Hello. I’m Richard Lunsford, a 34 year old Psychiatrist living, working & herping in & around Southwestern Kentucky. I live in Hopkinsville, a city of around 33,000 people. A small river (more of a stream, really) called the Little River runs through town in its convoluted course. About a half hour south is Clarksville, a city of over 100,000 in northwestern TN. The Cumberland and Red Rivers adjoin & pass through Clarksville, which also features Dunbar Cave State Natural Area, which has a cave system and a 15 acre water body called Swan Lake. I herp these areas fairly often, and that’s where much of my experience lies. Of these regions, the Little, Cumberland and Red Rivers contain softshell turtles. Wallob Hebel is a friend, co-worker & fellow herper. Those softshells we’ve captured in Little River have been spiny softshells, and according to Phil. Peak in Louisville, KY, the smooth softshell is fairly rare in our region so we take those we see to be spinies.


            Why an article on herping for softshell turtles? Why not sliders, painted turtles, common snappers or stinkpots? My reasons vary, but here are some of the basics. Sliders are easy to find in the wild, bask a great deal & prefer large logs that are often in open areas where they can be spotted quickly. In areas frequented by humans they become desensitized & you may get within 15 feet of one. Common snappers are more wary but often encountered on land (females heading out to nest) or creeks, ditches & mud holes (as juveniles). Stinkpots are interesting & worthwhile so perhaps another day. But softshells are beautiful, unique & very distinct from other turtles, wary & unlikely to be found without application of herping skills. They have a wide range & are accessible to many people yet you can live around them for decades & never see one. In short, they’re challenging & unusual animals most of you have access to if you learn how it’s done.


What Are Softshell Turtles?

            Softshell turtles comprise a very old, large & wide-spread order of turtles with members in both the Old World (Eurasia, Africa, etc…) and the New World (the Americas). In the United States, there are 3 main species:


1.)    Spiny Softshell – For many of us the mainstream softshell turtle. A very wide-ranging species with several subspecies. Large, flattened turtles reminiscent of pancakes with long, pointed noses. Tend to be varied gradations of yellow & brown with dark spots or specks. Spiny softshells inhabit river systems, large lakes and smaller water bodies (including fairly narrow, shallow streams) that connect to rivers.


Spiny softshells have a small proturberance on both sides of the nasal septum; smooth softshells do not. Also notice in this photo the anterial carapacial rim spines from which the spiny softshell takes its name.



            Exception: Tom C. has noted the lack of the internasal ridge in local Guadelupe Spiny Softshell turtles where he herps in the Ft. Worth area of Texas. Greg Brashear likewise reports that Guadelupe softies often show up in Petco.s in his area & they don’t seem to have the septal ridge (at least not as developed), and in fact and they seem to not be as ‘spiny’ as their more eastern relatives.



2.)    Smooth Softshell – Like the spiny softshell it closely resembles, a very-wide ranging species with several subspecies. Distinguishing spiny & smooth softshells is often hard & may require capture. Males reputedly slightly smaller than spiny males. However, smooth softies (at least juveniles) have a reputation for not being as hardy as spiny softshells & they seem a bit less prevalent in the pet trade.


3.)    Florida Softshell – The largest & some believe the most primitive. The Florida softshell males approach the size of smooth & spiny females, and Florida females are massive. Yet strangely these beasts may frequent smaller water bodies (i.e.: ponds) than spiny & smooth softshells do. Despite being more than most keepers will care for well over the long haul, hatchlings are common in the pet trade as they have darker, richer color with bolder blotching than the other North American softshells.


            These fascinating turtles differ substantially from their hard-shelled cousins. They have larger carapaces, lacking the hard keratinized scutes of the hard-shelled turtles (so essentially the ‘shell’ is actually covered with skin), and reduced plastrons. This style of shell is shared with the Fly River Turtle, a similar looking but only distantly related sole survivor having its own classification Order (and an exotic; don’t worry about running across one unless you live in New Guinea, Australia or thereabouts). Unlike Fly River Turtles the softshell’s carapace is often quite flattened, contributing to the ‘pancake’ or ‘frisbee’ look. This affords them the power to slice through water rapidly & lie on muddy banks with a low side-view profile. Softshells are the only turtle I’ve seen with actual lips; these are fleshy & fairly large, giving them a different ‘look’ than most turtles, The jaws behind those lips are hard & sharp like the other turtles, and softshells can inflict severe bites.


Fly River Turtle.


How Can You Tell a Male from a Female?

            There are 2 main techniques, one practical from older juvenile stage onward, the other in adults. The first you use with captured softies; just look at the tail. Male spiny softshells have large, long tails almost reminiscent of a 5’th leg. Females have a respectable but somewhat smaller tail; once you see a few of each sex the distinction will become fairly second nature.



Male Spiny


Female Spiny


Female Spiny (Note: laying by a knife, not stabbed)


            The second technique is crude, useful at a distance & requires more experience. Put bluntly, female softshells get a good deal larger than males and when you see a really huge one, it’s a female (although male Florida softies get pretty large). But ‘guessing’ the gender of huge adult females is about all this is good for.


Natural Habitat of the Spiny Softshell.

            As befits a very aquatically capable turtle with poor shell-based protection, softshells are highly aquatic and at least the spiny and smooth don’t appear prone to wonder overland as sliders & common snappers do. Therefore, they tend to occur in rivers, large lakes and their tributaries but not isolated farm ponds (where sliders, common snappers & mud turtles turn up). None-the-less, they can & will occupy water bodies right down to the size of large creeks several feet wide & perhaps a foot deep. This water body must connect to a larger water body to allow colonization, & either be permanent or have a nearby connection of a larger, permanent water body.


            In my experience, spiny softshell turtles prefer open water areas without a great deal of canopy overhanging the water, with sand/mud mixture banks that aren’t too steep (moderate is okay; vertical walls are not) and grassy growth around the bank. A sandy/muddy bottom into which they can bury themselves is preferred. The water can be surprisingly shallow, but when a stream dips to under a couple of feet the larger females may move elsewhere (? Perhaps upstream?) until levels rise. Here are some habitat examples where Wallob and I have found spiny softshells.



Little River just north of River Walk


A pond-like side-extension of Red River (There’s a softy in this shot!)


Texas Stream Habitat


Herping Behavior of the Spiny Softshell.


Basking: Softshells bask much more than is commonly supposed but seldom on the sticks & logs their hard-shelled cousins the sliders favor. Given the ‘soft’ skin-covered shell of the softshell, this may not be as comfortable for them (whereas sliders have a hard plastron to bear their weight). Spiny softshells often bask on flat surfaces such as muddy banks & large, flat rocks. They commonly bask right on the water line, often partially in the water, where they low-profile & drab, muddy mottled brown coloration blends well to the muddy bank. In fact, spiny softshells along the shoreline often look like large dead magnolia leaves viewed at an angle.



Basking softshells on Little River.



            Exception that proves the rule; a softshell basking on a log drifting down the Cumberland River near a boat dock, where the bank is covered with large, gray rock.


In the Water: Softshells stroll about hunting amongst vegetation mats, and may pursue fish (one of the few turtles you may see doing this). They often lift their necks to the surface at a bit of an angle, with the head turned at a sharp angle so the raised eyes are above the surface film (reminiscent of an alligator’s face sitting in water). The long, large neck & large fore-legs may give the softshells a front-heavy appearance, and the somewhat small head tapering to a pointed nose may make it hard for your mind to ‘register’ what you’re looking at. The first time you see a large wild softshell you may find you can see it clearly but not understand what you’re looking at. Due to this long-necked front-heavy appearance & the manner they hold their heads up, softshells may make a subtle ‘bobbing’ motion in the water.


 Softshells in the Little River.


Response to Humans: A basking softshell is very wary & may go in the water when a typical adult human is a hundred feet away. They are bolder in the water, but still tend to submerge when humans come within 30 feet. As with most turtles, they respond to size, movement and noise so be quiet, move slowly & use cover when stalking spiny softshells. You will need to stalk them; this is much different than walking along a pond & occasionally noticing a basking red-eared slider. Remember that a softshell lacks that hard shell protection of other turtles so paranoia is a critical survival trait.


            A Note About Hatchlings: Very young softshells may ‘hold their ground,’ or go under & sit still when disturbed by humans, even to the point that one can go to & catch them. Wallob Hebel has caught 2 and Richard Gould 1 this way. But once they get past the hatchling stage they soon acquire the paranoid fervor of their forebears.


            Safety Concerns: Softshells flee first & foremost but if caught & given the opportunity bite hard. They have strong, sharp jaws & an adult can slice through skin & do enough damage to justify several stitches. The long neck provides good reach for the turtle. They are strong & while their claws aren’t likely to inflect deep lacerations, they can scratch & startle you into dropping the turtle. If you handle a wild softshell you will likely sandwich it between your hands, one supporting the plastron & the other pressing down on the posterior ½ to1/3 of the carapace to secure the turtle without crushing it, dropping it (due to its kicking) or getting bitten. Unlike sliders & musk turtles who pull into their shells & only bite if an easy opportunity presents, spiny softshells will stick their heads out & look around for opportunities. Stay alert.



            I find the largest numbers of basking spiny softshells in Spring & early Summer. When summer progresses & every day is in the high 80’s or low 90’s they are seen but bask less often. Where I herp Little River, when water levels fall a large female Wallob & I like to photograph disappears for awhile, presumably moving upstream to larger, more shaded areas. While I stereotypically favor sunny days, I have also found softshells out on cloudy days & after rains.


How To Herp for & Photograph Spiny Softshells.

1.)    Find Proper Habitat – A river, large lake or tributary from same. Low to moderately steep sloped grassy banks with sand &/or mud & bare areas near the water are choice.

2.)    Dress & Comport Yourself Well – Turtles can see & hear well & at least some species can see color. Don’t wear hot orange & chat loudly with a buddy.

3.)    Scan Ahead & Use a Viewing Aid - Walk along the bank on a stretch giving you a good long-distance view of the near, opposite or both banks. You must spot spiny softshells about 75 to 200 feet up ahead. You will probably need a digital camera with a powerful telephoto lens (or powerful image-stabilized or very stably held binoculars) to confirm their identity (until you’ve done this a few times).

4.)    Stalk Carefully - To approach, move out of their line of site (away from the water) & circle around to approach the water near the softshell, using intervening barriers (trees & other vegetation) as cover. Come in slowly & quietly. If you can put a large tree or bush between you and the turtle while you approach, do it. You can reach around the tree to photo. without exposing your whole body (use the tree to steady your camera, too). Turtles aren’t human & don’t think like we do; anything you do to reduce the size of your moving silhouette is a plus. Turtles tolerate my small friend Wallob getting close better than me (I’m much taller & a bit more, uh, robust than Wallob. Yeah, that’s it…robust…).

5.)    Watch the Body Language – Spiny softshells are highly alert & will probably see you quickly. When the softy raises its head, extends its neck or shifts position it’s considering hitting the water (which it’ll do momentarily).

6.)    Watch for Encores – At first you may think any softy hitting water buries into the mud & stays gone for hours. Not necessarily true. Sometimes they do hide, but if not too scared may swim just under the surface, trying to get a better look at the disturbance (you), swim across a stream & surface where the bank & vegetation gives them cover, & eventually return to their basking spot. Consider hitting the site again in half an hour if they went in on you the first time.

7.)    Photography – Ideally you should have a 640 mm telephoto capability (17x ‘optical zoom’ in common digital camera usage, although zoom isn’t the same as telephoto) with image stabilization. Even the greatest telephoto compact digital cameras (Panasonic DMC-FZ1 (12x, 420 mm) & the Olympus 7x0 series (730, 740, 750 – 10x) would need a teleconverter to achieve that (say, the Olympus TCON 17, perhaps with a ring adapter). A compact digital camera with 10x – 12x is probably as close as most of you will get. For Digital SLR owners, the Canon 100-400 IS & Nikon 80-400 VR lenses are good choices (given the Canon 10D and Nikon D100 focal length multipliers that extend lens power a great deal). That said, when you see the softy, zoom in & take a few shots, get a few steps closer, take a few shots & so on. Odds are the turtle will go in before you get close enough to the shot you want, so take what you can get. You can blow the photo.s up on your computer screen later.


Can I Catch One?


            There are ways to do this I’m not going into here for a few reasons. One, it can be traumatic to the turtle. Two, a large softy can do you some real damage. Third (& my main reason), some of you would be tempted to catch a ‘pet.’ I have no issue with catching hatchlings or juveniles under 1 year of age for personal pets. I do have an issue with catching sub-adults & adults for pets. Turtles in general seem to have some aptitude for learning. Softshells are a very alert, skittish clan that are fast & active. I am concerned a softy not raised in captivity from a very young age is less likely to acclimate well to captivity & human contact. I recommend you start out learning where to find them & cultivating the skill of doing so & getting closer. There is time for learning to actually capture & handle them later.


Richard Lunsford


With Special Thanks to Tom Coy, Wallob Hebel, (Snapper) Greg Brashear.