from reaching back and biting me. The posterior part of the shell is then grabbed around the tail, making sure to stay clear of the flailing rear legs.


I have heard of some recommending to grab a soft-shelled by its tail, much like a snapping turtle, but even the largest males lack enough tail length for my preference. Pick up in the above manner and keep the head faced downward and away from your body. This takes some practice and confidence, but it can be used successfully to move large, aggressive specimens. It might be hard to get a visual from my above description, so I refer the reader to Roger Conant’s excellent Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America. At the beginning of the book is a section about handling reptiles, and there is a picture of the above-described method being utilized. Stay vigilant. The Florida soft-shelled turtle’s Latin name “ferox” means ferocious. Handle with care. But if a gentle, slow and consistent method is used, soft-shelled turtles will come to realize that you mean them no harm and will allow themselves to be moved easily. This results in a more enjoyable experience for all involved. 


Captive Care:


Keeping soft-shelled turtles in captivity is relatively simple, with the only hindrances being the amount of space available and the amount of money you wish to spend on the enclosure. Soft-shelled turtles are active in the aquarium and some species can grow large enough to require special housing. All captive turtles require basic necessities to live comfortably and stay healthy in captivity. These are access to full-spectrum lighting for basking and vitamin/mineral metabolism, a large enough enclosure with plenty of clean water for exercise, and a well-balanced diet. This list is by no means complete, but those are the required basics, and if they are followed, other actions may not be necessary.


Lighting :


Although soft-shelled turtles are primarily aquatic, a basking spot out of the water with access to full-spectrum light rays is mandatory. Some keepers have stated that, due to their predominantly aquatic nature, basking spots are not necessary. I disagree, and even if it is not used that often, one needs to be provided just in case. They would have the opportunity to use one in the wild, so we need to give them that same chance in captivity. 


Baby soft-shelled turtles, especially the Florida species, are prone to shell problems. Although not fully understood, access to natural sunlight or artificial full-spectrum lighting have lessened these problems. The rays and radiation helps any fungal or bacterial infections to dry out and be healed by one of nature’s best antimicrobials, sunlight. For the light above the basking spot, the light spectrum is more important than the heat, so choose your bulb accordingly. Soft-shells are diurnal by nature, so in the evening, turn off the light and allow natural lighting to set a natural photoperiod for well-being. 


Protect the Shell:


As stated, soft-shelled turtles are active and powerful swimmers, and they require some room to move about. Given that they lack the bony protective armor of other turtles, it has been my experience that they do not handle fouled or dirty water as well as other species. Lack of clean water can provide a start to the aforementioned shell problems. I am sure you have all seen large, wild water turtles with their shells covered with algae. This could be potentially fatal to the soft-shelled turtle. Soft-shelled turtles have a naturally occurring layer of bacteria or “slime” like a fish. That is why small scratches or bumps, which would not affect another species of turtle, can cause such problems with soft-shelled turtles, including the displacement of this protective layer. I always wet my hands before touching or handling soft-shells to help prevent any problems. 


Keeping the water well filtered and clean prevents the build-up of potentially harmful bacteria. The larger the volume of water, the more time required between water changes due to the water fouling. Plus more water gives the turtle room to swim and exercise, which contributes to mental well-being. I have seen soft-shells that have outgrown their enclosures and can hardly turn around, let alone go swim. It is sad to see such a gracefully swimming creature penned up like that. 


Soft-Shell Setup:


I will now describe the setup I have used to successfully keep soft-shelled turtles indoors. We will discuss other options as well, but I have had good luck with this method, adapting the conditions to best suit the soft-shelled turtles’ needs.


First, you will need a large tank. Even a baby soft-shell will outgrow a 10-gallon aquarium quickly. Starting off with an enclosure that will house the turtle when it’s full grown will save money in the long run, with a one-time set up fee as opposed to several “upgrade payments” as the turtle grows. The width is more important than the depth, so you want a wider as opposed to taller tank. Some recommend keeping the whole tank shallow enough that the turtle can reach the water’s surface with its head while resting on the bottom, from any point in the tank. This works fine, as the soft-shelled turtle likes to burrow in the sand while still being able to reach the air for oxygen. 


I provide a burrowing area a few inches beneath the surface of the water so the turtle can breathe while buried and at rest, with deeper water in the rest of the tank to allow it to swim freely and exercise. To do this, create a “sandbox” by siliconing the edge of a horizontal piece of glass, acrylic or plastic to one side of the tank, to create a platform that extends from the side, from front to back. Another strip is attached vertically along the exposed edge to create a lip. The height of the lip dictates how deep the burrowing substrate in the sandbox will be and helps keep the substrate in place. Be sure the substrate used is fine-grained and smooth; due to their lack of armored skin or bony plates, soft-shells are apt to get scratches or lesions as a result of burrowing into substrates made of pointy or sharp materials, such as some aquarium gravels. A piece of PVC plastic attached to the bottom of the platform will serve as a pillar, supporting the sandbox from below. 


Create a darkened hiding area beneath the platform using a few pieces of driftwood for cover (again, avoid anything with pointy edges). This, along with the burrowing area, will allow your turtle to hide and relax by not always being out in the open. Again, anything that can be done to make the habitat more natural will help keep its stress levels down. I prefer to keep the tank relatively uncluttered; this helps keep the bacteria levels down and makes for easier cleaning.


I remember years back, when I was in my landscaped-vivaria stage, I spent days planting and building a tank for a small Florida soft-shelled turtle. I was so proud of my artistic rendition, it looked just like a mini pond, complete with plants, wood, cage furnishings and the whole works. I placed the turtle in the tank and left it alone to acclimate. After an hour I checked on him, and it looked like a bomb went off in the tank. There were leaves and plants floating, wood bobbing—total and thorough destruction. The filter was all but smoking from being overworked. The turtle was resting from his workout on the basking ramp, with what could be described as a look of satisfaction on his face, no doubt pleased with himself at a job well done. I spend days creating, the soft-shelled turtle spends minutes destroying. So now, I keep my set-ups simple. 


If you do choose to go the waterscaped route, make sure any furnishings are smooth and well-secured. Soft-shelled turtles are strong, and you don’t need them pulling anything down on themselves. For the basking area, the style can be the same as the burrowing area previously described, only the platform’s surface will be above the water, without the sand and lip. Angle the platform slightly or attach a ramp to it that extends underwater a few inches to allow the turtle easy access. Cover it with dabs of clear silicon to provide traction. If a more natural look is desired, cover the platform with a thick layer of silicon and press a coating of sand or smooth aquarium gravel firmly into that. Once the silicon dries—bingo!—you have a sand bar. Keep in mind that any sand or gravel that is not siliconed firmly in place to the plastform may be yanked free by the turtle’s claws as it climbs up.


Make sure the top of the enclosure is tall enough that the turtle cannot reach it from anywhere within, especially if a lid is not used. I have seen soft-shelled turtles take a couple of laps around the tank to pick up speed and try to jump out. I have also seen them use their necks as a fulcrum to try and pull themselves out!
For such busy, carnivorous animals, a good filter system is needed. Don’t skimp on the filtration. Too much is better than not enough. I have used up to a 700-gallon-a-minute filter in a 125-gallon tank. Keeping the water as clean as possible is mandatory for shell and skin health. 


There are many different types of filters on the market, including sump tank refugium, where water is passed through filters in a separate tank and then back into the primary tank; mechanical filters, which are hung on the tank; and canister filters, which are also placed on the outside of the aquarium. All have pros and cons, but canister filters are easy to use, powerful and ready to go right out of the box. Just make sure everything is secure and covered to prevent the turtle from getting to any hardware. Some tanks come pre-drilled with compartments already installed for this. You can even get tanks custom made, or make one yourself to suit your needs. Just remember, although glass is less expensive than acrylic, it is heavier. I have both glass and acrylic 55-gallon long tanks. I need help moving the glass one, but I can grab the acrylic one and go. The only downside to acrylic is that it scratches easily, so it is probably not the best choice for a nice display tank housing a clawed turtle. 


For water specifics, soft-shelled turtles require a pH of 6.0 to 7.0 (slightly acidic) and a temperature of 72 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Not much range here, and although soft-shelled turtles can tolerate other conditions, the closer you can get to the above numbers will just benefit the turtles in the long run. Most tap water is in the 5.0- to 7.0-pH range, so that can be a good place to start. I am fortunate enough to have access to clean well water, without the additives of city or processed water. I have not had any problems using this water on either juveniles or adults, including turtles that came through with shell problems. 


For heating, I have used a submersible tube-style heater, placed underneath the basking area, in the same area where the water re-enters the tank from the filter. The heater is set for the top of the soft-shelled turtles’ required range (80 degrees), and with the returning water circulating past it, as well as the volume of water in the tank due to the exercise/swim area, this creates a temperature range that allows the turtle to thermoregulate. The above temperature range is specific, but it can vary a few degrees either way without any harmful effects. If the water is too cool, their metabolism will slow down and the turtles will have trouble digesting food; too hot, and the turtle can overheat, possibly causing death. Keep the high side temperature under 80 degrees, and everything should be fine.


If the heating tube is accessible to the turtle, you should have a protective barrier around it to prevent the turtle from damaging the heater and possibly injuring itself. That is another benefit to pre-drilled tanks—the heating elements can be placed down in the corner compartments, thus protected. Heat tape attached to a thermostat can also be placed under one end of the tank (though with the depth of water I prefer to provide, I have better luck with an in-tank heater). When using any electrical equipment around water, make sure an aquarium-style circuit breaker is used in case anything is damaged by the turtle. That way, everything will shut down, avoiding any shocks or hazards.


The setup described here illustrates one method I have used to successfully keep soft-shelled turtles in a display aquarium. I recommend talking to an aquarium store expert for additional advice. New products, efficient heaters and filters, proper use of them, and setting up and controlling water quality can all be explained in more depth to get a better understanding of their use. 


Simple Setups:


Keeping soft-shelled turtles does not have to be involved and complicated. As long as the soft-shelled turtles’ basic needs are met, other containers can be used. I have kept them in Rubbermaid containers, children’s wading pools and even in horse watering troughs. There are also turtle tubs on the market with both wet and dry sides already built into them. All of these are easier and less expensive than aquarium setups, but they often don’t look as nice. 


That said, other such enclosures have all been used to successfully raise and even breed soft-shelled turtles, even though they may involve more physical work with more cleaning and water changes and such. An aquarium-style enclosure can be set up, and with the right filtration system, can be left alone for much of the time. Tub-style enclosures, if used without a filtration system, will require more frequent draining and scrubbing, which is more invasive to the turtles. On the other hand, this may result in a more thorough cleaning with better disinfecting properties. I set tubs up in the same manner as my aquariums, with the basking spot, hiding spots, etc. I also use a small aerator to stir up the water and prevent it from becoming stagnant. Heat can be provided with heat tape or a heat pad at one end (I usually have less water volume in the tubs, so this type of heating works OK with them). A basking light could be used, but it would have to be monitored. I am leery of hot lamps near plastic. For heat I like heat pads, as they are more easily controlled, temp-wise, and I run less risk of a fire or a plastic tub melting. Full-spectrum lighting tubes should also be used. 


If you live in a warm climate, or at least during the summer months, soft-shelled turtles can be kept outdoors. Keep them out of constant direct sunlight and make sure there is a always a shady spot available in the enclosure. Cut drainage holes toward the top of more shallow containers to avoid them flooding during a rainstorm. Keep an eye out for predators, such as cats and dogs, but especially raccoons and opposums, messing with your turtles. These animals relish a meal of hatchling turtles. 


If you live in a warm climate, or at least during the summer months, soft-shelled turtles can be kept outdoors. Keep them out of constant direct sunlight and make sure there is a always a shady spot available in the enclosure. Cut drainage holes toward the top of more shallow containers to avoid them flooding during a rainstorm. Keep an eye out for predators, such as cats and dogs, but especially raccoons and opposums, messing with your turtles. These animals relish a meal of hatchling turtles. 


Soft-shelled turtles can be kept in outdoor ponds, similar to how koi fish are kept. Some ponds are simple and others are waterscaped masterpieces. Just like with the aquariums, you can spend as much or as little as your heart desires and wallet allows. If this route is chosen, talk to a professional beforehand. Make sure you are armed with the knowledge of the soft-shelled turtles’ biological and physiological needs, and anything that will help you stabilize these requirements in a pond situation. This will save problems in the future. 


Ambush Carnivores:


Feeding soft-shelled turtles is not difficult. Adults are carnivorous and feed on a wide range of fish, mollusks, insects, amphibians and even carrion in the wild. If it swims or crawls, an animal is at risk for a soft-shelled turtle’s lay-and-wait hunting strategy. These turtles are not picky. 

Feeding soft-shelled turtles is not difficult. Adults are carnivorous and feed on a wide range of fish, mollusks, insects, amphibians and even carrion in the wild. If it swims or crawls, an animal is at risk for a soft-shelled turtle’s lay-and-wait hunting strategy. These turtles are not picky. 


Most turtles can be trained to eat pellets, with different-sized pellets available for different-sized turtles. Pellets make feeding easy and less messy, and they can be supplemented with natural foods to provide a wide range of nutrients. I believe that the key to avoiding any dietary-related problems is variety. Exposing your soft-shells to a diverse range of food items allows them to obtain all the necessary macro- and micronutrients required for good shell and body growth and maintenance. Incomplete diets with improper calcium and phosphorous ratios, coupled with a lack of vitamin D3, can cause metabolic bone disease, which manifests itself in soft-shelled turtles with the shell literally “cupping,” or curling up along its edges. Vitamin D3 is responsible for balancing the calcium and phosphorous levels, making it a critical component in shell health.


Proper dietary nutrient levels and access to sunlight (or full-spectrum light if kept indoors) will head off this dilemma. Also, proper vitamin A levels prevent “swollen-eye syndrome,” which can cause the eyes to bug out and eventually swell shut. Vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant, is added to many pelleted feeds, as it prevents and helps clear up inflammation that can result from diets too high in fatty acids, such as an exclusive diet of goldfish or other oily fish. I have also used small tablets of brewer’s yeast, alfalfa and vitamin/mineral tablets used for dogs once a week, mixed in with the pellets to ensure all nutrient levels are met. 

When supplementing, a little goes a long way, and unless you are trying to correct a dietary-related problem, use supplements sparingly. Mix it up for the best nutrition!
I feed soft-shelled turtles once a day, two to five times a week.


The more frequent feedings are reserved for young turtles with a higher metabolism due to their faster growth. Also, studies have shown that hatchling and young soft-shelled turtles are more omnivorous, and their diets contain more vegetable matter than does the adults’, no doubt allowing the young to obtain more vitamins and minerals required for proper development. Again, here is where the pelleted diets can be of benefit. 


Once soft-shelled turtles become larger, their portions and frequency of feedings needs to be watched closer. Unnaturally fast growth from “power feeding” or overfeeding can cause health problems from obesity, heart and circulatory defects, and chemical imbalances within the turtles’ body. In the wild, soft-shelled turtles have to work harder for their meals, and more activity leads to fewer stored calories. Fluctuating temperatures in the wild also affect the metabolic process, requiring less food at times. Start with portions roughly the size of the turtles’ neck and head area, and adjust from there. Long-term captives adjust to their conditions so well, and become so calm and inactive, that I have seen some of the Florida species that almost looked cartoonish, with fat rolls on their necks and fat oozing from between their shells around their legs and tails. These turtles looked like Jabba the Hut pressed between two trash can lids. They were obviously content in captivity, but this condition is detrimental for long-term health. Properly monitored and proportioned diets using a variety of foods is the key. 



Housing Safety Tip:


As stated earlier, scratches and bumps can quickly become infected and even lead to soft-shell death. This is one reason I prefer to keep soft-shelled turtles singly, or at the very most, in breeding pairs. Some keepers have good luck keeping several soft-shells together, and even mixing them with other turtle species. Feeding in such community situations can be an excitable time, though, and can result in injuries from the turtles banging into each other going after the food. You can try to avoid this by keeping multiple turtles in a larger enclosure, but there are always those turtles that will jump right into the fray to get it on with their fellow cagemates.


Chinese soft-shells are often kept together for farming purposes, and they are particularly prone to a mold that causes a “white-spot” fungal disease that can lead to anorexia and death if not treated. Usually, this is due to the overcrowding of the mass-farmed turtles, resulting in injuries and higher stress levels that can lower the immune system. Also, as stated earlier, baby Florida soft-shelled turtles are prone to skin and shell problems that appear as small white spots or lesions on the shell and body.


Optimal living conditions can help prevent these problems, but if they should arise, all is not lost. I have had good luck using tea tree oil, painted on the offending spots and then allowed to dry. Tea tree oil is a natural antibacterial and antifungal that can help if the problem is caught early and not too advanced. For more severe situations, I have found spray Bactine to work well. It is a benzalkonium and lidocaine medication that is in a non-alcohol base. I have used it on frogs and salamanders, as well, with no harmful side effects. Spraying once a day has promoted rapid healing in most cases. I have also used triple-antibiotic ointment or Neosporin for infected cuts. These products contain three topical antibacterials that will help with mild gram-plus and gram-negative infections. 

If a fungus is thought to be the culprit, I alternate an antibiotic ointment with a 1-percent clotrimazole cream (an antifungal) that can be found in the foot-care aisle at most pharmacies. Apply once or twice a day to the affected area and let dry, or at least absorbed, before letting the turtle return to
the water.  


If a problem arises that does not respond to any of the above treatments, it’s time for a trip to the veterinarian. Cultures of the lesions or injuries can be taken, and appropriate medications administered. Your vet might prescribe an injection, an oral medication if the turtle is still feeding, or medication to be administered throughout the tank water, as is done to treat scale rot in fish. Your vet will decide and follow the appropriate action.


Breeding Soft-Shells:


Breeding takes place in the spring, with egg laying beginning in March in the warmer climates. Female soft-shells can nest several times a year, usually laying between eight to 24 eggs each time. The females emerge from the water and lay their eggs in dug-out nests in soft, sandy soil. If attempting captive breeding, a dry area with a deep layer of the appropriate substrate must be provided to prevent any retained eggs or egg binding. Females reach sexual maturity at a carapace length of roughly 9 to 10 inches, with males reaching maturity at a length of 5 to 7 inches. Of course, smaller species, such as the smooth soft-shelled turtle, will reach sexual maturity at a smaller size. Again, males are smaller than females and have more prominent tails. If obtaining hatchlings or young turtles, you can buy them sexed and be on your way.


Once laid, the eggs can be placed in vermiculite or another suitable incubation medium and kept at a temperature of 80 degrees with 80 percent humidity. Water turtle eggs require higher humidity levels than land turtles’, so a hygrometer (an instrument to measure humidity) should be placed in the container with the eggs to make sure the levels don’t go too high and “drown” the eggs or go too low and dry them out.
The babies hatch after an average incubation period of 60 to 80 days, depending on the temperature. Young soft-shelled turtles are between 1 and 1½ inches long at hatching, and they can live off their attached yolk for up to two weeks. Provide an appropriate container with shallow water and several hiding places to help them feel secure. Once the yolk is absorbed, offer hatchlings small insects, worms or size-appropriate pellets, and they should be off and running (or more accurately, swimming)! 


With albino and aberrant soft-shelled morphs available, and others yet to be discovered, breeding soft-shelled turtles can be a beneficial and rewarding endeavor, well worth the time and effort.


Always Do Your Research:


I hope this article has been helpful in your quest for information about caring for soft-shelled turtles. They are really neat and unique animals, and I highly recommend one for consideration as a pet.  

How To Care For Soft-shelled Turtles :



At a glance, they look like pancakes with a snorkel. Their peculiar form is distinctive: a flat, leathery carapace; flipperlike forelimbs and paddlelike rear feet with long, sharp claws; a long neck capable of lashing out faster than the blink of an eye; and a powerful head with a tubular proboscis and fleshy lips, hiding sharp, slicing jaws capable of delivering a serious bite. Soft-shelled turtles are unique and highly evolved, and despite their apparently specialized adaptations, they flourish in practically all aquatic habitats within their natural range.


Depending on the species or subspecies, the coloration of a “softy” varies from tan or light brown to gray or almost black, sometimes with blotches, flecks and reticulations. This cryptic camouflage allows them to blend in with their surroundings remarkably well, and their flattened profile allows them to scuttle quickly and easily below the substrate to further enhance their ability to hide from predators, but also to ambush their own unsuspecting prey as it swims unknowingly past a hidden turtle. There are often stripes on the head and neck which also vary depending on the type of softshell, and these stripes sometimes fade or disappear entirely with age.


There are three well-established species of soft-shelled turtle native to North America. They are the spiny softshell (Apalone spinifera), which is divided into seven subspecies; the smooth softshell (A. mutica), which is divided into two subspecies; and the Florida softshell (A. ferox), with no recognized subspecies.

Spiny Softshells : 


In addition to having the most subspecies, the spiny softshell also has the widest distribution of the native North American species. It shows a preference for rivers, but can also be found in associated lakes, ponds, and marshes with soft bottoms and moderate vegetation. It is distinguished from the smooth softshell by the pointed tubercles, from which it gets its name, along the anterior margin of the carapace, and from the Florida softshell by the lack of a dermal ridge around the margin of the carapace. Female spiny softshells sometimes grow quite large, up to around 21 inches. Males normally reach less than half that size, up to about 81/2 inches.


The eastern spiny softshell (A. s. spinifera) occurs east of the Mississippi River from eastern New York southward to western Virginia and North Carolina, and Tennessee. There are disjunct populations in extreme southern Quebec along the Vermont/New York border, east-central New York, and south-west New Jersey. The carapace pattern consists of large, black ocelli (rings) and a single black marginal line.
The Gulf Coast spiny softshell (A. s. aspera) occurs from south-central North Carolina westward to southeastern Louisiana, through all contiguous states with the exception of peninsular Florida. In this subspecies there are two or more black marginal lines, and the head stripes are joined at the tympanum.



Before you Buy a Softie
Taking on a soft-shelled turtle is a big responsibility. Consider some important points before you commit to owning one.


  • Soft-shelled turtles will get big. Although the average size is around 12 inches, they are capable of growing up to almost 2 feet.

  • They will live for a long time. Captives are known to live up to 50 years and possibly longer.

  • Soft-shelled turtles can be very aggressive. At any size, this can present a hazard to smaller tankmates. At larger sizes, they can even be dangerous to the keeper.

  • If size or aggression present potential problems for you, a soft-shelled turtle is definitely not your best choice for a pet turtle. Choose another!

The black spiny softshell (A. s. atra) is endemic to Cuatrocienegas Basin of Coahuila, Mexico. The carapace is dark overall and apparently lacks any distinct markings.
The Texas spiny softshell (A. s. emoryi) occurs in the Pecos and Rio Grande Rivers of New Mexico and Texas, and the Colorado River drainages of Utah, Nevada, California, Arizona and New Mexico. The pale rim of the carapace is four to five times wider along the rear margin than along the sides, and the head stripes are typically broken resulting in a post-orbital (behind the eye) blotch.

The Guadalupe spiny softshell (A. s. guadalupensis) occurs only in south-central Texas in the Guadalupe/San Antonio and Nueces Rivers. This subspecies possesses narrow black ocelli and white tubercles over the entire carapace.
The western spiny softshell (A. s. hartwegi) occurs west of the Mississippi River from Minnesota and southern South Dakota westward into southeast Wyoming and eastern Colorado and New Mexico, and southward into northeastern Louisiana. There is also a large, disjunct population in Montana, and a small disjunct population in east-central Colorado. There is a single black marginal line and consistent black ocelli and spots on the carapace.

The pallid spiny softshell (A. s. pallida) occurs east of the Rio Brazos in eastern Texas and in the upper Red River region of Oklahoma to northwestern Louisiana. The carapace is pale and possesses white tubercles that are actually larger toward the rear of the shell and diminish in size toward the front. No black spots or ocelli are present. 


The Smooth and Florida Softshells:

The smooth softshell shows a marked preference for large rivers with moderate to swift currents. Waterways with a sandy bottom and few to no rocks or aquatic vegetation are favored. It is distinguished from the other native North American species by a complete lack of knobs or tubercles on the carapace. Adult females are capable of reaching up to 14 inches in length, while males are known only up to about half that size.


The midland smooth softshell (A. m. mutica) occurs primarily in the Mississippi, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Red, Colorado, Ohio and Cumberland Rivers. This subspecies is also occasionally found in lakes and marshes, and is distinguished by indistinct dark spots and short bars on the carapace. There are also pale stripes with thin black borders on the snout and head.


The Gulf Coast smooth softshell (A. m. calvata) occurs in watersheds along the Gulf Coast, including the Escambia, Alabama, Pascagoula and Pearl Rivers. There are large black spots and ocelli on the carapace, and pale stripes with thick black borders on the snout and head.


The Florida softshell turtle shows preference only for soft-bottomed waterways, and is equally likely to be found in large rivers as it is in livestock watering holes. It occurs from southern South Carolina westward to the eastern shore of Mobile Bay in Alabama, and southward to the tip of peninsular Florida. Distinctive characteristics 

Frenzied Feeding
Watching soft-shelled turtles feed can be a fascinating and exciting event. They’re highly animated feeders, and nearly any edible material plunked into the tank will be eagerly devoured by a softshell.
Live or pre-killed fish, insects and worms, as well as commercial fish and turtle pellets, are all appropriate fare for soft-shelled turtles. Fish and other live prey items will be hunted, pursued and ambushed, while pellets and other non-living items will be gobbled off the surface of the water with a quick gulp. Anything too big for a softshell to swallow whole will be torn to pieces by the turtle’s shearing jaws and piercing claws.

of this species are the rounded nodules along the anterior edge of the carapace and the dermal ridge around the rim of the carapace. Hatchlings and young juveniles are often strikingly patterned, with yellow to orange mottling on a dark-gray to black background, with a bold golden rim around the carapace. Unfortunately, this beautiful coloration fades with age, and adults are typically drab gray to brown. This is the largest of the North American soft-shelled species, with females capable of reaching almost 23 inches. While males are smaller, they still reach a very respectable 13 inches.


House of Pancakes:


Housing soft-shelled turtles in a community tank can be a risky proposition for both the softshell and any potential companions. Although softshells can normally cohabitate quite peacefully with other softshells as well as other turtle species, there is always the potential for conflict. Observation is required when keeping softies with other turtles, and they should be removed from the group at any indication of a problem. If they are able to assert their dominance, a softshell can swiftly become the tank bully and monopolize food and other resources. Even if they do not actually physically harm other turtles, softshells are capable of intimidating them to the point where the other turtles will stop feeding. Conversely, if another turtle begins nipping at the fleshy margin of the softy’s shell, serious injury can result.


Although they are hardy, adaptable and willing to eat just about anything, soft-shelled turtles can sometimes be difficult to adjust to captivity. As always, a captive-bred soft-shelled turtle is preferable to one taken from the wild. Captive-bred turtles are accustomed to housing under artificial conditions from the moment they hatch, are much less likely to be diseased or harbor parasites, and generally tend to be less aggressive than their wild-caught counterparts.


Softshells are accepting of a variety of housing arrangements, but they definitely require some specific conditions in order to remain healthy and active. Their tank must be provided with a sand substrate, or otherwise the water must be filtered with mechanical/biological/chemical filtration. Large, abrasive stone objects should be avoided. The leathery skin of a soft-shelled turtle’s shell is living tissue that is susceptible to injury and infection. Burrowing into and scooting about under the sand substrate helps exfoliate the shell. This removes bacteria and fungi, and stimulates regeneration of new, healthy skin. Without this provision, soft-shelled turtles are very susceptible to shell-skin infections that can eventually become systemic and kill the turtle.


The basking habit is well developed in soft-shelled turtles, so suitable basking accommodations must be provided if they are to remain healthy and vigorous. Basking raises a turtle’s metabolism to facilitate digestion and bolster the immune system. It also allows the skin to dry completely, which enhances the benefits of burrowing mentioned previously. Failure to provide sufficient basking sites will lead to a whole host of potential health problems, including skin infections, shell rot, and ear abscesses, just to name a few. Natural and artificial platforms, such as driftwood and commercially manufactured plastic, should be placed in stable configurations extending down to the bottom of the tank. Creative arrangements also contribute to the aesthetic appeal of a softshell tank, and a safe structure below the water’s surface can also provide a secure hiding spot. Care should be taken so that the structure can be safely crawled upon, in and around without trapping the turtle below the water’s surface, causing it to drown.


Softshells are excellent swimmers, and there is no limit to tank size. A turtle should be allowed 5 to 10 gallons of water per inch of carapace length at a minimum, and the tank provided should be as large as possible. This means that the average adult softshell may need a tank up to 200 gallons or more, so plan accordingly. And because they are lively, vigorous turtles, tank furnishings should be securely set into place to prevent any shifting or damage. Keep in mind that even a large, strong soft-shelled turtle can become trapped under a substantial object and drown!


Heat lamps and aquarium heaters can be used to regulate temperature ranges for pet soft-shelled turtles. Softshells are quite active, so titanium heaters are strongly recommended. If a glass heater is used instead, it should be used with a guard or protective shroud to prevent breaking. Water temperatures should be kept in the range of 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and air temps should be a few degrees warmer, around 75 to 85 degrees. Temperatures for the basking spot should reach upward of 90 to 100 degrees at its hottest point.


These temperatures can be allowed to drop about 5 degrees at night, and another 5 degrees or so during the winter. In nature, wild softshells can endure temperatures well outside their optimum activity range, but subjecting captive turtles to these extremes is not necessary or recommended.


Hatchling and juvenile soft-shelled turtles can be set up in something as simple as a mortar tub, with live or plastic plants and a water-safe chunk of driftwood for basking and hiding. As previously mentioned — and this cannot be stressed enough — a sand substrate should be provided for health and welfare. Other substrate media, such as crushed coral and river pebbles, should be avoided. As long as vitamin D is supplemented via a nutritious diet, a basking lamp is really only necessary to provide heat and light, and temperatures described above for larger softshells are appropriate for hatchlings as well.


Soft-shelled turtles are as remarkable in their form as they are in their behavior. Although in certain respects they can be somewhat delicate, in others they can be aggressive, as well. While they are capable of growing quite large and living a very long time, when their essential needs and requirements are fulfilled they make excellent captives. Their housing requirements are fairly straightforward and they are not finicky eaters. Remember, though, that soft-shelled turtles are not necessarily the best choice for a community tank. Still, for the dedicated keeper, these intriguing creatures make delightful captives and will provide ample reward for the keeper’s effort.  

The black spiny softshell (A. s. atra)

Softsheeled turtles types review : 


-Florida Softshell Turtle   Apalone ferox




    Adult Size:Florida softshells are the largest North American softshells with females reaching almost 24 inches in length; males tend to be half that size, approximately 12 inches.


    Range: Florida softshells are found throughout the Florida Peninsula and northward through the coastal plain regions of Georgia and southern South Carolina. They range westward to near Mobile Bay, Alabama.


     Habitat: The Florida softshell is likely to be found in large sinkhole ponds, large lakes (such as Okeechobee), and large karst springs and their slow-flowing, vegetation-choked river channels. Occasionally they will move overland and visit seasonal ponds.


Captive Lifespan: More than 20 Years


Care Level: Advanced



Overview :


The hatchling Florida softshell turtle is an attractive species and a beautiful addition to a home aquarium. They are strong swimmers and thus do well in deeper water habitats. However, Florida Softshells reach large body sizes and become quite pugnacious as adults, thus the eventual disposition of the animal may need to be considered at the outset.


Florida softshells will occasionally bask, but usually while floating on aquatic vegetation or partially submerged. Basking sites should not contain abrasive materials, such as sandstone rocks or concrete as these will irritate the softshell’s plastron. Because Florida softshells may be quite aggressive, they often show signs of injuries when kept together with other softshells, and occasionally other hard-shelled turtles. Thus, softshells are best kept separately.


Florida softshells are carnivorous and will capture small minnows and other fish, such as mosquitofish (Gambusia sp.) in aquarium settings. They will also eat turtle pellets, although they are more stimulated to feed when presented with live food.


Clean, filtrated water is a must for keeping Florida softshells healthy.

Care Sheet - The Soft-shelled Turtles :


 courtesy to : / by Darrell Senneke


Soft-shelled turtles, Family Trionychidae, are found in nearly every type of waterway in the world. Every continent with the exception of Australia and Antarctica is host to this unique family.   Soft-shelled turtles died out in Australia in the Pleistocene, around 40,000 years ago. 


Every species of soft-shell is slightly different in terms of it’s particular needs and maintenance which is not surprising in a family with species that may range in size as adults from 20 cm to 200 cm.   This care sheet is intended only to cover the general care of this turtle family.  Further research to best develop a maintenance plan for whichever species you are caring for is essential.  


In nature, most soft-shelled turtles reside in bodies of water with soft mud or sandy bottoms where they bury themselves and await passing prey.  They are generally avid baskers, utilizing rocks or floating logs and especially muddy banks to maintain proper thermoregulation.  They are very carnivorous from birth and are able to deliver a painful bite if the caregiver does not exhibit caution.  They are also lightning fast as befits a carnivorous species.  In nature a large part of their diet is crayfish and water insects, as well as carrion, fish and occasional plant material.  I have found that they take readily to commercial trout or catfish food.  I feed young, rapidly growing turtles small portions every day or larger portions every other day. I feed adults twice a week.    


Additional calcium supplementation is essential. Powdered calcium can be sprinkled all foods or placed inside of food items. It is suggested that one use calcium supplemented with vitamin D3 if the animal is being maintained indoors and calcium without D3 if it is outdoors. Provision of a cuttlefish bone, which can be gnawed if desired, is also recommended.  Addition of multivitamins if a commercially prepared turtle diet and/or live fish are NOT used is essential for proper fat metabolism.  The freezing process for fish destroys the vitamin E which is an important component for maintaining a healthy Soft-shell turtle.




Because of their aggressive nature soft-shells should not be kept in crowded conditions, either with other soft-shells or hard-shelled species.  Obviously the bigger the habitat is the more animals can be placed into it but I would not place more than a trio of 20 cm soft-shells in a 2 meter by 2 meter pond without making certain to include numerous sightline breaks to add security for them from each other. 


In indoor aquaria water depth should be maintained at a level that will allow the animal to reach the surface by stretching out its neck while buried in the sand in on the bottom.   This is especially important for hatchlings.   If an aquarium is used it should also have a dry basking area with a hardware store reflector clip light lamp positioned to provide artificial basking facilities. This should be positioned to provide a basking spot of 90 degrees F or so (32 degrees C) in that section of the habitat.  The habitat should also be equipped with a full spectrum fluorescent light to provide for UVB. A UVB source is necessary for Vitamin D3 syntheses (needed in calcium metabolism). If preferred to this lighting arrangement an “Active UV Heat” bulb may be used that fulfills both requirements.   


Substrate in a pond or aquaria should consist of fine sand or mud.  Sharp gravel and rock tends to scratch the shell of these species resulting in fungal or bacterial infections, which may be fatal.


Because of this tendency to develop shell fungus, it is critically important that these animals have access to sunlight outdoors or full spectrum UV lighting inside.  While there are many treatments for fungal infections, the best way to avoid it is simply to provide access to a basking area and sunlight to allow them to completely dry their shell when needed.  Other methods of avoiding this problem include lowering the pH to about 6.0 – 6.5.  Most fungal organisms do not thrive in a slightly acidic environment. 


Another condition of critical importance in avoiding disease is water quality.  As a general rule, the more water volume utilized, the more leeway for problems with water quality. Many problems with aquatic turtles can be averted if one spends a little time and money designing and purchasing an adequate filtration system for your aquatic pets.


Internal filters with submersible pumps are less expensive and easier to install.  However they are less efficient and require cleaning more often then the more expensive, external canister or wet-dry filters.  It is better to pay a bit more for the added effectiveness.


It should be noted that turtle and tortoise care research is ongoing. As new information becomes available we share this on the World Chelonian Trust web site at Serious keepers find it to be a benefit to have the support of others who keep these species. Care is discussed in our free online email community, which may be joined from the web address above. Please contact us about the many benefits of becoming a member of the World Chelonian Trust.

- Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle  Apalone spinifera

courtesy to : 



Medium to very large turtles with a round (hatchling) to oval (adult) skin-covered flattened carapace without scutes or keeling. In the hand they feel something like wet leather. The carapace (which extends back a good deal further than in our basking species) is flexible, & the posterior lip hangs a bit in some adults. The head has fairly high-set eyes & a long, almost snorkel-like nose giving them a ‘needle-nose’ or ‘Pinnochio’ face. The head enjoys excellent mobility on the neck, & softies can rise up from underwater & set the head with eyes & nose just above the surface, like an alligator. The neck is unusually long & rather thick. Spiny softshells take their name from small ‘thorn-like’ spines at the anterior carapace, prominent in some adults but harder to detect in juveniles. The carapace & skin match in color; variably tan to muddy-brown to olive, with spots or ocelli prominent on juveniles & some males but less distinct in larger females. The adult carapace can have a strong mottled, ‘muddy’ patterning. There may be limited striping on the head & neck. Softshells can darken & lighten their color a great deal over time to better match their habitat. The underside of the shell is while (yellow in some); the undersides of the limbs may be lighter as well. The plastron is hinge-less & reduced compared to the carapace. The toes are clawed & prominently webbed, & the feet have an oar-like appearance. Large specimens can inflict severe scratches.


Softshells (all species) stand out amongst North American turtles in having fleshy lips. In large adults this feature may be a bit exaggerated. Be warned - right behind those lips are hard, sharp jaws that can put you in stitches.


A prominent distinguishing feature of spiny softshells is the presence of a nasal septum lateral ridge’ – a small ‘bump’ on either side of the septum extending slightly into the nostril (pictured above). This aids in distinguishing spiny from smooth softshells. However, Florida softshells also have this ridge & Guadalupe spiny softshells may not (per Tom C. & Snapper Greg). Florida softshells lack anterior carapacial spines but have blunt knob-like bumps instead.

Male spiny softshells have larger, longer tails with the anus near the tip & are more prone to retain the vivid coloration & patterning of juveniles. They lack the elongated fore-claws typical of male sliders & cooters. Females get much larger than males.


We must emphasize that females can get massive by hobbyist standards. Males are hardly ‘small,’ but large females of this alert, active species are challenging to house. You must see a large female to appreciate this.


Overall Distribution: The 6 U.S. occurring sub-species: South-Central & South-Eastern U.S., with some branching & isolated populations in the southwest. There’s a disconnected group covering part of Montana. Strangely in the eastern states north of South Caroline (NC, VA, MD, DE, NJ) they are either absent or restricted to the western edges (& southern NC). NY & Vermont have some. Spiny softshells do penetrate slightly into extreme southeastern Canada.


Adult Sizes:

Male    5" - 9½"        

Female   6½" – 18"

-Eastern Spiny Softshell

Apalone spinifera spinifera



Probably the best-known spiny softshell in the pet trade, & so the ‘stereotype’ of the group.Turtles of the United States & Canada1, Page 114 distinguishes is from the other sub-species by large black ocelli (eye-like spots) in combo. with only one dark marginal line (thin black ‘outline’ around the carapace rim, seen from above).




East-central U.S., from western edges of NY, PA, WV, slightly VA & NC sweeping westward across OH, IN, IL, KY, TN & northern AL & NW MS to cross the Mississippi River into eastern IA, MO & AR. Some in WI. Some overlap with Western & Pallid spinies.



-Western Spiny Softshell

Apalone spinifera hartwegi




The black spots on the carapace are uniform and smaller than in Easterns. It displays only a single marginal line.




Central U.S. west of the Mississippi river; some over-lap with Eastern spinies along the western river border region. Occur over much of IA, MO, northern AR & east & central NE, KS & OK. Population extends ‘fingers’ southwestward into WY, CO, & a bit into north TX & NM. Isolated population in MT.



-Gulf Coast Spiny Softshell

Apalone spinifera aspera




Per Peterson’s Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of East/Central North America8, Pages 196-197, the 2 lateral head stripes in Gulf Coast spiny softshells usually meet further back on the head (those on Eastern spinies don’t) & 2 dark lines parallel the rear carapace margin (all other spinies have one).




Southeastern US covering much of MS, AL, GA, SC & also in western LA & south-central NC. Also found in the FL panhandle but nowhere in the peninsular portion of the state. Some overlap with Eastern & Pallid spinies.

-Guadalupe Spiny Softshell

Apalone spinifera guadalupensis



Turtles of the United States & Canada1, Page 116 states they live only in Nueces & Guadalupe-San Antonion watersheds in south-central Texas. Tom C. & SnapperGreg noted Guadalupe’s may lack the nasal septal ridge of other spinies. White tubercles surrounded by narrow black circles on the back 1/3 of the carapace, some tubercles can be quite large. It also may have some black dots spread out amongst the white tubercles.



A relatively small range in southern Texas, consisting of the Nueces and Guadalupe-San Antonio drainage systems of south-central Texas.

Pallid Spiny Softshell

Apalone spinifera pallida


It is pale and has white tubercles on the posterior half of the carapace. These tubercles descrease in size gradually towards the back end of the carapace and become indistinct or absent at the back 1/3. These tubercles are not surrounded by black circles.


A south-central range overing southern OK & AR, northeastern TX, & most of LA. Can be found in the upper Red River drainage and in the rivers that drain into the Gulf of Mexico east of the Brazos River in Texas.


- Texas Spiny Softshell

Apalone spinifera emoryi




The carapace is surrounded by a pale rim that is up to four or five times wider on the back than it is along the sides. It has a slightly curved line connecting the back margins of the eyes and the stripes behind the eyes are usually interrupted, leaving a pale blotch behind each eye.




Range is much more ‘long & narrow’ than other varieties, largest in Texas but veering westward to parts of NM, AZ, & the western AZ border touching CA, NV & UT. Some occurrence in northern Mexico. Can be found in the Rio Grande drainage in Texas and New Mexico and the Colorado River drainages in Arizona, New Mexico, southwestern Chihuahua, central Coahuila, northern Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas.

- Black Spiny Softshell

Apalone spinifera ater




This softshell is dark gray or brownish-black with a gritty to smooth carapace. The back portion of the carapace is wrinkled and creased with a ragged edge and sports no tubercles on the back rim. The plastron displays numerous black specks.


Restricted to permanent ponds in the Cuatro Cienegas basin in Coahuila, Mexico.



























* This section interpreted from info. in Peterson’s Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of East/Central North America8, Page 198 - 3 sub-species characterized by small white spots on the carapace (females beyond juvenile stage often lack them). In Guadalupes, white spots occur on almost all parts of carapace & often ringed in black. In Pallid spinies, white spots largely confined to posterior half of carapace & not ringed in black. In Texas spinies, white spots largely confined to rear third of carapace, which has a widened pale rim.



  • Air Temperature:  Low to Mid 80's

  • Basking Temperature:  Mid to High 80's

  • Water Temperature:  Mid 70's





  • Air Temperature:  Low to Mid 80's

  • Basking Temperature:  Mid to High 80's

  • Water Temperature:  Mid 70's



Softshell keepers should have a solid understanding of water quality, filtration, cover & substrate issues, coupled with the resources to provide spacious enclosures.


In the wild, they are predominant carnivores utilizing a wide prey-base varied with availability, including insects & insect larvae, crayfish & other crustaceans, small fish (live), larger fish (carrion), snails, mussels, frogs and worms. Some take in some vegetation. Don’t over-generalize from single locale population studies, but do consider Turtles of the United States and Canada1 Page 122-cited research (Williams & Christiansen, 1981)2 on the diet of spiny softies in Iowa – 36.5% fish (likely carrion), 5.8% small fish (likely caught) & 55% crayfish; 61% of spinies sampled contained plant matter. The % by volume was 24.2% crayfish, 17.2% large fish (remember; likely carrion), 2.2% small fish, 12.8% plant matter, & 21.6% as insects/insect larvae (i.e.: mayflies, beetles, Hemipterans ‘true bugs,’ dragon flies & damsel flies, caddisflies & some unidentifiable insect material), 19.5% unidentified animal matter & 2.0% sand &/or gravel. Also cited is research by Breckenridge (1944)3 on 18 spinies in Minnesota who contained 44% crayfish, 29% aquatic insects & 8% fish. So in nature the diet is overwhelmingly small invertebrates (insects & crayfish) supplemented with small fish, fish carrion & other items (i.e.: snails & mussels). Spiny softshells actively hunt but also ambush prey.

In captivity spiny softshells tend to favor carnivorous food items like aquatic turtle pellets, grasshoppers, crickets, ghost shrimp, small crayfish, small fish, earth worms & blood worms. They may show little interest in aquatic plants or Romaine lettuce but will eat Spirulina algae wafers & commercial tortoise pellets. A youngster may be slow to warm to commercial pellets. We recommend you don’t use wild snails (known to be intermediate vectors of a number of indirect life cycle parasites affecting a range of animals, & snails of the genus Goniobasis are known to transmit lung flukes to loggerhead musk turtles5). If you don’t provide UV-B lighting, make sure the diet includes Vitamin D3 sources such as a brand name commercial food (i.e.: ReptoMin or Mazuri aquatic turtle foods).




For the first 6 months of life, feed commercial pellets or meaty foods such as earthworms or fish in moderation once daily, enough to diminish appetite but not gorge the turtle. After 6 months, switch to every other daily feeding. Romaine lettuce & other leafy greens may be offered daily for graze at will (if your softy is an odd-ball & likes plants). Over time adjust diet content & schedule accounting for growth, activity level & appetite. Overfeeding high-protein foods can cause rapid growth & is believed harmful to the liver & kidneys. Softshells lack the keratinized plates (scutes) of hard-shelled species & I’ve not heard of shell deformities (pyramiding) from over-feeding as basking turtles may suffer, but they can still suffer metabolic bone disease (MBD) like any reptile.


It is critical you do not gorge your juvenile softshell. We have had reports of both smooth & spiny softshell juveniles abruptly dying shortly after gorging on food. The mechanism is unknown (Timdog speculated so much food may cause a drop in abdominal space preventing lung expansion, but we don’t know).




Wild softshells are heavily aquatic & seldom leave the water except to lay eggs or bask (they are at serious risk for dehydration if out of water long). Turtles of the United States & Canada1 Pages 117-118 claims they are predominantly a riverine species (also inhabiting marshy creeks, bayous, oxbows, lakes & impoundments), & states a soft bottom with some aquatic vegetation seems essential (& sandbars & mud flats are usually present). The Amphibians and Reptiles of Arkansas6 Page 241 states they inhabit a wider variety of habitats, & are more prone to bask on emergent rocks, logs & other objects, than smooth softshells. Turtles of the United States & Canada1 also states the preferred microhabitat appears dominated by areas with much submerged brush, fallen trees & other debris. I found an adult in a creek under 10 feet wide, & many live in our neighboring Little River in SW KY, including area around 20-30 feet wide & 1-3 feet deep. I can view the most wild Eastern spiny softshells in large stream-like habitat with steep, grassy but not badly overgrown banks & good sun exposure. I have not found the lack of brush & debris to be a problem. They bask on muddy banks at the water’s edge, often right on the water line, facing the water & ready to dart in. Rocks & even logs may be used. Wild spiny softshells are vigilant & wary, quick to slide in when humans are still many yards away (as befits an animal with no hard-shelled protection). Unlike with sliders, field herping spiny softshells is an acquired skill. One common feature of spiny softshell habitats seems to be moving (hence better oxygenated) water; I’ve seen them in creeks & rivers but not static water bodies like farm ponds. Turtles of the United States & Canada1 Pages 118-119 indicates they’re strongly diurnal & at night sleep buried in bottom substrate or amid branches of submerged trees.In southwestern KY Wallob & I have noted softshells are the last aquatic turtles to come out in Spring & the first to disappear in the Fall (compared to RES, stinkpots & common snappers).

In captivity, spiny softshells need spacious enclosures with pristine water quality, cover to feel secure (such as live or plastic plants) & a basking platform. They are apt to burrow into sand or muddy bottoms, & given the chance may extend the neck up for air without coming out (looks rather like a very strange needle-nosed snake). ‘Play Sand’ (sold at Home Depot & other vendors) is widely used for softshells. Sand sucked into your filter’s intake can damage the impeller, so if you use sand keep the intake at least 5” above the sand bed & ideally put a pre-filter sponge on your intake. Small gravel is an alternative less prone to get sucked into filters but your Python or gravel vacuum will suck it up more so than larger gravel. Some keepers compromise & offer a bowl or basin of sand in the tank; be warned it’ll get out! For no substrate or non-burrowable substrate tanks, supporting cover is important; aim for a ‘jungle look’ with submerged plastic &/or live plants. Softshells are vulnerable to bacterial & fungal infections starting with scratches & nicks from tank contents or other turtles; hence, avoid abrasive tank contents, crowding & poor water quality. If your animal seems infection-prone consider a UV-Sterilizer. Their burrowing may uproot plants; consider such plants asAnacharis or some Salvinia that require no substrate. In deference to their natural flowing, well-aerated habitat, direct your filter’s outflow to provide surface flow/turbulence. In Keeping and Breeding Freshwater Turtles7 Page 127, Russ Gurley indicated adding 1 teaspoon aquarium salt per gallon water can be beneficial. 


Someone reported keeping softshells in outdoor concrete ponds where they prospered & speculated that natural sunlight may’ve enabled them to shrug off the nicks & scratches concrete brings. I don’t recommend concrete or brick in softy tanks, but be aware. If you must use concrete, consider sealing it with something like marine epoxy, which coats & smooths.




Recommended size for a single adult Apalone spinifera would be a 75 gallon aquarium as a minimum (90 or larger preferred) for a male. We don’t recommended large females be kept in conventional aquariums. They are too large & active and require extreme amounts of space. Stock tanks are an option, with a minimum requirement of 400 gallons (600 gallon or larger preferred). This will provide adequate swimming space & assist the filtration in maintaining good water quality. For additional males, we recommend adding a minimum 75 gallons of tank space per additional turtle. For females, add no less than 100 gallons of space per turtle.


With these space recommendations you may consider a swimming pool. Be sure you get one with great structural stability.




At least 1.25x’s the SCL of an adult, & preferably deeper, up to 4 feet or more. A shallow ‘shelf’ area for resting near the surface will be appreciated, particularly if it offers a container of sand to burrow in.




Turtles of the United States & Canada1 Page 120 states spiny softshells are aggressive toward their own species, the larger tend to dominate the smaller in captive interactions (invariably involving a considerable amount of biting) & yet they’re usually not pugnacious with hard-shelled turtles. In Keeping and Breeding Freshwater Turtles7 Page 127, Russ Gurley notes they are somewhat aggressive, especially to smaller softshelled turtles. Bill Ninesling of Indian River Reptile, Inc. once told me they’re often tail nippers. Tom noted there have been those that have had success keeping them with Musk Turtles, Sliders, Cooters, Map Turtles and Painted Turtles. He has kept 2 separate male spiny softshells with hard-shelled tank mates (but not each other) without problems. Some people do mix them. Visual barriers in large tanks may help but no home aquarium is large enough to thwart a determined aggressor. Softshells’ thin noses are vulnerable to fights over food, & the slim, soft shells are easily injured. Such injuries are infection-prone.


We recommend keeping softies alone or in spacious enclosures with strong filtration, no crowding & no aggressive tank mates. Watch closely when first mixing.

Unlike many of their hard-shelled brethren, spiny soft-shell turtles do not exhibit temperature-dependent sex determination & clutches will produce roughly 50/50 mixes under a range of conditions. Females are large enough to lay large clutches. Keeping and Breeding Freshwater Turtles7 Page 272 gives typical artificial incubation time at around 55-60 days at 82ºF & 75-85% humidity. Considering that spiny softshells have large clutches, are demanding to keep long-term, neither threatened nor endangered, in good supply in the hobby, & command low prices, it is not recommended you breed them.


Hatchlings softshells are delicate; in Keeping and Breeding Freshwater Turtles7 Page 126, Russ Gurley opines they are probably the most sensitive hatchling turtles in captivity re: captive care. In Practical Encyclopedia of Keeping and Breeding Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles9 Page 256 A. C. Highfield recommended both high quality external filtration & UV sterilization to reduce risk of slight injuries becoming infected.


Keeping wastes dilute & filtration strong is easiest in large water volumes. While a 20 gallon long tank 2/3’rds filled is acceptable, the larger the tank the better water quality is apt to be. Provide real (if you have strong lighting) or artificial plants for cover, & ideally either a sand substrate or bowl of sand for hiding to foster a sense of security. Aim for water temp. 80ºF & offer a non-abrasive basking platform. UV-B lighting is recommended. If you have more than one in an enclosure, watch for aggression, injuries & avoid over-feeding. We recommend a UV sterilizer at least on smaller enclosures or those with a number of turtles.

Spiny Softshell turtles can be aggressive when handled. Larger specimens’ jaws can lacerate you badly enough to require stitches, & their claws can on occasion penetrate skin. They have a long reach & often struggle vigorously when handled.


The 6 spiny softshell sub-species native to the U.S.A. range from neotropically warm extreme southern US & even northern Mexico all the way to extreme southeastern Canada. Don’t expect a Texas softshell from northern Mexico to handle overwintering in the harsh climate of Montana! Be mindful of sub-species & ‘climate of origin’ if outdoor keeping is expected (with females, it always is).


Turtles of the United States & Canada1 Page 119 cites research (Bentley and Schmidt-Nielsen, 1970)4 that spiny softshells’ skin is 3 or 4 times more permeable to water than sliders.’ Be mindful of that if you need dry dock one, or it escapes its enclosure. I don’t see spiny softshells wandering on land the way I see common snappers & RES do.


Keeping and Breeding Freshwater Turtles7 Page2 124-125, Russ Gurley states successfully keeping softshells is very difficult & recommends keepers keep Acriflavine & Silvadene cream on hand for emergencies. Softshells are more sensitive to Betadine than hard-shelled turtles. You can treat some conditions with it, but don’t overdo it.


It is possible to sex young juvenile spiny softshells, albeit a few months after hatching. Hatchling spiny softshells (both sexes) typically have prominent spots & ocelli (rings around spots). In females over time the rings disperse to become smudgy halos, then continue dispersion to form muddy patches/blotches reminiscent of lichen patches on a rock. Hatchlings are roughly 30-40 mm SCL1. Terry Graham10 reported examining about 60 Eastern Spiny hatchlings in Vermont with none displaying a blotched (female) pattern. In a head-start program he later observed 6 Eastern Spiny hatchlings over 4 months, & 2 developed female patterning (the first indication being the smudgy halo around each ocellus) at around SCL 52 mm (a bit > 2”). Regarding the Gulf Coast Spiny Softshell, Webb11 cited the largest females with no blotched pattern were PL (plastron length) 7.6 cm & 8.0 cm (SCL would’ve been a bit longer). In summary, while this method is not full-proof, for juvenile Eastern spiny softshells > 2” SCL well-defined rings/ocelli with no smudging appear strongly suggestive of males, whereas ring-smudging & blotchiness is strongly suggestive of a female.



1.)    Turtles of the United States and Canada – Carl H. Ernst, Jeffrey E. Lovich and Roger W. Barbour. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London. ©1994. (Possibly the preeminent natural history text of North American turtles – very highly recommended. Note it uses an older naming system for North American soft-shells). 682 pp.

2.)    Williams, T. A., and J. L. Christiansen. 1981. The niches of two sympatric softshell turtles, Trionyx muticusand Trionyx spiniferus, in Iowa. J. Herpetol. 15:303-308 ((cited in Turtles of the United States and Canada, Page 122).

3.)    Breckenridge, W. J. 1944. Reptiles and amphibians of Minnesota. Univ. Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. 202 pp. ((cited in Turtles of the United States and Canada, Page 122).

4.)    Bentley, P. J., and K. Schmidt-Nielsen. 1970. Comparison of the water exchange in two aquatic turtles,Trionyx spinifer and Pseudemys scripta. Comp. Bio-chem. Physiol. 32:363-365 (cited in Turtles of the United States and Canada, Page 119).

5.)    Cox, W. A., S. T. Wyatt, W. E. Wilhelm, and K. R. Marion. 1988. Infection of the turtle, Sternotherus minor, by the lung fluke, Heronimus mollis: incidence of infection and correlations to host life history and ecology in a Florida spring. J. Herpetol. 22:488-490 (cited in Turtles of the United States and Canada, Page 160).

6.)    The Amphibians and Reptiles of Arkansas – Stanley E. Trauth, Henry W. Robison and Michael V. Plummer. University of Arkansas Press. © 2004. (Billed as the product of 15 years of work by top herpetologists, features over 136 species & sub-species).

7.)    Keeping and Breeding Freshwater Turtles Russ Gurley. Living Art Publishing, Ada, Oklahoma. ©2003. (Excellent advanced general care guide). 300 pp.

8.)    Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern/Central North America – Peterson’s Field Guide Series – Roger Conant and Joseph T. Collins. 3’rd Ed., expanded. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, New York. ©1998.

9.)    Practical Encyclopedia of Keeping and Breeding Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles – A. C. Highfield. Carapace Press, London, England. ©1996. (The definitive general chelonian husbandry guide for years; the only serious competitor I’ve seen is Gurley’s book1).

10.)                        Graham, T. E. and C. B. Cobb. 1998. Sexual dimorphism of neonate eastern spiny softshells, Apalone spinifera. Chelonian Cons.Biol. 3:111-112.

11.)                        Webb 1992. Univ. Kansas Publ. Mus. Nat. Hist. 13:429-611).

Spiny Softshell turtle care video

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