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Common Musk Turtle, Stinkpot Turtle

Sternotherus odoratus

What do they look like?

The common musk turtle is a relatively small turtle with an average length of 8 to 14 cm(about 3 to 5 inches). The carapace is brown or black, and has a smooth, oval shape with a high dome. When these turtles are hatchlings, the carapace is usually black and rough. The skin is a dark-olive to black color, and there are two prominent yellow lines that run from the snout to the neck, one on either side of the eye. For both the male and female, there are barbels located on the chin and the underside of their rather long neck. These barbels on the throat are not found in other musk turtles. The male differs from the female in that he has a larger head, a long and stout tail with a spine, and areas of tilted scales on the insides of the rear legs. Males also have broad areas of skin showing between plastral scutes, whereas females have very small areas of skin in these spaces. (Grzimek 1975, Garrett and Barker 1987, Conant and Collins 1998, Bartlett and Bartlett 1999).

Where do they live?

Sternotherus odoratus, or the common musk turtle, is a widespread and abundant species that can be found along the coast of the eastern United States from the northeastern states down into Florida. Their range extends west to the Great Lakes region, through Illinois, to western Kansas and Oklahoma and reaches its western most distribution in central Texas. This musk turtle occurs further north than all of the other musk turtles. (Grzimek 1975, Whitfield 1984, Conant and Collins 1998, Bartlett and Bartlett 1999).

What kind of habitat do they need?

The habitat of the common musk turtle includes any kind of permanent body of water, like shallow streams, ponds, rivers, or clear water lakes, and it is rare to find the turtle elsewhere. While in the water, this musk turtle stays mainly in shallow areas. Sometimes it can be found basking on nearby fallen tree trunks or in the branches of trees overhanging the water (Garrett 1987, Conant and Collins 1998, Bartlett and Bartlett 1999).

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • lakes and ponds
  • rivers and streams

How do they reproduce?

The female common musk turtle is known to dig shallow nests at the water's edge under rotting logs or dead leaves, and sometimes these turtles will nest two or more times a year. Communal nesting also occurs frequently within this species. The turtles mate underwater, and then the female lay one to nine eggs sometime between February and June. The hatchlings emerge 60 to 84 days later (Whitfield 1984, Garrett and Barker 1987, Bartlett and Bartlett 1999).

  • Key Reproductive Features
  • gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate)
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    1277 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    Sex: male
    1277 days

How long do they live?

How do they behave?

The most prominent behavior of the common musk turtle is its defensive tactic. When disturbed, this turtle will quickly release a foul-smelling liquid from its musk glands. This kind of defense earned the musk turtle the nickname of "stinkpot". Also, the male is particularly aggressive and will not think twice about biting. Another unique behavior the nocturnal common musk turtle exhibits while foraging is that they walk on the bottom of the stream or pond instead of swimming like other turtles (Whitfield 1984, Garrett and Barker 1987, Line 1998, Bartlett and Bartlett 1999).

What do they eat?

Sternotherus oderatus is somewhat of a food generalist, as it is known to eat small amounts of plants, mollusks, small fish, insects, and even carrion. Foraging on the muddy bottom of streams or ponds is the chief way of collecting food (Whitfield 1984, Garrett and Barker 1987).

Do they cause problems?

This turtle is neither helpful or harmful to most of the human society, except for the fishermen. These turtles are not fun to find on the end of a fishing line, as they will secrete their strong-smelling musk quickly, and aggressively try to bite (Line 1998).

Are they endangered?

Sternotherus oderatus is not endangered as it is one of the most widespread species and is common in most areas. The main reason for this might be that this turtle is a habitat and food generalist (Murphy 1967, Grzimek 1975, Whitfield 1984).


Kara Stabler (author), Southwestern University, Stephanie Fabritius (editor), Southwestern University.


Bartlett, R., P. Bartlett. 1999. A Field Guide to Texas Reptiles and Amphibians. Houston, Tx: Gulf Publishing Co..

Garrett, J., D. Barker. 1987. A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Texas. Austin, Tx: Texas Monthly Press.

Grzimek, B. 1975. Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co..

Line, L. 1998. When the Best Offense Is a Good Defense. National Wildlife, 36: 28.

Murphy, R. 1967. The Larousse Encyclopedia of Animal Life. New York,NY: McGraw-Hill Book Co..

Whitfield, P. 1984. Longman Illustrated Animal Encyclopedia. London: Guild Publishing.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Stabler, K. 2000. "Sternotherus odoratus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 12, 2024 at

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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