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What is a Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera)

Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera)

Spiny Softshell Turtle Overview

The Spiny Softshell Turtle is one of the largest freshwater turtles in North America with a unique-looking snout and even more unique shell. This turtles shell is not like your typical hard shell but rather a somewhat soft and leathery one. Spiny Softshell Turtles have something else unique about them, at least compared to humans and other mammals, it’s about how they breathe.

These turtles are what are called bimodal breathers which means they have the ability to breathe in both air and water. While they may not go full fish mode while underwater, the Spiny Softshell Turtle is able to breathe underwater because of the way their skin, cloacal lining, and pharyngeal lining are formed. Their slightly altered physical traits and over-dependence on breathing underwater cause the turtle to require waters that have good oxygen concentration as they have a lower than normal tolerance for bodies of water that are considered to be hypoxic.

Depending on where the Spiny Softshell Turtle is found, it will hibernate in mud for nearly 6 months during the year.

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Size and Body Description

Spiny Softshell Turtles are large freshwater turtles, as stated before, and can easily be picked out of a crowd entirely because of its shell. Their shell is flat, leathery, soft, or even rubbery to the touch and appears to be smooth. At the edges of their shell, you will find small spines with males having substantially more than female turtles. While males may have more spines, female turtles are the ones that grow larger in size.

These turtles are olive, gray, or brown in color with males having spots on their shells when fully grown. Running from their head all the way to their neck are pale or yellowish lines with dark borders around them. Its feet are fully webbed which is good for the turtle as it spends most of its life in the water. One of the other defining traits of the Spiny Softshell Turtle is its long nose which is used to search for food between rocks and crevices.


Female Spiny Softshell Turtles are the larger of the two sexes growing to have a shell that can be anywhere from 7 to 19 inches in length. Male turtles are a little bit smaller only growing a shell that is around 5 to 10 inches in length.


Spiny Softshell Turtles are like tiger sharks in that they will eat just about anything that fits in its mouth. Thankfully, the turtle has a small one which means it can only really eat aquatic insects, fish, and crayfish.


Spiny Softshell Turtles start mating around March to June with eggs hatching sometime in July all the way through September. The turtle eggs take around three months to gestate in the female turtle and once they are ready, the eggs are laid on a sandbar or gravel bank near the water. Female turtles will lay anywhere from 9 to 38 eggs at a time and unlike other turtles which have their egg gender dictated by ambient temperature, Spiny Softshell Turtles’ gender is decided by genetics. 

Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera)

Turtle eggs after being laid in a burrow or hole, belonging to the Spiny Softshell Turtle, Apalone spinifera


Spiny Softshell Turtles are found in many of the midwestern states as well as parts of Canada. As for Canada, the list is much shorter with turtles only reaching parts of southern Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick.

In the United States, they are found in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Ohio, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia.

They have reportedly been seen in the southwest, which is why we have included them as potential wildlife that can be seen while exploring.

Needless to say, these turtles are very common and can adapt to a wide range of climates.

How Long do Spiny Softshell Turtles Live

Spiny Softshell Turtles can live up to 50 years in the wild.


As of writing this, the Spiny Softshell Turtle is not federally protected as its population is considered to be stable.  

References Used

Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera)