Softshell turtles

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NORTH DAKOTA OUTDOORS - North Dakota has five turtle species.

Photo courtesy: North Dakota Game and Fish

Most people are probably familiar with the painted and snapping turtles which are common around the state. But the smooth and spiny softshell turtles? Perhaps not so much.

"The unique thing about the softshell turtle species that we have in the state is they don't look like the other turtles. They don't have a hard shell like the other three turtles we do have. Their shells are covered with a leathery skin, it gives them their name, softshell turtle," said Pat Isakson, North Dakota Game and Fish conservation biologist.

There are slight differences between the two species of softshell turtles.

"Both the spiny softshell turtle and the smooth softshell turtle are very similar in characteristics. But one thing, if you did happen to get one in hand was the spiny softshell turtle has small bumps called tuburculars right along the front edge of their shell," said Isakson.

Isakson says the shell on softshell turtles are flat and smooth, which allows them to burrow into the sand and mud along the river.

"A unique characteristic that they have is their noses or snouts are elongated and that allows them to breathe. One of the things that they like to do is bury themselves in the mud, both for protection and for ambushing their prey. And that long snout that they have allows them to stick just their nose out of the sand and up out of the water and breathe," said Isakson.

Softshell turtles are native to the Missouri River System in North Dakota.

"Softshell turtles in the state are found in the Missouri River System south of Garrison Dam. One is a little bit more common than the other. The spiny softshells found from the border all the way up to the dam and in the tributaries, and the smooth softshells are only found in the very southern portion of the river," said Isakson.

Turtles in the wintertime find deeper bodies of water and basically hibernate until spring when the ice comes off.