JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — 11 out of the 16 documented turtle species in the Volunteer State can be found in and around East Tennessee.
Whether you’re curious about what turtle is the smallest, where to see different species or want to brush up on your fun fact knowledge of the hard shell reptiles, this list has the answers.
Below are the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency‘s (TWRA) documented turtle species found in the East Tennessee area.
Snapping Turtle – Chelydra serpentina
A Chelydra serpentina, commonly known as a Snapping Turtle, can be found in various bodies of water and occasionally on land. According to the TWRA, Snapping Turtles prefer muddy water or water with aquatic vegetation to conceal themselves.
Adult Snapping Turtles range from 8 to 18.5 inches in length and have long ridged tails. Its diet includes crayfish, frogs, snakes, birds and vegetation.
Fun fact: Snapping Turtle shells are often covered in mud or algae.
“While it is true Snapping Turtles have very powerful jaws which can cause injury, it is a myth that they will only let go after it thunders,” the TWRA stated.
Striped-Necked Musk Turtle – Sternotherus minor
The Striped-Necked Musk Turtle is the only subspecies of Loggerhead Musk Turtle that occurs in Tennessee, according to the TWRA.
Musk Turtles are often found in creeks, springs, ponds, rivers, wetlands and around fallen trees over soft underlayers. This particular species of turtle feeds on snails, mussels, insects, crayfish and vegetation.
Fun facts: When Musk Turtles are submerged in water, they’ll walk along the bottom floor searching for food. The turtles can reportedly stay underwater for long periods of time due to their ability to absorb oxygen from the water through the lining of their mouth and throat.
Male Musk Turtles have larger heads than females, while females have very short tails, according to the TWRA.
Eastern Musk Turtle – Sternotherus odoratus
Eastern Musk Turtles can be found throughout the Appalachian area, specifically in rivers, streams and ditches.
Similar to the Stripe-Necked Musk Turtle, the Eastern Musk has two hinges on its shell, one in front and one on the rear.
Fun fact: These particular turtles are often referred to as the ‘stinkpot’ due to the unpleasant odor released from its musk glands for defense.
Their diet consists of crayfish, minnows, tadpoles, algae, carrion, aquatic insects and fish eggs.
Eastern Painted Turtle, Chrysemys picta
These small, colorful turtles can be found along the Blue Ridge Mountains in lakes, rivers, ponds ditches and other various wetlands.
Eastern Painted Turtles have yellow stripes on the side of their heads and red marginal scutes, according to the TWRA. Younger turtles are more brightly colored.
Fun fact: Eastern Painted Turtles spend time basking on rocks and logs and can live up to 60 years.
Eastern Painteds are similar to the Southern Painted Turtle in looks; a genetic analysis is reportedly required to distinguish the two.
This species is common across Tennessee; however, they’re vulnerable to being killed on roadways and habitat destruction, stated the TWRA.
Bog Turtle, Glyptemys muhlenbergii
The Bog Turtle is Tennessee’s smallest and most threatened turtle, according to the TWRA.
Only growing 3 to 3.5 inches in length, Bog Turtles can be found in various mountain bogs, wetlands, swamps and springs up to 4,000 feet in elevation.
Fun fact: Bog Turtles’ homes are high in biodiversity and are an imperiled ecosystem.
“Bog Turtles are listed as ‘threatened’ by TWRA and considered very rare and imperiled by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation,” the TWRA reports. “Populations are under considerable threat due to the loss of their mountain bog habitat from farming, wetland destruction and development. Also, Bog Turtles are at risk of being collected and sold in the commercial pet trade.”
Northern Map Turtle, Graptemys geographical
Northern Map Turtles, named due to their green shells and yellow lines resembling waterways or roads on a map, can be found in Cumberland River drainages in East Tennessee.
This species preferred habitats are lakes, rivers, sloughs and large ponds, according to the TWRA.
Fun facts: Northern Map turtles are very wary and are quick to slip into the water from their basking area. The turtles have been known to move under ice in frozen lakes, the TWRA reports.
Northern Map Turtles are similar to various other species, including False Map Turtles, Mississippi Map Turtles and Painted Turtles.
Ouachita Map Turtle, Graptemys ouachitensis
The Ouachita Map Turtle is the one subspecies of False Map Turtle that can be found in Tennessee, according to the TWRA.
Like the Northern Map turtle, Ouachitas are covered with intricate yellow lines that resemble roads or waterways on maps.
Male Ouachita Map Turtles have a mostly carnivorous diet, while females are more herbivorous.
Fun fact: The Ouachita name is from a Native American tribe from northeastern Louisiana.
These turtles can be found basking in large rivers and lakes throughout Tennessee.
River Cooter, Pseudemys concinna
These locally abundant turtles are often found basking in the sun on river banks, fallen logs or trees.
The River Cooter can grow up to 9 -12 inches in length and has a brown/black shell with orangish-yellow lines.
Mostly herbivores, these turtles prefer large rivers and lakes but can be seen in ponds, wetlands and floodplain river pools, according to the TWRA.
Fun fact: River Cooters are fond of basking in the sun and, if space is limited, they will stack 2 or 3 on top of each other.
Although this species is abundant, population numbers have reportedly declined. River Cooters are vulnerable to water pollution, human consumption, automobiles and sport killing, stated the TWRA.
Eastern Box Turtle, Terrapene Carolina
An Eastern Box turtle is a familiar species around Tennessee and the Appalachian Mountains.
Most of the species have yellowish-to-orange spots with dark brown and black shells and skin. Males have red eyes, usually, and females have brown eyes, according to the TWRA.
Fun fact: Eastern Box Turtles are the only turtle in Tennessee that can fully close themselves into their shell, reportedly due to their broad-hinged shell.
These turtles are common across the state, as reported by the TWRA, but populations are in decline due to habitat loss from human development, mortality from cars and pet collection.
You can find Eastern Box Turtles in any moist, mature oak-hickory forest with scattered open areas.
Pond Slider, Trachemys script
Three subspecies of Sliders are recognized in Tennessee, Red-eared Slider, Yellow-bellied Slider and Cumberland Slider.
“Red-eared Slider occurs west of the Upper Cumberland and Tennessee River drainages to the Mississippi River, Yellow-bellied Slider occurs in the Tennessee River in the southeast corner of the state,” said the TWRA. “Cumberland Slider occurs in the Upper Cumberland and Tennessee River drainages in eastern Tennessee.”
These medium-sized aquatic turtles prefer still waters like ponds and lakes, but they can also be found in rivers, sloughs and oxbow lakes. Multiple basking sites are important to Sliders, according to the TWRA.
Fun facts: Their name refers to their quick retreat into the water when feeling threatened. Red-eared Sliders in particular are sold in pet stores around the world and are often released into the wild outside of their natural range.
While Sliders are common across Tennessee, their populations have reportedly declined due to pet and food trade.
Spiny Softshell, Apalone spinifera
This round, flat turtle with a long tubular snout reportedly lives throughout the state.
Mostly found in large rivers, streams, marshes, ponds and lakes, the Spiny Softshell is a carnivorous species.
Fun facts: Their upper shell is soft and leathery with no scales or plates. An outline of their vertebrae and ribs can faintly be seen in the middle of the back, stated the TWRA.
Spiny Softshells are abundant in Tennessee except for the northeast corner. The population is reportedly vulnerable to commercial farming, shoreline development and chemical pollution.
Where to see different turtles in the East Tennessee:
Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium
Bays Mountain Park has several different species of turtles on display for visitors. Tyler Wicks, Chief Ranger at the park, told WATE’s sister station, WJHL, the species include: Softshell Turtles, Box Turtles, Snapping Turtles, Painted Turtles and Red-eared Sliders.
Many of the turtles on this list can be observed in their natural habitats throughout East Tennessee. If spotted, it is best to let them be and enjoy the sight.